Viewpoint (March 01, 2011)

With 15 crime-related bills either before the Senate or recently passed, the federal government is eager to spend billions of dollars on introducing harsher sentencing programs and expanding our correctional facilities, hoping to nearly double the number of jail cells in Canada over the next five years. Most experts agree that these new policies will not reduce crime in our communities, but our Prime Minister’s goal of incarcerating more citizens is certainly benefiting several architectural firms who design correctional facilities–a building type that has suddenly emerged as a growth industry. Should architects accept Canada’s approach to prison-making, or can we advocate for an alternative course of action through preferred methods of crime prevention and rehabilitation?

A 2010 report issued by the Parliamentary Budget Officer estimates that our government’s desire to build 4,000 new jail cells will carry an increased operating budget of $5 billion a year by 2015-16. In early January, the federal government pledged $150 million to add 634 “beds” to existing jails. This is in addition to the previously announced $601 million to create 2,500 new beds. Canadian architects designing prisons will be pleased to learn that the federal corrections budget will increase by 36 percent, or $861 million by 2012-13. According to Ed McIsaac, Director of Policy for the John Howard Society of Canada, an organization devoted to criminal justice reform, “there is no doubt that we are headed on a very expensive journey down a path that experience tells us will neither reduce our crime rate nor make us safer.” 

Despite many advocates and experts calling for discretionary sentencing and increased funding for effective crime-prevention programs, an Angus Reid poll recently discovered that 65 percent of Canadians believe in tougher sentencing, although it is questionable whether they are willing to pay for it. This is in contrast to the Environics Institute’s Focus Canada 2010 report released last October which discovered that justice was the second-last of 21 priorities for the average Canadian. Fifty-eight percent of Canadians prefer a government that places an emphasis on crime prevention while 36 percent want greater enforcement.

With such a fragile economy, does it really make sense to spend $9.5 billion annually by 2015-16 on Canada’s corrections systems, an increase from the $4.4 billion spent in 2009-10? Alternatively, why don’t we address the critical social issues affecting those most likely to be sentenced? Strengthening the discretionary judicial system for at-risk youth, enhancing access to education and training for Aboriginals, and improving programs that integrate crime prevention with individuals suffering from mental health disorders will help our society become safer. At present, taxpayer dollars are simply being diverted away from community supervision and support programs that prevent crime more effectively and more cheaply than new prison construction.

It seems that even Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) doesn’t believe that more prisons are beneficial to society. On the CSC website, several studies and reports appear to contradict the policies of our federal government such as one report which acknowledges “the shortcomings of incarceration and an appreciation of the benefits of community involvement to the eventual return of the offender to society.” If the CSC recognizes that traditional prisons aren’t working, and if building prisons seems to be a low priority for most Canadians, then why are we spending billions on more jail cells? Furthermore, if the CSC is looking at shifting away from “24-hour housing” (i.e., jail cells), then why isn’t the government commissioning architects to design innovative, community-based facilities to rehabilitate certain types of offenders? Such buildings would surely reduce the need for warehousing humans, and the operating costs per individual in these types of facilities would be much lower than typical correctional facilities. The CSC website also indicates a willingness to look at new options, noting that, “Whereas incarceration was born out of an effort by the state to distance itself from the punishment of the day (corporal punishment), the reduced importance of the correctional facility in the future will result from the realization that corrections should be a contributing and integral component of the community.” 

If architects continue to design outmoded correctional facilities, we will remain complicit in denying a segment of the population who are prone to criminal behaviour with a chance to become productive and accepted members of society. Responding to RFPs for bleak and obsolete approaches to prisons will only stymie the advance of the justice system in Canada.

Ian Chodikoff