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Canada at a Crossroads

The scope of prison expansion and the crime agenda

by Justin Piché

In a context of declining police-reported ‘crime’ rates and a fiscal crisis, where we will likely see tax hikes, cuts to social services or both to balance the books, billions of dollars worth of new penal infrastructure is being established across the country.

 

In Canada’s provinces and territories, whose governments are responsible for the incarceration of individuals awaiting trial and sentencing, and the administration of sentences of two-years-minus-a-day, 23 new prisons and 16 additions to existing facilities are at various stages of planning and completion.

 

The construction cost for these initiatives is $3 billion and counting, with formal announcements and funding for a few projects still to come. Over 7,000 new prisoner beds will be established should all of these new facilities come online, accompanied by hundreds of millions of dollars every year in operational and management costs.

 

Here in Ontario, new remand centres are being established in Toronto and Windsor. The 1,650-bed Toronto South Detention Centre, which is intended to replace the 550-bed Toronto Jail, will cost Ontario taxpayers $1.1 billion over 30 years. This means for those of us in our late twenties, we will still be paying for the construction of this facility well into our fifties and its operation likely until the day we die.

 

The costs for the 315-bed South West Detention Centre, which is intended to replace the 140-bed Windsor Jail, have yet to be released. It should be noted that an Infrastructure Ontario web page notes that Forum Social Infrastructure has been selected to undertake this project and a formal announcement is forthcoming.

 

A primary rationale for building these facilities is that most provincial-territorial remand centres and prisons are well-over capacity, with high-levels of double-bunking and sometimes even triple-bunking in violation of international human rights standards.

 

In many of the documents I have obtained, it is also claimed that the prison population is no longer a homogeneous population---as if it ever was---and that new penal infrastructure is needed to spatially segregate the “changing prisoner profile” said to be composed of more gang-affiliated prisoners, persons with mental health and substance abuse issues, as well as an increasing number of criminalized women and colonized aboriginal peoples who are vastly overrepresented in our penal institutions.

 

Authorities also claim that these new facilities are needed because aging penal infrastructure is not conducive to the provision of institutional security and the delivery of programming. It needs to be noted, that most of these facilities were not planned with federal sentencing legislation in mind, which means that the thousands of new prisoner beds that are coming online at the provincial-territorial level will likely not be enough to absorb the influx of new prisoners should legislation such as S-10 receive support from federal parliamentarians.

 

As part of the implementation of the so-called Truth in Sentencing Act (2009), the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) and the federal government have announced the equivalent of 34 new units to be built on the grounds of existing penitentiaries across the country. These new units will add 2,552 prisoner beds at a price tag of $601 million dollars for construction.

 

Just as was the case in the closure of our prison farms, the minority Conservative Government of Canada is establishing the equivalent of a new federal penitentiary in Kingston without consulting the community.

 

With six new units at local institutions including Bath, Collins Bay, Millhaven, Frontenac and Pittsburgh that will add 484 prisoner beds, you must ask yourselves whether this government takes its responsibility of representation that comes with taxation very seriously. Still to come are the costs of hundreds of new cells that are to be outfitted with double-bunks in violation of, the now suspended, CSC Commissioner’s Directive 550 which specifies that single-accommodation is the most correctional-appropriate approach to housing federal prisoners.

 

According to government estimates, the ‘Truth in Sentencing’ project will cost the federal treasury a total of $2 billion over five years. This is the cost for just one Conservative punishment bill that was supported by all the opposition parties when it came time for parliamentarians to stand in their place. This also does not include the costs of the legislation for the provinces and the territories that have, thus far, been rebuffed in their efforts to obtain funds from the feds to weather the impending incarceration storm that, in this case, they themselves called for.

 

It should be noted that the projections outlined by the federal government are far lower than those projected by the independent Parliamentary Budget Officer. Without cooperation from CSC and without access to their projections, Kevin Page’s office has pegged the cost to the federal treasury at $5 billion over 5 years, and the costs to the provinces and territories at $5-8 billion during this period.

 

The secrecy with which this public policy file has been treated did not stop with the implementation of the so-called Truth in Sentencing Act. Until last week, the Harper government refused to disclose the costs of their justice---or ‘just us’ who can know---measures.

 

A Question of Privilege tabled by Liberal Finance Critic Scott Brison finally provided members of the opposition with an Excel sheet listing the government’s ‘just us’ bills and the total federal cost for these measures. The Question sought these and other budget projections that the government had deemed matters of “Cabinet confidence”---a motion which could of very well result in a finding of contempt of Parliament.

 

The government claims that Canadians are willing to pay the costs, yet is resistant to release this information so that we can decide for ourselves. The Excel sheet contained no detailed calculations as to how government officials arrived at their cost estimate, which is approximately $650 million. The document may as well have been written on a napkin for all the information it included.

 

Also significant is the fact that bills like C-16---which aim to greatly restrict the use of cheaper and more effective community-based sentences, and bills like S-10, that specify mandatory minimum sentences---will have a significant impact on the number of prisoners in our provincial-territorial institutions.

 

Yet there is no provincial-territorial costing component included in the federal government’s own projections of their punishment measures. That they either don’t have or won’t provide the costs that they are downloading onto the provinces and territories is indicative of the rushed way in which these bills have been tabled.

 

With this said, it should be noted the provinces and territories did ask for some of these pieces of legislation, which probably explains their silence on these matters until recently. In a climate where one is positioned as either being ‘soft’ or ‘tough on crime’---a hallow and meaningless dichotomy if there ever was one---many have been reluctant to criticize the Conservatives punishment agenda which, if allowed to persist, will lead to higher taxes, cuts in social services, or both if anyone was to be honest about the budgetary challenges we are faced with in this country.

 

About a year ago, when I started to present the preliminary research findings from my doctoral dissertation, I asked an audience in Ottawa whether we want to live in a country that constructs prisons instead of building daycares and schools for our children, and hospital beds for our aging parents and grandparents.

 

Some will argue that our generation can pay for it all, but we know in our hearts that something will have to give. Will it be the pensions of our parents who have worked all their lives to sustain their families, communities and country that will be forced to make sacrifices?

 

Will it be the next generation of kids who may have to take-out mortgage-sized loans to go to university or college? Will it be us, who may be the first Canadians in generations to not have access to a public health care system? Or will it be all of us who will bare the costs of an ineffective and inhumane approach to the complex harms and conflicts in our communities that we call ‘crime’?

 

When a pollster recently asked Canadians whether they support the Conservative prison construction plan, and 43 percent of those polled said “it’s unaffordable”, while 57 percent thought “it’s a worthwhile initiative”, I wonder if that 57 percent would support the punishment agenda if they asked themselves the questions I’ve been asking myself as a young Canadian who, along with my contemporaries, will be footing the bill for this pending disaster.

 

Given that we are in a minority government situation, it should be noted that while some Liberals, NDP and the Bloc have been highly critical of the penal policy proposals tabled in Parliament, the Conservatives---much like the awkward freshman I was in high school---needs a dancing partner, one that may be reluctant or completely willing, if he or she wants to dance, or in this case pass their punishment bills.

 

Whether it is because members of the opposition have actually agreed with some of the proposals tabled by the Harper government, or have lacked the political courage to stand in their places and cash the discursive cheques they routinely write and put on display via the media, all parties have been complicit---to a greater or lesser degree---in our march towards mass incarceration.

 

Whether it is the Liberals who by supporting S-6 ushered in what will amount to a sanitized death penalty for some new prisoners by eliminating the faint-hope clause, the NDP who led the opposition charge to meet the government halfway on C-23 when the specter of Karla Homolka getting a pardon was raised this past summer, or the Bloc who moved to abolish accelerated parole review by effectively co-authoring C-59 with the Conservatives, they are all to blame for the ballooning budget of the penal system.

 

While I am hopeful that the tide may turn, it will be up to Canadians come election time to decide whether or not they want a government---in whatever form it will take---that prioritizes prison expansion in the name of ‘public safety’ when a vast body of research shows that such an approach will undermine this purported goal, while also further eroding the few remains of community we have in this country. (X)

 

Justin Piché is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Carleton University, and Co-managing Editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. Justin’s blog, Tracking the Politics of ‘Crime’ and Punishment in Canada, is a must-read for anyone interested in prison justice in Canada.

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