Overcrowded jail system courting crisis

  • November 2, 2007
{mosimage}Things are so bad at the provincial jail in Saskatoon that three bishops — Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran — have gone public with their concerns, describing how men are forced to urinate into bottles because there isn’t enough staff to accompany them from dormitory-style cell blocks to the washroom.

“It’s the dignity of the human being that’s at question here,” said Saskatoon Catholic Bishop Albert LeGatt.

LeGatt teamed up with Anglican Bishop Rodney Andrews and Lutheran Bishop Cynthia Halmarson to send an open letter to the Saskatoon StarPhoenix Oct. 19 which describes conditions including:

  • a mentally ill man locked in 2.5-by-3-metre cell 22 hours a day, by himself, listening to the voices in his head for the last six months;

  • 38 men housed in a gymnasium, sleeping on mats;

  • an absence of any rehabilitation programs because of lack of space.

Saskatchewan’s provincial government has promised to add 90 more dormitory-style spaces to the Saskatoon Correctional Centre to address overcrowding.

As the federal government prepares to push through Bill C-2, the Tackling Violent Crime Act, prisoner advocates claim the provincial jail systems are already overwhelmed and the proposed legislation will push provincial jails past the crisis point. Provisions in the bill which forbid granting bail to those charged with weapons offences will substantially increase the number held in provincially run remand centres awaiting trial.

“It’s really going to magnify the problems that we’re already seeing — which are increased violence, lack of resources, their health at risk,” said Amber Kellen of the Toronto John Howard Society.

It isn’t just Ontario and Saskatchewan with more prisoners than jail cells. “It’s across the country,” said Craig Jones, the John Howard Society’s national executive director.

Despite new and expanded prisons added to Ontario’s prison system in the last decade — superjails in Lindsay and Penetanguishene, plus the expansion of Milton’s Maplehurst jail — Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said that Ontario’s system is frequently over capacity.

“We have no control over the numbers that get sent to us,” said ministry spokesman Stuart McGetrick. “We have to manage the ones that come into our custody.”

McGetrick said the province has begun planning to deal with increased numbers should C-2 pass.

The problem isn’t just finding enough beds and cells, but providing genuine opportunities for rehabilitation, said Whitehorse, Yukon, Bishop Gary Gordon. A veteran of prison ministry in Vancouver, the new bishop of Whitehorse spoke on prison ministry to his brother bishops at the October Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ plenary. If governments are genuinely concerned about safety on city streets, they have to do something which will ensure prisoners are less violent, less addicted, less isolated, more employable when they are released from jail, Gordon told The Catholic Register.

The bishops endorse restorative justice rather than merely punitive incarceration. He worries that the jails in Whitehorse lack both space and staff for programming, including chaplaincy.

“I believe that when you’ve got good spiritual care, good chaplains for all the different faith denominations in the country, it makes a big difference in the outcome,” he said.

Punitive incarceration without addressing rampant mental health issues, addiction, illiteracy and histories of childhood abuse among the prison population will turn more dangerous prisoners out on the streets when they finish their terms, said Jones.

“It’s so ironic that this government comes to power promising public safety,” he said. “They’re going to burn up a tremendous amount of money, but they’re not going to do anything at all.”

Prisons that just warehouse men, mixing the violent with the non-violent, the sane with the mentally ill and the addicted with the sober are more likely to put them back on the street likely to reoffend, said  Kellen.

“It’s about far too many people in small places for longer periods of time in environments that are toxic, in subcultures that are unhealthy, then expecting them to just move on,” she said.

The federal government is expecting the provinces to get on board and build more jails, said Genevieve Breton, Ministry of Justice and Attorney General spokesperson.

“We are doing our part at the federal level, and expect the provinces and territories to do theirs,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register.

Toronto Deacon Bert Cambre, along with the Toronto Community Chaplaincy Advisory Committee, has brought the absence of rehabilitation up with Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day.

“In our experience, increasingly punitive measures such as those presently proposed would make matters worse, not better,” Cambre wrote to Day. “They would run counter to more effective options for crime prevention, restorative justice and accepting responsibility.”

Day’s reply avoids any mention of rehabilitation or restorative justice, and restates the case for mandatory minimum sentences.

“Such penalties are vital tools for meeting the threat posed by violent criminals and particularly repeat offenders,” Day wrote Cambre.

A 2002 review of mandatory minimum sentences worldwide for the federal Department of Justice by University of Ottawa criminologist Thomas Gabor found no evidence mandatory minimums have any effect on the violent crime rate. Studies found few criminals weigh the legal consequences of their acts before committing a crime.

The professor concluded the lock-em-up approach is likely to cost a great deal and deliver little in the way of crime fighting.

Sending more prisoners into an already overcrowded provincial  system isn’t going to make anyone safer, according to LeGatt.

“Something needs to be done about that situation in terms of housing, in terms of programming, and not simply leaving people there with nothing offered them as a way of coming back into society — which they will,” LeGatt sad.

“It makes this government feel good that they’re punishing,” said Jones. “They want to punish. They’ve got a lust for vengeance. They’re Old Testament types.”

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