Ottawa closing two prisons, including home of Bernardo and Williams

OTTAWA – An expected spike in the number of convicts that never materialized has led the government to shut down a pair of prisons including the country’s oldest jail that houses some of Canada’s most odious offenders.

Kingston Penitentiary, the permanent home of notorious convicted killers Paul Bernardo, Russell Williams and Mohammad Shafia, will be shuttered after 177 years of operation. The Leclerc prison north of Montreal dates back to 1961.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said the aging jails have few of the open sight lines and other security features standard in modern prisons. This puts prison guards at risk, he said.

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

When asked why Leclerc was chosen to be closed, as opposed to some of the older correctional facilities across the country, Toews insisted Corrections Services Canada made the decisions about which institutions to shut down.

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The Conservative government has increased penalties and jail time for a number of offences. That led many experts to conclude the prison population would swell as would costs associated with housing inmates. Toews said those dire predictions were misplaced.

“Our government was told by our opponents that our tough-on-crime policies would create a wave of inmates that would swamp the corrections system, including the creation of untold new costs,” he said. “These new inmates have not materialized.”

Instead of building new prisons, the government can close two, he said.

Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, said the worst-case predictions of a prison population boom have not been realized, but there still have been 1000 new inmates added to Canada’s prison population in the last few years. That’s the equivalent of the population of three prisons – and no new prisons have been built and none will be built by the federal government, Sapers told CBC.

Bernardo, Williams, Shafia and other Kingston convicts will be moved to maximum-security cells in other prisons over the next two years.

Kingston holds up to 421 convicts and the accompanying Regional Treatment Centre for psychiatric prisoners has the capacity for 143 inmates. Leclerc, a medium-security facility, can hold up to 481 convicts.

Toews said the closures will save $120 million a year.

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“Moving these offenders to other facilities will increase safety and security and ensure the best use of hard-working Canadians’ tax dollars,” he said.

“The cells at other facilities will accommodate the offenders in these institutions we are decommissioning.”

The minister said most of the staff involved in the changes will be able to jobs without having to move homes or families.

The union representing Canada’s correctional officers disagrees and warned that the shutdowns would lead to more crowding and double-bunking – dangerous conditions for prison guards.

“Kingston Penitentiary and the Regional Treatment Centre in Kingston house some of the most unique, dangerous offenders in the country, a lot of them with mental illness,” said Jason Godin, a representative of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

“Double-bunking for anyone working inside a federal institution is an extremely dangerous situation,” he said.

Managing high risk inmates – particularly those from the Regional Treatment Centre – is a complicated task and there aren’t enough spaces in already existing facilities despite Toews’ assurances, Godin added.

Godin said the government is building 192 new maximum security beds in Ontario but now, with the closing of the Kingston facilities, there will be almost 500 displaced inmates needing these kinds of beds.

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“You can’t just assimilate those groups into other populations and other institutions, it’s going to create a lot of problems.”

The NDP was quick to condemn the government, calling today’s announcement an attempt to drive attention away from the Public Accounts committee special F-35 meeting, which took place this afternoon.

“It’s mainly improvisation, it’s kind of diversion considering this government is facing some tough questions on its way to deal with the F-35,” said NDP MP Francois Boivin.