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$40M spent on N.S. prison expansion, but cells remain empty

SPRINGHILL, N.S. — The federal government is following through with what’s been described as the largest prison expansion project since the 1930s.

But, as evidenced by Nova Scotia’s Springhill Institution, the plan has encountered some severe hiccups.

The construction of two new units at Springhill, adding 192 prison cells, was the first announcement of the project, in 2010.

But five years and 40-million tax dollars later, the units are empty.

And so far so is a promise of 100 additional jobs at the facility — including extra correctional officers.

Their union says it makes no sense that the new units have been built but are sitting idle all year — while inmates elsewhere in the prison are forced to share old cells designed for one each.

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“It’s a lot more dangerous for our members when they’re double-bunked,” said Doug White, Atlantic Representative for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

“For example, if there’s an issue in a cell and you’ve got to open the door, normally you deal with one person. But with double bunks, of course, you’re dealing with two people.”

Springhill is among more than 30 prisons the Conservatives set out to expand, at a cost of $751 million, to accommodate an increase in inmates, stemming from the Harper government’s “tough on crime” agenda.

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The number of federal inmates has indeed risen.

Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, a watchdog for the prison system, says the percentage is up by 5.3-percent, to 14,768 inmates, as of June of this year.

Sapers said 2,360 of the planned 2,752 cells have been built.

But only 1,816 are considered operational, with 936 others unoccupied because of unspecified snags with security, fire safety, or training.

“We have a mixed experience of being on time and others that have been delayed for one reason or another,” said Sapers, who has toured several of the expanded prisons.

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He said the expansions have eased overcrowding. But he added almost 13 per cent of cells designed for one inmate are still double-bunked.

“The prisoners are there in the system,” said Bill Casey, a former Conservative Member of Parliament who is now running for the Liberals in the riding of Cumberland-Colchester (which includes Springhill).

“They just need to be redistributed, to take advantage of the new buildings in Springhill, and also to keep their promise.”

Correctional Services isn’t commenting.

But, the riding’s Conservative MP, Scott Armstrong, denies claims by critics the Springhill expansion is a waste of tax dollars.

“The project is finished now. The rooms are open. There will be prisoners starting to go in there this month and that will be ramped up.”

A shifting timeline, from a government under renewed pressure to follow through on it’s promises.

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