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More bulging prisons loom due to shortsighted planning, federal watchdog says

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OTTAWA - The auditor general sees more overcrowded Canadian prisons on the horizon, despite the Conservative government's much-touted revamp of federal penitentiaries.

The federal prison service opted for a quick fix — overlooking long-term needs — when expanding penitentiaries to house a growing offender population, spending watchdog Michael Ferguson says in a report Tuesday.

As a result, the Correctional Service expects the number of prisoners could again outstrip capacity within a few years of completing construction.

It means officials anticipate double-bunking — the placement of two prisoners in a single cell — will continue even after the new cells are built.

The Correctional Service did not develop a long-term accommodation plan to deal with its aging infrastructure in a cost-effective way, Ferguson said.

The prison service had not considered the condition of many of its institutions before deciding which ones to expand, and it lacked up-to-date guidelines for some space requirements — including those for providing health-care and correctional programs, he added.

"Decisions about expansions were based on where land was available and where construction could be completed quickly."

Ferguson's report to Parliament also found problems with other departments and programs:

— The government's First Nations policing system is not working as intended and some of the police services fail to meet provincial policing legislation and standards.

— Statistics Canada needs to better address the needs of those outside the federal government who use its data, especially when it comes to job-vacancy data.

— Public-service pension plans, covering public servants, Mounties and the military, are not regularly assessed for sustainability, and prolonged low interest rates, lower-than-expected returns on assets and longer life spans could end up costing taxpayers billions.

— A government program intended to integrate the way public servants, the military and the RCMP handle transfers and moving costs did not encourage competition when it sought to issue one large contract to cover everyone.

"Though government should work to provide Canadians with programs and services in a timely fashion, planning should also look beyond the needs of the day," Ferguson said at a news conference.

Federal cabinet ministers appeared on Parliament Hill to say the government accepts the auditor's recommendations.

"We're taking all this very seriously," said Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney.

The New Democrats said Ferguson's report paints a damning picture of Conservative fumbling of programs and services.

"Because of mismanagement and a lack of planning, Conservatives are wasting money and failing to deliver services people count on," said NDP Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat.

Ferguson found the government greatly overstated the savings from closing a handful of prison facilities, including the aging Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario.

In 2009, the Correctional Service expected that new legislation imposing harsher penalties would result in longer sentences for many offenders.

That year, the government gave the prison service approval to spend $751 million over five years to expand existing institutions by installing 2,594 double bunks and adding 2,752 new cells. The service also got the green light — in principle — to build five new prisons at a cost of $960 million once it had developed a long-term plan to house offenders.

The government announced in 2012 it would close three prisons to save money and that it did not plan to build new ones.

It said the closures would save about $120 million a year. But Ferguson's report says the Correctional Service estimates savings will not be more than $86 million annually.

In 2010, federal prison ombudsman Howard Sapers warned that Canada's packed, crumbling jails — rife with illness, addiction and violence — were endangering the rehabilitation of offenders.

Last September, Sapers reported the number of self-injury incidents in federal penitentiaries — cutting, head-banging and self-strangulation — had more than tripled since teenager Ashley Smith choked to death in a prison cell in 2007.

The new construction will allow the prison service to accommodate up to 16,700 offenders in single cells. However, the auditors found the service's updated population projection "shows that it will be at or over capacity within a few years of completing construction."

The Correctional Service is relying on double-bunking in some institutions — including at levels that exceed general policy in the Ontario and Prairie regions, as well as in segregation cells and in spaces less than five metres square, Ferguson found.

Blaney says prisoners do not have a right to their own cell.

The real issue is the government's inability to properly plan to adequately house offenders, the NDP said.

In response to Ferguson's audit, the Correctional Service has committed to draft a long-term accommodation plan by next March.

It also plans to assess its penitentiaries with an eye to prioritizing future spending to improve and maintain the prisons.

Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

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