Prison closures take psychological toll on inmates

When Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced April 19 that the federal government was shuttering three high-profile prisons, he claimed it was a cost-saving measure. Experts say relocating 900 inmates will have psychological effects on prison life in general.
Experts say that when large numbers of prisoners are transferred from one institution to another, it can adversely affect their new environment. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

When Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced April 19 that the federal government was shuttering three high-profile prisons, he said it was a cost-saving measure that would save $120 million per year with no discernible effect on the general prison population.  

The closures of a maximum-security penitentiary in Kingston, Ont., an adjacent treatment centre and the medium-security Leclerc Institution in Laval, Que., will likely result in the transfer of about 900 inmates, and experts on corrections system say this sort of relocation can have significant effects on prison life in general.

"We know from experience that when you're moving people or opening new facilities, you need to be cognizant and aware that it's going to create concerns with the existing prison population base," says Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, which advocates for prisoners’ rights.

Here's a look at four of those potential effects.

Loss of privacy

If prisoners are transferred to a new location, there is the chance they could go into a double-bunked cell.

"One thing the inmates and the correctional officers always agree on is that double-bunking is not a healthy situation for anybody," says Jason Godin, Ontario regional president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

Putting two inmates in a single cell means an inevitable loss of privacy for both, as well as the potential for tension and possibly aggression.

"Those [cells] are designed for one person, so they tend to be about 6 [feet] by 10 [feet]. So you put two people in there for any extended period of time and you're going to have personalities rubbing up against each other," says Latimer.

Latimer also points out that a "great number" of people in the prison system have mental health issues, which makes double-bunking even more precarious, she says. For example, one inmate might be unable to stop muttering to himself, or do something else that irritates his cellmate.

"You're making some of the more vulnerable people particularly vulnerable," says Latimer.

Increased competition for access to programs

With an increase in the population of any given institution, there are more people competing for programs like rehabilitation, physical exercise and family visits.

Godin saw first-hand evidence of this last summer when he visited a facility in Kitchener, Ont., that has seen an increase in the female inmate population.

"I’m in the institution touring, and the inmates are saying to me, ‘I have to wait extra long now for my private family visits because the institution’s so crowded.’ That’s an example of the impact on a program that is detrimental to the emotional health of the institution," Godin says.

"As soon as you start to infringe on accessibility to programs, the temperature of your institution starts to go up."

Potential for violence

In 1971, Kingston Penitentiary was rocked by a four-day riot that left two inmates dead and 11 injured. The violence came at a time when rumours were swirling ahead of the opening of Milhaven Penitentiary in nearby Bath, Ont. Prisoners at Kingston Pen were worried about potentially harsher conditions they might find if they were transferred to Millhaven.

Kingston prisoners had numerous other complaints, but Latimer says concern among inmates that their environment was going to be disrupted was a "background drumbeat" and probably a "precipitating factor" for the riot.

Tension and uncertainty among inmates can lead to aggression, depression and anxiety. Latimer predicts any violence would probably come in the form of smaller incidents.

But prisoners will also want to try to reduce their anxiety themselves, which could in turn create a larger demand for drug use, Latimer says.

"So it's not good. None of it is good."

Potential danger to surrounding community

If inmates start to act on their aggressions, they can expect to see regular prison lockdowns, which would mean reduced access to rehabilitation, family visits and other efforts designed to orient them for reintegration into the community.

That, in turn, could ultimately have an effect on community safety.

"The bottom line for us is promoting community safety by supporting inmates in getting the types of programming and treatment they need to re-enter the community in a way that reduces the likelihood that they will re-offend," says Latimer.

"If that is disrupted, you're going to end up with a less safe prison and less safe community upon their release."

With files from Andy Pinsent