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Even Prison Guards Are Pissed Off At Conservatives

As Canada's increasingly draconian law toss more criminals into the slammer thanks to mandatory minimum sentences almost directly cribbed from the States, prison guards are feeling the heat of rising inmate numbers jammed into smaller spaces. And they...

Kingston Penitentiary cellblock. Image via WikiMedia Commons.
When it comes to the Conservatives' “tough on crime” agenda, you might assume it's a pretty basic crowd-pleaser for the prison guard, soldier, and policeman-types out there.

Well guess what? Your assumptions are wrong. Last August, Canada's police chiefs called for new marijuana laws. Veterans are now seriously pissed off over service cuts after they return from war. And now our correctional officers are stepping it up and throwing down some harsh words at Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government.


“Ignorant,” “illogical,” “dangerous,” “ideological,” “ridiculous,” and “ludicrous” are just a few of those words.

As Canada's increasingly draconian laws toss more and more criminals into the slammer—thanks to mandatory minimum sentences pretty much copied directly from the states or slashing credit for time served in jail before being actually convicted of any crime (which our top courts say are not all that constitutional)—prison guards are feeling the heat of rising inmate numbers jammed into smaller spaces.

That combination, says one longtime guard, is explosive. And it's about to get a fuck of a lot worse.

“I've been a corrections officer for a long, long time—22 years,” Jason Godin says. “We've seen the levels of inmates cascading into the system, from maximum to minimum security, but budgets are being cut and no programming added.

“Our jobs are becoming more dangerous. We live by the motto that the tough-on-crime agenda is actually translating into a tough-on-correctional-officers agenda. We'd be naive to say our job isn't dangerous, but the actions of this government are just compounding the danger to us.”

Godin is the national vice-president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers. He says members across the country are reporting more and more frequent assaults on guards, as well as inmate-on-inmate violence. Both have gone “way up,” he says, and the statistics back that up.


The Auditor General, Michael Ferguson, released a scathing report last month alerting us that increasingly overcrowded prisons are heightening the dangers to inmates and guards alike, in many institutions that are already in “poor operational and physical condition.”

Ferguson warned that prisons across the country are running above their intended capacity, and with nearly 1,500 new inmates expected in the next five years being dumped into the system, bringing the total population up to 16,700, there will be more offenders than there are cells.

The solution: jamming two inmates into a “cell designed for one,” Ferguson reported—generally sharing a small toilet and sink in a cramped eight-by-ten foot locked room, otherwise known as “double-bunking.” But Ferguson warns in his new report that the practice was supposed “to be used only as a temporary measure.”

Now Canada apparently plans to make it permanent. And the rooms aren't getting any larger.

The report noted that even the Correctional Service of Canada was concerned about the “serious implications with double bunking, including increased levels of tension, aggression, and violence. It also identified increased safety and security concerns for staff and offenders, especially at maximum and medium security penitentiaries.”

The rise in violence is playing out already in the cellblocks, Godin said, and guards are often the targets.


“Our members are telling us directly: 'We've had some pretty severe assaults on staff members recently,' most recently a stabbing incident in Edmonton on an officer,” Godin said. “Every time we go into facilities and talk to our members we're hearing same things: the level of violence in here is getting pretty difficult.”

Rising tensions are coupled with a rise in guards' use of force, as well as increasing reliance on segregation cells—what inmates call being thrown in “the hole.” The Georgia Straight reports that 24.3 percent of federal prisoners spent time there; that's 850 people in segregation every day, and BC is launching an inquest into three recent deaths in solitary.

For the first time in the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers' history, and despite a self-imposed ban on political endorsements, the guards are telling us to vote against the Conservative Party of Canada in 2015. (Godin insists they haven't launched a formal campaign, but last month he tweeted ominously: “ABC - Anything But Conservative”).

In an email to VICE, a spokesman for public safety minister, Steven Blaney, dismissed the union's safety concerns as nothing more than “political grandstanding.”

“Our Conservative government is taking strong action to keep convicted criminals behind bars where they belong,” said the emailed statement from Blaney's press secretary Jason Tamming. “While big union bosses are engaged in partisan political grandstanding paid for by the dues of their hardworking members, our Conservative government is standing up for the interests of frontline correctional officers.”


Despite the government being slammed by its own auditor general over prison overcrowding, Tamming tossed aside Godin's arguments: “Studies show that double bunking does not have any link to violence,” Blaney's spokesman insisted. The government points to plans for 2,700 new cells across the country, despite thousands also being cut.

Tamming backed up his argument with a quote from the head of the Corrections Service of Canada, Don Head: “None of the incidents that we've seen… are directly linked to double-bunking at all. They're linked to the behaviours of individuals who are problematic.”

That's right: overcrowding doesn't cause violence; people cause violence. Godin doesn't mince his words.

“The minister is completely denying there's a correlation between a rise in inmate population and an increase in violence in our institutions,” he says. “That's just absolutely ludicrous. The minister's statement is completely ignorant.

“That's the problem with this government: they don't listen to evidence-based research, but make ideological decisions. It's illogical what they're doing.”

The overcrowding has made the guards' union some unlikely bedfellows. Prisoners, too, are complaining about overcrowding, and both sides say the tinderbox it's creating have pitted them against the feds, particularly with what Godin says is increasing gang activity and hostility between prison sub-populations.

The explosive situation in Canada's prisons saw federal inmates stage their own labour strike last fall, decrying a 30 per cent pay-cut despite skyrocketing canteen costs. (The prisoner job action saw guards forced to do the jobs normally done by inmates).

“If there's one thing that inmates and corrections officers agree on, it's that double-bunking is good for no one,” Godin says. “Unfortunately, Canadians in the end are going to suffer, because as you increase the inmate population without augmenting existing infrastructures to allow programs, health care and segregation space, you end up creating universities for criminals.

“That's unfortunate, because 80 percent of these guys are going to get out into the community. Certainly the tough-on-crime agenda sits well with the public, but unfortunately the public don't realize the consequences in 10 to 15 years. Imagine what these guys will be like when they get out.”