You might not think that putting two or more prisoners together in one cell is a bad idea. Like most of us you might assume it’s just the way jail is, like in movies, and after all, prisons are not meant to be hotels. You’ll no doubt be aware that holding two prisoners in a cell together can be a recipe for scandal
like the one developing in Kamloops involving several members of the RCMP.
But the practice of “double-bunking” is actually a cruel and unusual punishment, deplored by the United Nations and even the Senior Deputy Commissioner of Correctional Services Canada, who declared that “increased double-bunking places significant stress on the staff and infrastructure of an institution. Further expansion of double-bunking increases the risk to staff and offender safety in an institution.” For prison staff, inmates are more difficult to monitor when two people are in a cell originally designed for one. Worse, when institutions are overcrowded, authorities also run the risk of placing incompatible prisoners in the same cells, potentially contributing to violence and abuse.
Despite the doubts expressed by high-ranking CSC officials, double-bunking is widespread, especially in women’s prisons and provincial remand centres. Rooms originally intended for studying or family visits were converted into permanent cells for multiple prisoners, says “Petey”, a former prisoner who spent several years in both youth and adult prisons.
“Double-bunking is disgusting,” she told X-Ray. “No one should have to change their pads or tampons in front of another person. No one should have to shit two feet away from a stranger. Being in prison is punishment enough. But unfortunately the system is turning double and sometimes triple bunking into common practice.”
And double-bunking is just one element of a prison system gone wrong. When the Harper government talks “tough on crime”---more minimum sentencing requirements, harsher penalties, or the building of prisons for unreported crimes---the result is more people behind bars, more recidivism, less rehabilitation, and fewer social services for everyone.
Prisoners in Canada are at far greater risk of illness and death than those outside. Health-care is the number one issue for prisoners themselves, according to the Correctional Investigator, CSC’s investigative body. Compared to the general population, prisoners in Canada are 30 times more likely to be infected with Hepatitis C and 10 times more likely to be HIV positive. And since most prisoners will eventually be released into the community, these infection rates pose a threat to public health.
Canada’s prisons are also deadly. According to figures obtained by the Elizabeth Fry Society, 182 prisoners died while in some form of custody between 2005 and 2006 alone. Suicide and homicide in prison occurs at eight times the rate at which they occur in the general population, and many prisoners die because of neglect, mistreatment and medical malpractice.
Incredibly, the Correctional Investigator found that most prison staff don’t know what to do when they discover someone who appears to be unconscious. The CI also reported the delay or failure of correctional staff to perform CPR, as well as the widespread absence of defibrillators, lack of emergency care and supplies. In the face of such neglect, it’s hard to imagine that the new funds announced for building more prisons will be spent on better healthcare supplies or staff training.
The cost of imprisonment is astonishing. Aside from the nearly $10 billion Stockwell Day announced for new prisons, Correctional Services Canada will pay out an additional $7 billion to $10 billion because of costs associated with the elimination of the 2-for-1 sentencing credit
According to Corrections estimates, on average it costs at least $175,000 to keep a woman in federal prison, and as much as $250,000 per year if the inmate is kept in segregation. And while the cost of incarcerating one prisoner in an Ontario provincial jail is as much as $260 per day, the cost of community-based options---probation, bail supervision, community service, etc---range from $5 to $25 per day. Provinces are spending almost $3 billion on replacing and expanding overcrowded and old prisons. The money will pay for 6500 new beds and at least 22 new provincial and territorial facilities, at a yearly estimated cost of $340 million to operate.
So what should be done with the billions of dollars announced under the Tories’ “tough on crime” agenda? “Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on preventing ‘crime’ in the community, we save seven dollars that we would need to spend on imprisonment,” says Justin Piché, a Ph.D. candidate in criminology at Carleton University. (Piché’s blog, Tracking the Politics of 'Crime' and Punishment in Canada
, is a must-read for anyone interested in prison justice.)
“The more we criminalize people the more we take resources away from someone else,” says Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies
, an advocacy group for women in prison. “Particularly in the law and order agenda, we’re seeing less services that are useful to more people, and a prison system that is literally bankrupting public coffers,” said Pate in an interview with X-Ray. “The reality is that social resources being cut means that more people end up on the street, dead or in jail.”
Besides the lack of social services that might help prevent crime, there’s a demonstrable lack of crime itself. According to Statistics Canada
, the rate of reported crimes in 2009 was down three per cent from 2008, and has dropped 17 per cent since 1999. The Crime Severity Index---measuring the seriousness of reported crimes---was down four per cent last year compared to 2008, and has fallen 22 per cent since 1999.
The Harper government has responded to these figures by insisting that crime is going unreported. But writer and former closed-custody youth worker, Bill Templeman, insists that new prisons will not reduce the levels of crime committed. “The American experience
has been that 30 years of prison construction and longer sentences has had little effect on crime rates and has proven to be far too costly for taxpayers,” he wrote for Rabble.ca
. “Can we not learn a few valuable lessons here from our neighbours?”
It should be clear to most people that Canada must avoid following the US down the path to private, industrialized prisons. We need an approach that sees imprisonment as the last and least attractive response to crime in our communities. Instead we have Stephen Harper, Vic Toews and Stockwell Day feeding on the fear and intimidation they have caused themselves with tough talk.
“Our kitchen sink is full,” Piché told X-Ray. “The legislative agenda of the current government aims to keep the tap running by increasing sentence lengths and making it more difficult to unclog the drain by restricting the release of prisoners prior to warrant expiry. This is a recipe for disaster and if Canadians do not call for a stop to this, we better get mops and buckets ready because there’s going to be a huge mess to clean up in the form of communities that will be less safe.” (X)
Coming Soon: Lockdown, Part 3: Women and Aboriginals in Prison