Federal prison closures blasted by union

The federal government is closing down the maximum-security penitentiary in Kingston, Ont., the Regional Treatment Centre located on the grounds of the penitentiary, and the medium-security Leclerc Institution in Laval, Que.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews told a press conference Thursday in Ottawa that the facilities are "simply not working well anymore" and that they will be shut down over the next two years, saving $120 million per year.

The decisions were immediately denounced by the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, which said they were made "in haste, secrecy and with minimal research" and will have a major impact on the public.

The news comes in the wake of the federal budget that announced the government's plans to cut $5.2 billion in spending by 2014-15. The budget outlined a $295-million cut from the Corrections Canada budget by then.

The inmates housed in the three facilities will be moved to other federal institutions across the country, Toews said. The facilities they are sent to will be decided by Corrections Canada, he said.

Toews said he expects about 1,000 inmates to be moved, and that a similar number of prison guard jobs will be affected by the closures. The majority of staff will be moved to jobs at nearby facilities, he said. The Kingston area, for example, has six other federal prisons.

The decision to close these facilities was made after a thorough assessment by Corrections Canada, Toews said, adding that the faculties are old and "not appropriate" for managing a modern prison population.

The Kingston Penitentiary, which houses up to 421 inmates, was built in 1835, and Leclerc, housing up to 481 inmates, opened in 1961.

"The time has come to recognize its crumbling infrastructure, costly upkeep and severe limitations in effectively managing a population of maximum-security male offenders, and in the case of Leclerc Institution, medium-security offenders," Toews said.

The Regional Treatment Centre is a psychiatric institution that opened in 1959 and has up to 143 male inmates in two units.

The design of the buildings does not allow for the safest and most effective management of offenders, Toews said. The government is adding up to 2,700 new cells at existing prisons, including at the Stony Mountain Institution in Toews's home province of Manitoba, and he said they will help absorb the prisoners from Kingston and Laval.

"Kingston Penitentiary and Leclerc Institution are aging facilities with aging infrastructure. Simply put, we have better options," said Toews.

He also said the new units being built at other prisons will allow for more efficient supervision of offenders and will allow guards to intervene more quickly in dangerous situations. He said the facilities will be safer for both guards and prisoners, a claim that was later contradicted by the prison guard union when it reacted to the news.

Contrary to assertions made by opposition parties, Toews said, the Conservative government's tough-on-crime policies have not prompted a wave of new inmates swamping Canada's prisons. Projected increases in the prisoner population by his own department haven't materialized, he added.

Federal facilities currently have a total of 15,000 beds and they aren't all filled, the public safety minister said.

Toews was asked whether the closing of the three facilities will mean more double-bunking at other jails, and he said the new cells being built are all constructed for single use, and "at this point that's the way they're going to be utilized."

Double-bunking means two prisoners in a cell meant for one, and it's a situation that is only supposed to be used in emergencies.

The union representing prison guards, however, doubts that the prison closures won't mean more double-bunking, and they said there is no guarantee from Corrections Canada that the new units will be ready by the time the three facilities are closed.

"With this type of decision it's clear they're going to move forward with several more double bunks because they just don't have the current capacity right now to manage the change that they're going through with," Jason Godin, from the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, told a news conference.

He expressed a number of concerns and said the union doesn't understand the decision to close prisons, particularly when the effects of the government's omnibus crime bill, Bill C-10, are yet to be seen. The recently passed legislation includes new mandatory minimum sentences that will put more people behind bars and it also increases penalties for certain crimes, which will keep offenders behind bars for longer.

"It seems to us the cart is before the horse," Godin said.

He also questioned the choice made to close these three specific facilities.

"The Kingston Penitentiary and the Regional Treatment Centre in Kingston house some of the most unique, dangerous offenders in the country and a lot of them with mental illnesses," he said. The union also said that many inmates at Leclerc belong to organized crime gangs and require careful management. They won't easily by absorbed by other jails, according to the union.

The union said it asked Corrections Canada for details on how the inmates will be dispersed, particularly the ones from the psychiatric facility, and that "there is no plan."

About 20 per cent of the federal inmate population has a mental illness, and Godin said the inmates from the Regional Treatment Centre simply can't be integrated into other facilities. He also said there are not enough maximum security beds at other prisons to take the inmates from Kingston.

Godin contradicted Toews's statement that staff at the Kingston Penitentiary have challenges managing the inmates because of the infrastructure.

He said hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into the jail.

"The current population we have in there is more or less conducive with the institution itself, so we're able to manage that particular population in Kingston Penitentiary. The new construction for us is going to present the biggest challenge," he said, again contradicting Toews's statement that the new units at other prisons will mean a safer environment for guards.

Godin said many of the units are an open-concept style and staff are concerned about managing offenders within them in an emergency.

The ombudsman for federal offenders, Howard Sapers, told Evan Solomon on Power & Politics that it's going to be a challenge to find space for the offenders that will be moved out of Kingston and Laval.

He also said that the other five federal treatment centres across the country are full and that more than double the current capacity of 650 beds is needed yet 150 beds are being taken away with the Kingston closure.

Despite his concerns about where the prisoners are going to be displaced, Sapers isn't opposed to the closures.

"Closing a 175-year-old prison that simply isn't capable of providing the kind of corrections that you would do in today's day and age is a good thing," he said. Moving prisoners into more modern facilities will provide a "net benefit" to corrections services, he said.

Opposition critics joined the union, however, in criticizing the government's decision.

"This is a very premature decision," the NDP's justice critic, Jack Harris, said on Power & Politics. He challenged the government to make its assessments public to prove why the Kingston penitentiary should be closed.

Liberal MP John McKay said rehabilitation programs will be cut, more offenders will be double-bunked and corrections officers are going to be forced "to look after more people with less resources."

"This decision is puzzling, it's bizarre and it's potentially a great threat to public safety," he said.

More than 600 employees with Corrections Canada were given notices Thursday that their jobs are "affected" and could be eliminated because of the budget cuts. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, one of several unions that represents federal civil service workers, said 101 members were given the news — 31 people at Leclerc Institution in Laval, Quebec, and 28 at the Kingston Penitentiary.

Eighteen nurses, five psychologists and five IT workers were the PIPSC members given notices at the Kingston facility. Twenty nurses, eight psychologists, and three IT workers were given notices at the one in Laval.

CBC News has also learned that 42 jobs are being affected at the Regional Treatment Centre: three doctors, 28 nurses, six psychologists, three social workers and two occupational therapists were given notices about their jobs.

In total, 630 members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada were given job notices Thursday. PIPSC falls under the PSAC umbrella. Some of the staff affected are parole officers.

Not everyone in the public service who receives an affected notice will necessarily be laid off, they could be moved to another department, or may have to compete with co-workers to keep their job. Some jobs, however, may eventually be declared "surplus."

Kingston Penitentiary has housed some of Canada's most notorious killers, including Mohammad Shafia, who along with his wife and son killed three of his daughters and his first wife. Paul Bernardo, who was convicted in 1995 of kidnapping, raping and murdering southern Ontario teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy, is in Kingston, as is Russell Williams, the former colonel who was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for raping and killing Cpl. Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd.

Toews said he doesn't know what will be done with the historic building that sits on Kingston's waterfront but that he hopes the local community and Corrections Canada will work together on a decision about its future.

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