Prison ombudsman sounds alarm on double bunking

'We are criminalizing, incarcerating and warehousing the mentally disordered in large and alarming numbers.'

Ottawa (9 Nov. 2010) - Canadian prisons are overcrowded, crumbling and so rife with illness, addiction and violence that inmates pose a worse danger to society when they come out than when they go in, says the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

Howard Sapers, Canada's national prison ombudsman, says in his annual report that problems will only grow worse as the Harper government deliberately swells prison populations with its anti-crime political agenda.

The report says double-bunking - the placement of two or more offenders in a cell designed for one - has increased by more than 50% in the last five years.

"Given the high rates of mental illness, drug addiction, violence, communicable disease and gang affiliation, double-bunking is not sustainable, nor is it good or safe correctional practice," the report says.

The government anticipates adding approximately 2,700 beds to men's and women's prisons across Canada in coming years. Neither the timetable nor the costs are clear.

Currently, there are about 13,000 people in federal custody.

"Of particular concern to me this year is the climate inside Canada's federal penitentiaries," Sapers said in releasing his report.

"This climate is increasingly harsh, tense and stressed. And it's undermining the rehabilitation efforts," he told a news conference.

"Many of our prisons are overcrowded. The physical infrastructures are deteriorating. Offender populations today include a disturbingly large number of those with mental illness."

In addition, the federal correctional service is grappling with a more complex type of offender, The Canadian Press reports.

"These profiles include histories of gang membership, chronic illness and substance abuse."

The use of force by prison authorities, who dispatch emergency response teams, release pepper spray and draw their guns to quell problems, is on the rise, Sapers noted.

He also emphasized that most offenders eventually return to society, making it in everyone's interest to ensure they are treated fairly behind bars.

The prison population is expected to climb due to a flurry of federal legislation that will result in longer sentences.

The ombudsman's report says that when the new measures take full effect "there will almost certainly be disproportionate impacts on Canada's more distressed and vulnerable populations."

The report emphasizes that the Aboriginal incarceration rate is more than double the national average and that "an astounding one-third of all female incarcerated offenders are of Aboriginal descent."

Sapers says resources devoted to the mental health needs of prisoners are inadequate despite steps that have been taken by the government.

"As a society, we are criminalizing, incarcerating and warehousing the mentally disordered in large and alarming numbers," his report says, citing shortcomings such as:

  • a lack of recruitment and retention of mental health professionals;
  • inappropriate facilities to meet growing needs;
  • no money to build necessary care units;
  • insufficient plans to manage high-needs mentally disordered offenders; and
  • over-reliance on segregation for prisoners with mental health concerns.


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

More information:
Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator 2009-2010

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