Any week now, we might expect the Correctional Service of Canada to be renamed Punishment Canada.
Corrections – the idea that those in prison might be assisted while incarcerated to be better prepared for life outside jail – is apparently foreign to the Harper government. Instead, it wants to put more people away for longer, then, figuratively speaking, throw away the key. Punishment is in; correction is out.
Just when you think this government’s criminal justice policies, which have been almost universally denounced by experts in the field, can’t get worse, they do.
So it was recently when Public Safety Minister Vic Toews rolled out more mean-spirited, politically motivated and predictably counterproductive policies to make life harder for those in prison.
The result, about which he apparently could not care less, will be more tension and resentment in prison, a tougher job for the Correctional Service and for the men and women in uniform inside prisons whom the Conservatives are supposed to admire so much.
For example, prisoners who work or participate in prison programs – something that is supposed to be part of “corrections,” properly understood – can earn between $1 and $6.90 a day. At the top of this “pay scale,” they contribute $25 a week for room and board in the prison. Starting next year, however, Mr. Toews and company want to jack up this room and board payment, leaving inmates with less money, of course.
Again as part of “corrections,” properly understood, inmates at 31 institutions can work in such areas as textiles, construction, printing and laundry. These environments are as close as possible to a business outside prison, thereby allowing inmates to prepare to return to society. For this work, inmates receive incentive pay. Or at least they did until Mr. Toews and company ended it.
Want to make a phone call as an inmate? At the moment prison staff break down the costs for each inmate and charge him or her. From now on, in the Toews world, the administrative charges thus incurred will be borne by the inmates, because as Mr. Toews says, “You use it, you pay for it.”
All these and other petty changes are supposed to account for $10-million of the $295-million to be cut from the Correctional Service budget by 2014-2015.
Taking that amount of money from the budget, while increasing the inmate population and refusing to build new prisons, is a recipe for overcrowding. Mr. Toews says the inmate population will not grow as a result of his tough- on-crime measures. It is the kind of statement this government specializes in making – an assertion endlessly repeated that almost no one who understands the issue at hand finds believable.
Mandatory minimum sentences and tougher sentences for certain crimes will increase the inmate population, as the Parliamentary Budget Officer, among others, has noted. Since there will be no additional facilities, the existing ones will get more crowded. And now these petty aggravations will be added to what is already an unpleasant existence for those in prison.
You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal, or as the Conservatives like to say, someone who enjoys hugging thugs, to be concerned about where this kind of approach leads. When the emphasis moves away from corrections toward more and harsher punishment of both the physical and psychological variety, recidivism rates will increase and real correction will become more difficult. That will likely mean more crime over the long haul in a country that, apart from the United States (which is in a league by itself), has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.
There being no serious policy rationale for the Conservatives’ approach, the answer as to why they keep finding new tough-on-crime measures is politics. The Conservatives obviously feel their political supporters applaud new indignities for prisoners who have done something that got them put behind bars and for whom there is little sympathy.
A former Progressive Conservative MP, David Daubney, joined the civil service after his political career ended. He became a leading specialist in criminal law policy within the civil service until, knowing the field so well, he couldn’t bear the direction of government policy any more. And so he resigned, because he understood the folly of it all.