Kevin Fenwick said in his annual report that correctional centres in Saskatchewan already house almost twice as many inmates as they were designed to hold. He said the situation could deteriorate further with the recent passage of the federal omnibus crime bill.
Bill C-10 increases sentences for drug and sex offences and reduces the use of conditional sentences such as house arrest. Critics say the changes will do nothing for public safety and will increase jail populations.
"No one can predict with certainty how great the impact will be, but it would be naive to suggest that the impact will be anything less than significant," Fenwick wrote in his report released Monday.
"Entire sections of our jails that had been closed due to their age and poor condition, and should have remained so, have been reopened because there is nowhere else to put the inmates."
Fenwick said some of the problems are obvious, such as double-bunking or triple-bunking in cells designed for one person.
But he said the most significant problem in the long term is converting classrooms into dormitories, which takes away space for education and training for prisoners.
"Every time correctional centres are reduced to just guarding inmates, our jails take a step backward," he said.
"It is true that jails are intended to be places of security and punishment...but jails must also be places of rehabilitation."
Fenwick said there is a big need for basic programs such as addictions counselling and anger management. Grade 12 equivalency and trade programs are essential too, he said.
Without those, he said, there's no reason to expect that people will be less likely to reoffend when they get out.
"Jails have been called crime universities sometimes and that's the pattern that we need to break. We need to break the pattern where inmates are simply warehoused in our correctional facilities and instead we have to concentrate on giving them marketable skills so they're different people when they come out," he said at the legislature.
Saskatchewan Justice Minister and Attorney General Don Morgan said jails are already beyond capacity and he acknowledged that some training space has been lost to add beds. But he insisted it's a temporary situation.
"We know that you can't merely warehouse people and that's not a response to crime," said Morgan.
"What you have to do is have a facility that will offer meaningful rehabilitation and training."
Morgan said Bill C-10 will have an impact, but it's not clear what the long-term impact will be on the jail population. He said "sooner or later" the province will have to add another major correctional facility.