Monday, May 24, 2010
Conservatives too tough on prisoners
OTTAWA – Two leading advocates of prisoner rights today released a scathing critique of the Conservative government's "tough on crime" agenda for prisoners, saying it is driven by "ideology" and will make Canada more dangerous.
Professor Michael Jackson, of the University of British Columbia, and Graham Stewart, who spent 38 years with the John Howard Society, slammed the Conservatives for their policy entitled "Roadmap to Public Safety."
The Conservatives quickly adopted the policy paper that was produced in December 2007 by a handpicked panel led by Rob Sampson, a former Ontario Progressive Conservative corrections minister under Mike Harris.
It urged greater emphasis on prisoner accountability, tighter drug controls, more mandatory work programs, the construction of regional prison complexes that would house four or five penitentiaries within one perimeter, and the elimination of statutory release and early parole reviews — a long-time campaign promise of the Conservatives that has not yet been legislated.
But at a news conference this morning, the two researchers released their own review of that policy, entitled "A Flawed Compass."
It warned the Conservative approach to corrections deliberately avoids any mention of human rights, will worsen conditions in Canadian prisons, creates a huge burden for the public purse, and will mean more aboriginals — who make up 20 per cent of the federal prison population — will spend more time in jail.
Legislation is not required to implement much of what is recommended, warned Stewart.
Indeed, Jackson, a leading courtroom advocate for prisoners' rights, said it is already influencing attitudes toward prisoners in Canadian penitentiaries, where prisoners are vulnerable to abuse of power.
Several wardens have privately told him they are concerned about the fallout of the new policy, but Jackson said they cannot speak up publicly for fear of losing their jobs.
Several non-governmental organizations that work with prisoners are also reluctant to publicly criticize the new policy because they fear losing their funding, he added.
But Jackson said he and Stewart undertook their own analysis, which provides evidence to support their own recommendations, because they were shocked at the lack of public debate on it all.
Stewart said the Conservative "get-tough" policy flies in the face of 30 years of research, Supreme Court of Canada decisions, and a non-partisan consensus that has emerged since prison riots in the '70s swept penitentiaries. That consensus, he said, espouses respect for human rights of prisoners as the underpinning of successful rehabilitation policies.
The Conservatives have ditched that consensus in favour of "raw wedge politics," he said, and chosen to espouse "tough on crime" policies designed to get votes, but will not reduce the chances of prisoners re-offending.
In fact, Stewart said, the Conservatives are pushing a "myth" that human rights must give way to public safety. "There's no balance between human rights and public safety. Human rights is a cornerstone of public safety."
There is a great deal of evidence to show that supervised, gradual release of prisoners "substantially reduces criminality after release," said Stewart — evidence the government is simply ignoring.
Stewart pointed to the United States where tougher correctional policies have led to a skyrocketing prison population, exploding prison budgets, and a higher rate of violent crime.
He said the proposed giant prisons "are simply going to be large warehouse institutions." If anything, said Stewart, the government has failed to analyze how its own anti-crime agenda will increase prison populations.
"It's bad corrections, but it's good politics," said Stewart.
He noted Prime Minister Stephen Harper practices the divisive politics, by slamming his critics as "soft on crime" and telling voters that prisoners enjoy "special rights" that outweigh ordinary citizens' rights.
NDP critic Don Davies, vice-chair of the public safety committee that is about to study mental health in prisons, said the report confirmed his own concerns after he toured several prisons in B.C. over the summer.
"The Conservative government roadmap will not work, in fact it will make things worse," said Davies.
A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said the government has received the report and is reviewing it.
The Conservatives, under then-minister Stockwell Day, appointed a five-person panel to make recommendations on correctional policy. Led by Sampson, it included Serge Gascon, a long-time police officer in Quebec, Ian Glen, a former chair of the National Parole Board, Chief Clarence Louie, an Aboriginal business leader, and Sharon Rosenfeldt, a crime victims' advocate whose son was killed by Clifford Olson.
"What we have here is a government that commissioned a report that said what they wanted to hear....led by a clearly politically partisan chair...and that's what upsets me the most," said Stewart.
However, Van Loan told CBC News today that his government is "unapologetic" about its approach.
"We think the safety and protection of society has to come first."
He also argued in favour of more work programs before prisoners are released.
"We believe that prisoners must participate in their rehabilitation."
L:iberal critic Mark Holland said in an interview that the Conservatives "are following a failed American experiment that is going to lead to our prisons turning into crime factories." The net result, he added, will be rising costs and higher rates of recidivism — or re-offending.
I completely agree with this article. Mandatory minimum sentences are the main culprit and the restriction of conditional sentences for more serious crimes. These practices need to be abolished. Prisons are becoming the schools of crime, especially because more non violent, property and drug offenders are being housed with violent offenders and they become involved in gangs and drugs due to the prison subculture, inmate code and pro-criminal values, behaviours and attitudes. Longer prison sentences have been proven to increase the chances of re-offending, which is not in society's best interests and which do not make society any safer, but actually more dangerous. Prisons have been shown to not deter, reduce or prevent crime. They are negative environments with negative influences which do not facilitate or encourage rehabilitation or reform. The only thing inmates learn in prisons is dependency and how to survive inside a prison and how to protect oneself from violence or rape. Prisoners do not learn independence, decision making skills, life skills, stress management or how to cope with life challenges or responsibility which are important tools for surviving on the outside. They are often released with little assistance and are left with little support from family and friends, unemployed, financial difficulties, homeless, substance abuse issues, not rehabilitated, etc and they often resort back to crime as it is all they know. Also, prison conditions are horrible. Putting people in secure custody in cages, with deprivations and pains of imprisonment and limiting rights, will not foster change. We need to treat inmates with respect and dignity in order for them to change. Also, prisons house disproportionate amounts of mentally ill, Aboriginals, young males, unemployed, those who lack education, lived in poverty, were abused themselves, and those who are parents and those with substance abuse issues. These people need help and assistance, not prison. Prisons fail at addressing the underlying factors contributing to crime and other causes, such as gangs. Prisons also have damaging psychological effects on inmates, who spend long periods in confinement. They are forced to comply with a strict routine, rules and regulations and are offered no independence or responsibilities. It's no wonder recidivism rates are so high, with conditions such as these. Prisons need more emphasis on rehabilitation and reform and only the most dangerous offenders, who actually pose a threat to society, should be imprisoned. Conditions need to be improved greatly, with rooms instead of cages. If we are truly invested in preventing and reducing crime, prisons are generally not the long term solution, merely a quick fix. If we are truly invested, we need to address the causes of crime.