Prison Guards Plan Protest In Harper's Riding

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Hundreds of prison guards will rally in the prime minister's riding Saturday to protest rising gang violence, budget cuts and overcrowded conditions.

About 500 members of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers are expected to gather at Stephen Harper's Calgary-Southwest constituency office, then they'll knock on doors to sound the alarm about the impact his tough-on-crime agenda is having on staff and public safety.

UCCO national president Pierre Mallette has visited 40 institutions in the last three weeks, hearing concerns from front-line staff about how overcrowding and double-bunking are escalating tensions and fuelling violence behind bars. In an interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics, he said a lack of programs due to budget cuts is compounding the problem.

"At the end of the day, they're spending more time in cells – no programs, no school, no work. More time doing nothing," he told host Hannah Thibedeau. "To be tough on crime doesn't mean we open a door, put somebody in for five years then after five years you open it and say to the guy, 'OK you're time is up, you can go be a neighbour to another Canadian.'"

The federal prison population has swelled to 14,419 from 12,671 five years ago. According to figures provided by the Correctional Service of Canada, the percentage of prisoners double-bunked has climbed to 17.4 per cent nationally, up from 9.6 per cent five years ago.

Mallette said looming closures at Kingston Penitentiary, the Regional Treatment Centre and Leclerc Institution, coupled with new laws that will put more criminals behind bars for longer periods, will exacerbate the crowding situation.

"How are we going to manage those inmates? How are we going to manage that population?" he asked.

Saturday's rally is designed to raise public awareness about the impact of federal policy on public safety, but the Prime Minister's Office suggested the protest is a stunt.

'Political stunts'

"These big union bosses prefer political stunts rather than practical dialogue," PMO spokeswoman Julie Vaux said in a statement to Power and Politics. "Our government has reached out and asked to sit down with the UCCO to discuss our changes and how they will benefit the current system. We will continue to deliver on the commitments we made to Canadians during the last election, which includes getting tough on crime while finding practical efficiencies and paying down the deficit."

Candice Hoeppner, parliamentary secretary to the public safety minister, said the government is acting responsibly by expanding existing facilities and shutting down an antiquated, dangerous institution. While the job of a correctional officer is a difficult and dangerous one, she noted that unions never like to see spending cuts.

"He's on a bus tour, travelling around trying to create a ruckus rather than sitting down and meeting the people like Minister [Vic] Toews, who are responsible for this," she said of Mallette.

But Liberal MP and public safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia said the government should listen closely and carefully to what the front-line workers have to say.

"They're the ones who know the system much better than anyone else – they're on the ground," he said. "And if they think things have a chance of getting out of control because of overcrowding or because of cuts to the agency's budget, then I think they should be listened to and taken seriously. I don't think it should take the threat of protesting in front of the prime minister's [constituency] office to get the government's attention."

Julie Carmichael, spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, said the minister has agreed to invite Mallette to a meeting in Ottawa to discuss the transition plan for the prison closures.

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