Ontario could see chain gangs cleaning graffiti and raking leaves along highways and in public areas if the Progressive Conservatives form the next government.
Tory Leader Tim Hudak is making a bold play for votes ahead of the Oct. 6 election by vowing to put provincial inmates to work if he takes the reins of power.
In what's being billed as a Canadian first, inmates in Ontario prisons would be forced to perform 40 hours of manual labour a week to earn rewards like coffee and gym time, he said.
"Prisoners can watch TV, they can play cards, they can play poker at the same time we do - after a good day's work," Mr. Hudak said.
The Tories, who have eclipsed the ruling Liberals in public opinion polls, said they would allocate $20-million to fund the program, which would put inmates to work outside prison grounds.
His election promise is reminiscent of former premier Mike Harris' "workfare" program, which forced able-bodied people on welfare to work for their benefits.
Under Premier Dalton McGuinty, prisoners get yoga lessons, cooking classes, writing workshops and premium cable TV channels - all on the public dime, Mr. Hudak said.
"By putting criminals to work, the taxpayers dollars that used to be spent for that work would be spent on law-abiding citizens and benefits that matter to all of us, like health care," he said. "And I'm not asking prisoners to anything more than what hard-working Ontario families do each and every day - and that is, go to work."
The Liberals quickly slammed Mr. Hudak's tough-on-crime plan, warning it would endanger communities by putting thousands of convicted criminals in Ontario parks and neighbourhoods with children and families.
"The McGuinty government believes convicted criminals belong behind bars, so that our communities, our kids and our families are safe and secure," Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Jim Bradley said in a statement.
Provincial prisons house offenders awaiting trial, as well as those serving less than two years for offences such as break and enter, assault and drug trafficking. There are currently 8,488 inmates in Ontario facilities, said Joe Kim, a spokesman for Mr. Bradley.
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