In a presentation given to the Provincial-Territorial Heads of Corrections (read here), I asked those present who will be left holding the bag as the federal Conservatives grab the headlines by drafting, advertising, tabling, killing (through prorogation), re-tabling and eventually passing punishment bills? What would be the cumulative impacts of the Conservative punishment agenda on already over-burdened provincial-territorial prison systems?
Based on previous times where overcrowding has been a major issue for prison systems across Canada, I identified a number of challenges that we would likely encounter moving forward, including labour disputes over unsafe working conditions and prisoner unrest. In the time since my presentation we have witnessed a few examples that suggest my forecast may unfortunately turn-out to be correct.
Last week, CBC News reported that the Manitoba Government Employees Union held a protest in front of the provincial legislature where they called for the construction of a new prison because they claimed "there are currrently nearly 2,300 inmates being held in jails built to house a capacity of 1,678" (read here). Andrew Swan, Attorney General of Manitoba, addressed the crowd and stated that his government was expanding the capacity of the provincial prison system by 450 beds.
CBC News also reported that "a two-hour riot" took place yesterday at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (read here). One prisoner was injured in the disturbance that took place in a provincial facility "designed to hold 225 male and 48 female inmates in single cells" where "prisoners are often placed two to a cell because of overcrowding". While some, including federal Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews, have argued that double-bunking is 'normal' practice, such incidents illustrate how such abnormal living conditions can fuel violence inside prison walls which puts the safety of prisoners and law enforcement officials at risk.
In a context of declining police-reported 'crime' rates and a fiscal crisis, building new multi-million dollar prisons is hardly a justifiable proposition. Contributing to a capacity crisis by passing federal legislation that will further compound overcrowding in our penal institutions when the consequences will continue to be catastrophic is also untenable and morally reprehensible, particularly when we know that these measures will not reduce 'crime'.
Earlier this week, Stockwell Day - President of the Treasury Board of Canada - announced "that cash awards will be given to public service employees with a creative and practical idea that leads to tangible savings and improved services to Canadians" (read here). While the Employee Innovation Program does not appear to include individuals who work for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), it does not mean that staff from this agency cannot take the initiative and put forward proposals on how to save Canadian taxpayers money while delivering better results.
Given that CSC's budget is projected to rise by $466.2 million (or 18.9 percent) from 2010-2011 to 2011-2012 and another 201.8 million (or 6.9 percent) from 2011-2012 to 2012-2013, perhaps officials could begin to "embark upon our road to deficit reduction... essential for the government to live within its means and identify substantial savings" set-out by Stockwell Day. This plan could involve a federal punishment legislation moratorium, reversing sentencing laws that have been passed since 2006, and making investments in education, employment and affordable housing that are proven to prevent 'crime' while saving taxpayer dollars.