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A view of the Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. The federal government has announced the closure of Canada's oldest prison as part of a cost-cutting move. (Lars Hagberg/LARS HAGBERG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A view of the Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. The federal government has announced the closure of Canada's oldest prison as part of a cost-cutting move. (Lars Hagberg/LARS HAGBERG/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Economy Lab

Closing penitentiaries is not in taxpayers' best interests Add to ...

Tammy Schirle is an Associate Professor of Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University

This spring we’ve heard many announcements of layoffs in the public sector, and for the most part we expected this. However, I know of several officers in Correctional Services of Canada who believed their jobs were more secure with a Conservative majority. They were shocked when Vic Toews made the announcement that two federal prisons were closing, including Kingston Penitentiary – a maximum-security prison holding some our most frightening and violent criminals.

The claim is that these closures will save the government $120-million per year on facility and labour costs, with no threat to public safety. Inmates will be reallocated to existing prisons. We are led to believe there is excess capacity in the system, wasting taxpayer dollars, and this is simply an efficient policy change.

I’m always in favour of using our tax dollars more efficiently, but we’re looking to reallocate nearly a thousand inmates here – where exactly are they going to go?

According to Correctional Services of Canada statistics, there is no room in their maximum security prisons. Kingston Penitentiary had an average of 393 inmates in March 2012, slightly lower than their “rated capacity” of 421. However, Millhaven Institution – the only other maximum-security prison in Ontario – held an average of 500 inmates in March, despite their capacity for only 413 inmates. Collectively, the institutions that are likely to receive the maximum-security inmates from Kingston – the Atlantic, Donnacona, Port-Cartier, Millhaven, Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Kent Institutions – held 2,478 inmates in March and had a capacity for only 2,451. So where are 393 inmates from Kingston going to be sent?

I don’t see the excess capacity in the prison system; I’d love to know where Vic Toews thinks it is. Are we hoping that crime rates fall dramatically before we start closing the prisons? Are we reducing sentences so that all new inmates get sent to provincial prisons? Recent legislation that extends sentencing can only reduce the “unused” prison capacity further.

Is it really worth cutting back on prison expenditures, or could this move end up costing us more? To be clear, I’m not concerned with inmates’ standard of living – frankly, I have little sympathy for most prisoners. However, U.S. economist Steve Levitt has pointed out that expenditures on prisons can have benefits to the public -- as dollars spent on imprisonment are associated with lower crime rates -- that outweigh the direct costs of housing prisoners. Statistically speaking, I have not found clear evidence that prison over-crowding directly affects the likelihood of recidivism. There is, however, clear evidence that inmate education and vocational training will reduce recidivism through skills development, creating significant cost savings for the prison system with fewer inmates returning to prison. We might expect overcrowded prisons to reduce or delay access to programs, reducing the effectiveness of time served in prison and ultimately increasing costs via repeat offenders.

Overcrowded prisons are also likely to result in more conflict. The danger to officers is clear, and costly by several measures. Every major inmate conflict within prison costs taxpayers in court costs, health care, additional prison staffing, and administrative costs.

I certainly don’t see any improvements to public safety coming out of this, just more violent criminals.

When a public service job is cut, I like to see the benefits to the taxpayer – I don’t see that in the case of Corrections. As more job cuts are handed down, Canadians should be questioning whether it’s really saving them anything in the long run.

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