Faced with an exploding inmate population because of a raft of Conservative get-tough crime initiatives, federal prison authorities secretly hatched a plan to cram many more inmates into shared cells and to suspend rules meant to restrict the practice. Even though Corrections Canada believes the measure is an “inappropriate” way to house prisoners, senior officials of the Correctional Service of Canada issued an internal bulletin Wednesday that changes a policy governing double bunking, a practice in which two inmates live in one cell.
Double bunking is widely condemned by experts who study corrections and by human rights groups. It is contrary to United Nations standards (PDF link, see p. 5) on the treatment of prisoners. Canada is a signatory to the UN standards but roughly 10% of the federal prison population, about 1,300 inmates, is double bunked, according to Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers.
The policy shift permits double bunking of 20% of the population, or more, with the approval of Commissioner Don Head.
“The current policy reflects CSC’s belief that double bunking (one cell designed for one inmate occupied by two) is inappropriate as a permanent accommodation measure within the context of good corrections,” states the document that I obtained.
Corrections Canada confirmed the policy change after an inquiry Wednesday.
“This is not a new policy, it is a revision of the existing Commissioner’s Directive (CD 550) on double bunking in preparation for the impacts of the Truth in Sentencing Act, enacted in February of this year,” stated Melissa Hart, a Corrections Canada spokeswoman in Ottawa, in an e-mailed response.
The act abolished the scheme of two-for-one pre-trial credit. The parliamentary budget officer predicts the change will add about 4,000 more inmates to the federal system in the next five years, and add about $5 billion to the total cost of federal and provincial corrections.
“It creates enormous problems in institutions, not just crowding,” said Graham Stewart, a respected researcher and advocate for correctional reform. He is a former national director of the John Howard Society. Most recently, Stewart and a University of British Columbia law professor produced a detailed review of a task force report that is guiding Tory policies on corrections and justice.
The review concluded that the task force report is deeply flawed, ignores 30 years of research and court decisions, pays no heed to prisoner human rights issues and will make Canada more dangerous.
“As soon as you get into double bunking, the tension is going to rise,” said Jason Godin, a senior official in the union that represents correctional officers. “It’s not a good thing for inmates or staff.
“We’re as opposed to double bunking as the inmates are.”
Stewart said the policy change is “significant” but not unexpected. He had always anticipated that the government would have to increase double bunking as the fallout of legislative changes took hold before new cells could be built.
“Forecasted increases resulting from the passing of Bill C-2, the Tackling Violent Crime Act, and Bill C-25, the Truth in Sentencing Act, and normal growth projections will exert significant pressure on current capacities to accommodate inmates,” the policy bulletin issued Wednesday states. “Even with proposed accommodation identified in CSC’s annual plans, the Service will be forced to increase the level of double bunking – accommodation measures typically reserved for short term capacity shortfalls.”
Corrections previously announced that it would go on a building spree over the next five years. The capital budget for Corrections for this year is roughly $330 million. Information recently obtained by the newspaper shows that prison bosses are preparing to build new cells at 35 existing prisons.
Stewart said new cells can’t be built fast enough to keep pace with the surging prisoner population, a crisis borne of government shortsightedness.
“They just don’t care about the long-term implications,” Stewart said.
The new policy reveals that Corrections officials are struggling to react, even canceling their own guideline meant to limit double bunking.
“In order to streamline and assist operational units to react quickly as the population grows, the process … which requires prior approval by the Commissioner before increasing the number of double bunked cells, has been suspended,” the document states.
Under the new policy, wardens can increase double bunking with consent of regional officials and double bunking can be increased above 20% with the consent of the commissioner.
“I think that’s just the beginning, quite frankly,” Stewart said. “That number will keep changing depending on their needs.”
More double bunking could lead to more tension and violence because the overriding problem of crowding strains all resources in a prison.
“You have less access to visits, you have less access to work,” Stewart said.
Godin said his union will fight the double bunking plans but he noted that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has refused repeated requests to meet union leaders to talk about plans to address the ballooning prisoner population.
“He runs [the department] like a dictatorship,” Godin said. “The minister is forgetting here that at the bottom end of everything, we’re the people opening up the [cell] doors.”
Toews has downplayed concerns about double bunking.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said, in Ottawa in May. “It’s an absolutely important aspect of facilities, it’s constitutional, it’s legal. Many western democracies do that. There’s nothing inappropriate about that.”
(This post was updated with additional quotes on August 13)
(this also appears in The Kingston Whig-Standard)
|Aug. 11, 2010 bulletin amending double bunking policy||Existing double bunking policy of Corrections Canada|