Packed prisons pose risk to public, inmate safety
Author: Evan Radford – Contributor
Nearly half a year after a province-wide report criticizing major problems with overcrowding in Saskatchewan’s provincial correctional facilities, the Ministry of Justice has not implemented any changes to address the growing problem.
After Manitoba, Saskatchewan has the second-highest incarceration rate among Canada’s provinces.
For the most recent year of available data, 2010-2011,Statistics Canada reported 188.5 people per 100,000 were incarcerated in the province’s correctional centres. That’s nearly 100 points over the average provincial and territorial rate of 90 people.
Titled “Warehousing Prisoners in Saskatchewan,” the report was authored by Regina-based professor Jason Demers and published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Noel Busse said the ministry takes reports like Demers’ seriously, and that it has “looked at the findings to determine what is relevant to the operation of the province’s correctional facilities.”
Overcrowding results in fewer spaces and programs normally used for rehabilitative purposes. Those spaces are repurposed for sleeping quarters, Demers reports. In effect, inmates are housed in closer, cramped quarters, while existing facilities are pushed beyond capacity.
The Pine Grove Provincial Correctional Centre in Prince Albert is one example of this.
“Currently, a lot of the classrooms, even the family visiting unit, are being utilized for exercise rooms in Pine Grove, because (female inmates) don’t have their gym,” said Tanya Beauchamp.
Men are being housed in the women’s gym at Pine Grove, so women there don’t have access to it, the former prison guard and inmate said.
Beauchamp now works for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan, a support group that facilitates access to legal assistance, education and community integration for women and girls in the justice system.
As an inmate at Pine Grove, she knew of up to eight or nine women waiting in holding rooms at a time, she said.
That leads to inmates developing post-traumatic stress disorder, carrying psychological scars with them once they leave prison, and feeling the effects in public areas, Beauchamp said.
“For example, a mall, a situation like that, they can’t handle it; they need someone behind them or in front of them and eyes around them.There’s the sense of paranoia that someone will harm you at all times,” she said.
The situation is similar for male inmates, like those in Saskatoon’s correctional centre, which has been operating over maximum capacity since 2010, Demers reports.
Trimmed rehabilitative programs means when male inmates leave prison, “they’re angrier, less prepared to deal well in the community and they begin a cycle or continue a cycle of incarceration,” said Shaun Dyer of the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan.
“The tools they need to live in community haven’t enhanced, haven’t been developed, because they’ve been just holed up in a jail. That’s the problem,” Dyer said.
Cramped, overcrowded quarters are also conducive to heavier gang recruitment.
“The more people you put in a jail in close quarters with gang ties… or without any support from the outside when they come into prison, there are risks for gang recruitment and development of those deeper ties,” he said.
Beyond the risks to community safety, Dyer stressed the inhumane nature of overcrowding prisoners: “we have to keep in mind people go to prison as punishment; it’s not for punishment.”
Such environments are also conducive to the higher spread of disease and psychological trauma, he said.
There’s also a risk of increased violence among prisoners. Dyer cited a case two years ago in Saskatoon’s facility, where a remanded (i.e. non-convicted) inmate was killed by a “known convicted offender,” because they were double bunked.
A lack of preparedness for re-entering the community only adds to former inmates’ stress levels, said Bob Hughes of the Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism.
In his support work with current and former inmates, he has seen the effects of over-crowding first hand, he said.
“People come out without any program work. On top of that, they have no financial resources, and have trouble with housing,” he said.
Statistics Canada reports Saskatchewan’s sentenced inmates require an average of four out of six rehabilitative areas, including: substance abuse, social interaction, attitude, employment, community functioning and family/marital.
Hughes wants to see correctional officers work towards better understandings of those rehabilitative needs.
Dyer offered similar solutions: “Sometimes the people on remand (i.e. not yet convicted) don’t end up in prison, but spend one two, three, six months awaiting trial.”
A judiciary system that more efficiently processes such people would help reduce prison populations, he explained.
A second solution is evaluating people who can’t afford bail, but pose no risk to public safety.
“Are they in a remand situation just because they’re poor but have no risk to public safety? That’s a question we would like to ask,” he said.