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Even Canada's Criminals Deserve Better, Vic Toews

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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has just announced the permanent closure of the Kingston Penitentiary and the Leclerc Institution in Laval, QC. Apparently, both facilities are antiquated relics of a bygone era. Kingston, built in 1835, is one of the oldest, continuously operating prisons in the world.

I've never been to prison. But several years ago a realtor took us to look at a house located just across the road from one. "Not a problem," she said, "there are only a couple of escapes every year." That federal prison located in Dorchester, NB, is also an old facility, built in 1880. Once a notorious maximum security lock-up, it now handles all of Atlantic Canada's medium security offenders with an emphasis on psychiatric care and rehabilitation. There's a big farm attached to it to prove it. But the place still seems pretty rough. Just looking at it one gets the idea that Canada's prison infrastructure is a bit out of date.

As I read the news about Toews' announcement, I expected to read that there would be some new, high-tech Panopticon-style facility being built to replace the old prisons. But I was wrong. The prisoners are being merged with existing prison populations elsewhere. According to Toews, this is not a problem.

The good news is the government, or "we," will be saving $120 million a year, and most of the staff will be reassigned to other institutions. And we won't be spending any more money to build new prisons.

The bad news is the existing prisons are already running at over-capacity. Millhaven is 112 inmates over capacity and the max security complex in Saint-Anne-des-Plaines in Quebec is 217 inmates over its design. Closing Kingston today would result in nearly 100 more inmates over the Canadian prison system capacity. And there's talk that about 100 prison workers will lose their jobs.

The whole thing is a bit more complicated than that, of course. The Conservatives have committed to adding 2,700 new prisoner spaces to existing facilities over the next five years, which should alleviate some of the pressure.

And then there's the new "tough on crime" legislation introduced last year. Stats show that the increase in new inmates is lower than expected, and Toews states that, "Instead of attracting all sorts of new criminals into the system, we're just retaining the old ones." Hmm. That doesn't sound like progress.

Still, the prison population has grown from 13,300 two years ago to about 15,000 today. If that rate continues at the same pace (about 1,100 a year) due to new legislation and a tougher economy for those living on lower incomes, Toews' plan to add new spaces is going to be half as much as the system will actually need. Hello, more overcrowding.

I'm no prison expert, but I suspect that the short-term solution of packing more inmates into aging facilities is a recipe for long-term disaster.

A report by the Alberta John Howard Society in 1996 stated the same thing. It noted that Canada's prisons were already overcrowded with over 20 per cent of prisoners "double-bunking" in cells. The report cited the decision by Correctional Service of Canada (which was dealing with a total prison population of 12,400 at the time) to "more effectively deal with violent high-risk offenders, while examining alternatives to incarceration for low-risk offenders," which represents the most dangerous 18 per cent and lowest risk 17 per cent of the prison population.

And those alternatives are exactly the initiatives the current Conservative government is eliminating with its new tougher stance on crime as we begin to overfill our prisons with petty thieves and drug offenders -- to teach them a lesson.

But what lesson will "we" be teaching? Today's prisons are dealing with epidemics of mental illness as social downloading has offloaded the mentally ill on the justice system. HIV/AIDS is an ongoing concern, especially in overcrowded and thus emotionally charged prison conditions. Not to mention the obvious, that every neophyte offender going in gets a thorough crash course in a life of professional crime and violence.

Race is another hidden aspect of these new, wrongheaded policies. Canada's prisons have a disproportionately large population of aboriginal inmates. But Toews and his fellow Conservatives, with dark glasses securely in place, are conveniently colour-blind now, as well.

As for Correctional Service of Canada, its reward for making those recommendations all those years ago with be a growing problem and a cut of $295 million over the next five years. I expect that this won't make for a more "efficient" department.

But wait. There is hope on the horizon. If the government system becomes too inefficient, we can privatize parts of it. Bad idea. It's not working too well in the U.S. where the private prison model requires high levels of incarceration to remain profitable. And it didn't work well here, either, when the new, five-year-old 1,200-inmate private super-prison at Penetanguishene was shut down in 2006. Rates of reoffending were higher, the health of prisoners was lower and the security was worse than in our old publicly-run institutions. End of that story.

So what should we be doing? We should be looking at our whole society first. World data (via Wilkinson and Pickett) show that more income-equal societies have lower rates of crime and incarceration. So the job starts with creating good jobs and shifting a proportionally greater share of taxes to the top income earners in Canada.

Second, we have to address mental health issues head on in this country which are now at unmanageable levels. Third, we need to reach out to our First Nations people, and bring them into the economic decision-making process of the country. Fourth, we need to invest in rethinking, redesigning and rebuilding a more enlightened prison system worthy of the 21st century.

And finally, we need to start redeveloping a sense of ourselves as forward-thinking, caring Canadians, with a common vision of our own future -- beyond hauling non-renewable oil and minerals out of the ground (like some Third World country) and selling off them to the lowest bidders, along with the remnants of our Canadian-owned corporations.

It's time we told our politicians to take off the dark glasses. Those people we're tossing in our jails are our neighbours and fellow Canadians, not scum to be cleaned off the soles of our shoes.

It's been said before and I'll say it again: the American prison model isn't working for them, and it sure as hell won't work for us. And if you don't believe me, just ask Conrad Black.