Moratorium Needed on Punishment Legislation

More crowded and costly prisons wrong way to deter crime
September 1, 2010


Prior to the 2006 federal election campaign, where the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats touted their “tough on crime” credentials in the shadow of the “summer of the gun,” prison systems across Canada were already facing significant challenges. 

In our provincial-territorial prisons, where we typically house those awaiting a hearing or trial and those who are serving sentences of two years minus a day, the vast majority of cells – often the size of an average household washroom – were occupied by two or more prisoners. This trend has been primarily driven by rising remand populations, which in 2006-2007 represented almost twice the number of admissions versus sentenced prisoners in provincial-territorial institutions, according to Statistics Canada.

In our federal penitentiaries, where we typically house those serving sentences of two years plus a day, the rate of double-bunking in the last decade has been as high as 11.1% in April 2001, and as low as 6.1% in July 2004. This practice continues, despite the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) Commissioner’s Directive 550 (, which states that “[s]ingle occupancy accommodation is the most desirable and correctionally appropriate method of housing offenders.”

It is widely recognized by experts, by those working in prisons, and by some politicians that Aboriginals are over-represented in our penal institutions, which have also become dumping grounds for those suffering from drug addiction and mental illness, the poor, and other marginalized groups. Many of the facilities where we house prisoners were and continue to be decrepit and dilapidated, to a point where they are places unfit for animals, let alone human beings.

Faced with this situation, prison officials have argued that new prisons are required, not only for the reasons stated above, but also because the current facilities are not conducive to meeting their institutional programming objectives. And, while many jurisdictions are replacing or retrofitting some of their old prisons, our already overburdened penal infrastructure is incurring additional pressure. Several recently adopted federal laws are creating an influx of new prisoners serving longer sentences, with less opportunities to be released into the community.   

A great deal of money, resources, and political capital has been invested in expanding our reliance on imprisonment. It should be noted, however, that past and forthcoming decisions to build new prisons are not the product of an inevitable carceral future. Other choices could have been and could still be made.  Following are some of the compelling issues that Canadians ought to consider as we walk on a path towards mass incarceration. 


The Costs of Imprisonment

Building prisons is expensive. Figures I have obtained from prison authorities themselves, from coast to coast, show that the provinces and territories are currently in the process of establishing 22 new penal institutions, along with 16 additions to existing prisons. These facilities – which are popping up from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Surrey, British Columbia, as well as from Iqaluit, Nunavut, to Windsor, Ontario – will cost over $2.8 billion to build. Using 2007-2008 figures compiled by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics as a baseline, I estimate that it will cost over $340 million per year to operate and maintain the 6,500 new prisoner beds that are being added as part of these construction projects, once they become occupied.  

It should be noted that the vast majority of these new facilities were not planned as a means to cope with federal punishment legislation. In fact, officials from Ontario, Manitoba, Nunavut, and other provinces and territories have recently stated that they will not be able to accommodate a rapid surge in their prison populations. 

These figures are just the tip of the iceberg on what lies ahead for Canadian taxpayers should we continue down a path towards mass incarceration. 

According to a recent report by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) on the impact of Bill C-25, which eliminated the two-for-one credit individuals could receive from judges for time served while awaiting trial and sentencing in institutions notorious for their poor conditions, the provinces and territories would be on the hook for an additional $5 billion to $8 billion over five years. These funds are said to be needed to build, operate, and manage the new institutions required to house prisoners serving longer sentences as a result of the new law. 

The PBO report also estimated that the cost of implementing this one piece of legislation to the federal penitentiary system would be approximately $5 billion over five years. The minority Harper government, which originally estimated this portion of the cost to be $89 million, revised its figure to $2 billion.  Regardless of whose figures you believe, one thing that is certainly true of the “truth in sentencing” bill is that it is very costly. This issue ought to have been part of the legislative debate prior to its passage, but the government --     elected, in part, on a platform of accountability and transparency -- hid these figures from Canadians until the deed was done.               

An examination of the overall budget of the Correctional Service of Canada, which is responsible for administering federal penitentiaries, provides another glimpse into the growing place incarceration occupies in the imaginations of our federal politicians that will cost taxpayers. 

Since the Liberals last tabled a budget in 2005-2006, CSC’s overall budget has risen 54% to $2.46 billion for 2010-2011, and is set to increase to $3.128 billion by 2012-2013, a 95.9% increase since the Conservatives took office. CSC’s budget for capital expenditures, which includes facility construction costs, has also increased by 138.4% to $329.4 million in 2010-2011, and is set to rise to $466.9 million by 2012-2013, a 237.8% increase since 2005-2006. Where other federal government departments are trimming staff, the number of CSC full-time equivalent employees has risen by 11.9% to 16,587 since the Conservatives took office, and is set to increase to 20,706 by 2012-2013, a 39.6% increase since 2005-2006. 

What We Know

Our race to incarcerate is taking place with the knowledge that increasing our reliance on imprisonment is bad and unnecessary social policy.

  • We know that studies undertaken by Statistics Canada have shown that the overall volume of crime reported to the police has been steadily declining since 1991, and that the overall severity of crime reported to the police has been declining since at least the late 1990s.
  • We know that increasing the use of imprisonment has failed to enhance public safety in locations that have shifted towards a mass incarceration model. Moreover, prison expenditure has outpaced and drawn away funding from social infrastructure that provides individuals with tools to avoid a life of crime, such as post-secondary education in many of these jurisdictions, including California.
  • We know that Steve Sullivan, the former Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, recently argued that building more prisons will not address the complex and pressing needs of victims, or their families, who are left behind by the federal government's punishment agenda.


  • We know that, for every dollar we spend on initiatives that prevent crime and victimization from occurring in the first place, we save seven dollars that we would need to spend on incarceration down the road. When we prevent crime, we also eliminate their costs that are most often borne by victims.
  • We know that increasing our reliance on imprisonment is not an effective approach to addressing the needs that those in conflict with the law may have, and that more effective and less costly community-based alternatives are available. It should also be noted that incarceration impacts the families and loved ones of many prisoners, an issue that is often forgotten when penal policies are being debated.
  • We know that imprisonment does not meet the needs of other members of our communities. You don't build communities by removing individuals from them without allowing those concerned to address the roots of social problems in their neighbourhoods.
  • We know that many of our prisons are already full with prisoners who are often double- and triple-bunked in cells designed for one person. Existing institutions, along with new facilities already underway, will be unable to absorb the influx of additional prisoners serving longer sentences without further compromising Canada's 1975 commitment to the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. which states: “9(1) Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself [or herself].”
  • We know that it takes years to plan new prisons, and that, if the Conservative punishment agenda continues, the influx of more prisoners serving longer sentences in facilities will exacerbate overcrowding, putting the personal safety of both prisoners and prison staff at even further risk than at present.
  • We know that Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, has stated that there are already long waiting lists for programming in federal penitentiaries that prisoners may need to safely reintegrate into society. These delays occur because the organization allocates only a bare 2% of its total budget for these programs. The situation is worse at the provincial-territorial level, where often very few programs are offered to prisoners. This is not a recipe for community safety.
  • We know that no jurisdiction in this country is immune from the current economic crisis, and that most are planning to make cuts to government programs to balance their books.  In this context, it makes little sense to take on large expenditures such as building new multi-million-dollar prisons that require several millions more to operate and manage every year.
  • We know, based on the experience of other countries, that increasing our reliance on imprisonment either leads to cuts to social programs, higher taxes, or both.


An Alternative Direction

The economic and human costs flowing from the penal policy path on which we currently find ourselves are just becoming visible to the Canadian public. We need a moratorium on the federal punishment legislation in Canada that is further exacerbating the capacity crisis in our prisons, and likely with little impact on crime or safety in our communities despite the high price tag.

In the interim, we need to encourage our elected and non-elected officials at the provincial-territorial and federal levels to enhance our commitment to prevention efforts, such as education, employment, housing, and other social programs proven to reduce crime. We also need to encourage politicians to set aside their preconceptions and ideological leanings to make the robust investments required to meet the needs of all stakeholders impacted by conflicts and harms in our communities that are currently underserved by the current federal government’s punishment agenda.

Constructing facilities made of concrete and steel is not an effective response to social harm. We have to stop letting politicians get away with selling punishment legislation that will result in further overcrowding as evidence of their commitment to public safety. Prison, at best, is an unimaginative after-the-fact response to crime, and does little to prevent victimization or repair communities. The incarceration of an individual should be seen not as an indicator of a well-functioning “get tough” policy framework, but rather as a failure to effectively implement more meaningful and inclusive interventions. 

A wholesale expansion of our ability and inclination to incarcerate should be seen as nothing less than an indictment of our approach to conflict resolution and community safety.

(Justin Piché is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Carleton University, and co-managing editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. Portions of this article were adapted from a report submitted and presented to the Provincial-Territorial Heads of Corrections in May 2010. For information on the Canadian Punishment Legislation Moratorium campaign, visit Tracking the Politics of “Crime” and Punishment –