VAUGHAN, Ont. - Days spent watching television, playing poker and lifting weights are over for prisoners in Ontario jails if the Progressive Conservatives win the Oct. 6 election, party Leader Tim Hudak vowed Wednesday.
Hudak promised to force the roughly 2,900 prisoners in provincial jails to work 40 hours a week, without pay, cleaning up parks and other public spaces.
"We want our Ontario prisoners to do just what every law abiding man and woman does in the province: an honest day’s labour before enjoying leisure time," Hudak said at a campaign stop in Vaughan.
"No more high definition cable TV packages. We want prisoners to give back to society that they’ve taken from. It’s only fair."
There's nothing wrong with forcing prisoners to rake leaves, cut grass and pick up trash, said Hudak, who twice failed to say how his inmate work program would differ from American chain gangs.
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"These programs currently exist in about six provinces, voluntary programs currently," he said. "This is common across Canada, but I guess the difference is Dalton McGuinty has voluntary programs."
All the other prisoner work programs in Canada are voluntary.
The Liberals say Hudak's $20-million budget for his inmate work program "is too cheap to be safe," and would provide for only two unarmed guards for every 42 prisoners outside the jail.
Current rules require two guards for every 10 prisoners when they are transporting them outside jails, and the Liberals say it would cost between $100 and $120 million to have that level of staffing for Hudak's inmate work program.
The Liberals also provided examples of escapees from American chain gangs who have raped and robbed banks to show how such a policy can go tragically wrong. They also said the work programs would make life more dangerous for guards because of contraband the prisoners could bring back into the jails "after their day in the park."
However, Hudak said putting prisoners to work will free up taxpayers' dollars for other services such as health care, and noted he's had support from jail guards for the plan.
"I’ve actually had prison guards come up to me and say: 'Tim I like this idea. I’m working hard, busting my butt, and I see these guys sitting around watching high definition cable TV I can’t afford for my own kids,'" said Hudak.
"I’m really tired of all of the Liberal excuses about this program. If they think the approach is to just pay for (prisoners) to play poker and watch high definition cable TV all day long, they should have the guts to say it."
Premium cable TV for prisoners — which was brought in under the Conservatives — was cancelled by the government in April.
The New Democrats said they didn't think the idea of chain gangs was what most Ontario voters are looking for.
"I don't remember ever hearing that from any Ontarian that I talked to over the last two and a half years (and) I don't think it's a priority for people," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
"If Mr. Hudak thinks that that's where Ontarians are, then that's his read. It's certainly not mine."
Earlier Wednesday at a Tory breakfast rally in Brampton, former Ontario premier Bill Davis said he thought Hudak did "quite well" in Tuesday night's televised leaders debate.
The 82-year-old Davis beamed as he evaded all the questions from reporters asking about Hudak's right-wing policies, and even declined to answer a question that he posed to himself.
"What is your definition of right wing? Where is the centre? It changes doesn’t it," Davis said.
"I think (Hudak's) doing quite well, but if you’re going to ask me to make predictions, I never have and I haven’t started doing it yet."
After the rally, Davis hopped onto the media bus, which he said was always more fun than the leader's bus on an election campaign.