While the Conservatives say this is about "helping deliver safer communities" and the "rights of victims" (read here), and "reaffirming" their commitment to the cities and towns where penitentiaries are located, the substance of their agenda and the process through which they are implementing it flies in the face of their rhetoric.
On the Side of Victims?
In his press release, Toews stated that "Our Government is proud to be on the right side of this issue - the side of law-abiding citizens, the side of victims who want justice...".
If this is about taking the side of victims, this pledge is certainly not reflected in the 2010-2011 federal budget where only $16.6 million is allocated to this portfolio versus $2.64 billion in funding for the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), $329.4 million of which is being allocated towards capital expenditures such as building new units.
While Conservative MPs claim that all victims' groups and supporters are on their side when it comes to expanding our reliance on prisons, the first Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, Steve Sullivan, has stated that building these facilities does not address the complex needs of victims and that the money earmarked for prison construction should be spent on helping victims (read 6 April 2010 post).
Sullivan's claim is not only supported by his experience working with victims, it is also supported by the victimology literature where studies have shown that if other needs of victims are met - having information about their case, receiving compensation, having the harm that was done to them acknowledged by their perpetrators and being provided with assurances from them that they will not be re-victimized - incarceration becomes a far less pressing need in many circumstances.
The Side that Understands Public Safety?
In his press release, Toews also stated that "Our government is proud to be on the... side that understands the cost of a safe and secure society is an investment worth making".
The penology literature is full of studies that show that increasing our reliance on imprisonment is not a path towards enhancing safety in our communities in the long-term, because while prisons incapacitate prisoners in the short-term, the longer someone spends in prison and cut off from the communities where they are from, the more their prospects to maintain the support networks needed for safe reintegration are diminished.
Further, in a context where only 2 percent of the federal penitentiary system's budget is dedicated to programming that prisoners may need to safely reintegrate into society - a state of affairs that has led to long-waiting lists for programs in CSC institutions according to Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, it makes little sense to divert funds into prison building while also adding thousands of new prisoners into a system that already cannot adequately meet its mandate.
The fact that yesterday's $155.5 million worth of investments in punishment infrastructure represents more than this government's spending on programming for prisoners is telling of what their priorities are.
This is not a recipe for public safety.
The Equivalent of a New Federal Penitentiary in Kingston
In his press release, Toews noted that the federal government would be constructing two new 96-bed units at Bath Institution, one new 96-bed unit at Millhaven Institution and another 96-bed unit at Collins Bay Institution. The 384 new beds are roughly the equivalent of building a new average-sized federal penitentiary in Kingston, except this facility development and siting strategy does not require the approval of local stakeholders.
How does this "reaffirm" the federal government's commitment to the Kingston area? If anything they are thumbing their noses at community members who should have a say as to whether or not they want the equivalent of a new prison in their backyards (for more on penitentiary siting - read 6 August 2010 post). We do live in a democratic country after all where transparency and accountability are said to be the cornerstones of governance.
The Age of Penitentiaries Where New Units Are Being Built
As I've noted previously (read 18 August 2010 post), the 2007 CSC Review Panel - that is said to be guiding the operational decisions of the penitentiary system at this time - recommended that the federal government not invest in infrastructure at aging facilities. Instead, they argued that these facilities should be replaced by regional complexes.
If the government is using this 'roadmap', why are they building new units on the grounds of the 80 year old Collins Bay Institution, the 39 year old Millhaven Institution and the 38 year old Bath Institution? What is driving the placement of these new units?
Given that Liberal MP Peter Milliken is soon to be retired and only managed to win his riding over Conservative candidate Brian Abrams by 6.6 percent in the 2008 federal election, is this a case of penal patronage intended to buy votes?
I will continue to withhold judgement on this question, but I do again want to bring attention to the fact that during this process, CSC officials and their political masters have not fully disclosed their federal penitentiary construction initiatives to anyone. Canadians have been effectively told they do not have the right to know.
Federal-Provincial-Territorial Prison Budget Showdown Continues
Not only are citizens being kept in the dark about the implications of the Conservatives punishment agenda, the provinces and territories are also navigating uncharted waters, left to drown on a boat without a motor or paddles.
During his press conference, Vic Toews responded to calls from provinces and territories such as Alberta for assistance to absorb the influx of new prisoners resulting from their legislative agenda (read article by D'Aliesio) by noting that the "provinces have been active partners in this push for legislation. They are the ones who came to us and said, 'We need this legislation'. So they are our partners, in terms of not only the crime-fighting agenda but the cost... Those are their responsibilities as well. And I believe that they are - many of them are - prepared to shoulder that responsibility" (read article by Bronskill).
The fact that governments in Ontario (read 29 April 2010 post), Manitoba (read 1 May 2010 post; read 16 June 2010 post), Nunavut (read 4 May 2010 post; read 13 May 2010 post) and elsewhere (read 22 May 2010 post), have noted that they do not have the space or money to safely implement the punishment agenda of their federal counterparts, perhaps it is time that the FPT group revisit how penal policy is drafted, debated and implemented in this country.
While tagline justice initiatives may play well politically, the human and financial costs associated with increasing our reliance on incarceration need to be considered by all stakeholders before they are implemented, not after the runaway freight train leaves the station. This process could begin by having a public discussion about the Changing Face of Corrections Report on cross-jurisdictional 'corrections' issues that has remained buried since it was tabled at the 2009 FPT meeting of ministers responsible for justice and public safety (read 5 May 2010 post).
Prison Mortgages in Context
All of this is taking place in a context where victimization rates for 8 types of 'crimes' are stable according to a recent Statistics Canada survey, and the rate of police-reported 'crimes' for hundreds of 'offences' have been declining for decades.
All of this in a context where we have the knowledge that spending $1 on preventing victimization saves taxpayers $7 they would have had to spend on incarcerating someone after the fact.
All of this in a context where Canada's population is aging and it appears that young Canadians will be paying for prison mortgages instead of more robust health care and pensions for their parents and grandparents.
All of this in the context of a fiscal crisis where governments will have to cut social programs or raise taxes to balance the books.
I've never been a fan of 4 Non Blondes, but given the circumstances I can't help but ask "what's going on?"