Welcome to my Crime and Justice blog! I am a 19 year old criminal justice student at the University of Winnipeg. I advocate for prisoners' rights, human rights, equality and criminal justice/prison system reforms.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The next wave of prison construction in Canada: Who would pay and what are the alternatives?

By Justin Piche

To be presented to the
Provincial-Territorial Heads of Corrections

Monday, May 31, 2010
Ch√Ęteau Laurier, Ottawa

Hi folks,
Let me begin by thanking you for the invitation to speak to your group today and to acknowledge the efforts of the members of your agencies who assisted me as I completed the data collection phase of my doctoral dissertation. While I have encountered major roadblocks at the federal level and some hurdles at the provincial-territorial level, the majority of officials who I dealt with demonstrated what accountability and transparency in government can look like.

In this presentation, I will briefly discuss my methodology and summarize the findings of my report An Overview of Prison Expansion in Canada (available upon request). Following this, I will outline some of the key challenges associated with the cumulative impacts of federal punishment legislation and propose a number of mechanisms that can be used to mitigate them. I will conclude with a short discussion on how we can build just and safe communities in Canada going forward.

An Overview of Prison Expansion in Canada

Based on the information provided to me by governments from across the country, there are at least 22 new provincial-territorial prisons at various stages of completion. On the slide you can view the locations of these facilities (view map of new provincial-territorial prisons): 1) projects in the preliminary planning stages are highlighted in dark blue; 2) initiatives in the site selection and / or procurement stages are in red; 3) new facilities awaiting budget approval are in light blue; 4) institutions in the process of being constructed are in yellow; and 5) the prison in green is operational. According to the information disclosed, there are also 16 additions to existing facilities at various stages of completion.

The figures obtained to date reveal that there are over 6,500 new provincial-territorial prisoner beds being established across the country. When these beds come online and are filled – which they will be given current overcrowding challenges faced by most jurisdictions – I have estimated that it will cost you an additional $343.9 million in annual operating costs. The figures compiled also show that over $2.8 billion has been earmarked for the construction of these facilities to date. This total is likely to surpass the $3 billion mark once funding announcements for future prisons currently in the preliminary planning stages are made public.

Due to an information blockade enforced by officials from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and a Minister of Public Safety who has stated that he would “rather not share” the plans and related economic costs associated with expanding the capacity of federal penitentiaries, I am unable to report what current or future facility construction plans are being implemented by the Government of Canada. This should not be a surprise to those of you in this room who have also been stonewalled by this government. This is illustrated by the fact that the Feds did not give your agencies the opportunity to make submissions to the CSC Review Panel (2007) as well as their refusal to fully participate in the yet to be released Changing Face of Corrections Report (2009), despite the cross-jurisdictional implications associated with the findings and recommendations of these task forces.

Challenges Moving Forward

If the current prison boom is primarily being driven by persistent overcrowding associated with rising remand populations, aging facilities, space requirements associated with changing programming objectives, as well as the fact that penal institutions are increasingly being used as dumping grounds for the poor and individuals with mental health and drug addiction issues, the next wave of prison construction – should it occur – will be in response to the minority Government of Canada’s punishment agenda.

While the federal Conservatives have been busy grabbing the headlines by drafting, advertising, tabling, killing (through prorogation), re-tabling and eventually passing punishment bills, who will be left holding the bag? What effects will legislation introduced in the House of Commons such as Bill C-16, which will severely restrict the use of Conditional Sentences, have on provincial-territorial prisons? What impacts will legislation introduced in the Senate such as Bill S-10, which will require judges to hand-out mandatory minimum prison terms for trafficking marijuana, have on the prisons you manage?

The problem is that we do not know the answer to these questions, either because the minority Government of Canada has not undertaken the analysis needed to determine the cumulative impacts of their punishment agenda across jurisdictions or because they would “rather not share” those details with Canadians. This is not only an irresponsible position which could have catastrophic economic and human consequences, it is also damaging to our democratic political process which necessitates transparency in order to determine whether legislation can be implemented in a manner that positively impacts Canadian society.
While uncertainty exists, one thing that we can be sure of is that should the Conservatives punishment agenda continue provincial-territorial facilities will become more overcrowded. This will necessitate that you keep open institutions that were slated for closure because you’ve deemed outmoded to meeting your objectives and are in violation of your operational standards. The situation will also result in more individuals who have slipped through the cracks – particularly women and Aboriginals living in poverty, as well as those with mental health and substance abuse issues – ending-up behind bars because our under-resourced social infrastructure has failed them.
As a result of federal penal downloading that will further exacerbate overcrowding in your prisons you can expect heightened levels of tension and violence between prisoners, as well as between prisoners and staff. With more prisoners, your ability to provide programming will be further compromised. You will also likely find yourselves engaged in additional labour disputes with your employees, some of which may provoke strikes requiring your management to take over the day-to-day operations of your facilities. If this were to happen in your jurisdictions, many of you will be forced to place your institutions on long-term lockdown – an untenable situation considering many of your cells already hold 2, 3 or more prisoners which contravenes the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Should overcrowding persist and worsen, I strongly recommend that you hire more lawyers who will be busy dealing with class-action lawsuits as well as legal challenges seeking reductions in prison terms filed by prisoners and their advocates under section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which states “Everyone has the right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”.

Faced with this situation, you may be considering building new multi-million dollar prisons to absorb the influx of new prisoners awaiting trial and sentencing or those serving longer sentences – two groups of prisoners which increasingly have fewer chances of release. However, there are a number of alternatives at various scales of intervention that can be mobilized which are proven to be more successful at enhancing safety in our communities at a lesser cost than imprisonment.

Prison Agencies

As Heads of Corrections, you can make changes within your prison systems that will allow you to reduce the number of individuals incarcerated in your institutions by recommitting yourselves to community-based alternatives such as parole. While this would involve changes to legislation in many jurisdictions, I would encourage you to re-evaluate and promote such measures to your Ministers if your respective agencies have not already begun this work. If implemented, you could then reallocate the money saved using community-based alternatives to additional investments in education, employment and housing programs prisoners may need to successfully reintegrate themselves into society.

Penal System

There are also various levers that can be used to address the complex harms and conflicts in our communities that we call ‘crime’ in the penal system (also known as the criminal justice system). Additional investments in social programs that prevent ‘crime’ and save taxpayers $7 in incarceration costs for every $1 spent can be made (Waller, 2006). Police officers can be encouraged to utilize greater discretion in dealing with the public. Prosecutors could alter how they manage their cases. Judges could exercise more leniency when deciding on whether or not to allow someone to post bail and make use of similar provisions during sentencing. These are not innovative ideas, as we know that such practices have been used to manage major changes that have been introduced into the penal system in the past which will continue to be used in the future.

Electoral Politics

Given the challenges most of you are currently facing, another approach to mitigate the cumulative impacts of federal punishment legislation would be to encourage your Ministers to call for a moratorium on such initiatives. This would not only be the prudent response as you do not have time or the money to build new prisons, this would also be an approach that is supported by scholarly evidence that shows that increasing our reliance on incarceration does not enhance community safety in the long-term.

Should your Ministers wish to continue to publicly support the agenda of the minority Government of Canada, the least they could do is place pressure on the Feds to examine and disclose whether or not the laws being proposed can pass the central test of legislation – implementation. This would require law makers to take the time to evaluate the cross-jurisdictional impacts related to various pieces of legislation, including their fiscal costs. It would also require disclosing findings and estimates to the public to allow for an informed debate regarding the merits of new bills.

In my view, these necessary steps in the democratic process are not currently taking place. The passage of Bill C-25 last year, which limits the amount of credit judges can give individuals for time served in remand, is the best example of tagline justice. While the “Truth in Sentencing” legislation was agreed upon by the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Ministers of Justice and Public Safety in October 2006 (see here), it appears that this is where the collaboration ended.

When the legislation was tabled in the 2nd Session of the 40th Parliament, little information concerning the implementation of Bill C-25 and related costs were divulged by the Government to Canadians. CSC Commissioner Don Head even refused to cite implementation options and estimates during committee hearings citing Cabinet confidence. Despite the fact that much was unknown about the potential impacts of this legislation the bill was passed, although in an altered form that included provisions that would allow judges to give 1.5 days credit for every day served by an individual prior to trial and / or sentencing where deemed appropriate – something the Conservatives denounced.

Now, according to a forthcoming report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer, it appears as though the provinces and territories will be picking-up the bulk of the tab for the implementation of this legislation – something many jurisdictions appeared not to expect or adequately prepare for. This is a perfect example of how not to proceed during the legislative process and will serve as an illustration of bad policy-making in university classes for years to come.

Building Just and Safe Communities

In a context of declining police-reported ‘crime’ rates and a fiscal crisis, the minority Government of Canada has been engaged in an expensive campaign that characterizes what those of you in ‘corrections’ previously considered as your successes as failures requiring immediate action in the form of punishment measures said to be in the best interest of public safety.

Faced with this, your bosses of various political stripes are abandoning reintegration because of the perception that they will get no credit for the positive aspects of their programs and all of the blame when sensational and un-representative cases hit the media who often examine ‘crime’ and punishment by looking at the distorted image reflected on fun-house mirrors rather than looking through the glass. Intimidated by or complicit in the politics of tagline justice and public safety, your Ministers are enabling the Conservative punishment agenda that if allowed to persist will cause irreparable damage to our economy, governmental institutions, communities, and particularly to those working and incarcerated in our prisons.

Perhaps by uniting and taking a collective approach in your capacity as the Provincial-Territorial Heads of Corrections you can excavate the true implications of federal legislation moving forward. From there, you could encourage your Ministers to generate the kinds of discussions needed to build just and safe communities where education, equitable workplaces, affordable housing, health care and environmental sustainability form the cornerstone.

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