The number of federal inmates who belong to gangs behind bars has climbed 32 per cent in the last five years, according to figures obtained by CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

That compares to an increase of less than five per cent of non-gang affiliated prisoners — and some experts are warning prisons have become a breeding ground for gang members who pose a greater threat to public safety after their release.

The number of offenders incarcerated or under community supervision identified with street, aboriginal, motorcycle, Asian and traditional organized criminal gangs has climbed to 2,358 as of April 2012 — up from 1,791 in 2007.

In those regions where overcrowding problems are worse, gang affiliation is also much higher. In the Prairies, nearly 40 per cent of inmates and offenders under community supervision belong to gangs. In Ontario, the figure is 23 per cent, and in Quebec it stands at nearly 22 per cent.

In the Prairies, double-bunking — a sign of overcrowded conditions — has jumped to more than 26 per cent from just under 12 per cent four years ago. In Ontario, it's now at nearly 23 per cent — up from nine per cent.

Research commissioned by the federal government three years ago warned that any strategy must be accompanied by appropriate funding and trained, skilled staff to execute it, and that overcrowding could undermine the plan.

"In addition, the appropriate resources must also be made available so that any initiatives are properly supported. For example, staff shortages, overcrowding, and cutbacks on resources — in other words, undermining the capacity — will reduce the success of any gang management strategy," concluded the team of experts from Calgary's Mount Royal College.

The Correctional Service of Canada says it's trying to tackle the problem by working with criminal justice partners at national, regional and local levels to enhance the strategic intelligence gathering and information sharing. Spokeswoman Sara Parkes says CSC also tries to encourage gang members to "disaffiliate" and prevent them from exercising influence and power in institutions and in the community.

Link to overcrowding dismissed

Kerry-Lynne Findlay, parliamentary secretary to the justice minister, called the rise in numbers "good news" because the gang members are behind bars instead of on the street. She dismissed any link to overcrowded prison conditions.

"It means our law and order initiatives are working. We have specifically targeted gang members in several pieces of legislation," she told Power & Politics host Evan Solomon.

But NDP MP Jack Harris said he was "shocked" to hear the government's "spin" on the numbers. He said more overcrowding and violent conditions combined with a lack of programs is forcing prisoners to join gangs out of self-defence.

"What that means frankly is that when they get out, they're going to go back in because they're going to go out and commit crimes as part of a gang they've joined in prison," he said. "I think this is very bad news — not good news as the government is saying."

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux also rejected the government's line, saying more prisoners are joining gangs inside, and increasing the dangers for penitentiary guards, staff and other inmates.

He said the substantial increase is a disturbing sign that CSC's anti-gang measures aren't working.

"The concern has got to be if they're in gangs in prison and ultimately they're going to be released, they're going back into communities. It's going to hurt community safety at the end of the day," he said.

Former public safety minister Stockwell Day, speaking on the "power panel" later on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, said gang activity of any kind is never good news.

"The fact is people are going to jail and they want to be part of groups where they can find protection and a common position on things. Any way you want to read this – it's not good news," he said.

But Mike Mueller, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, insists the government's tough-on-crime approach is working to end the "revolving door of the justice system."

"Since 2006, we have taken measures to ensure that the bad guys stay behind bars where they belong – including strong mandatory minimum sentences for drive-by shootings, and ensuring murders committed for the benefit of organized crime receive at least 25 years in prison. When the thugs and criminals who make up street gangs are locked up, they will not be out terrorizing our communities."

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  • 15 Things Critics Fear In The Tory Crime Bill

    Opposition parties, professionals working within the corrections and justice systems, the Canadian Bar Association and various other interest groups have raised wide-ranging concerns about the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">omnibus crime bill</a>. Here is an overview of some of their objections. (CP/Alamy)

  • 15. Harsher Sentences For Young Offenders

    Changes to the Youth Criminal Justice Act will impose tougher sentences for violent and repeat young offenders, make it easier to keep such offenders in custody prior to trial and expand the definition of what is considered a "violent offence" to include "creating a substantial likelihood of causing bodily harm" rather than just causing, attempting to cause or threatening to cause bodily harm. The new legislation will also require the Crown to consider adult sentences for offenders convicted of "serious violent offences" and require judges to consider lifting the publication ban on names of offenders convicted of "violent offences" even when they have been given youth sentences. Some of the concerns around these provisions raised by some of the professionals who work with young offenders include: (Alamy)

  • 14. Young Offenders - Naming Names

    The publication of names of some young offenders will unjustly stigmatize them for life. Quebec has asked that provinces be allowed to opt out of this provision. (Getty)

  • 13. Young Offenders - Stiffer Sentences

    Stiffer, longer sentences will turn young offenders into hardened criminals and undermine any potential for rehabilitation. (Alamy)

  • 12. Young Offenders - Minorities Take The Brunt

    As with other parts of the crime bill, critics says harsher sentencing rules and increased emphasis on incarceration will <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/20/bill-c-10-omnibus-crime_n_1289536.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">disproportionately affect aboriginal</a> and black Canadians, who are already over-represented in the criminal justice system. (Alamy)

  • 11. Young Offenders - Forget Rehabilitation

    The changes shift the emphasis of the Act from rehabilitation to "protection of society," which critics say will put the focus on punishing young offenders rather than steering them away from a life of crime. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/22/crime-bill-quebec-canada_n_1107717.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Quebec, in particular, which prides itself on the success of the rehabilitative aspects of its youth justice system, has argued for stronger language prioritizing rehabilitation</a>. (Alamy)

  • 10. Fewer Conditional Sentences

    The legislation will eliminate conditional sentences, those served in the community or under house arrest, for a range of crimes, including sexual assault, manslaughter, arson, drug trafficking, kidnapping and fraud or theft over $5,000. It will also eliminate double credit for time already served. Critics say these changes will: (Getty)

  • 9. Fewer Conditional Sentences - Spike Costs

    Cost the federal and provincial justice and corrections systems millions of additional dollars a year. The parliamentary budget officer, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/28/omnibus-crime-bill-costs-conditional-sentences_n_1306528.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Kevin Page, has estimated that the average cost per offender will rise from approximately $2,600 to $41,000</a> as a consequence of the elimination of conditional sentences. (Alamy)

  • 8. Fewer Conditional Sentences - More Trials And Hearings

    - Lead to more trials as those accused of crimes will be less likely to plead guilty if they know there is no chance they will get a conditional sentence and will be more likely to take their chances on a trial. Some have predicted this will lead to greater backlogs in an already backlogged court system. - Result in more parole hearings. Page's analysis predicted that with the increase in the number of incarcerations, there will be more offenders coming up for parole, which will increase costs for federal and provincial parole review boards. A single review by the Parole Board of Canada costs an estimated $4,289, Page estimated. (Alamy)

  • 7. Mandatory Minimums

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/22/bill-c-10-drugs-mandatory-minimums-omnibus_n_1292894.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">By far the most criticized aspect of the bill is the introduction of mandatory jail sentences for certain crimes, including drug trafficking, sex crimes, child exploitation and some violent offences</a>. Opponents of the measures have argued that this type of sentencing has been tried in other jurisdictions, most notably in the U.S., and has created more problems than it has solved. Critics say that coupled with other changes in the bill, such as increases in the maximum sentences handed down to some drug offenders and sexual predators and elimination of conditional sentences in some cases, mandatory minimums will burden Canada's prison and court systems in ways that are unfeasible, untenable and have little benefit. In particular, they argue that mandatory minimum sentences will: (Jupiter Images)

  • 6. Mandatory Minimums - Higher Costs

    Increase the costs of prosecuting and incarcerating offenders and leave fewer funds for rehabilitation programs. (Alamy)

  • 5. Mandatory Minimums - Overcrowding

    Lead to overcrowding in prisons. (Alamy)

  • 4. Mandatory Minimums - Make Judges Less Powerful

    - Remove judges' discretion to tailor sentences to the specifics of a particular case and offender and force them to apply blanket, one-size-fits-all sentences regardless of circumstances - Limit the use of alternate sentencing measures of the type currently applied to aboriginal offenders. (Alamy)

  • 3. Mandatory Minimums - Over-Punish Drug Offenders

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/02/omnibus-crime-bill-pierre-claude-nolin_n_1316481.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill" target="_hplink">Disproportionately punish small-time drug offenders and have limited effect on the drug producers, organized crime bosses and serious drug traffickers</a> the government says it wants to target. (Alamy)

  • 2. Mandatory Minimums - What's The Point?

    Have little rehabilitative effect on offenders and rather leave them more, not less, likely to re-offend. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/11/27/tough-on-crime-conservatives-doubt-tough-sentences_n_1115012.html?ref=omnibus-crime-bill">Critics point to numerous studies showing harsher incarceration laws do not have a deterrent effect on criminals or lower crime rates</a>. (Alamy)

  • 1. Mandatory Minimums - What Charter?

    Violate provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and open up the government to legal challenges on grounds that the sentencing rules violate certain rights that offenders have under the Charter, such as the right to liberty, the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. (Alamy)