OTTAWA–Canada's prison system is stretched to the breaking point and any sudden influx of new inmates would be "dangerous," says the federal correctional investigator.
Howard Sapers' stark warning Tuesday comes amid concern that the Harper government's tough-on-crime agenda could swamp already-strained prisons.
Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan agreed policy changes will drive "a need for additional capacity" in custody.
"It's undoubtedly the case that we're going to be building new prisons in the future," he said in an interview.
But that need has more to do with crumbling buildings and overall population growth than Conservative plans to lock up more people, he said.
For now, Van Loan is confident that any increase will be gradual enough for the corrections service to handle.
Sapers said the country's 58 institutions are barely managing about 13,500 inmates. Another 8,000 prisoners are under varying degrees of supervision on the outside.
The majority, including sex offenders, never fully complete rehabilitation programs because of long waiting lists and frequent transfers, he said.
Adding to the pressure is a spike in the number of mentally unstable offenders in the last 10 years following the closure of residential institutions without the creation of adequate community supports.
Adding more inmates could tip the scales toward disaster, Sapers said.
"It would be dangerous to further burden the corrections system federally without additional capacity – and dangerous in the sense of both institutional violence and the risk of reoffence upon release," he said after appearing before the Commons public safety committee.
"We know historically that the more repressive conditions become inside institutions, the more dangerous conditions become. And that's for inmates and staff.
"The system right now is working at its capacity. And if we find the Correctional Service of Canada faced with a rapid influx of inmates without additional capacity – program capacity, accommodation capacity, human resource capacity – then those are the dangers that I foresee."
Conservative legislation to set mandatory minimum sentences for various drug crimes, along with plans to nix extra credit for time served in overcrowded remand centres prior to trial, could swell prison ranks, critics warn.
Criminologists point out that higher incarceration rates in the U.S. have cost billions of dollars with negligible impact on crime. They also note that crime rates in Canada have steadily fallen in recent years with some exceptions, such as gang-related violence.
Sapers was careful to distance his remarks from politics.
"I'm not linking my concerns to any particular initiative," he said.
But he stressed that something fundamental has shifted over the last 10 years when it comes to how inmates are released.
"It used to be the majority got out conditionally with supervision. Now the majority are getting out statutorially with a very short period of supervision – if any."
Wait-lists for rehabilitation programs are growing, he said, referring to 103 sex offenders waiting to enter assigned programs at Warkworth Institution near Kingston, Ont.
For those who do start education, anger management and various treatment programs, the average completion rate is 67 per cent, Sapers said.
About 20 per cent of inmates who didn't finish were disrupted by ``population management" reasons such as involuntary transfers between institutions, he said.
"More offenders failed to complete the program for administrative reasons than because they dropped out."
The corrections service now spends $37 million on core programs, or just two per cent of a yearly budget of more than $2 billion. Inmates need more access to rehabilitation support, Sapers said.
"It gets rid of idleness. It gives people skills ... and a pathway to supervised conditional release."
Van Loan said he shares Sapers' concern and that the government has committed more funding – especially for mentally ill inmates.
"It's one thing to have the money available, as we have made it available. It's another thing . . . to be able to recruit and retain enough psychologists to actually do the work dealing with offenders with psychiatric problems or sexual problems."
A general shortage of such specialists has made it even tougher to attract and keep staff in the prison system.
"The good news is those are problems that nobody was doing anything about for a long time," Van Loan said. "We have begun to take steps to address some of them."