Double bunking inmates in B.C. corrections: A submission to the Attorney General of British Columbia

Our provincial prisons are being squeezed between two diametrically opposed pressures: the need to minimize costs in the face of significant government revenue shortfalls, and the public’s intolerance for crime and criminals. The latter is being increased by an increasing number of offenders being sentenced to terms in provincial prisons. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) does not have any figures on the resources going into building new prisons or expanding old ones, but we do know that whatever, if anything, is being done, is not enough. Prisons are having to accept more inmates than they are designed to hold, and the number of inmates double bunking is increasing.

By “double bunking” we mean the housing of two or more inmates in a cell designed for one person, usually by replacing a single bed with bunk beds. This phrase is also used to refer to a design of prisons in which two or more inmates are housed in a cell or dormitory. In this brief, we use double bunking only in the first sense, although many of our comments may apply to double bunking in the second sense.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association views double bunking as primarily a public policy issue—a decision based on weighing public interest in the attempt to find an affordable solution to the rise in prison populations, on the one hand, against the public interest in safe and orderly prisons and inmates’ privacy, health and safety interests, on the other.

However, it is not just a public policy issue. Studies indicate that the threat posed by double bunking to the privacy, health and safety of inmates can be severe enough to engage the fundamental right of inmates to reasonable protection for their privacy, health and safety needs.

In what follows, we describe the effects of double bunking and argue that these effects constitute a threat to the rights of inmates. Double bunking should be considered an acceptable public policy only when it does not involve a substantial lowering of inmates’ quality of life, and only when the other options open to the government to deal effectively with the increase in the prison population have been exhausted.

  • The consequences of overcrowding and double bunking

    Double bunking is, by definition, overcrowding. It is used in situations where more inmates are housed than a prison is designed to hold, and cells designed for one inmate are refitted to hold two or more prisoners. Given that prisons are designed to reflect a standard of the quality of life deemed appropriate for inmates, the presumption must be that incarcerating more inmates than a prison is designed to hold results in prisons that fall below that standard.

    The BCCLA contacted Dr. Jean Ekstedt of Simon Fraser University’s Institute for the STudy in Criminal Justice Policy for information on the consequences of double bunking. We learned that numerous studies have been conducted on the effects of overcrowding and double bunking in prisons. We attach as Appendix A a bibliography of some of the studies.

    Dr. Ekstedt and Dr. Margaret Jackson of the Institute summarize the results of these studies as follows:

    Negative social outcomes

    • Overcrowding in general, and multiple bunking in particular, have negative impacts on the social relations and interactions within the prison environment.
    • Perceptions about fair and consistent rule enforcement and inmate satisfaction are less favourable following double bunking.
    • The tendency for higher levels of aggression and violence is increased in crowded surroundings.
    • There is stiffer competition for resources in crowded institutions. Such resources include washroom availability, library books, television, lounge seating and recreational materials. As a result, tension, boredom, conflict and violence all increase.
    • Rule and disciplinary infractions increase as social density (the number of inmates living in an area) increases.
    • Inmate assaults on inmates and inmate assaults on staff increase as increases in an institution.

    See: Adwell (1991); Cox, McCain, Paulus (1985); Cox, Paulus, McCain (1984); Johnson (1991); Ellis (1984; Gaes (1984); Gaes, McGuire (1985); Paulus (1988); Pelissier (1991); Shaeffer, Baum, Gaes (1988).

    Negative Psychological/Physiological Effects

    • Inmates who live in double or multiple cells and dormitories have an increased number of illness complaints.
    • Higher reported stress levels and blood pressure are also indicative of inmates in crowded situations.
    • Crowded institutions have higher rates of suicide, self-mutilation, homicides and psychiatric commitments. Inmates are more likely to report mental strain.
    • When inmates simply have a perception of being crowded they experience stress reaction, which can manifest in withdrawal, violence, sickness and psychopathy.

    See: Cox et. al. (1984); Cox et. al. (1985); Gaes (1984); Johnston (1991); Paulus (1988); Pelissier (1991); Shaeffer et. al. (1988).


    Adwell (1991) cites the following U.S. organizations as all recommending a single cell design for inmate housing units:

    • The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals
    • The United States Department of Justice
    • The American Correctional Association, and
    • The National Institute of Corrections Facilities Monograph Project.

    Effects on Staff/Administration

    • Institutions must ensure that the number of confined inmates does not exceed that which a prison’s resources can adequately accommodate.
    • As prison population increases the following becomes more important: higher clinical utilization rates, exhaustion of services, limitation on recreational activities, sanitation, hygiene and control of communicable diseases.
    • When prison populations increase past capacity levels, the eventual effects on staff members become pressing: increase in staff needed, degradation of morale, greater staff turnover and a vicious cycle of diminished control.
    • The long term costs of overcrowding include issues such as heating, ventilation, utility costs, adequate sinks, showers and toilets, environmental standards for sewage disposal, adequate dining, recreation, work and program space.

    See: Gaes (1984); Adwell (1991).

    Effects of Prison Design

    • New prison designs (e.g. Williams Head) emphasize inmate responsibility and an internal or social sphere of control, freer range of behaviours (escape to privacy and greater perceived control), greater degree of privacy and the importance of social relations.
    • People have predictable reactions when their territory is threatened and when they are required to share space. Our sense of self worth is connected to being able to control access to our persons. Designers of new institutions can help reduce the friction caused by our innate sense of territoriality by clearly defining boundaries for staff and inmates.

    See: Johnson (1991); Painter (1991).

    Moral Issues

    • “Prisoners struggle daily to resist being labelled ‘animals’. Having to live under crowded conditions, under conditions that they discover have been deemed unfit for animals, does not seem to encourage them to maintain beliefs they once might have had in the worthiness of the criminal justice system” (Ellis, 1984, p 289).
    • “Overcrowding connotes an extremely adverse confinement conditions that deprive the inmate of essential human needs” (Gaes, 1984, p 16).
    • “Individual rooms best meet the goals of decency and humaneness within the correctional environment” (National Institute of Corrections Facilities Monograph Project).

    In addition, the BCCLA reviewed two of these studies in detail:

    a) Cox, Verne, Parlus, McCain, “Prison Crowding Research: The Relevance of Prison Housing Standards and a General Approach Regarding Crowding Phenomena” (1985).

    The authors collected data from four state prison systems, including both prisons and jails. They found that:

    • as prison population increased, suicide rates for all inmates and deaths rates for inmates over 50 increased over three times the rate of population increase; and there were dramatic increases in disciplinary infractions.
    • suicide rates in larger institutions were about ten times as high as those in smaller institutions. Death rates excluding homicides and suicides were three times higher in larger institutions.
    • after a court ordered decrease of 30% in the population of one prison, the rate of inmate on inmate assaults dropped 60%. Attempted suicides and self-mutilations followed a similar course.
    • although special density (the amount of space prisons provide in inmate quarters) was a major issue in lawsuits and prison crowding, it was not found to be a factor in the above effects.
    • social density (the number of inmates living per quarter) was positively correlated with a perception of crowding as well as illness complaint rates. Double cells or double cubicles yielded negative effects on infraction rates.
    • uncertainty is a large element in producing negative consequences from social interactions. Inmates spoke of the fear or anxiety aroused because “you don’t know what to expect”. Increases in inmate turnover, which heighten uncertainty, were accompanied by increases in prisoners’ complaints and infraction reports.
    • they concluded that “…the major factors responsible for crowding effects lies within the dynamic properties of social interactions. WE propose that the experience of crowding and concomitant behavioral and psychological effects are due, in large part, to the uncertainty, goal interference, and cognitive load often experienced in highly dense settings”.

    b) Paulus, Paul, Cox, McCain, “Prison Crowding: A Psychological Perspective”

    The authors studied a random sample of 1,240 inmates in six federal prisons over a two year period. Inmates’ blood pressure was taken, inmates rated how crowded they felt in their current housing, a housing preference and tolerance test was given and inmates completed a detailed questionnaire. The results were consistent across the six prisons:

    • Special density did not influence ratings of the environment.
    • Regular dorms were rated as more crowded and were associated with more negative mood reactions than double cells, cubicles in dorms and singles.
    • Regular dorms had higher illness complaint rates than singles and cubicles in dorms, but not higher than doubles.
    • There was a lowering of illness complaints with increased time in housing, especially in dorms. Initial exposure to a housing situation (and so to new inmates) is associated with relatively high levels of stress and illness.
  • The civil liberties component of the issue

    In the view of the BCCLA, the current use of double bunking is a problem warranting prompt attention. However, a press report last week quoted a Ministry of the Attorney General official saying that the government is considering double bunking as a policy option.

    We do not know exactly double bunking as a “policy option” amounts to. It could range from formalizing the current practice of double bunking inmates as a short term solution to the problem of an increasing prison population to a conscious decision that since there is no money to build more prisons, double bunking is the preferred solution and should be formalized as long term Corrections Branch policy. Thus, we cannot comment on a specific policy option.

    What we can say is why we regard double bunking, in most circumstances, as unacceptable on principled grounds, whether short or long term, formalized or not.

    Anyone sentenced to prison will, as a natural consequence, have diminished rights and freedoms and lose benefits that they enjoyed “outside”. Obviously, their freedom of movement and enjoyment of privacy are severely restricted. As well, their health and safety are placed at risk: merely by being in prison, they are more likely to suffer coercion and assault, and are more likely to contract a communicable disease or suffer health problems associated with stress, regimentation and depersonalization inherent in prison life. To some extent, these evils are both an inescapable consequence of imprisonment and part of the punishment that a substantial part of our population deems appropriate for those who have broken the law.

    On the other hand, there is a general consensus (and jurisprudence) that we as a society will tolerate only those diminishments of the rights and freedoms of prisoners, and risks to their health and safety, as are necessary to house them and maintain good order in the prison and protect the health and safety of other inmates and prison staff.

    The studies noted above give evidence that overcrowding and double bunking pose a greater threat to the health and safety of inmates than would housing inmates one to a cell. That is, by accepting more inmates than prisons are designed to hold, and so by having to double bunk them, we are stepping up the level of punishment that inmates must endure.

    Does housing more inmates than a prison is designed to hold in and of itself constitute an unacceptable level of punishment?

    The BCCLA does not share the view that double bunking is intrinsically unacceptable. Prisons are designed to reflect the standard of treatment of inmates that society considers acceptable. Modern prisons are, for the most part, designed to house one prisoner per cell, and the facilities designed to accommodate the number of prisoners that can be housed on that basis. To house more than that number of prisoners is to violate the minimum standard the design reflects.

    The BCCLA doesn’t believe the standards reflected in prison design always set absolute minimum conditions for the treatment of prisoners, but as general indicators of the tolerable limits of punishment. Prison design differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and from older to modern construction, and therefore so do the standards reflected in their design. A slight departure from the standard reflected by a prison design would not necessarily create intolerable conditions. Thus, insisting that double bunking always constitutes cruel and unusual punishment draws the line too quickly. We do agree that the assumption should be that double bunking would cross the line unless the specifics of the prison and prison population mitigate that assumption.

    However, the BCCLA judges that insofar as the design of most prisons does reflect a general standard of punishment tolerance, any significant departure from that standard is unacceptable. For some (perhaps older) prisons, the conditions may be such that any double bunking will cross the line, whereas for other prisons, some double bunking could, in the short term and as an interim measure, be tolerable.

    For some (perhaps older) prisons, the conditions may be such that any double bunking will cross the line, whereas for other prisons, some double bunking could, in the short term and as an interim measure, be tolerable. Following the results of the studies mentioned above, the criteria for tolerance would include the stability of the prison population, the characteristics of the inmates being double bunked (e.g., their crimes, their mental stability and their prison histories), the amount of time spent locked in a cell, and the availability of adequate treatment, recreation and education opportunities.

    Although we concede that double bunking could, in certain circumstances, not cross the line of intolerable degree of punishment punishment, we submit that it should be considered only as a last resort. In fact, there is a strong case that incarceration, let alone incarceration, should be a last resort. Moreover, although we do not have statistics at hand to prove our case, we strongly suspect that this government has not exhausted all other options before beginning to double bunk offenders.

    Other options are:

    • probation
    • diversion
    • restorative justice
    • electronic monitoring
    • early release for non-violent offenders
    • creation of more halfway houses.

    We would not oppose double bunking only when these options have been fully examined and used where appropriate.

    The BCCLA strongly opposes overcrowding and double bunking as long term policy options to address the problem of more offenders being sentenced to terms in provincial prisons coupled with the lack of money to build more prisons. Such a policy would inevitably result in a significant departure from the standards inherent in the current prison design, and so create intolerable levels of punishment. The government’s budget problems should not be solved at the extreme expense of unacceptably high risks to the health and safety of inmates.

  1. The public policy issues

    a) Addressing the problem

    This crisis (overcrowding in B.C. prisons) brings into sharp focus a public policy issue that this and other governments have ducked for decades. The issue we refer to is the increasing public demand for tougher sentencing of criminals coupled with the public concern about government deficits and debt.

    Clearly, at some point, a choice has to be made: we as a society have to either accept that tougher sentencing means more money spent on building more prisons, or else (if we’re not willing to spend the money) fewer and shorter prison terms for offenders.

    In addition, a number of commentators have suggested that we are already incarcerating more offenders than is justified by concern for the protection of society and punishment for serious criminal behaviour. By allowing double bunking, the government would expand the opportunity for incarcerating offenders who these commentators think should not be in prison, but on supervision in the community.

    Although the provincial government cannot directly control sentencing, it can give an indirect impact through Crown Counsel policies on sentencing submissions and diversion, through the availability of electronic monitoring options, and through probation and early release policies. And the provincial government has direct control over the budget for new prisons to house projected increases in the prison population.

    The BCCLA urges this and other governments to confront the issue, and to make the hard choices we have elected them to make.

    b) The quality of prisons

    Over and above ensuring that minimum standards for the treatment of offenders are adhered to, the government should seriously consider the benefits of providing better than minimum levels of treatment. That would mean keeping prison populations at levels that prisons are designed to hold (primarily by making use of diversion, probation, early release and other options for non-violent offenders), and putting resources into counselling, treatment and educational programs designed as a concerted effort to keep current inmates from repeating criminal behaviour once released. Given the huge costs of apprehending, prosecuting and incarcerating people, such a program makes good economic sense. The BCCLA adds its voice to many groups and individuals who over the years have made the same plea to government.

    c) The costs of overcrowding

    As indicated by the research cited above, there are significant monetary and non-monetary costs to overcrowding. These include:

    • the negative impact on prison staff, including stress, inmate assaults on staff, increase in the number of staff needed to ensure safe staff-inmate ratios and staff turnover and use of sick leave
    • the financial costs of expanded medical, educational and recreational resources, and renovations to the physical plant to address increased demand on heating, ventilation, sewage disposal and lighting capabilities
    • the cost of dealing with increased disciplinary infractions and inmate assaults on inmates and
    • the cost of dealing with increased drug use and the spread of infectious diseases.

    In addition to these direct costs in the operation of prisons, there are the indirect costs to society associated with return of inmates who see themselves as having been housed like animals. Their anger at society’s treatment of them and lower self esteem will inevitably result in an increased likelihood of a return to criminal behaviour, with a greater propensity for violence.

    The BCCLA encourages the government to give serious consideration to the size of these costs in preparing its response to the current problem.