The people who supervise inmates at Canada's overcrowded federal prisons say bulging populations mean less opportunity for rehabilitation, and they fear a more dangerous breed of convict will be released back on the streets.
Hundreds of officers of the Correctional Service of Canada are expected to rally Saturday outside Prime Minister Stephen Harper's constituency office in Calgary to protest what they say are increasingly dangerous conditions inside penitentiaries.
Climbing incarceration rates and a toxic mix of convicts, many of them with gang ties, have made life behind bars more difficult for prisoners and the people who work with them, says Pierre Mallette, the national president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.
Mr. Mallette has been on a cross-country tour of federal institutions to learn first hand about the challenges facing his members and says the problems associated with overcrowding top of the list.
Although the national crime rate has been dropping since 1992 and is now at levels not seen since 1972, policies of the federal Conservative government have put more people behind bars.
In August, there was an average of 15,101 inmates housed in Canada's federal penitentiaries, an all-time high. Double-bunking – the practice of putting two inmates in a cell built for one – increased by more than 27 per cent in federal prisons in Canada between 2011 and 2012.
Because there are more prisoners and a limited amount of resources, large numbers of the inmates have no job and all must compete for access to programs and education, Mr. Mallette said. Most will eventually be released but, he said, "without programs, without jobs, without school, he [the prisoner] is going back to society and he will be your neighbour."
The federal government is spending about $600-million to build 2,700 new cells in the coming years. But it is also closing Kingston Penitentiary and the Leclerc Institution in Quebec. Although there will be a net 1,700 new beds, Mr. Mallette said relocating the prisoners from the institutions as they shut down will create additional chaos in the system.
Prisons are already having trouble keeping different gangs away from each other, providing special care for the mentally ill, and segregating sex offenders. Those problems will only increase when over-crowded institutions have to take on additional inmates, Mr. Mallette said.
Julie Carmichael, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, said Mr. Mallette's cross-country tour was nothing more than a political stunt by a big union boss. Nevertheless, Ms. Carmichael said, Mr. Toews has agreed to invite Mr. Mallette to Ottawa to discuss Correctional Service's plan for the closure of the two prisons and transition of inmates to other institutions at identical security levels.
One corrections officer who has worked for more than two decades at a large maximum security prison said his colleagues have been forced to fire their weapons several times in the past year to stop violence.
"If you see weapons or you think there could be serious bodily harm or death then you have to step in."
We've had to do that more in the last 18 months than in the rest of the 26 years I have worked there," he said, under condition that his name not be used because of the potential for repercussions from both his bosses and the prisoners.
A range of 28 cells is busy when there is just one prisoner in each cell, he said. "But all of a sudden you put 50 inmates on that range, there's less phone time, there's less shower time, there's less of everything – programming for the inmates, jobs for the inmates."
And when inmates aren't being productive, he said, "that leads to them to do other things."