“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”
— From “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
Vic Toews’ logic is labyrinthine at the best of times, but his recent announcement that the federal government is closing three correctional institutions defies all reason.
Prisons are crowded to the point that the federal government is adding 2,700 new cells to existing institutions. Double bunking in medium security facilities is commonplace. Ottawa just passed new legislation that calls for tougher minimum sentences and has been bracing for an influx of new inmates.
What’s the next logical step? Why, closing prisons, of course.
Yes, perfectly sensible. Let’s take maximum security prisoners like Paul Bernardo and Russell Williams and move them to … where, exactly? There aren’t enough maximum security spaces for the number of maximum security inmates being displaced.
Let’s take prisoners with complex mental health needs from the Kingston Regional Treatment Centre and send them to — wait. There is no space available at a comparable facility.
We’re talking 1,000 inmates, all told.
What is the rationale for this nonsensical decision?
Prisoners as pawns
Some of the prisoners will reportedly be transferred to an institution in Toews’ riding. Given that the doomed institutions — Kingston Penitentiary and the Regional Treatment Centre, and LeClerc Institution in Laval, Que. — are in Liberal and NDP territory, the optics are interesting, to say the least.
During “The National’s” At Issue panel on CBC news on April 20, panellist Chantal Hébert argued the move was pure politics.
“I think, to put it really simply, that they’re moving jobs from Liberal or opposition areas to Conservative, good Conservative areas,” she said.
She also noted that some of the institutions where prisoners could be transferred are as old or older than the ones being closed.
They’ve stopped making sense
That point was not lost on Justin Piché, an assistant professor of sociology at Memorial University who specializes in the Canadian penal system and the whole sociology of punishment.
As he wrote via email to The Telegram, “if the feds are closing these facilities because they are aging and outmoded, why are they building more than 2,500 new prison spaces on the grounds of dozens of existing penitentiaries, many of which are aging and outmoded?
“Why are they spending $601 million to this end, when the 2007 (Correction Service of Canada) Review Panel recommended the replacement of these facilities? …
“More importantly, why are we spending money on expanding prisons when the best available evidence suggests that increasing our use of incarceration will not enhance community safety in the long-term? Could this money not be spent on preventing victimization in the first place or meeting the complex needs of the victimized and criminalized?”
The decision to close prisons raises other questions, too.
Toews claims his government’s tough-on-crime legislation has not resulted in the new wave of criminals that had been anticipated, but it’s just been rolled out. Shouldn’t they wait and see what happens?
And if the new laws don’t generate an in-rush of new inmates, is the legislation even necessary?
Piché says it makes no sense to usher in tougher crime laws and then shut down institutions.
“They are reducing capacity when they are generating an influx of additional prisoners,” he said.
“They are deepening the use of incarceration when the best available evidence suggests this is not a path to enhancing community safety in the long-term.
“They are doing all this when, according to research compiled by Irvin Waller from the University of Ottawa, we could save $7 (spent) on imprisonment for every $1 we spend on preventing victimization.”
Perhaps Toews’ choice of words in a quote from the National Post on April 19 is worth pondering.
“Institutions built in the 19th century are not appropriate for managing a 21st-century inmate population,” Toews said — something not lost on advocates in this province who have been clamouring to have the decrepit penitentiary in St. John’s replaced.
Apparently, Toews’ government thinks of inmates as something to be managed — like stockroom inventory or a fleet of trucks. How can we best manage inmates for the least amount of money? And how can we use them as political pawns in the process?
But the warehouse approach won’t work here. We’re not stockpiling widgets, after all.
Piché thinks prison policy should be proactive and not reactive. More forethought, less afterthought.
I agree. While there are convicts like Williams and Bernardo whose crimes are so heinous that they will likely never be rehabilitated, there are others serving time for addiction-driven robberies or illegal drug use who should receive help for the root of their problems. They should not simply be locked away or moved out of their home jurisdictions and crammed two to a cell.
Looking closer to home, Piché says the sad state of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary could actually present this province with an opportunity to chart a bold new direction when it comes to corrections.
“It’s not simply the building that is antiquated,” Piché said of HMP, “it is the idea that we can incarcerate ourselves towards safer communities that is outmoded. How could money from the province (or federal government if they ever pony up) to replace HMP be reinvested in the community to address mental health, substance abuse and other issues to stop the cycle of victimization in the community?”
That’s the kind of thinking the federal government is ignoring.
Toews’ approach is to close prisons, cut a program that helps ex-cons transition back into society and a service that addresses inmates’ grievances, and stack people ever tighter into the prisons that remain.
More bodies, ramped-up stress and an increased potential for violence.
All to save money, or to win votes, or both.
In essence, the federal government is turning up the heat on a pressure cooker that has a frayed cord and a faulty valve.
Better stand back — something’s going to blow.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email