The Tories’ “get tough on crime” policies are being 
blamed for overcrowding at the new Burnside jail---overcrowding that’s creating potentially unsafe conditions for both guards and prisoners. Union representative John Landry, a front-line supervisor at the jail, blames politicians. “They’ve got lots of new police and judges to deal with criminals,” Landry says, “but they’re lacking on where to house them.” Since January he says, Burnside has been forced to double-bunk some prisoners. “You have cells that are made for one person with a bunk, a cement bunk for sleeping and now you have somebody sleeping on the floor in a little plastic sleigh bed,” Landry tells me. “I know there’s not a lot of sympathy for offenders, but if your father came in for whatever reason and was innocent and got bunked up with some gang member or some kid that had no respect, there could be some serious harm.”

Landry’s comment about innocent prisoners points to a disturbing trend. Growing numbers of people are locked up in jail awaiting trial and therefore haven’t been convicted of anything. Many others have yet to be sentenced and may already have served more time than the sentence they will get. Statistics Canada reports that the number of prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing has doubled in the past 10 years. In 2005/2006, there were 1,100 more of these prisoners in provincial jails than there were ones who had actually been convicted and sentenced. Provincial jails house prisoners serving less than two years. Sentences longer than that are served in federal prisons. On any given day in 2005/2006, a total of 33,123 adults were locked up in Canadian jails, giving us one of the highest incarceration rates among western industrialized countries. Canada’s 110 prisoners per 100,000 people was significantly higher, for example, than Sweden’s 82 or France’s 85. The US, on the other hand, had an astonishing 738 prisoners for every 100,000 adults. With more than 2.3 million people in jail, the US leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it imprisons.

If putting people in jail prevented crime, the US should practically be crime-free, yet the opposite is true. Murder rates there are three times higher than in Canada, serious assaults are double the Canadian rate and robberies are 65 percent higher. These figures reinforce what many studies have found: Stiff prison sentences do not lower the crime rate. Yet, judging by the recent Tackling Violent Crime Act that the Harper Tories pushed through, right-wing politicians are fervent believers in the effectiveness of stiffer sentences. The truth is that prisons are part of an unjust and ineffective system that penalizes poor people who can’t afford fancy lawyers and so, end up in jail. The late Claire Culhane, a prison abolition activist, estimated that only five percent of prisoners are a danger to society. The majority are non-violent offenders who could pay fines, make restitution to their victims or perform community service instead of being locked up at an average cost of $52,000 per year in provincial jails and more than $87,000 in federal ones.

John Landry and his union advocate building a new wing on the Burnside jail, but I’d say we wouldn’t need one if we adopted more sensible policies, such as abandoning our futile war on drugs and putting less emphasis on courts and more on community mediation centres. In 1995, the federal government brought in provisions allowing non-violent offenders to serve time at home if they followed certain conditions such as getting treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, observing curfews and performing community service. Conditional sentencing sharply reduced prison populations, but Statistics Canada says the numbers are starting to creep up again. Prisons as we know them have outlived their usefulness. A group called is campaigning for a moratorium on building new ones while we gradually dismantle our antiquated, ineffective and costly prison system.

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