Government building de facto mega-prisons: critics
BY ROB TRIPP, POSTMEDIA NEWS Montreal Gazette
KINGSTON, Ont. — The Correctional Service of Canada will build maximum-security cellblocks inside medium-security prisons in Ontario and Manitoba, a move some observers say is a government scheme to create super-prisons while avoiding public scrutiny and controversy.
“They tell you they’re not going to build a super regional complex, but it’s already here; it’s going to happen,” said Jason Godin, Ontario president of the union that represents correctional officers. “They wanted to appease the critics and say, ‘We’re not building a super jail.’”
A 2007 report for the Harper government, led by former Ontario Conservative corrections minister Rob Sampson, established a blueprint to overhaul the federal system, including the proposal to build mega-prisons, which would house more than 2,000 inmates at all security levels at one site.
In the face of criticism of the idea, the Harper government has consistently denied it has any plans to build mega-prisons.
“By taking this approach, they’re essentially doing what appears to be a compromise regional complex setup without having to ask the community whether or not they want these kind of multi-security level institutions,” said Prof. Justin Piche, a sociologist at Memorial University in Newfoundland and Labrador who studies prison expansion.
Piche said adding units to an existing complex bypasses the local consultation process.
The correctional service is in the midst of a $1.7-billion building boom to accommodate a prison population ballooning because of law-and-order legislation that includes mandatory minimum sentences for more crimes and the cancellation of extra credit for time spent awaiting trial.
The prison population is expected to swell by more than 30 per cent in the next three to four years.
More than 2,500 new cells will be built at existing prisons over the next few years. The correctional service had not revealed its plans for maximum-security units inside existing medium-security prisons until bids were recently sought for construction at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, and at Stony Mountain Institution near Winnipeg.
Both prisons are located on large penitentiary properties that feature an adjoining minimum-security prison where a farm operated by inmates, two of six such operations, was shuttered last year. Critics of the closings cited concern that prison farmland would be used to build super prisons.
National prison ombudsman Howard Sapers, who has access to internal Correctional Service of Canada plans and documents, said he was unaware of the intent to put maximum-security units inside medium-security prisons.
“This raises significant policy and operational issues,” Sapers said. “The service will have to ensure that the legal requirement to always utilize the least restrictive measure necessary will be adhered to.”
The measure is part of the correctional service’s strategy to deal with the growing inmate population, according to Lori Pothier, a spokeswoman for the service at its national headquarters in Ottawa.
“Maximum-security units at select medium-security institutions will provide (Correctional Service of Canada) with the flexibility it needs to better manage a complex and diverse offender population,” Pothier said. “(The service) will use the units to accommodate offenders with a higher-security requirement, should the need arise.”
The units will be self-contained, she said. Maximum units are not currently planned for any other medium-security sites, Pothier said. The correctional service already operates 14 multi-level facilities, including some that include maximum-security cells.
A multi-level prison is problematic, according to Michael Mandelcorn, who is vice-president of the Canadian Prison Law Association.
“You can’t really run it as a multi-level,” he said. “You run it as a maxi because you have to go with the highest denominator.”
He noted that inmates classified as minimum security at the multi-level Grand Valley women’s prison in Kitchener, Ont., live behind a razor-wire topped fence.
Plans have already been announced to add more cells to minimum-security Frontenac Institution, which is adjacent to Collins Bay, and to build a new halfway house on the property. Four new medium-security cellblocks were completed at Collins Bay in 2008. The walled prison takes up a small portion of the 455-hectare penitentiary property on a busy road in the heart of Kingston.
“You’ve got a super jail there,” Godin said. “Some day, if the public (complains) enough . . . then the Conservative government will say, ‘No problem,’ and they’ll just extend a fence right off that stone wall and they’ll bring it right around Frontenac Institution.”
Godin said the union is concerned about the government’s “hidden agenda” but wants to see more cells built.
“It’s not a bad situation for us,” he said, given the problem of overcrowding.
Kevin Grabowsky, the Edmonton-based president of the correctional officers’ union, said the idea is sound, as long as the maximum-security units are separated.
“The idea is that you could move your inmates up and down security levels a little easier and certainly a lot faster because then it’s not necessarily a transfer,” he said.
Pothier said transfers between medium- and maximum-security in the same institution would be subject to the same procedural safeguards that apply to transfers between prisons.