How Many Prisons Are There In Canada: Inmate Population, How to Suffer
How Many Prisons Are There In Canada: Prison Population, How Prisoners Suffer. Photo KnowInsiders
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Histoy of Correctional System In Canada

Canada was officially created as a country in 1867, with the signing of the British North America Act. However, its correctional history dates back to the earliest days of English and French colonial settlement. At that time, all crimes were deemed deserving of punishment, and punishment was often meted out in public. Offenders were whipped or branded.

They could also be pilloried, meaning that they were put in wooden frames with openings for the head and arms or the arms and legs; they were exposed in public squares for hours or even entire days. In other cases, offenders were simply transported to other countries, where they were abandoned to their fate. Physical pain and humiliation were the preferred forms of punishment. It was the Quakers of Philadelphia, in the United States, who in 1789 introduced the penitentiary as an alternative to such harsh punishment. They felt it was possible to make offenders “penitent” and put them back on the straight and narrow by segregating them through imprisonment and offering them opportunities for labour and reflection. The concept of long-term imprisonment then spread to England as an alternative to exiling offenders to the penal colonies. In Canada, the first penitentiary was built in Kingston in 1835.

Initially under provincial jurisdiction, it came under federal responsibility with the passage of the first Penitentiary Act (1868). Many more institutions were built across the country up to the end of the 19th century. These were all maximum-security penitentiaries where inmates were subjected to a strict regime of forced labour during the day and confinement at night and during “leisure” times, with food often limited to bread and water. As well, silence at all times was strictly enforced!

The first warden of Kingston Penitentiary, Henry Smith, was blamed for the mistreatment that went on at that time. Smith would abuse the whip, even flogging women and children; he punished inmates by chaining them up in cells with no light, or in the “box,” a kind of vertical casket. Fortunately, an investigation brought this to light and led to his dismissal. Things had to change.

When did death pentalty come into force?

In Canada, hanging was the only method of execution used. In 1859, the offences punishable by death in Canada included murder, rape, treason, poisoning or injuring a person with the intent to commit murder, mistreatment of a girl under 10 years of age, arson, etc. As of 1869, only three offences were punishable by death: murder, rape and treason. After many years of debate, the death penalty was struck from the Criminal Code of Canada in 1976. Parliament made this decision because it felt that the State could not put an end to a person’s life, that there was always the risk of convicting an innocent person, and that there was no certainty that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. Parliament replaced the death penalty for murder with a mandatory life sentence with no eligibility for parole for 25 years in the case of first-degree murder, and for 10 to 25 years in the case of second-degree murder

How many prisons are there in Canada?

Photo Canada Prison
Photo Canada Prison

The Correctional Service of Canada operates 53 correctional institutions across Canada. Most are for male prisoners. Of these, 8 are maximum-security, 19 are medium-security, 15 minimum-security, and 10 have multiple security levels within the same facility.

How many prisoners in Canada?

Nearly 39,000 adults were being held in custody in Canada on an average day in 2017-18. This is a rate of 131 per 100,000 people in Canada, which is down 9% from 4 years earlier.

This number is made up of three groups: 1) about 14,000 sentenced to more than two years, so being held in a federal penitentiary; 2) fewer than 10,000 sentenced to less than two years, so being held in a provincial jail; and 3) about 15,000 people being held on remand pending a plea or trial, also being held in provincial jails.

Parole and probation

About 95,000 adults were being supervised on parole, probation or through other measures in Canada on any given day in 2017-18 (excluding Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Yukon). About 9,000 of these were on parole from the federal system.

The youth parole/probation rate is much lower, at about 36 per 100,000, and has dropped by 35% over the last five years. And yet the drop in youth imprisonment and supervision has not led to an increase in crime overall, which suggests that the adult rates could also safely decline.

The total rate of adults jailed or supervised by the system in Canada was close to 500 per 100,000, or 5 roughly people in a thousand.

Annual per prisoner costs and comparisons

Now let’s translate that into costs per prisoner. According to federal data the average annual cost per prisoner in federal prisons is about $115,000. Higher security levels are more expensive. Costs for women prisoners are much higher.

The amount spent per prisoner compares to average income in Canada of about $70,000 per household in 2015; $27.000 for an unattached individual; and $39,000 for a female single parent. According to Workopolis, the average wage in Canada in 2017 was about $50,000.

The average annual cost per prisoner in provincial jails in 2011-12 was about $67,000.

The cost per student per year in post-secondary education in Canada was a little over $20,000 in 2012 (calculated from data in this story). The cost of one provincial prisoner could pay for 3 post-secondary education students; one federal prisoner is equivalent to 5 students.

It costs about $45,000 to keep a child in the child welfare system (Adoption Council of Canada), and just about the same amount to keep someone in a long-term care bed in an institution ($126 per day according to Home Care Ontario). Each of these is about a third of the cost of a prisoner in a federal prison.

Canadian Federal Prison Statistics

50%: The proportion by which the aboriginal prisoner population in federal prisons grew during the law-and-order Harper years between 2005 and 2015.
The number of aboriginal women entering prisons has almost doubled in that time. About 25% of the total Federal prisoner population of 15,000 in Canada is aboriginal; 35.5% of all women prisoners are aboriginal.
69%: The proportion by which the black prisoner population grew during the same decade.

'These increases continue despite public inquiries and commissions calling for change and Supreme Court of Canada decisions urging restraint,' the report states.

More than 6,200: The number of formal prisoner complaints handled by the Office of the Correctional Investigator in 2014-15, one of the highest caseloads in recent years.
One in four: The proportion of prisoner in the federal prison population who are over 50.

That's one-third more than just five years ago. According to the report, 'The system has become so risk averse that even elderly, chronically ill and geriatric persons who no longer pose any ongoing or dynamic risk to public safety are commonly held to their statutory or warrant expiry dates.' The prison population is not only getting older; it's also getting sicker. About 68% of federal inmates are overweight or obese. That number increases to 90% for those over 65. The average age at death for a federal inmate is around 60 – much younger than the Canadian average of 78.3 for men and 83 for women.

How prisoners in Canada suffer

Photo Canada Prison
Photo Canada Prison

1. Health issues

Health issues continue to devastate inmates’ rights. Inmates are far more likely than the general population to suffer from HIV and AIDS, are more prone to psychiatric issues, and are more than 100 times as likely to suffer from Hepatitis C. Once released, inmates are 58 times more likely than the general population to have psychiatric episodes that land them in a health care facility. As well, inmates may be overmedicated. According to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, 46% of women in prisons are being treated with psychotropic drugs (used for conditions such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia).

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, says inmates receive far less health care than the general community does “and we see them (inmates) as aging 10 years faster in the prison community than in the regular community.”

2. Solitary confinement

Solitary confinement (also called “administrative segregation”) is a widespread practice overused not only for dangerous individuals but also as a population management tool.

According to JHS research, solitary confinement effectively allows prisons to “warehouse” individuals in overcrowded facilities. Fifty percent of federal female inmates in solitary confinement are Indigenous women. In Ontario, the issue of solitary confinement made headlines in 2016 when records showed Adam Capay, an Indigenous man, was held in segregation for 1,500 days (more than four years) under 24-hour-a-day lighting. That year, Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services committed to reducing solitary confinement to a maximum of 15 days.

Alberta lawyer Amanda Hart-Dowhun, a member of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association and president of the Alberta Prison Justice Society, reports:

3. Uncaring attitudes

For Hart-Dowhun, the biggest issue in inmate treatment is an uncaring attitude:

Occasionally there are issues of malice toward prisoners but the biggest issue they suffer is the pervasive lack of caring, or lack of ability or resources to adequately care for them.

With respect to prison officials, she adds:

It’s not that they want inmates to suffer, but they are unwilling or they lack the resources to properly care for them. Part of the issue is resources (and) how those resources are allocated – if the issue is safety of staff over anything else then the funding will go to that and that will be at the expense of programs and other proactive measures. You do see … a trend toward more riots and more inmate protests when conditions are very poor. When they’re relatively well-cared for, they are less likely to riot.

4. Over-representation of Indigenous and Black people

Canada’s prison system is also highly racialized. On an episode of TVOntario’s The Agenda in the spring of 2020, Christa Big Canoe of the Aboriginal Legal Society noted that Indigenous people are overrepresented in the prison system. Over 25% of the prison population is Indigenous. And Indigenous women represent 35% of inmates in Canadian institutions. By contrast, Indigenous people comprise just under 5% of Canada’s population.

On the same program, lawyer Nana Yanful of the Black Legal Action Centre noted the overrepresentation of Black people in the justice system due to anti-Black racism. This includes overt policing and over-surveillance of neighborhoods where people of colour live, a lack of discretion in the treatment of clients in the courtroom and during sentencing, and the funneling of people into the criminal justice system.

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