Canadians spent $2.5 billion last year to operate the country’s penitentiary system, so you’d expect they’d be entitled to timely information about how it’s functioning. They’re not getting it. A key report on the operation of Correctional Service of Canada was suppressed by the previous Conservative regime and was withheld from public release by the new Liberal government for five months. The annual report of correctional investigator Howard Sapers, an ombudsman who is mandated by law to investigate prisoner complaints, was released publicly yesterday (March 10), nine months after Sapers gave it to Conservative Public Safety Minster Steven Blaney.
In an interview in January 2016, Sapers told me that he gave the report, as always, to Blaney at the of June 2015.
“We asked the minister, when it was clear that an election was in the offing, we asked the minister to make arrangements to table the report ahead of the election,” Sapers told me. “In fact, arrangements were made to have an out-of-session tabling and, at the very last minute, the minister decided not to do that and one of the first things I did when I met with the new minster after the election was ask that the annual report be tabled as soon as possible.”
Sapers had no explanation for the delay in the public release of his report, but to understand the strategies of the Conservatives, read Mark Bourrie’s insightful Kill the Messengers, which portrays the Harper regime as an “anti-intellectual government” that conducted business in private. We can surmise that the Tories didn’t want public scrutiny of prison operations in the runup to the October federal election, particularly given the troubling tone of Sapers’ report.
It notes that Canada’s criminal justice system has grown far more harsh and spending has skyrocketed. Total criminal justice costs – police, courts, corrections, parole – rose almost 25% in the last decade.
Violence and death inside penitentiaries increased – what Sapers calls the progressive deterioration of “safe custody indicators.” The report states: “The number of use of force incidents have almost doubled, admissions to administrative segregation increased by 15.5%, incidents of prison self-injury have tripled, prison crowding hit all-time highs and parole grant rates bottomed out.”
Sapers highlights the fact that corrections spending ballooned by 70 per cent between 2003 and 2013. The prison population increased by 10 per cent, driven, in part, by harsh sentences, including more mandatory minimums. They were imposed despite good evidence that they’re counterproductive and do nothing to improve public safety. The Tories also engineered the biggest expansion of Canada’s penitentiary industry in decades, as 2,700 more cells were built in 30 prisons at a cost of $700 million.
Sapers report makes 18 recommendations, including a call for an end to the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates.
In just over three months, he will provide his next annual report to the new Liberal minister.