Sask. jails 'recipe for disaster'
BY JAMES WOOD, THE STARPHOENIX
The inmate population in Saskatchewan's jails is now approaching twice the original intended capacity of its four adult correctional facilities.
And with new federal crime legislation likely to go through this fall, some observers such as the provincial ombudsman believe the situation is in danger of becoming much worse.
The growth in inmate numbers had been a continuing trend for a number of years until a slight drop last year. Between 2005 and 2009, the average daily count of inmates increased from 1,244 to 1,530.
That count dipped to 1,513 in 2010, but at the end of July of this year, the year-to-date average daily count stood at 1,600. In contrast, the four provincial correctional centres in Saskatoon, Regina, Prince Albert and North Battleford are ideally meant to hold 834 inmates.
The province copes with overcrowding by using temporary dormitories for low-risk offenders, double-bunking and the annexation of space that is meant to be used for programming to house inmates instead.
Provincial ombudsman Kevin Fenwick warned in a report a year ago that the overcrowding was a "recipe for disaster" because of high potential of violence and health issues, and the detrimental impact on rehabilitation of reducing programs for inmates.
Nothing has changed Fenwick's mind since then.
"One of the highest predictors of recidivism for offenders is whether they have a job when they get out of jail. So providing inmates with job training, with hands-on useful labour skills when they get out, is the best thing we can do to ensure they don't go back to jail down the road," he said in an interview last week.
"Sitting in a cell overcrowded or sitting in a dormitory or what used to be a classroom does not give you the opportunity for any kind of skills training to make you a better, more productive member of society."
In the offing this fall is an omnibus crime bill from the federal Conservative government that will include measures such as mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes and sexual offences and the elimination of house arrest as a sentence for certain crimes.
The latter measure in particular is likely to have an impact on Saskatchewan and other provinces because many of those offenders will likely receive sentences under two years, meaning they will serve time in a provincial, rather than federal, institution, Fenwick said.
Yogi Huyghebaert, the Saskatchewan Party government's minister responsible for Corrections, Public Safety and Policing, said he supports the federal legislation and he is not concerned at this point about a potential influx of new inmates into the system.
Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page has suggested that much of the financial burden of the Conservatives' tough-on-crime agenda will fall on the provinces, but Huyghebaert said the province isn't looking to Ottawa to help.
"I'm going to wait and see. I hate to put a fire out until a fire is started," Huyghebaert said in an interview.
The new measures follow earlier federal legislation, passed last year, that eliminates two-for-one credit for time served in remand before trial.
That change also raised concerns about its impact on inmate numbers, but the government can't quantify whether it has contributed to the increase.
Huyghebaert said he is concerned the high inmate numbers are reducing programming. But he is less worried about the prospect of violence related to overcrowding because of steps taken to enhance the safety of facilities.
"We've updated camera systems, monitoring systems. There's just been huge, huge improvements within the facilities," he said, also citing the adoption of institutional clothing and no-contact visiting to cut down on drug availability and measures to keep members of rival gangs separate.
"It's always a concern there's going to be problems, sure, but it's not a concern of a great deal because of overcrowding."
But Fenwick said more restrictive measures for inmates aren't conducive to rehabilitation and they may not be effective if the jail population increases again.
The broader problem, he said, is the overall trend of increased incarceration. There is little evidence it is effective, noting that crime rates were on the decline long before the tough on crime legislation was enacted.
The numbers provided by CPSP include inmates serving intermittent sentences, straight provincial sentences, fine default warrants and those under federal sentence who have not yet been transferred to a federal facility. It also includes inmates on remand, parole suspension or immigration hold.
The numbers have increased from 1,365 in 2007, the year the Sask. Party took office.
Huyghebaert said the increased number of police officers in the province may have played a role in the upswing.
But he said the problem of overcrowding isn't new. While the previous NDP government opened a new Regina jail, it was a replacement facility that did not add new bed capacity, he said.
CPSP's top priority for a new facility to ease crowding is a new remand centre in Saskatoon, which has an estimated $100-million price tag. However, there is no commitment or time frame for the centre to be built.
Huyghebaert said he is in competition with hospitals, highways and schools for capital dollars, and at the same time his ministry has needed additional dollars for disaster assistance because of extreme weather the last two years.