Number of prison inmates rising, but details unclear

New details are slowly emerging about the shifting landscape of Canada's inmate population.

Statistics mask bulging provincial jails and remand centres

The Kingston Penitentiary, the country's oldest penal institution, is slated to close as part of a cost-cutting effort by the federal government. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

For a government that routinely trumpets its tough-on-crime credentials, the Conservatives have been slow to reveal exactly where all these "do-the-crime, do-the-time" convicts will be housed.

But new details are slowly emerging about the shifting landscape of Canada's inmate population.

Census numbers released last week showed that the number of incarcerated Canadians grew by 17 per cent between 2006 and 2011, while the country's general population increased only 5.9 per cent.

Yet Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has repeatedly stated that the number of federal inmates — those serving sentences of two years or more — has not skyrocketed the way critics predicted under successive Conservative bills that created new laws and introduced mandatory minimums for existing crimes.

"The wave of prisoners predicted by the NDP has failed to materialize," Toews' spokeswoman, Julie Carmichael, said in an email Monday.

In July, Toews said the federal prison population stood at just under 15,000, well short of the almost 18,000 anticipated by the Correctional Service of Canada.

The raw statistics mask bulging provincial jails and remand centres that are being described even by the courts as increasingly violent, dangerous places.

The census numbers, meanwhile, reveal only inmates who have been incarcerated for six months or more, a small fraction of those in the system. According to Public Safety Canada, "91.2 per cent of women and 85.4 per cent of men receive a sentence of six months or less."

And on any given day, Canada's remand population — those in custody awaiting court dates — matches the entire imprisoned population, says a 2011 study for Statistics Canada. So any examination of federal facilities only begins to scratch the surface of Canada's incarcerated population.

Public-private prisons under consideration?

Yet even at the federal level the picture remains clouded. Last week, a number of media outlets received a long-delayed access-to-information package containing a lengthy study of various public-private prison facilities from Ontario and British Columbia to Britain and New Zealand.

The $45,000 report by Deloitte, commissioned by Public-Private Partnerships Canada, was the clearest signal yet that the Conservative government has closely examined the merits of public-private prison construction.

Toews told the House of Commons on Monday that his government has rejected that path.

"There are no plans to pursue privatized prisons similar to those implemented in the United States or by the Labour government in the United Kingdom," Toews said.

"In fact, as the economic action plan 2012 made clear, there are no plans to build new prisons at all."

Carmichael later explained on the minister's behalf that "the Government of Canada is not building new prisons and therefore there was no need to pursue a privatized model."

The "no new prisons" line, repeated now for months by the Conservatives, does not take into account a number of new units being built within existing federal penitentiaries.

Correctional Services Canada says the government "is currently expanding existing men's and women's facilities across the country, adding more than 2,700 accommodation spaces by the end of 2014."

That's the equivalent of about 10 new prisons in terms of cells. For instance, a new $28-million maximum security unit is being built at Collins Bay Institution and two 96-cell medium security units added to Bath Institution, at a cost of $35 million. Both prisons are located in the Kingston, Ont., area.

In addition, the Ontario regional assessment unit will be moved out of Millhaven Institution — which shares grounds with Bath — in order to make room for more maximum-security prisoners, at a cost of $32.5 million.

Impact of closures unclear

From such piecemeal numbers, it is difficult to assess the big picture.

Liberal MP Ted Hsu, who represents the Kingston area, says he has had trouble getting cost-benefit information from the government concerning its decision to close Kingston Penitentiary and build new additions to other local prisons.

"They haven't been very forthcoming," he said Monday.

Since building and operating the new cells will cost money, Hsu is skeptical of the stated $120-million annual savings from closing the Kingston Pen and Quebec's Leclerc prison.

"It's only one side of the ledger."

New Democrat Randall Garrison adds that prison closures are being announced without clear indications of where those inmates will be housed.

He'd like to see the government lay out a clear plan for dealing with the inmate population.

"This is a government that's proceeding quite recklessly in the prisons area," Garrison said.