Monday, May 24, 2010
Conservative "tough on crime" agenda, will "stuff" prisons
OTTAWA – Prison rights advocates are warning a parliamentary committee studying mental health in federal penitentiaries that the federal Conservative tough-on-crime agenda will "stuff prisons" with mentally ill people and fail to reduce crime.
"Crime is a community issue and an intelligent response ought to involve the community," Craig Jones, director of the John Howard Society, told the committee.
Jones appeared with a former director Graham Stewart, author of a recent study that slammed federal plans for correctional services.
They urged the committee to send a clear message to the government that its approach to crime has already been tested and failed in the United States.
"Our federal prisons have become gladiator schools where we train young men in the art of extreme violence or warehouse mentally ill people," Jones said.
They said the U.S., which has incarcerated people at high rates for 30 years, has seen a rise in violent crime, compared to Canada.
"It has been a catastrophically expensive exercise but it has not produced the reduction in crime rates that you would expect for that rate of incarceration," said Jones.
"In fact, evidence from the United States, and the U.K. is now showing that increasing incarceration rates "may actually increase the rate of crime because of what's called 'prisonization,' or the experience of incarceration and the difficulty thereafter of successful reintegration," he argued.
Pointing to the Conservative government's anti-drug strategy, which embraces mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, they said it ignores the mental health and substance abuse disorders that plague "the majority" of offenders in federal prisons, and will simply lead to a recycling of offenders through the system.
The advocates cited statistics by the federal commissioner of corrections, who said 80 per cent of federal offenders have drug or alcohol abuse problems or both, and about 12 per cent have been diagnosed with mental disorders.
Conservative sentencing changes will soon increase that troubled population, they said.
Jones said the government's law-and-order reforms are "estimated" to be on track to require 3,000 new prison beds for men and 300 for women.
"These are conservative estimates because so far no one has made public the anticipated costs and consequences of the crime agenda, but we can make some general projections based on the American experience," said Jones.
Stewart said the Conservative government's promise to eliminate early parole for offenders will result in "releasing more and more people into the community with serious mental illnesses and without either support or supervision."
Jones called on the government to adopt instead a national strategy to coordinate mental health and correctional services at federal-provincial-and territorial levels that would involve community-delivered mental health services.
Jones said he has "no illusions" his testimony will change things at this point: "The government has repeatedly signalled that its crime agenda will not be influenced by evidence of what does and does not actually reduce crime and create safer communities."
He delivered a sharp rebuke to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whom he said failed when he announced the national "anti-drug strategy" to understand "the concurrence of mental illness and substance abuse."
The stigmatization of people with mental illness, he argued, "comes from the very top."
Stewart said the government should use human rights as a starting point for prison reform, noting that none of the recommendations from the federal advisory panel on prisons dealt with "drug prevention, harm reduction, or treatment, while 13 recommendations would toughen enforcement, often by further restricting visits?"
"Would we accept recommendations that see family and community support only as security problems without any acknowledgement that both the prisoner and the family are entitled to visit, and are dependent on those visits to maintain their crucial relationships?"
Conservative government MPs on the committee reacted defensively to the testimony, demanding the two address the immediate problem of how to help the mentally ill in prison.
Dave Mackenzie, parliamentary secretary for public safety minister Peter Van Loan, said "we have the same concerns."
"We know the provinces took away resources... I take it your solution would be to eliminate federal prisons?"
I agree that getting tough on crime does not result in a reduction in crime rates. Longer sentences in prison actually have been proven to increase the rate of re-offending, because prisons are the schools of crime, rehab programs lack funding and are ineffective and because of the prison subculture where pro-criminal attitudes, values and behaviours exist as do drugs and gangs. Prisons fail to address the underlying causes of crime, socially and economically. Those with mental health issues or substance abuse issues should not be in prison, those who have committed property or drug offences or other victimless crimes, non violent offenders and Aboriginals. Often, inmates are released from prison with financial difficulties, lack of family or community support, lack of housing, unemployed, substance abuse issues, mental health issues, not rehabilitated in any way, no life skills, no skills to cope with stress or life challenges, little assistance or access to resources, and no responsibility, decision making or independence skills as being institutionalized in prison with strict rules and routines only teaches dependency, not independence or responsibility. Often, under these conditions in which offenders are released on, they resort back to crime as they have become more hardened criminals in prison or have become more involved in the gang and drug life. This does not create safer societies. It does more harm than good and is not in society's best interests.
To make societies safer, we need to place more emphasis on rehabilitation and on reforming prisons to focus more on rehabilitation and prisoners rights. We also need less reliance on prisons and more on alternatives, especially for aboriginals and more focus on a system of rehabilitative and restorative justice as opposed to retributive justice.