Canadian Penitentiaries | Thousands of empty cells - The Canadian
Monday, November 23

Canadian Penitentiaries | Thousands of empty cells

A legacy in good part from the Harper era, Canadian penitentiaries are now left with 3,585 empty cells and an almost equal number of inmates and prison staff. This is “mismanagement”, coupled with the surplus “terrible results” in terms of the rehabilitation of inmates, laments the correctional investigator of Canada, Mr.e Ivan Zinger.

Louise Leduc
Louise Leduc

The empty cell count in Canada’s 53 penitentiaries was obtained by Press following an access to information request to the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada.

The 3,585 empty cells translate into penitentiary occupancy rates that are as low as 63% in the Atlantic provinces. In Quebec, we are at 70%.

In this period of COVID-19, correctional investigator Ivan Zinger is surprised that “despite these 3,585 empty cells – which is huge – penitentiary inmates must nevertheless cohabit in the same cell. This goes against the “Nelson Mandela rules” on the treatment of detainees ”.

The rate of “double occupancy” in Quebec penitentiaries is 7%, and it reaches 12% in Ontario.

Me Zinger notes that the large number of empty cells is partly explained by COVID-19, which has notably slowed the pace of the courts, but he specifies that there were already 2,500 before the pandemic.

It is because the former government of Stephen Harper, which had promised to tighten the screw on crimes, had promulgated laws providing, among other things, for tougher sentences and more difficult to obtain parole. Believing that this would lead to longer sentences and an increase in the number of inmates, the government had extended several million to expand penitentiaries. However, the implementation of the laws did not in fact lead to significant increases in the number of prisoners, leaving a large number of empty cells.


Correctional Investigator of Canada, Me Ivan Zinger

In 10 years, in total, the number of prisoners has increased by only 1,377, well below government forecasts.

Me Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada

At Correctional Services Canada, which is responsible for the management of penitentiaries, Marie Pier Lécuyer, media relations advisor, indicates that we must ensure “that a certain number of cells remain unoccupied for various reasons” which may relate to “the management of certain situations related to the prison population” or to maintenance or renovation projects of establishments.

A significant number of employees

Me Ivan Zinger further notes that “the penitentiaries have some 12,700 inmates in total for 19,000 prison employees. In addition, 9,000 delinquents are serving the rest of their sentence in the community and who also need to be supervised. All this taken into account means that we arrive at the largest number of prison staff per prisoner in the world, ”he analyzes.

During times of austerity, Stephen Harper demanded efforts from all his departments, recalls Mr.e Zinger.

In correctional services, we have chosen to cut inmate services and retain employees.

Me Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada

“If we decide to invest so much money,” he continues, “we should have impeccable results, which would compare, for example, to the low recidivism rates displayed in Scandinavia. That’s far from being the case. We are a long way in Canada from best practices. ”

To criticisms of the surplus of employees, Correctional Services Canada retorts, through Marie Pier Lécuyer, that human resources “regularly examine the staff of officers in all establishments across Canada to ensure that appropriate resources are available to manage operational needs ”.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers did not offer comment.

“Storage” of human misery

Joined by The Press, Senator Kim Pate was also very critical.

In his view, penitentiaries across the country have come to “stockpile” people who should be treated elsewhere for their problems of poverty, substance abuse, mental health or domestic violence. “The prison ends up being the only place you can’t say no, and the police, when they make arrests, have it in mind. They say to themselves that at least there, people may have access to certain assistance programs. ”

At least 10 penitentiaries could be closed across the country and be converted, for example, into drug treatment centers or community centers.

Kim Pate, Senator

The Canadian government would have every interest, in his opinion, in granting subsidies where the real needs are, namely in social programs to prevent human distress from ending in prolonged stays behind bars.

“A large number of women are imprisoned because they reacted to the violence to which they were subjected,” she cites as an example.

Still according to Senator Pate, more sums should be devoted in particular to social programs aimed at natives.

According to data from the Correctional Investigator, 44% of all women who are currently in a penitentiary are Aboriginal.

In the Prairie provinces, 55% of penitentiary inmates – both sexes combined – are Aboriginal.

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