Speaking Notes for Mr. Howard Sapers and Dr. Ivan Zinger, Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs 2009-09-30


Mr. Sapers: It is my pleasure to appear before this Senate Committee and to provide the views of my Office on the impact of Bill C-25, the Truth in Sentencing Act . My concerns regarding the impact of this Bill have been previously voiced during my appearance before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights ( JUST ) on May 25, 2009.

As I and other observers have said before the House of Commons Committee, Bill C-25 will likely lead to a significant increase in the offender population managed by the Correctional Service of Canada. My Office is concerned with the impact that a rapid influx of new admissions to federal custody will have on an already burdened correctional system. A significant increase in the federal inmate population will affect the safety and security of that population as well as individual inmates' ability to receive programs and services that will assist their safe and timely reintegration into the community.

I will first address the likely impact of prison overcrowding on staff and offender safety, and will then highlight my Office's concerns regarding the delivery of mental health services to federal offenders. I will then ask my Executive Director and General Counsel, Dr. Ivan Zinger, to speak about access to correctional programs and the impact Bill C-25 may have on Aboriginal corrections.

It is well documented that prison crowding can lead to increased levels of tension and violence , and can jeopardize the safety of staff, inmates and visitors. As I indicated in my last Annual Report 2008-09, the current level of tension and violence within Canada's penitentiaries is already excessively high. For example, for the first quarter of this fiscal year 2009-10 (most recent data available), the Correctional Service reported a staggering total of 2231 security incidents and 577 reported physical injuries to inmates. During this 3 month period, the security incidents included assaults on inmates, disciplinary problems, inmate fights, medical emergencies, self-inflicted injuries and three deaths. The Correctional Service has acknowledged the problem and is taking some steps to attempt to reduce the number of incidents by improving, for example, the dynamic security, which promotes the engagement of correctional officers with inmates to both defuse tensions and allow staff to gather intelligence and to prevent incidents from occurring or escalating into major events.

The plight of offenders with mental disorders in prisons has become a major focus and priority of my Office. This is of importance to the study of Bill C-25 because offenders with mental illnesses and cognitive difficulties are often held in pre-trial custody. We know that the prevalence of offenders with significant mental health issues upon admission has doubled in the past five years. Federal prisons are now housing the largest psychiatric populations in the country. Yet, despite the need, the capacity of the federal correctional system to respond to and treat mental illness is largely reserved for the most acute or seriously chronic cases—those receiving psychiatric treatment in one of the five Regional Treatment Centres ( RTC s). Most other mental health problems receive limited clinical attention at best. 

Although offenders with acute needs, or those requiring specialized intervention, may be sent to a Regional Treatment Centre ( RTC ), they are typically returned to the referring institution after a short period of “stabilization.” Overwhelmed by volume, the RTC s have become revolving doors of referrals, admissions and discharges. Almost no intermediate mental health care services are currently available to bridge the transition between the therapeutic and clinical interventions offered at the RTC s and the return to regular institutional routines.

An overall lack of accessible mental health services means offenders with an identified need for these services remain in settings ill-prepared to respond to their symptoms and behaviours. In far too many cases, their mental health problems deteriorate to the point where they result in violations of institutional rules, altercations with staff and other offenders, and, often, self-harm. In too many instances, these offenders are placed in segregation for their personal safety, or transferred to higher security institutions, including the Special Handling Unit in Québec – CSC 's most secure and restrictive institution.

Dr. Zinger: The Correctional Service is mandated by law to provide programs and interventions that address factors related to an offenders' risk of re-offending. Programs address a number of important issues that when dealt with can significantly reduce the risk of re-offending. The Correctional Service offers numerous very good programs, including in the areas of sex offenders, anger management, family violence and substance abuse.

The current problem with programming is access. The Correctional Service allocates only 2% (under $40M of a $2.1B) of its total annual budget to offender programming. For now, offenders have to contend with long waiting list for programs, cancelled programs because of insufficient funding or lack of trained facilitators; delayed conditional release because of the Service's inability to provide timely programs they require to complete their correctional plans; and longer time served before parole consideration. The situation is becoming critical as more and more offenders are released later in their sentences, and too often having not received the necessary programs and treatment to increase their chance of success in the community.

The Correctional Service has acknowledged publicly that 2% of its annual budget on programming is insufficient, and has indicated to us that it hopes in the next fiscal year to reallocate a significant portion of the $48.1M it anticipates receiving as part of its Strategic Review initiative to core programming.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator also voiced its concern with the JUST Committee about the differential impacts that the proposal for pre-sentence custody will have on Aboriginal people . As data from 2001 to 2007 indicate, the number of Aboriginal adults admitted to remand custody increased by 23% compared to a 14% increase in the total remand admission rate over that same period. Research suggests that Aboriginal people in pre-sentence custody are more likely to be denied bail, more likely to be held in higher security conditions and serve longer periods of time in remand custody. Because of their disadvantaged position, these same disparities in Aboriginal pre-trial detention are patterns repeated at the federal level where Aboriginal offenders now account for 20% of the inmate population.

Mr. Sapers: In conclusion, any significant influx of new admissions without additional resources for accommodation, programs, health care services, improved sanitation, hygiene and control for communicable and infectious diseases, as well as reasonable time to put into place these initiatives, will exacerbate an already difficult situation. This Bill will have a differential impact on Aboriginal People, and this impact should be examined carefully and mitigated.

Thank you.

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