Double bunking

Very recently the auditor General of Canada chastised the Canadian Correctional Authorities for their apparent inability to deal with rising prison populations, at least in the long term.

A sub-set of this discussion is double bunking. This is because double bunking is a means to imprison more people without building more cells. Simple math.

Until last year the Correctional Service of Canada said that  its objective, at least, was to accommodate all federal prisoners in single occupancy cells. This policy  was a matter of principled corrections and just plain principles ( safe, humane custody). All that changed last year when Public Safety Minister Toews took the view that double bunking was not a bad thing after all and that it was a legitimate population management technique used by many jurisdictions. It had become normal.

Besides saving money on prison expansion, the change in policy had the advantage of massaging the red meat values of this government’s dad-gum- no -con -lovers attitudinal core.

In the face of warnings from prison guard unions and others, the Government asserted at the time of the change, and recently, that research reveals little or no evidence that double bunking increases violence.

While this in true in a general way the literature, to say the least,  is neither abundant nor conclusive. While observation of those double bunked has not shown a tangible increase in everyday violence, there is evidence that it increases tensions among staff and offenders. Moreover, it appears clear that double bunking inhibits access to programs and complicates movement and supervision of offenders in higher security institutions.

In most cases the research indicates that jurisdictions that have used double bunking as a population management tool have generally done so only where necessary and have applied a whole range of techniques to the practice designed to manage screening of who is placed with whom; opportunities for absence from the cell; recreational outlets and so on. Quaere if CSC has such protocols? (Answer: not really)

So, double bunking doesn’t lead immediately to violence, but it does have negative impact on good corrections and prison life for keepers and kept alike.

So that’s it? No that’s not it. Because even if all this is true, it still does not address double bunking as an aspect of a  tipping point rather than an on-going phenomenon. Major incidents in prisons don’t happen that often, thank God. But when they do, it is often discovered that they arise from a building, bubbling malaise caused by a stew of irritants. Certainly, crowding, lack of access to activities, lack of personal space and the general rub of interpersonal behaviours qualify in this category.

Even if double bunking doesn’t increase the number of fist fights, then, good correctional professionals have to ask, “will it contribute to the next big one?”.

Beyond all the above is the basic principle of human dignity. Living against one’s will with another person in cramped quarters is just not humane. It doesn’t help the prisoner’s perception of himself/herself as having any real value. And if the idea is that it makes buddy in the beer parlour feel better well, grow the fuck up!

Doubtless, this perspective would be quickly jettisoned by the Government and indeed by other folks. It is astonishing how human rights has disappeared from the criminal justice lexicon since these people took over.

This is definitely a piece that I hope I will never be able to use as “I told you so”.

I hope.




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