Canada’s Oldest Prison to Be Closed

April 19, 2012 Updated: April 19, 2012

TORONTO—Canada is closing two federal prisons in an effort save costs and improve the prison system, but the move is being criticized for shrinking the space for inmates as populations are set to rise.

One of the prisons is the Kingston Penitentiary, a maximum security facility in Ontario built in 1835 that is not well-suited to modern incarceration, said Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

Closing the prison will also close the Regional Treatment Centre.

The other closure is the Leclerc Institution in Laval, Quebec, home to members of the Mafia and others.

Toews said he can close prisons without building new ones because the wave of criminals his critics predicted would result from his tough-on-crime legislation have not materialized. Meanwhile, extra space is being added to existing prisons

Toews said he had been given predictions of an increase of 3,500 prisoners when he became minister, from 14,000 to over 17,000. The increase has instead been closer to 600, he said.

However, it is unlikely the full effect of those relatively recent changes to the criminal code have been seen.

“The thrust of our tough-on-crime legislation is to ensure that dangerous and repeat offenders remain behind bars where they belong for a longer period of time. We are not creating new criminals,” Toews said.

Toews said opposition parties were fear-mongering when they said the Tories’ tough-on-crime legislation would create new inmates requiring new prisons.

“Quite simply, these new inmates have not materialized,” he said.

“As we stated in our most recent budget, we will not build any new prisons and we have no intention of building new prisons.”

Around 1,000 prisoners will need to be transferred from the shutdowns, with a similar number of prison staff. Toews said most of the staff will be able to find new jobs at other facilities nearby, without having to move.

‘Built in a different era’

The prisons are being shut down because they don’t work well, with limited views for correctional officers and other structural issues making it difficult to quickly respond to incidents.

“Some of these facilities were built in a different era, not for today’s correctional system,” Toews said.

“We’ve heard from frontline employees in certain institutions that they are confronted by situations such as the lack of appropriate sight lines and cells with open bars that permit inmates to throw objects at correctional officers. The location and design of control posts in this old infrastructure do not allow for the most effective views of cellblock ranges.”

Kingston Penitentiary opened its doors 32 years before Confederation and the birth of Canada in 1867.

Toews said crumbling infrastructure and costly upkeep meant closing the Kingston and Leclerc prisons would save about $120 million a year—$15,000 a year per prisoner at Leclerc alone.

“Kingston Penitentiary and Leclerc Institution are aging facilities with aging infrastructure. Simply put, we have better options,” he said.

The government has plans to create 2,700 single-bunk cells in prisons across Canada.

Liberal Public Safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia said the closures are “puzzling and disturbing.”

“With nearly 1,000 offenders housed at Kingston Penitentiary and Leclerc Institution, this announcement raises serious questions about where these inmates will be housed in our already overcrowded penal system,” he said.

Scarpaleggia questioned whether the closures would lead to more double-bunking and more dangerous conditions for correctional officers.

“Over-crowded prisons can compromise the effectiveness of programs such as drug rehabilitation, making it more likely inmates will reoffend once released into the community at the end of their sentence” he said.

Liberal MP Ted Hsu said the closures will make it more difficult for Corrections Canada to accommodate the expected increased in prisoners from the recently passed omnibus crime bill.

“The omnibus crime bill was only passed a month ago and we have yet to feel its effects,” he said.

“While we can all agree that Kingston Penitentiary’s infrastructure does not meet today’s standards, shuttering the facility in this manner leaves many questions unanswered.

“For example, was there an assessment of the costs and benefits of renovation? And what will happen to the Regional Treatment Centre and the mentally ill inmates that they manage?”