Jail Overcrowding needs discussion

10 Jan, 2013

Despite the fact that crime rates are falling, including rates of most violent crimes, jails in Quebec and penitentiaries across Canada are becom- ing more overcrowded. Overcrowding isn’t conducive to rehabilitation. A more enlightened approach is needed.

In August, Quebec opened up holding cells at the Palais de justice in Old Montreal to accommodate mounting spillover from Bordeaux provincial jail in Montreal’s north end. As an exceptional measure, this makes some sense. But there doesn’t seem to be a clear administrative plan to deal with over- crowding on an ongoing basis.

Double-bunking emerged this past spring as a contentious issue in federal penitentiaries. Some 40% of penitentiary cells in Western Canada designed for single occupancy now contain two beds or more. The situation is not as bad in Quebec pens, where the figure is more like 20%, but with Leclerc Institution north of Montreal slated for closure, along with Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, the trend lines don’t look promising.

The Conservative government has ruled out building new penitentiaries to replace Kingston and Leclerc. But under provisions of its omnibus crime bill that became law last March—containing mandatory minimum sentences and a ban on accelerated parole review— the number of prisoners can only climb. It’s hard to see conditions improving in federal pens, given the link between more double-bunking and increased inmate violence, not to mention worse rehabilitation outcomes.

Several outlying problems are contributing to overcrowding. Over the past generation, psychiatric hospitals have been emptied out in the name of deinstitutionalization, but support services in the mental health field are desperately underfunded. As a result, the mentally ill too often end up in jails and prisons for lack of a better place.

A judicious vetting of cases for day passes and early release is clearly needed on an ongoing basis. But more generally, more care needs to be taken to ensure that people sentenced to incarceration are given appropriate punishment and rehabilitation.

In some cases, that will mean community work and more active rehabilitation outreach instead of hard time spent behind bars.

Your thoughts? Your letters are welcome.

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