What’s the agenda behind the Tory prison budget boost?

Prison ombudsman Howard Sapers makes sense of the proposed influx of money

News broke yesterday that the Conservative government is planning to boost its prison budget by 27 per cent over the next three years, filling 4,000 new positions, just as almost every other federal department is tightening its belt. This follows a Maclean’s report on the state of Canada’s prisons, where chronic underfunding has led to a growing number of inmates, especially the mentally ill, landing in solitary confinement cells. The media was quick to spin the budget increase as a bad news story—one linked to the Tories’ controversial “tough on crime” agenda, and an anticipated rise in the inmate population—but given the sorry state of Canada’s prison system, shouldn’t a funding boost be welcome?

Here, federal prisons ombudsman Howard Sapers responds to news of a proposed funding boost for Canada’s prisons. Is an increase in funding expected, or did this come as a surprise?

Sapers: I certainly wasn’t surprised. Even if there was no public policy change, there are very real, very immediate infrastructure pressures [on Canada’s prison system]. The Correctional Service already double-bunks about 10 per cent of its population: we’re talking about cells built for one person that are currently housing two, even though the Service’s current policy is single cell accommodation, which is in keeping with international standards.

The service doesn’t have the capacity it needs at certain security classifications to meet the current population, let alone any population increase. And it’s no surprise that if you make policy changes that will result in more people spending more time in prison, you’re going to need to deal with capacity issues. That means new money.

What I’m hoping is that there will be increasing opportunities for the Correctional Service to look at its priorities and allocation decisions. What sorts of priorities do you mean?

Sapers: Half of the Correctional Service’s mandate is around safe and secure custody; the other is timely and safe reintegration of offenders. To achieve the reintegration part, it delivers programs and interventions designed to deal with things like violence prevention and drug abuse—factors that brought people into conflict with the law to begin with. Programs [that help] offenders return to communities safely, and in a law-abiding way.

The Service, as it presently exists, is about a $2.5 billion a year operation. I would argue that at some level, there is simply not enough money, but one way of looking at underfunding is to see whether the money you get is being spent with the best return on investment. [The Correctional Service] will spend over 97 per cent of its current money on meeting half of its mandate. It spends less than 3 per cent of their budget delivering those programs; the other 97 per cent goes into the security side of the equation. The question is, is that the right split or not. I would argue it doesn’t represent a very good balance. Part of the underfunding [problem] could be addressed by transferring money to the programs side. Do you believe the anticipated extra funding, which has yet to be approved, is tied to an expected influx of inmates?

Sapers: Certainly the Correctional Service [has suggested] that as a result of policy changes, there will be more offenders spending more time in prison. If you’re going to have more offenders spending more time in prison, you have to do something about capacity. Some of that money no doubt, and I can’t tell you how much of it, is tied to that public policy position that more offenders will be spending more time in prison. What are your priorities this year?

Sapers: My priorities continue to be the same: our focus on mental health; program capacity dealing with the particular needs of aboriginal offenders; and the particular needs of women offenders. Finding alternatives to the continued overuse of segregation for those high-needs offenders. These continue to be very real and very immediate problems. So should we welcome the news that prisons might receive more money, as these gaps might be filled? Or is it only an indication that we’ll see a growing number of people incarcerated?

Sapers: That is exactly the right question. Not to be trite about it, but time will tell.