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MONTREAL—"It's wrong to believe that more time inside is what will make people safe," says James*, who was recently released from a maximum security prison. "If you want to fight crime, put money into communities, like job opportunities. The best way to fight crime is to fight poverty."
Since Prime Minister Harper took office, Correctional Services Canada (CSC)'s net budget has increased by 54 per cent to $2.46 billion for 2010–2011; it is predicted to increase further to $3.12 billion by 2012–2013, according to CSC. Much of this money is for capital expenditures such as construction of new prisons; in 2010, $329.4 million is set for capital expenditures, and in 2012–2013 that is set to increase to $466.9 million.
The number of incarcerated people in Canada is expected to soar due to new legislation introduced by the Conservative government.
"These prisons that will be coming online aren't even going to put a dent in the number of prisoners that they're going to be creating [with] this legislation," says prison justice activist Justin Piche, who notes that at least 22 new provincial-territorial prisons are being built in Canada and 15 additions are being made to existing facilities.
The Parliamentary Budget Office predicted in June 2010 that Bill C-25, which lengthens prisoners' stays by eliminating the "two-for-one" credit for time served pre-sentencing, will incur over $2 billion in construction, operation, and management costs over a five-year period. These costs correlate to the increased cost of housing these prisoners. The proposed Bill S-10, which involves mandatory minimum sentencing of six months for those producing as few as five marijuana plants, would add additional costs and increase the prison population in numbers that Correctional Services Canada says it cannot predict.
"It's like they're using a bigger net because they have to catch more fish. They're trying to pull people back in," says James. "There is no supporting data that this works, but nobody cares because it's prisoners, and prisoners are seen as second class."
Piche, co-editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, and author of the popular blog Tracking the Politics of "Crime" and Punishment in Canada says the government's changes in legislation, though expensive, are not needed and will not make the streets safer.
This legislation is being introduced despite the fact that Statistics Canada reports that crime rates have been falling steadily since the 1990s.
As the numbers of prisoners is set to rise, the living conditions of prisoners are far below those of the non-incarcerated population. Overcrowding is worsening, according to the Correctional Investigator of Canada's annual report, and incidents of prisoners facing violence from guards are also increasing. Suicide rates are more than seven times higher than the rest of Canada, HIV transmission rates are 10 times higher in prison, and the prevalence of Hepatitis C is 25 times greater. Access to clean needles and condoms is nearly non-existent, creating what many view as a health crisis inside the walls of prisons.
In an interview with Maclean's magazine, the Correctional Investigator of Canada notes that less than three per cent of the budget for prison expansion is to go towards programming inside prisons.
"There used to be so much more in terms of programs, and the ability to learn skills and trades," says James. "They take more and more of that away and we know that it's not coming back."
The Canadian government notes on their Public Safety website that 12 per cent of male and 26 per cent of female offenders have serious mental health problems; and about four out of five offenders arrive at a federal institution with a serious substance abuse problem. This reality, however, is not leading to a corresponding increase in the mental health treatment for prisoners.
James notes that psychotherapy used to be easier to access; but increasingly, guards hold the de facto responsibility for prisoners with mental health issues. "Now guards play the role of the therapists," says James, "because they're there full time. They [the prison system] save money." The Correctional Investigator of Canada has repeatedly denounced the lack of funding for mental health treatment in prisons.
"It's increasingly recognized that our prisons have become dumping grounds for those suffering from mental illnesses, those who have substance-abuse addictions, and also other marginalized populations, particularly the poor, including Aboriginals, who are completely over-represented within our prisons," says Piche.
The increase in spending on prison expansion comes amidst cuts in many other sectors as part of the "austerity measures" that Harper announced at the close of the G20 meetings in Toronto. Money for community spending, for Indigenous peoples, and for women's groups have been slashed across the country.
Piche asserts that the over-representation of marginalized populations in prisons, such as people living in poverty or First Nations peoples, "indicates our inability to use appropriate services to address the needs of [these] populations. These populations are over-policed, over-prosecuted, they are sentenced in a disproportionate fashion, and this basically leads to their over-representation in prisons."
Peter Collins, an outspoken prison justice advocate, reflects on the rising costs of the "prison industrial complex" in a time of "fiscal restraint."
"If you look at the way that they spend on things that they want to spend on, which is the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex, you can see that they are not really in a time of fiscal restraint, they are in a time of abundant spending. It just depends on what they want to spend it on," says Collins. "If it involves killing people or punishing people, there is a lot of money for that."
Collins, who recently won the Canadian Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, is currently serving a life sentence in Bath Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario.
Furthermore, Piche adds, "It costs more to imprison people than it does to put money into community programs, which actually address real social ills." Indeed, the Parliamentary Budget Office reports the average cost of an inmate in 2009-2010 to be $162,373, while community-based organizations across the country are fighting to survive.
To Collins and many others, it is this basic lack of justice that is putting growing numbers of people behind bars for longer and longer stays.
"It is so many people from low economic situations [who are in prisons]," says Collins. When living in poverty children "often do not do as well in school, they're going to school hungry or tired. Some of them have or develop learning disabilities [and struggle with school] and then you have schools operating with their no-tolerance attitudes...and when the kid runs afoul then he's on the street," explains Collins. "What are the kids supposed to do? When do we take some responsibility in society for that kid's opportunity or lack of it?"
Though the Canadian government refers to its prison system as "rehabilitative," Collins disagrees. He points out that it is not only poor conditions inside of prisons or the expansion of prisons that should be criticized, but the very idea of using incarceration as a solution: "At the end of the day, regardless of how pretty or how ugly a prison is, it's still a prison. Deprivation does not work, you simply can't rehabilitate someone inside of a cage."
"They treat you like an infant, like a 'bad child,'" agrees James. "They try to hold you in for so long, it harms you."
Piche says these statements are supported by the evidence. "It has been demonstrated in studies about the US system of longer-term incarceration and mandatory minimums that indeed, though much more money is spent, American-style justice and imprisonment systems do not work in reducing or in preventing crime".
Collins sees a deep injustice in a system he says doesn't make the streets any safer but puts public money into locking away economically and racially marginalized people, while others walk free. "There are different ways that we can see criminals. If you look at the tar sands—the way that they're pumping toxins into the Athabasca river and poisoning everybody downstream, and the air—how is that not criminal?" asks Collins. Collins has faced severe repercussions and the denial of his parole as a direct consequence of speaking out from inside prison, yet he continues to do so.
"There is a punishment for speaking out. But I think that there is punishment for shutting up as well. At the end of the day, if you know that something should be said and you don't say it, you're going to pay some price in terms of your integrity, your dignity. So you've got to make the choice of where you want to pay your toll."
* Not his real name.
Robyn Maynard is a movement writer, radio journalist, and activist based in Montreal. She co-hosts No One Is Illegal Radio and is involved in various grassroots campaigns for migrant justice, and against police violence and impunity.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.