TORONTO - A culture of secrecy prevails at Ontario's Ministry of Correctional Services while conditions in the province's jails get worse for inmates and staff alike, the opposition parties charged Wednesday.

Problems with overcrowding, inmates suffering from mental health issues, and drug and alcohol abuse have all been on the increase, but the ministry remains reluctant to explain its decisions or policies, complained the Progressive Conservatives and New Democrats.

"This is the ministry of secrecy," said Opposition corrections critic Garfield Dunlop.

New Democrat France Gelinas said "it is like pulling teeth to try to get any information" out of the Correctional Services Ministry.

"There's a culture of secrecy, a culture of machismo, that is associated with the correctional services that is so detrimental at multiple levels," said Gelinas.

"It prevents us from identifying the problems clearly, prevents us from moving on with innovative ideas that would help."

There are about 8,800 inmates, including about 600 women, in Ontario's 31 jails, correctional and detention centres, but 80 per cent serve sentences of three months or less, and half serve only one month or less.

There has been a huge shift in the inmate populations, with 70 per cent on remand instead of being sentenced offenders. That's a 180 degree change in 10 years, and the trend is expected to intensify.

A report entitled the Changing Face of Corrections was given to federal and provincial justice ministers over a year ago, but still hasn't been released to the public.

Correctional Services Minister Rick Bartolucci was not available for comment, but a spokeswoman said the ministry was still reviewing the report. No decision has yet been made as to whether to release it to the public or the legislature's public accounts committee, she added.

The committee found 11 of the provincial jails and detention centres operate at up to 135 per cent capacity, raising concerns about overcrowding and safety risks to inmates and staff.

It also found the ministry has refused to implement random tests for drugs and alcohol in jails, even though there were more than 50 drug or alcohol-related deaths in the institutions in nine years.

"Instead of random drug testing, the ministry will be seeking to prevent the illicit substances from entering the institutions through prevention, education and enforcement initiatives," read the committee's report.

"I think that's a cop out," said Dunlop. "They have to do random testing, there's no question about it."

The ministry spent more than $400 million trying to reduce costs from $120 per inmate per day to $75, but failed to meet that target.

It also tried to save $60 million a year and close 2,000 beds by diverting inmates to community supervision. Instead the number of daily inmates grew by almost 1,000.

"Something led us to make those investments, and it failed," said Gelinas. "We have to look back and learn from this so we know how the decisions are being made, but they will not share their decision making process with us."

Only 100 low-risk offenders are serving their sentence at home with electronic ankle bracelets instead of the planned 800, and even then there's no data to show contracting out that program to the Salvation Army is actually working well.

The proportion of inmates with mental-health problems has jumped to 36 per cent since the province started closing the last of the large institutions that housed them, even though the ministry has spent $50 million to keep the mentally ill out of jails.

"That's a failing program as well," said Dunlop. "Fifty million bucks is the price of building a new jail, and the number of people with mental illness (in custody) is going up, not down."

Problems with guards calling in sick have been well documented. The ministry believes up to 40 per cent of correctional officers are abusing their sick days, a situation that costs an extra $20 million a year for replacement workers and overtime.

Dunlop called correctional officers the "poor cousins" of police, firefighters and even Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals officers who also fall under the ministry's umbrella, and said they get no respect from inmates or politicians.

"They have one dirty job," he said. "They have this very, very bad environment to work in."

The province will be adding approximately 2,000 new inmate beds at two new correctional centres, a large one in Toronto with over 1,650 beds and a smaller one in Windsor to house 350 inmates.