Monday, May 24, 2010
Prison boom looms-- provinces to spend $2.7 billion on prisons
OTTAWA–Provinces are spending $2.7 billion to expand or replace aging and overcrowded jails across Canada – with little public scrutiny, an Ottawa researcher says.
Justin Piché, a PhD candidate in sociology at Carleton University, obtained data through freedom of information requests, email and phone contact with each of the provinces and territories.
In all, Piché says at least 22 new "bigger and better" provincial-territorial prisons are at various stages of completion, some still in the planning or early tendering stages. If all are built, he says, they will increase the capacity of provincial adult jails by at least 5,788 beds.
Piché said part of the expansion may be tied to anticipated prison population increases flowing from federal Conservative government moves to: bring in more mandatory minimum sentences; end "house arrest" for serious crimes; and eliminate "two-for-one" sentencing credits for time already served.
Aging infrastructure, rising remand populations and persistent overcrowding plus "preparing for the influx of new prisoners resulting from ongoing `tough on crime' legislation at the federal level, have all contributed to the latest Canadian prison boom," says Piché in remarks prepared for a public library presentation Wednesday.
Piché estimates the price tag for building the new and expanded facilities at $2.724 billion, with operating costs to maintain the added beds likely to be more than $300 million annually.
That's not counting any plans the federal government may have for expanding federal penitentiaries, where sentences more than two years are served.
Piché says it is unclear whether Ontario will close the Don Jail once the new 1,650-bed facility in Toronto is constructed or whether the new 315-bed facility in Windsor will prompt the close of its existing jail.
Piché, a co-editor of Journal of Prisoners on Prison, questioned such large expenditures, stressing for the Ottawa forum that research finds "relying more heavily on imprisonment does not reduce crime.
"Do we want to live in a country that constructs prisons instead of schools, hospitals, public transportation hubs and the like?"
If the federal government gets its way, Canadians will witness a boom in prison construction coinciding with the longest steady decline in crime rates in Canadian history. That's the consequence of the various pieces of "get tough" legislation recently passed or currently working their way through Parliament.
Consider this: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for "serious drug crimes" in the National Anti-Drug Strategy plus the limiting of judicial discretion in regard to credit for time served in pre-trial detention is projected by Statistics Canada to grow the rate of incarceration by as much as 10 per cent.
The government claims that ending two-for-one credit for pre-trial detention will alleviate the overcrowding crisis in provincial detention centres by encouraging more guilty pleas and introducing "truth in sentencing." The resulting surge in Canada's rate of incarceration, currently hovering around 149 per 100,000 population, would require roughly 3,000 new beds for men and about 10 to 15 per cent of that number for women.
So what? Bad people go to jail, right? It should be that simple, but it's not.
When governments "crack down," the American evidence shows that they quickly catch the worst of the worst before reaching into the pool of the non-violent – people who might represent a threat to themselves but are little risk to their communities.
The worst crime for most of these people is either that they are racial minorities (aboriginals will be particularly hard hit) or that they started falling through the cracks in elementary school and carry the burden of various learning and cognitive challenges, including ADD, acquired brain disorders, ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome, depression, trauma and a whole alphabet soup of psychiatric and psychological syndromes.
The result is prisons swollen with greater numbers of the non-violent, mentally ill, and poor and racialized minorities.
Currently, approximately 10 per cent of the federal prison population is double-bunked. Prison crowding undermines the success of treatment and degrades the working conditions of staff, encouraging higher rates of staff turnover and poorer treatment outcomes for prisoners. Most non-violent prisoners can be more effectively, humanely and economically treated in the community than they can in prison, and the government has the research to prove this.
Community supervision costs roughly $23,500 a year per person compared with approximately $101,000 a year per person on average across all security levels to keep a man in prison, and $185,000 a year per woman.
Then there's the issue of where to put them. Current infrastructure is at or over capacity. The passage of Bill C-25 will require temporary housing in the short term, but it's the long term that ought to concern Canadians – for the only land that the federal government can start building on quickly is the prison farms.
Some of the best farmland in Canada could be swallowed up by super-max prisons based on the American model. That is the vision endorsed by the "independent panel" commissioned by the government and chaired by the former minister of corrections for the province of Ontario, Rob Sampson.
So let's connect the dots. The crime rate has been declining for 26 years – those are the government's numbers – but the same government wants to build more prisons at a cost to taxpayers of billions of dollars.
Who benefits? In the U.S. case, private prison contractors and correctional officer unions. Everyone else loses: education, social assistance and health care.
Does prison building buy safer communities? Not in the United States. Money spent on increased imprisonment and longer, harsher sentences is money wasted, because more prisons do not increase community safety – and there is ample evidence that prisons create and reinforce criminal attitudes and predispositions.
If more prisons resulted in less crime, the United States would be the safest place in the world.
Canada does not need to grow its rate of incarceration, particularly in a context of declining crime rates. We do not need to "get tough," but we do need to "get smart."
Completely agree. People who have mental health issues, are poor, come from backgrounds of abuse, are racialized minorities, have addictions, property and drug offenders, offenders convicted of victimless crimes, and non violent offenders should not be in prisons and should be dealt with through community alternatives, instead of further overcrowding prisons. Besides, when non violent offenders are in prison, prisons act as a school of crime, where they become entrenched in the pro criminal attitudes, values and behaviours and more involved with gangs and drugs or learning better criminal skills. Plus, prisons fail at addressing the underlying social and economic factors contributing to crime and other causes, where inmates are released with no rehabilitation and no skills to survive on the outside. Prisons also lack properly funded rehab programming and culturally sensitive programming for aboriginals. They need to place much more emphasis on rehabilitation and reform and only the most dangerous offenders who actually pose a threat to society should be imprisoned.