10/23/2014 03:02 EDT | Updated 12/23/2014 05:59 EST

Canadian prisons becoming 'bloated human warehouses:' advocacy group

REGINA - An advocacy group that says Canada's prisons are becoming "bloated human warehouses" has released its own ideas on how to address overcrowding.

"We're not in a position to implement any of these things, but we are certainly in a position to advocate and point out some very concrete, common-sense ideas that would ultimately lead to greater public safety and fix a broken system," said Shaun Dyer, a spokesman for the John Howard Society of Canada in Saskatchewan.

"The progression is not towards a more effective and just and humane system. We are seeing a lot more people go to jail for longer times and for lesser crimes."

For one thing, pretrial detention is "plodding" and people are spending too much time waiting for their day in court, Dyer said.

He suggested the federal government is taking the wrong approach to incarceration.

"What we often hear from the government ... is the idea that we are safer if we put more people in prison for longer, which is actually fundamentally flawed," he said.

"The answer to the overcrowding, the answer to public-safety questions, is not found solely by building more prisons."

Some of the things the John Howard Society is emphasizing in its plan released Thursday include respecting the presumption of innocence, effectively treating mental illness and properly implementing rehabilitative programs.

In July, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association released a report that said the use of pretrial custody across Canada has risen nearly 300 per cent over the last three decades. During the same time, crime rates have declined, with 2012 recorded as the safest year since 1972.

"Quite frankly there are a lot of people in remand who are innocent, because they haven't been pressed through on the principle of innocent until proven guilty," Dyer said.

A study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released on Oct. 6 said that double-bunking in Canada's federal prisons has become standard. The practice refers to placing two inmates in a cell designated for one.

The problem of overpopulated prisons is nationwide, but is especially critical in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Dyer said.

Author Jason Demers, who wrote "Warehousing Prisoners in Saskatchewan," interviewed prisoners who complained of strained food services, lack of access to rehabilitative programs and inadequate health care.

Demers, a professor at the University of Regina, interviewed an inmate held at the Regina Correctional Centre who said there was no escape from high temperatures in the summer and no in-cell washroom to use, prompting inmates to defecate in waste baskets.

"Hallways in some instances are being used to house prisoners," Demers said.

Rehabilitation programs are not effectively delivered because of overpopulation, he said.

"You could boil this down to an adult version of a time out," he said. "It's really not doing anything helpful for adults."

Demers said many of the inmates he interviewed in Saskatchewan's provincial facilities commented on the deterioration of conditions during their time in prison.

He said one prisoner told him that when he first arrived in jail, there was enough food at every meal and he had access to programming.

"Then all of a sudden the entire prison is just stuffed to the brim and you can only spend time in your cell," Demers said. "These are the people that expressed the most disdain.

"It's a policy-driven epidemic of over-incarceration."

Saskatchewan corrections spokesman Drew Wilby said "without a doubt" the province faces a remand issue just like other jurisdictions in Canada. He acknowledged that sometimes areas meant for programs have been used.

"We have more inmates than we have cell space in our facilities, but at the same time there is enough room in our facilities for all the inmates," Wilby said.

"Taking space that was designed for one purpose and turning it into something else is not ideal."

Wilby said the Justice Ministry "is working to drive down demand to reduce the numbers of those incarcerated," but he did not provide specifics on what is being done.

Dyer said the bottom line is that prisons simply cannot keep up with the incoming number of inmates.

"You are having to use ... program space and gym space, just to provide a sleeping space for them. The logical conclusion ... is that the programs that are supposed to be helping people prepare for living well on the outside when returning to community, they're not being provided," he said.

"When people leave prison less able and less equipped to live well in a community than when they went in, that is a public-safety issue."