More than half of Canada's 54 federal prisons recently applied to the Correctional Service of Canada to double bunk, according to a Toronto researcher.
The practice requires approval from headquarters because it contradicts a 2001 prison service directive that "single occupancy accommodation is the most desirable and correctionally appropriate method of housing offenders."
Mr. Toews, since assuming the public safety portfolio in January, has spoken in favour of double-bunking as a solution to ease prison overcrowding, which is expected to escalate in the coming years as a result of new and pending federal laws to put more people in prison and to keep them there longer.
"It's not a big deal," he said last week on Parliament Hill, echoing a sentiment he has expressed several times. "It's an absolutely important aspect of facilities, it's constitutional, it's legal. Many western democracies do that. There's nothing inappropriate about that."
Mr. Toews said the government also plans to expand or renovate existing facilities for the time being, rather than build new penitentiaries.
A bill that is expected to have the biggest strain on prisons -- by automatically incarcerating offenders convicted of serious drug crimes --will be resurrected Wednesday in the House of Commons, after dying when Parliament prorogued in December.
Howard Sapers, Canada's prison ombudsman, says that double-bunking has already increased 50% in the last five years, so that prisons have approval to let 1,300 prisoners share cells -- some sleeping in bunk beds and others in cots or mattresses on the floor. That's 10% of the prison population.
"We know, for reasons of sanity and personal safety, you need some respite, you need some privacy and that doesn't happen when you're in double-bunk situations," he said.
"As double-bunking goes up, you see increased incidents of institutional violence. Correctional centres when they are filled over capacity, tend to be very noisy and very chaotic. You end up with institutions that look less like correctional centres and more like warehouses."
Mr. Sapers also said that prisoners don't make the best roommates, given that the majority are either mentally ill, drug addicted, or belong to criminal gangs.
The plan to increase double-bunking is an about-face from about a decade ago, when the goal of the Correctional Service of Canada was to abolish cell sharing, he said.
Mr. Sapers plans to outline the problems of double-bunking in his upcoming annual report, which he must give to the minister by the end of June.
The biggest strain, he said, is on medium and maximum security prisons, which are filled to capacity.
Double-bunking dipped for three years, from 2003-2006, until it crept back up again, according to figures obtained by York University Researcher Mike Larsen, through the federal Access to Information Act.
The report also showed that 29 of 54 institutions applied to double-bunk, for the six-month period ending Sept. 30, 2009. Prisons are required to reapply every six months to seek exemptions to the federal directive against double-bunking.
Justin Piche, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University in Ottawa, notes that Canada endorsed an international human rights convention, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which states that "each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself."
"While some who advocate for prisoners' rights would argue that we should encourage the minister to build new prisons to ensure the health and safety of prisoners, another option is possible," Mr. Piche, a sociologist who specializes in the prison system,"wrote in a recent blog.
"When you are filling a sink with water from the tap and the sink begins to overflow you don't rush to the hardware store to buy a bigger sink -- you turn the tap off.
"We should encourage Toews to seek treatment for his addiction to incarceration and to put a stop to the Conservative party's "tough-on-crime" agenda that is deepening the capacity crisis in our prisons."
I agree that we need to stop imprisoning more people for longer periods. It does not deter, reduce or prevent future crime and longer sentences reduce the likelihood of an offender being successfully reintegrated into society and increases the chance of re-offending. Prison is a negative environment filled with negative influences which does not encourage or facilitate rehabilitation, reform or assistance following release.
To reduce overcrowding we need to abolish mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more discretion in considering all circumstances of an offender and their crime, abolish cell sharing, and the courts need to rely less on imprisonment for non violent, drug and property offenders and more on addressing the root causes of crime through community based sanctions, programming and treatment.