Since their election in 2006, the minority Conservative Government of Canada has spear-headed a punishment agenda that aims to put more people behind bars for longer periods of time with fewer chances of release. Sensing that the legislative changes would result in a dramatic increase in our prison population, and subsequently, the construction of new penal institutions, a number of communities are looking to cash-in on what is perceived to be a handsome economic stimulus package.
In Pontiac (Québec), the retrenchment in the forestry sector prompted the provincial government's Ministère du Développement économique, de l'innovation et de l'exportation to undertake a study that assessed the potential economic benefits of establishing a penitentiary in the county. The report, "Projet de pénitencier fédéral dans la MRC Pontiac", was presented to mayors in the region in 2007 (see CBC News article) who were reportedly scheduled to meet their MP, Lawrence Cannon, to ask him to lobby for a federal prison in his riding.
In Valemount (British Columbia), a small group of citizens presented a proposal for a new medium-security penitentiary at an April 2010 municipal council meeting as a means to attract "much needed stimulus to our village" (watch Valemount Live - minutes 2:17 to 6:10). Plan in hand, the proponents have approached their MP, Cathy McLeod, to lobby the Correctional Service of Canada on their behalf.
The Government of New Brunswick has also sought to benefit from penal patronage and have called upon one of their local MP's, Tilly O'Neill-Gordon, to lobby the Feds to select Atlantic Institution in Renous as one of the facilities for expansion as part of the implementation of the so-called 'Truth in Sentencing' legislation.
Not wanting to miss out on the action, federal Cabinet Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn sent a letter to Public Safety Minister Vic Toews on 8 March 2010 inquiring about the possibility of establishing a federal penitentiary in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean.
In his response (see copy of original below), Toews stated that there are no approved plans to build new penitentiaries in Québec at this time. He went on to write that should additional capacity be needed due to legislative changes it would be more economical and quicker to expand existing facilities. It is also noted that future needs can be met by replacing and consolidating existing facilities, which would allow for the use of existing properties. Should new facilities be needed in the future, Toews states that site selection would be based on a number of factors including the community of origin of prisoners, the proximity of prospective sites to services, as well as personnel such as health and mental health professionals. He notes that these and other factors often result in penitentiaries being built near large urban centres. Toews concludes his letter to his Cabinet colleague by stating that in the hypothetical situation where a site would be needed for a new penitentiary the analysis would be undertaken based on the interest of communities in the operational region were such a facility would be required.
* Letter obtained through an Access to Information request filed with CSC.
The Blackburn-Toews exchange and other examples of the politics of penal patronage discussed above raise a number of issues.
First, it appears that a number of Conservative MP's view the expansion of our prisons as of result of their punishment agenda as another opportunity to increase their political capital by attracting new jobs to their struggling communities via the 'crime-control industry'. What is troubling about this trend is that these prospective profiteers of human misery assume that their constituents will benefit from the establishment of penal institutions in their towns while an increasing number of studies are showing that the purported economic benefits said to accompany the establishment of new prisons often do not materialize (read 12 May 2010 post). Moreover, the money diverted into building and operating prisons could be invested in our communities to prevent victimization and meet the needs of those impacted by the conflicts and harms we call 'crime'. These funds could also be deployed to enhance the quality of life of Canadians through investments in health care, transportation and other services that attract economic investment.
A second issue that is raised is one of governmental management and transparency. For months we have heard that the government's punishment agenda will cost billions to implement. Given the magnitude of the expenditures involved, one would think that the matter of deciding how to absorb a massive influx of new prisoners in the years ahead would be an issue discussed amongst members of the Conservative caucus and Cabinet. Yet, we have a number of Conservative MP's and Cabinet Ministers lobbying for new penitentiaries that the Public Safety Minister says are not being built. Which begs the question: is CSC's long-term plan to build new facilities discussed by CSC Commissioner Don Head (read 22 June 2010 Calgary Sun editorial) closer to coming to fruition than Toews is letting on? Or is it the case that Toews - and by connection, his colleagues - are not aware of CSC's long-term plan to, in the Commissioner's words, "replace penitentiaries that have stood the test of time for many decades and no longer meet the requirements of a modern correctional system"?
No matter the case, the situation does not reflect well on our current federal government.