Incarceration in Canada

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Incarceration in Canada is one of the main forms of punishment, rehabilitation, or both for the commission of an indictable offense and other offenses.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2015–2016 there were a total of 40,147 adult offenders incarcerated in Canadian federal and provincial prisons on an average day for an incarceration rate of 139 per 100,000 population.[1]

Young offenders are covered by the Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA), which was enacted in 2003. In 2015-2016, an average of 998 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 were incarcerated in Canada, for a rate of 5 per 10,000 youth. This number represents a decline of 3% from the previous year and a decline of 27% compared to 2011-2012.[2]

Indigenous people are vastly over-represented in the Canadian prison system, in 2020 making up 30.04% of the offender population[3] compared to 4.9% of the total population. Whites were 56.3% of the population and blacks 7.3%, while Asians at 5.5% were vastly under-represented compared to their share of the population at 17.7%.[4]


The correction system in Canada dates to French and British colonial settlement where punishment for crimes was often meted out in public. Whipping, branding, and pillorying as physical pain and humiliation were the preferred forms of punishment. In other cases, offenders were transported to other countries and abandoned to their fate. Execution was also used as punishment for serious crimes.[5]

The first penitentiary was built in Upper Canada (present day Ontario) in 1835 when the Kingston Penitentiary opened. This facility was built by the colonial government and at the time of Confederation in 1867 it was under provincial jurisdiction (of the Province of Ontario). It came under federal responsibility with the passage of the Penitentiary Act in 1868.[5]

The federal government opened additional penitentiaries in other parts of Canada in decades following Confederation. An increase in crime during the Great Depression saw a rapid increase in Canada's incarceration rate. The Prison for Women opened in 1934. The Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System in Canada (the Archambault Commission) was established that year in response to riots, overcrowding and strikes in Canadian prisons. The final report was published in 1938 and was the first comprehensive report in Canada to emphasize crime prevention and offender rehabilitation.[5]

Capital punishment was abolished in Canada in 1976.

Division of federal and provincial systems[edit]

In Canada, all offenders who receive a sentence of 24 months or greater must serve their sentence in a federal correctional facility administered by the Correctional Service of Canada. Any offender who receives a sentence less than 24 months, or who is incarcerated while awaiting trial or sentencing, must serve their sentence in a provincial correctional facility (see Provincial correctional services in Canada).

Security levels[edit]

Canada's correctional system designates facilities under various security levels. Most provincial correctional facilities where offenders serve sentences of less than 24 months, or are held in pre-trial and pre-sentence custody, have cells at different security levels within the same facility:[6]

Minimum Security
  • An institution where the perimeter is defined but usually there are no walls or fences.
  • There are no armed correctional officers, no towers, no razor wire or electronic surveillance equipment.
  • Restrictions on movement, association and privileges are minimal.
  • Inmates are non-violent and pose very limited risk to the safety of the community. Many are on work-release programs that allow them to hold jobs during the day.
  • Inmates show the desire and ability to get along responsibly with fellow inmates with little or no supervision.
Medium Security
  • These institutions are usually surrounded by chain-link fences topped with razor wire. Firearms are present but not normally deployed within the perimeter.
  • Inmates pose a risk to the safety of the community. They are contained in an environment which promotes and tests socially acceptable behaviour.
  • Inmates are expected to act responsibly under regular and often direct supervision and participate in their correctional program plans.
  • Many of these institutions have training centres and a variety of educational and treatment facilities.
Maximum Security
  • Maximum-security facilities are surrounded by high (20 feet) walls or fences with guard towers in strategic positions and electronic systems that ensure any movement within the perimeter is detected.
  • Correctional officers in the towers are supplied with firearms and there are additional locked caches of firearms within the institutions in the event of a serious disturbance.
  • Various parts of the facility are separated by locked gates, fences and walls. Inmate movement, association and privileges are strictly controlled because inmates pose a serious risk to staff, other offenders and the community.
  • Inmates are expected to interact effectively with other individuals and in highly structured groups such as in educational and treatment programs and skills development programs.
  • Some inmates live in segregation units, due either to behavioural problems or out of concern that they will be harmed by other inmates, usually as a result of their crimes.
Other Security Levels and Considerations
Multi-Level Security
  • Offenders with serious mental health issues are accommodated in multi-level security facilities that combine the features of two or more of the security levels described above.
Special Handling Unit
  • The highest level of security is reserved for the small percentage of extremely violent male offenders who cannot function safely at the maximum-security level.
  • The goal of the SHU is to prepare inmates to return to maximum security institutions by evaluating their risks and behaviour and providing appropriate programs.
Women Offenders
  • There are no firearms within the institution or on the perimeter, which is surrounded by a chain-link fence and topped with razor wire.
  • Typically, women are housed in living units that accommodate 10 persons. Their movement, association and privileges are designed to give them freedom to pursue educational and training opportunities within the grounds of the institution.
  • Women with serious behavioural issues may be confined to a "secure unit" within the larger institution.
Aboriginal Inmates
  • Aboriginal inmates can be found in institutions of every security level. Their particular needs are accommodated in special living units where Native culture and spirituality are taught and practised.
  • In addition, the Correctional Service of Canada is responsible for the establishment of eight healing lodges across the country, specially designed to accommodate the needs of minimum-security Aboriginal offenders, based on the principles, philosophy and teachings of the Aboriginal way of life. A small number of non-Aboriginal offenders may be accommodated at healing lodges if they are willing to take the same programs as Aboriginal offenders.
Community Correctional Centres
  • Community correctional centres are federal facilities that house offenders on conditional release. The facility director, parole officers and support staff work as a team, often in co-operation with community partners, to supervise and provide programs for offenders.

See also[edit]

Prison advocacy groups:


  1. ^ "Adult Correctional statistics in Canada, 2015/2016". Statistics Canada. Retrieved 18 July 2017.
  2. ^ Jamil Malakieh (1 March 2017). "Youth correctional statistics in Canada". Statistics Canada. Retrieved 18 July 2017.
  3. ^ "Indigenous People in Federal Custody Surpasses 30%". Office of the Correctional Investigator. Retrieved 4 July 2020.
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c "History of the Canadian Correctional System" (PDF). Correctional Service of Canada. Retrieved 17 October 2014.
  6. ^ "Let's talk: Security Levels and What They Mean". Correctional Service of Canada. Retrieved 17 October 2014.