News Canada

Criminals running the show behind bars, say critics

By Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

More prisoners, more gang members, more mentally ill, more women, more Natives, more blacks, more addicts.

The population in Canada's federal prisons and provincial jails is growing, its face changing dramatically.

That's making life behind bars more dangerous and more costly, guards, politicians, researchers and prisoners themselves all warn.

Worse, if we don't adapt to those changes, they warn, life on our side of the bars is going get more dangerous.

"You basically have a machine out there -- a big factory in our prison system that is generating hardened criminals," says Terry Mertick of London, Ont., who's served in federal and provincial correctional centres.

"We all have to take a role in changing it. If you don't, everybody's going to pay the price."

Opposition critics echo the warning.

"What we're going to see here is prisons increasingly become universities for crime," federal Liberal corrections critic Wayne Easter charges.

"Instead of going in there and becoming rehabilitated, especially with the gangs that are in there now, people will come out better criminals, in many cases, than they went in."

Most Canadians haven't grasped the ultimate result of the changes in population, combined with budget cuts, both fuelled by the federal Conservative government's tough-on-crime agenda, said New Democrat critic Randall Garrison.

"It's a political sales job they're doing here to motivate their (political) base. But, ultimately, it makes all of us less safe."

Guards across Canada describe a system under siege, with tough street gang members recruiting young offenders and preying on the mentally ill, with offenders fighting drug abuse and psychiatric illnesses adding to the danger, with no money to handle the growing population of Natives.

Tough young gangsters with no respect for authority are a particular problem in provincial jails, guards say.

"The population inside has changed a lot," says Monte Bobinski, a 22-year correctional officer in Alberta and health and safety official with the public service union.

"You've got the gangs and violence and swarming, head stompings. It's not kids in the playground fight anymore with fists. It's with weapons way more than it used to be."

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) acknowledges there are challenges with the changing prison population, but says things are well under control.

"The safety and security of the Canadian public remains the top priority," spokesperson Sara Parkes said.

The best picture may come from the annual report of Canada's Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, expected Nov. 25. Besides some new wrinkles, including a detailed look at the explosive increase in the number of black prisoners, the report will likely look at trends that have grown over the past five to 10 years.

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Today: Who's behind bars: The changing face of prisons and jails

Day 2: What's the impact?

Day 3: What can be done?

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BY THE NUMBERS

10%: Offenders who admit sharing needles to shoot up.

$2 million: Cut in substance abuse funding, from $11M in 2009 to $9M in 2011.

PROVINCIAL JAILS (Sentences up to two years less a day)

13,758: Inmates (2011)

9%: Female offenders

Poll

Do you think criminals can rehabilitate in prison?


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