Canada's federal prison system has been facing criticism about overcrowding and increased violence as the Conservative government's tough-on-crime policies puts more people behind bars.
Now a federal judge has weighed in by warning that the Correctional Service of Canada is breaking the law for failing to deal with prisoners' official grievances in a timely way, CBC News reports.
Justice Anne Mactavish found the backlog of unresolved inmate grievances is adding to the growing tensions and violence inside federal prisons. She ordered the service to launch a high-level review.
The case stems from a complaint by B.C. inmate Michael Spidal, who argued prison officials were breaking the law governing how prisons are run by refusing to deal with inmate grievances in a "fair and expeditious" manner.
Spidal, who represented himself in court, argued he had filed several grievances in the last two years but officials continually delayed responding to them, CBC News reported.
Under timelines laid out in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, officials are expected to respond within 15 to 25 days, depending on the issue, with extensions granted only in exceptional cases.
After reviewing documents submitted by Spidal, Mactavish found a systemic problem of delayed and incomplete responses, often blamed on the growing backlog of complaints.
The problem is nothing new to Howard Sapers. Canada's correctional investigator told CBC News the grievance system has been broken for a long time.
"My office has been raising these concerns for over 30 years," Sapers said. "Whenever it suits them, they just move the timeframe forward. But now, they can't even meet their own administrative rules in terms of timely responses to serious offender complaints."
Federal corrections officials said they receive tens of thousands of prisoner complaints each year and many of them are frivolous, prompting a crackdown on inmates who file them.
But Sapers argued such time-wasters represent only a fraction of all the complaints while many others are serious.
"These are issues that occur again and again and again," he said. "Staff harassment, inappropriate placement in security levels, inappropriate placement in segregation, arbitrary decisions outside of policy that limit family contacts and family visits, very serious concerns including issues of liberty and human rights."
The grievance system helps balance the "total authority" corrections officials have over inmates, Sapers said.
A good grievance system acts as a "release valve," added Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada.
"This is a time to be really careful and cautious to make sure as much pressure can be removed from the system as possible," she told CBC News.
Last month, Sapers warned violent incidents among inmates were increasing and guards were using force more to maintain order and protect themselves.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has defended the changes his government has made, arguing the increase in the prison population has been less than was projected by Corrections Canada, the Globe and Mail reported.
Toews also backed the increased use of double-bunking, which Sapers said has almost doubled to 18.5 per cent of the total federal prison population from the previous norm of 10 per cent.
"We won't make any changes on the double-bunking policy," Toews told the Globe and Mail.
"Double-bunking is appropriate. All Western democracies use double-bunking, dual accommodation, in appropriate cells."