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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