The largest expansion of prison building ‘since the 1930s
NationalPost.com – news/Canada/politics
Sep 24, 2011. Kathryn Blaze Carlson
The Conservative government is in the midst of a procurement blitz to ramp up expansions at federal prisons across the country, just as it moves to pass a sweeping tough-on-crime bill that will inevitably send more people to prison and for longer.
Construction firms submitted bids for at least seven major building or renovation projects this month alone, worth at least $32-million and adding a known 576 beds to federal prisons in Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec, and Alberta over the next two years.
The price tag is modest and includes projects for which the cost was vaguely estimated or not listed at all. The most expensive project, at $12-million, is to restore four 100-cell blocks at the Cowansville Institution in Quebec.
All the requests were published in July on the government’s electronic procurement system, after the Conservatives won a majority mandate and the power to pass legislation that will require additions to an already growing prison system.
From Prince Edward Island to British Columbia to Nunavut, Canada is undergoing a massive prison expansion. The federal government is adding 2,700 beds, and the provinces and territories have added or are adding a further 7,000, at an estimated cost of $4-billion. British Columbia has embarked on the most expensive building plan in its history.
“This is, to my knowledge, the largest expansion since the 1930s,” said Matthew Yeager, a penology expert and criminology professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. “This huge building campaign represents the Americanization of Canadian corrections.”
Imprisonment as we know it in Canada dates back to the pre-Confederation construction of the Kingston Penitentiary in 1835. Today, every jurisdiction is expanding its prisons — and has a pressing need to.
Federal and provincial prisons are resorting to double-bunking, even triple-bunking, to accommodate an increasing number of inmates. This is because more people are being held for longer on remand and because of two Conservative tough-on-crime bills, including the 2010 Truth in Sentencing Act, which eliminated two-for-one credit for time served in pre-trial custody.
The government’s latest crime bill, with its mandatory minimums and the end of house arrest for serious crimes, will add thousands more prisoners and cost untold billions.
Justin Piché, an assistant professor at Memorial University in St. John’s, who has been studying provincial and federal prison expansion for nearly three years, said this inevitably puts provinces and territories “back at square one.”
“If they’re already experiencing overcrowding, if they’re already rushing to build and expand new units, then I don’t think they’re in a good position to cope with the influx that will be caused by the new act,” he said.
The Safe Streets & Communities Act and the details of the federal government’s procurement spree come at a time when the national crime rate is at its lowest since 1973.
The Conservative government has not yet given a firm cost-projection for the bill tabled this week. Instead, it is touting a 2008 study that estimates the cost of crime is $99-billion annually, including $68-billion in “intangible costs” borne by victims.
However, Kevin Page, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, has offered his own estimate, projecting the legislation will cost Ottawa $5-billion over five years and the provinces and territories somewhere between $6-billion and $10-billion.
The National Post analysis of tenders posted to the online procurement system showed Ottawa is also moving to add to its stock of community-based residential facilities, where offenders begin their reintegration.
This year alone, the federal government has awarded contracts or advance award notices for at least a dozen such facilities, at a cost of at least $9,585,000 and as much as $18,310,000. This month alone, it posted at minimum a dozen requests for services such as physiotherapy, psychiatry, pharmacy, optometry, and chaplaincy.
The level and pace of construction requests at federal institutions, where the cost of housing an inmate is $117,000 a year, appears unparalleled: While at least nine major projects closed to bidders in 2010, just three significant construction tenders appear to have closed in 2009 — one for a new locker and muster room for emergency responders, one for a hospital upgrade, and one for redeveloping land, including a garden and horseshoe court.
A spokeswoman for Correctional Service Canada said there are 36 construction projects under way. Lori Pothier said the growth plan was actually sparked by earlier legislation passed by the Conservative government.
“As soon as the Truth in Sentencing Act received royal assent and became law in February 2010, the Correctional Service of Canada began implementing a national plan to address anticipated increases in the federal offender population,” she said in an email.
Ms. Pothier said expansions at various sites were to be launched concurrently, “which has resulted in a number of construction tenders being posted on [the government’s procurement system] within what appears to be a relatively close period of time.”
Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, said senior government officials have told her the earlier legislation has added more than 1,000 inmates to federal prisons since last spring.
“We demand more units, and we demand more spaces,” said Pierre Mallette, national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.
“So if the government is going to go on a blitz to make those expansions, then it’s good news for us.”
The provinces and territories, which are responsible for offenders serving terms of less than two years, are in the midst of a blitz of their own. But Mr. Piché, who presented his findings to a government committee this spring, said most of the 39 provincial and territorial projects launched since 2008 were conceived without considering the impact of any federal legislation.
Corrections spokesmen in Alberta and British Columbia said the government’s tough-on-crime agenda had no impact on their prison expansion plans, announced in 2008 and 2006 respectively.
Greg Flood, a spokesman for Ontario’s Correctional Services Ministry, said in an email that while the province considered earlier Conservative crime bills, “the current federal anti-crime bill was not considered as part of our expansion plans.” The ministry will “assess the legislation and its impact on Ontario, should it be passed into law.”
Mr. Piché’s research shows that between 2008 and June this year, the provinces and territories have built or are building 22 new facilities and making 17 major additions. Those beds are needed.
The B.C. system has 1,692 cells, but contains 2,655 inmates, said to a ministry spokesman. In Saskatchewan, some facilities are twice as full as they should be.
In Alberta, triple-bunking “can occur,” Jason Maloney, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Safety &Solicitor General, said in an email. The province is building a new remand centre in Edmonton at a cost of $569-million.
“I don’t think anyone can predict, right now, what the impact of the new legislation will be,” said Yogi Huyghebaert, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Corrections, Public Safety & Policing. “I don’t think we’ll see anyone accurately predict that until six months or a year from now.”
He said Saskatchewan might ask Ottawa to help pay for future projects if the provincial facility houses federal inmates awaiting transfers. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has said he wants compensation for any additional expenses, and the Nova Scotia government has signalled the same. The B.C. and Alberta ministries said it is too soon to know whether they will ask Ottawa to transfer money.
“Any time you spend billions of dollars to build American-style fortresses, you are making a statement about where you think we should be spending our correctional dollars,” Prof. Yeager said. “We’re putting all our marbles in the American model.”
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