I am pleased to respond to your invitation and appear before this Committee to provide my views on the impact of Bill C-25, the Truth in Sentencing Act on federal corrections. Let me begin by briefly reviewing the mandate of my Office.
Last year, the Office of the Correctional Investigator celebrated its 35 th anniversary. The Office was established in 1973 to strengthen the accountability and oversight of the federal correctional system. The Office was given a legislative mandate on November 1, 1992 with the enactment of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act .
The Office investigates and resolves individual federal offender complaints. As well, it has a responsibility to review and make recommendations on the Correctional Service of Canada's policies and procedures associated with individual complaints. In this way, systemic areas of concern can be identified and appropriately addressed.
The Office has twenty-four staff, and receives between five and seven thousand offender inquiries and complaints annually. Last year, our investigative staff spent approximately three hundred days in federal penitentiaries conducting interviews with more than two thousand offenders. In addition, our staff met with many other individuals during their penitentiary visits, including Wardens, correctional staff, inmate committees, native brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and health care staff.
As the Ombudsman for federal Corrections, my mandate expresses important elements of the criminal justice system. The Office reflects Canadian values of respect for the law, for human rights, and the public's expectation that correctional staff and senior managers are accountable for the administration of law and policy on the public's behalf.
It is with this mandate firmly in mind that I offer my thoughts on the impact that Bill C-25 may have on federal corrections. I believe it is within my role to comment on the proposed reforms with respect to how an increase in the federal inmate population may 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.
It is my belief that 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. In my 2007/08 Annual Report, I noted that prison overcrowding has negative impacts on the system's ability to provide humane, safe and secure custody. It is well documented that overcrowding in prison can lead to increased levels of tensions and violence, and can jeopardize the safety of staff, inmates and visitors.
As witnessed in the early 1990s when correctional populations dramatically increased, timely and comprehensive access to offender programs, treatment and meaningful employment opportunities measurably diminished, resulting in delays of safe reintegration into the community and increasing both overcrowding and cost pressures. It bears noting that the pervasive effects of prison overcrowding reach far beyond the provision of a comfortable living environment for federal inmates; stretching the system beyond its capacity to move offenders through their correctional plans in a timely fashion has negatives impacts on the protection of society itself as offenders are incarcerated for a greater proportion of their sentence only to be released in the community ill prepared and then supervised for shorter periods of time.
As it stands 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 this lack of capacity to provide timely programs means offenders cannot complete their correctional plans; and more time served behind walls without correctional benefit. The situation is becoming critical as more and more offenders are released later in their sentences, too often having not received the necessary programs and treatment to increase their chance of success in the community.
I asked my staff last week to gather a few numbers to illustrate some of the challenges faced by the Correctional Service. Here is a sample of their responses:
- Drumheller Institution: 84 offenders on a waiting list awaiting core programming.
- Saskatchewan Penitentiary: 5 of the 14 funded program officer positions are vacant. Of the six health care and psychology positions, two are vacant, including the position of Chief Psychologist. 83 Aboriginal offenders are on a waiting list for Aboriginal core programming (e.g., Aboriginal High Intensity Family Violence Program; Aboriginal In Search of Your Warrior; Aboriginal Substance Abuse Program).
- Warkworth Institution: 103 sex offenders are on a waiting list for the National Maintenance Sex Offender Program.
These are a few examples of current barriers that prevent offenders from accessing programs and services that would assist them in their chances of early release and safe reintegration into the community.
In terms of accommodation, in the last five years, the rate of "double-bunking" (i.e., housing two offenders in a cell designed for one) in federal Corrections has significantly increased, by about 50%, and now directly effects almost 10% of the total federal inmate population. According to its own policy, the Correctional Service of Canada identifies single accommodation as the most desirable and correctionally appropriate method of housing offenders (Commissioner's Directive 550). Of note, this policy reflects international human rights standards. For example, Rule number nine (9) of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners , which Canada endorsed in 1977, specifically requires that "each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself." The most recent available data (February 15, 2009) indicates that nationally a total of 1,313 offenders were double-bunked in 657 cells.
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.
My Office is also concerned about the differential impacts that the proposal for pre-sentence custody will have on already vulnerable and growing correctional populations in Canada, including Aboriginal people and the mentally ill. 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 socio-economic 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. One in every five admissions to sentenced custody in Canada is a person Aboriginal ancestry.
It is my Office's contention that trends in pre-trial custody need to be carefully understood and evaluated as proposed changes will have significant effects on the rate, cost and distribution of incarceration in this country. It is my opinion that the federal correctional system currently does not have the capacity to easily absorb this impact.