Skip to content

The Monitor Progressive news, views and ideas

AFB 2024: Prisons

Alternative Federal Budget: what the federal government could achieve on prisons

August 24, 2023

10-minute read


The 2023 budget invests $171 million over the next three years for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to support health and safety in federal prisons, to support remote work for prison employees and remote court appearances, and to stabilize core operations. It invests an additional $212 million over five years in essential goods and services that go into federal prisons.

These investments give more to an already expansive and expensive system of federal incarceration. It costs approximately $3 billion/year to administer federal incarceration in Canada.1 Canada’s small but stable population of federally incarcerated people is approximately 13,000. There are another approximate 9,000 individuals under federal sentence in the community on parole at any given time, so this population averages 22,000 in total.2 On average, the estimated annual cost to incarcerate one person in a prison designated for men in Canada is $120,000. That cost increases to approximately $200,000/year to incarcerate one person in a federal prison designated for women.3,4


Costly, unproductive incarceration

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime recognizes that incarceration has a “detrimental social impact” and that mass incarceration “produces a deep social transformation in families and communities.”5 Citing the high costs of imprisonment, the Office calls nations to account for both “actual funds spent on the upkeep of each prisoner, which [are] usually significantly higher than what is spent on a person sentenced to non-custodial sanctions, but also of the indirect costs, such as the social, economic and healthcare related costs, which are difficult to measure, but which are immense and long-term.”6 While the federal budget accounts for the direct costs of incarceration, it does not account for those long-term, indirect social and economic costs.

Most of the people who become incarcerated in Canada can be described as having intersecting social disadvantages, rather than as presenting actual social risks.7 Canada’s prison population draws primarily and disproportionately from racialized people. Indigenous people comprise less than five per cent of the national population, but more than 30 per cent of the federal prison population overall, and 50 per cent of federally sentenced women and gender-diverse people. Most federally incarcerated people have previous experiences of victimization, experiencing physical and/or sexual assault. Most also suffer from mental health issues and substance use issues. People who experience incarceration also face alarming deficiencies of educational and vocational training: the average educational completion level among federally sentenced people at the time of sentencing is Grade 8.8

Most individuals rate as presenting a minimal to medium public safety risk when they go through intake into federal prison. There are overall elevations in security ratings associated with Indigenous individuals; the classification of Indigenous and racialized people as higher-risk is more a product of implicit bias in risk-assessment tools than the actual presence of risk.9

Because it fractures family and community and prevents individuals from meaningful economic productivity and participation, incarceration should always be used as a last resort. Incarceration affects productivity and economic participation in two ways: 1) incarcerated people are interrupted from earning income directly while incarcerated; 2) there is a lack of meaningful vocational/educational training opportunities in prisons. Long periods of economic stagnancy widen the poverty gap for communities disproportionately experiencing incarceration.

Moreover, incarceration financially burdens the families and communities of incarcerated people, who become financially responsible for their incarcerated loved ones. Being interrupted from earning income while incarcerated maintains poverty throughout a person’s life and produces generational cycles of poverty and criminalization.

Prison environments prioritize security over the self-development and self-improvement of incarcerated people. For this reason, Canadian prisons have long been recognized by ombuds offices and in research findings as harmful environments that exacerbate the social conditions that lead to incarceration in the first place. The adverse effects of incarceration compound. Incarcerated people experience higher instances of chronic physical health conditions to such an extent that long-term incarceration in Canada reduces life expectancy by 20 years (compared to the general population).10

One of the costliest areas of incarceration which is seldom accounted for are the impacts of incarceration on mental health. Being removed from one’s family and community and placed in a prison, which is a volatile, harsh, and unstable social environment, significantly affects mental health. Upon release, formerly incarcerated people—and their social networks—are left in an aftermath of trauma, economic precarity, and untreated substance use disorders. And although approximately 80 per cent of federally sentenced people have substance use issues,11 integrated therapy for them is not provided in prison.12

Not only do federal prisons fail to address the causes of adverse impacts related to incarceration; the current practices in prisons actually work against the system’s mandate, which is to contribute to public safety through the timely and successful reintegration of people in prison back into society as law-abiding citizens.13

Budgetary priorities do not translate to results

The 2023 budget’s investments do align with the Correctional Service of Canada’s priorities. The 2022-23 Correctional Service of Canada Departmental Plan focuses on mental health and structured intervention units as key priorities.14 However, the measures supported by the 2023 budget will not meaningfully address the issues they seek to address.

For example, the Correctional Service defines its expected result as “efficient, effective mental health services to offenders that encourage individual responsibility, promote healthy reintegration and contribute to safe communities.”15 Moreover, it commits to ensuring its mental health service delivery model is consistent with World Health Organization care guidelines. But those guidelines are centred on a holistic approach to health and client participation in health processes, including health care literacy—all areas of persistent concern for ombuds offices that monitor federal prisons in Canada. Unlike therapeutic care in the community, mental health service providers in prisons are either employed or contracted by the Correctional Service, and they are expected to maintain transparency with the Correctional Service. This creates confidentiality issues, where information shared during “treatment” may be integrated into security decisions. Therapeutic staff are also trained to lay disciplinary charges. The conflation of punishment and therapy serves to harm imprisoned people, as it would anyone.

Research into medium- and long-term mental and physical health outcomes for people who have experienced incarceration suggests that incarceration produces, rather than resolves, mental health issues.16

Cost catalyst: Structured intervention units

More than $1.9 billion dollars in the Correctional Service’s 2022-23 operating budget were dedicated to actions that it listed under priority areas of mental health and structured intervention units.17 This is a huge financial undertaking with limited efficacy beyond population management.

The Correctional Service defines structured intervention units (SIUs) as a “new and transformative correctional model.”18 SIUs are essentially isolation areas, largely implemented in the same physical cell space formerly designated for administrative segregation (broadly known as solitary confinement). What this means is that people can still legally be kept alone in small cells for 20 hours per day.

The stated dual mandate of SIUs is to, first, isolate someone from the general prison population while, second, addressing their mental health needs and providing meaningful social contact, but SIUs fail to meet the second part of that mandate.19 People with pre-existing mental health considerations are disproportionately placed in SIUs.20 Evidence indicates that mental health deteriorates after placement in an SIU,21 especially with longer placements. More than 40 per cent of all SIU admissions in 2022 were imposed on Indigenous individuals, and over 74 per cent of admissions in prisons designated for women were imposed on Indigenous individuals.22 The average timeframes people were kept in SIUs in 2021-22 were between 19 and 26 days.23

SIUs only invest in the tail-end of cumulative social problems. They worsen the problems that are already plaguing Canadian prisons.


Evidence-based practice and decarceration: The way forward for public safety

Rather than investing further in failed models, the AFB will invest $243 million in a five-year framework to reduce incarceration by 30 per cent by 2035. The framework will draw on international best practices, such as the prison reform roadmap outlined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,24 and Canadian-specific social science evidence.

The framework will meaningfully and responsibly address Canada’s over-incarceration of racialized and disadvantaged populations by focusing on persistent social determinants of incarceration. It will prioritize up-stream, responsive solutions that address the prevalent rates of unresolved mental health and substance use issues, as well as deficiencies in vocational training.

This will create stronger, safer institutions that return incarcerated people to the community earlier by investing in partnerships with community-based providers. Addressing substance use disorders, mental health issues, and employment training invests in the rehabilitative mandate of the correctional system, significantly reducing SIU admissions. This will in turn reduce the longest-term, most costly elements of the federal prison system: complex adverse mental health outcomes. The framework will also include new metrics to gather data about medium- and long-term outcomes of incarceration, including measurements of recidivism.

Over time, the framework will shift resources from prisons to building community capacity. The Office of the Correctional Investigator continues to cite Canada’s federal prison system as having some of the highest ratios of staff to incarcerated people across developed countries. To ensure there is sufficient social and economic infrastructure in place to decarcerate without displacing or destabilizing Canada’s large penal sector, the AFB will invest in training and bridging opportunities that transform security staff positions into socially supportive positions.

The AFB will also invest in community-based organizations to deepen ground-level capacity for alternatives to incarceration.

Decarceration for public safety: A five-year framework

The AFB will invest $93 million over the next three years to implement evidence-based responses that address the root causes of incarceration, focusing on service delivery through partnerships with community-based sector experts to:

  • Introduce integrated substance use disorder treatment aligned with the standards of community-based models, deepening partnerships with community-based substance use disorder treatment programs ($23 million).
  • Make available post-traumatic stress disorder psychotherapies for individuals under sentence in prisons and on parole ($28 million).
  • Translate the policy framework and mental health service model in federal prisons into one that is measurably consistent with Canadian and World Health Organization standards of care ($16 million).
  • Introduce vocational development assessments into intake and correctional planning processes ($6 million).
  • Diversify and expand meaningful vocational opportunities by partnering with community-based employment counselling/ development programs25 ($20 million).

The AFB will invest $29 million over the next three years to support training and bridging initiatives for existing security staff to:

  • Create training opportunities that transform prison security positions into rehabilitative and supportive roles and, where possible, community-based positions ($23 million).
  • Develop and institute trauma-informed training for people in frontline security positions ($6 million).

The AFB will invest $20 million over the next three years to support research into policy solutions for decarceration, specifically developing viable alternatives that would:

  • Release individuals from custody at the point of readiness, rather than at fixed dates determined at the time of sentencing.
  • Apply community-based alternatives to incarceration, rooted in:
    • Transformative justice models,
    • Diversion programs,
    • National scaling of First Nations courts and Indigenous models of justice alternatives,
    • Existing but underutilized community-based sentencing alternatives to incarceration, such as Corrections and Conditional Release Act Section 81 and 84 releases, conditional sentencing, and conditional community release.

The AFB will invest $16 million over the next three years to develop an effective metric to measure recidivism.

The AFB will invest $13 million over the next three years to fund non- government organizations to expand capacity in community residential facilities (“halfway houses”).

A portion of the above programs will be funded by reallocations of the $171 million allocated in the 2023 budget for supporting federal prisons.

Over the next five years, the AFB will also re-allocate $72 million of the 2023 budget’s additional $212-million, five-year investment in essential goods and services within federal prisons to the actions below.

The AFB will invest $60 million into partnerships with non- government organizations to deepen capacity for:

  • Community-based alternatives to incarceration, especially Corrections and Conditional Release Act Section 81 releases and Indigenous models of self-determined justice.
  • Post-incarceration release supports in priority areas.
  • Increased community residential facility (halfway house) capacity.
  • Upstream prevention to support children and families impacted by cycles of social marginalization and criminalization.

The AFB will invest $12 million over the next five years to conduct an external impact evaluation of Canada’s decarceration strategy, to:

  • Centre the experiences of impacted populations and stakeholder groups.
  • Ensure the framework meaningfully responds to the systemic discrimination that underpins processes of criminalization.
  • Deepen evidence-based practice and ensure prisons are evaluated in alignment with standard practice in the social sciences.
  • Ensure that policy frameworks have the capacity to meaningfully achieve the purpose of the correctional system.

Topics addressed in this article

Related Articles

AFB 2024: Building momentum—A federal budget for now and the future

The Alternative Federal Budget for 2024 shows what the federal government could achieve on a range of issues if it were ambitious

AFB 2024: Agriculture

Alternative Federal Budget: what the federal government could achieve in the agriculture sector

AFB 2024: Taxation

Alternative Federal Budget: what the federal government could achieve on taxation