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Fixing our prisons: Answers are complex and will take time, money, and a public that cares

By Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

Ask an NDP or Liberal corrections critic how to improve the federal prison system and the answer will be short, and political.

Turf the Conservative government and its tough-on-prisoners agenda.

The federal Conservatives, of course, will say the tough-on-crime agenda is keeping everyone safer.

Various solutions rest between the political extremes.

Here's a snapshot of some of the ways federal and provincial governments could, and in some cases, are trying to handle the growing and changing populations behind bars, as well as the federal government's response to questions about safety in Canada's prison:

TREAT THE ILL

Federal and provincial reports and inquests have long recommended governments improve services for mentally ill and addicted offenders, and training in those areas for correctional officers.

There's been sporadic progress but it's going to be a long haul.

In Ontario, it took a human rights complaint settled in September to get an on-the-record commitment from the Liberal government to make concrete changes. Christine Jahn filed a complaint against the corrections minister after being locked up for 200 days in Ottawa's detention centre.

The province has agreed to change how it screens inmates for mental illness, review different options on treating female patients with mental illnesses, reduce segregation of patients, and improve treatment.

"Our job years ago was just kind of turning the key. Now there is a lot expected of us. We have to be basic addiction counsellors, grief counsellors, social workers, recreation officers," says Tammy Carson, a corrections officer and chair of health and safety for the union.

CUT THE FLOW

Correctional officers and the federal correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, recommend governments try to keep out people who shouldn't be behind bars. That includes large numbers of people with mental illness who could do better in community programs.

In some provinces, such as Ontario and Manitoba, drug and mental health courts that try to keep offenders out of jail are getting more money and/or growing in number.

THE NUMBERS

It costs about $115,000 a year to keep an offender inside a federal prison, compared to about $29,500 in the community, Sapers says.

ENGAGE THE PUBLIC

The problems are many, but public attention to life behind bars remains low, says Randall Garrison, NDP corrections critic.

The federal system has its watchdog, but keeping an eye on provincial systems falls to a patchwork of auditor generals and ombudsman's offices.

Changes are afoot. In Ontario, the province has created public advisory panels for seven of its largest correctional centre to keep an eye on conditions and suggest improvements.

In British Columbia, the provincial workplace safety agency — WorkSafeBC — is conducting safety audits of all provincial jails. The completed audits include orders to the province to improve conditions for guards.

Some veterans of incarceration see a change in public interest, thanks in large part to inmates themselves.

The code of silence is used to prevent inmates from complaining to their provincial ombudsman or human rights agencies, says Terry Mertick, a London man who has spent time behind bars.

Now they know their rights and aren't afraid to complain.

FOCUS ON SUPERVISION

It seems obvious.

"I would say if there's more staff, with visible and direct supervision, you're able to reduce the likelihood of the immediate violence," says ex-con Mertick.

Mertick spent time in a U.S. federal prison, where correctional officers have posts that oversee the ranges, and says they're less violent.

"They have a lot more staffing and I think they learned a long time ago with the amount of prisoners they have that they have to do something different."

At one of the most troubled jails in Ontario, Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre in London, guards can't see the inmates from the guard posts. They can't see one-half of the ranges they're responsible for while working in the other half.

More than 100 inmates have begun legal action against the province, claiming the lack of supervision has led to violence.

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS

Canada's prisons are handling the challenges of more offenders, more gangs, more women, more Natives, and more mentally ill offenders, Correctional Services Canada says.

All federal prisoners are getting "effective rehabilitation programs" to help prevent crime once they're out, says Correctional Services spokesperson Sara Parkes.

QMI posed questions to Correctional Services and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney. Correctional Services provided the answers, although Blaney recently announced a new measure for substance abuse.

On gangs:

Correctional Services takes "appropriate measures .... to prevent them from exercising influence and power," Parkes said, including improving intelligence on gangs, working to manage gang populations — such as keeping rivals apart — and improving programs that help gang members leave their gangs.

On mental health care:

With a budget of $95 million for mental health care, Correctional Services has trained about 8,800 staff on the basics of mental health care, Parkes said. Special courses and accommodation are provided for women, including specific programs for aboriginal women.

On addiction:

Blaney has announced new legislation — the Drug Free Prisons Act — giving the Parole Board of Canada the power to cancel parole to offenders who test positive for a drugs or refuse to take a test.

On the budget and staffing:

Correctional Services says it has enough staff to maintain the safety and security of prisons. Cost-saving measures will streamline operations without sacrificing rehabilitation, it says.

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Day 1 Who's behind bars: The changing face of prisons and jails

Day 2: What's the impact?

Today: What can be done?


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