In support of prisoners and prison justice activism in Canada
Build new, bigger prisons and scrap early release, review panel urges

Build new, bigger prisons and scrap early release, review panel urges
Dec 13, 2007
Sue Bailey And Jim Bronskill, THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA - The government should build new regional super-jails and scrap statutory release of federal inmates in favour of earned parole, a prison review panel says.

The panel headed by a former cabinet minister in Ontario's Mike Harris government urges Ottawa to bring aging, scattered prisons into the 21st century. It also says rehabilitation must be more of a shared duty borne by inmates and corrections.

A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said the report is being studied.

"We need to ensure our prisons are safe to work in, are free of illicit drugs and are rehabilitating offenders effectively so that both our corrections staff and our communities are protected," said Melisa Leclerc.

As for the potential pricetag of locking up more people for longer: "It is too early to speculate on possible costs," she said in an e-mailed response.

Most convicts now leave prison with conditions after serving two-thirds of their sentences. But in the long-awaited report released Thursday, the panel headed by former Ontario Tory cabinet minister Rob Sampson says offenders should have to show why they should get out.

It says while the Correctional Service is to be praised for efforts to reform offenders, there are those who merely "wait out" the system until they reach statutory release.

"Life inside a penitentiary should promote a positive work ethic," says the report, which makes 109 recommendations. "Today, an offender working hard at rehabilitation is often treated no differently than an offender who is seeking only to continue his criminal lifestyle."

Prisons are dealing with an "alarming" new type of offender, it adds. They're more likely to be violent, gang-affiliated, addicted and mentally ill.

Inmates need more attention over shorter periods, since many serve sentences of less than three years. But Corrections faces "severe challenges" meeting these needs in antiquated prisons - including some a century old, says the report.

The panel recommends building regional super-complexes that include several services under one roof for different types of offenders. That way, inmates wouldn't have to move between facilities scattered across the country.

For example, ill offenders could stay in a complex's health-care unit without the added expense of a hospital stay.

The report also calls for better fences, more dogs and other technology to curb a booming drug trade behind bars.

"The panel believes the presence of illicit drugs in a federal penitentiary is not only unacceptable but results in a dangerous environment for staff and offenders."

"A more structured work day" for prisoners is recommended to ensure meaningful skills upon release, along with more programs for the mentally ill.

Critics say ending the long-standing policy of early release would put more pressure on an already stressed system.

"I can only imagine how many millions of dollars these recommendations will entail," said inmate advocate Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. "Canadian taxpayers should be aware of the implications and should be speaking out against them."

Boosting education, health and social-service funding to support disadvantaged kids before they become career criminals is a far more effective way to fight crime, she said.

Pate called the Conservative government's apparent fixation with prison-building instead of community supports "a travesty."

Ottawa pays about $1.9 billion a year to house 12,700 inmates in 58 institutions. The average yearly cost in 2005-06 was around $88,000 per prisoner or $114,000 in maximum security.

Any prisoner increase would be on top of Tory crime crackdown bills which, if passed, would put more people behind bars for longer. These would include tougher bail provisions and higher mandatory minimum sentences for various gun crimes. Another bill would see three-time violent criminals and sex offenders locked up indefinitely as dangerous offenders unless they can convince a court otherwise.

The Conservatives have never revealed the cost of their crime-fighting agenda.

But a related Correctional Service analysis made public during the 2006 election campaign estimated extra prison spending at between $5 billion and $11.5 billion over 10 years.

Sampson was correctional services minister in the Ontario government that introduced Canada's first privately run boot camp for young offenders. The provincial Liberal regime did not renew its contract.

His appointment by Day last spring to lead the review, along with four panel members with little formal corrections expertise, was dismissed by critics as a political ploy to tell the government what it wants to hear.

"They have one objective: they think throwing (criminals) in jail and throwing the keys away is the only solution," said Liberal public safety critic Ujjal Dosanjh. "And I find that to be really a medieval way of thinking."

It also defies lessons learned the hard way. Dosanjh cited mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes penalties in the U.S. that sent prison populations soaring without parallel crime-rate cuts.

"If having the toughest penalties were a panacea for crime, then the (American) states that have the death penalty should be heaven," he said. "But they aren't. It's quite the contrary."

Source: www.cbc.ca
Review Panel Full Report