The federal Tories have politicized a prison space crisis in a bid to make emergency spending look like economic development, charges a Liberal MP. Conservative MPs and ministers have begun criss-crossing the country, making campaign-style announcements at each one of 35 federal penitentiaries where new cells will be built to accommodate an exploding inmate population. “The Conservatives don’t miss an opportunity to try to turn anything into pork barrelling and so what they’re doing of course is masquerade this outrageous and outlandish prison spending as somehow being a stimulus to the economy,” Ajax-Pickering MP Mark Holland told me Wednesday. Holland is the party’s critic on corrections issues.
This week, the government made two more announcements about prison expansions.
On Monday, Stockwell Day, president of the Treasury Board, was at Mission Institution in British Columbia to announce that the government will spend $15 million to build 96 more cells at the medium-security prison.
The next day, Crowfoot MP Kevin Sorenson announced that $50 million will be spent to build new cells at Drumheller and Bowden institutions in southern Alberta.
An announcement also was made recently about $40 million being spent to build new cells at Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia.
The announcements are part of a secret plan to build new cells at 35 of the 54 existing facilities, rather than build any new prisons, because the expansions can be done more quickly and more cheaply. The government is scrambling to find room for a prison population surging because of get-tough law-and-order initiatives.
Early last month, the Whig-Standard revealed the list of 35 prisons slated for expansion. The newspaper obtained information compiled by senior Corrections Canada officials showing that new cells will be built at six federal prisons in Ontario, including four in the Kingston area: Collins Bay, Frontenac, Pittsburgh and Bath institutions.
Corrections authorities refused to discuss the list, saying only that the agency plans a “multi-faceted accommodation strategy” to create space for 2,700 more federal prisoners over the next three years.
Individual announcements have not yet been made at the Kingston-area prisons but are in the works, the newspaper learned.
Government strategists are concerned about exposing the minister or other senior officials to protesters in the Kingston area, where opposition has been vocal to the closing of six prison farms.
A plan to have Public Safety Minister Vic Toews appear in Kingston last week was scrapped at the last minute.
Corrections won’t reveal how it chose prisons for expansion.
An Ottawa-based researcher, doctoral student Justin Piche, says roughly 65% of the sites selected for construction are in Conservative ridings. By his estimates, 22 of the sites that will see construction were built before 1980.
A task force report on corrections prepared for the government three years ago recommended closing older prisons and building new.
“I think what’s very disturbing about the expansion and the prison spending is that it’s not on the books anywhere,” Holland said.
The parliamentary budget officer has estimated that just one legislative change, the cancellation of two-for-one pre-trial credit, will add roughly 4,000 more inmates to the system over the next five years and require another $5 billion in spending on federal and provincial corrections.
“The minister’s response is that he knows all the costs but he won’t tell so he wants parliament to be kept in the dark and the Canadian public to be kept in the dark on the costs and implications of these moves,” Holland said.
In addition to moving swiftly to build new cells, Corrections Canada also has changed its own policy to allow more inmates to be housed two to a cell, a practice that violates United Nations standards on the treatment of prisoners.
The newspaper acquired an internal Corrections document two weeks ago that revealed the policy change.
Holland said he’s concerned about the elimination of the prison farm program, which had rehabilitative value, and cuts to other programs that are designed to help prisoners go straight after release.
“They seem to be scaling back programming at the very same time that they’re expanding the prison population, so that means that you’re going to have more and more inmates with less and less programming which is going to drive up the reoffending rate … and again they’re going to make communities much less safe,” he said.
The government and Corrections have not indicated how programs and staffing will be increased as new cells are built.
“They’re behind a veil of secrecy in terms of what they’re doing with staffing,” Holland said.
The prison expansion announcements are being welcomed by cash-hungry local governments.
Mission Mayor James Atebe said the $15-million project in his community, along with other federally-funded stimulus work in the district, will have a long-term economic spinoff locally.
“The economic multiplier effect is good for the community,” Atebe said. “The $15 million, once invested, will have a trickle effect in terms of jobs and services.”
Holland isn’t surprised by the reaction.
“I think a local mayor is going to be obliged to welcome any investment of dollars but the question is, what would be better for the municipality, money spent expanding their prison or money spent in developing community capacity to stop crime from happening in the first place,” he said.
Holland charged that the Tories are stealing money from other program areas and dumping the cash into prison expansion.
The list of prisons being expanded
(though Corrections and Ottawa still consider this list confidential, so don’t tell anyone)
Springhill Institution $$$$plans announced
Federal Training Centre
Beaver Creek Institution
Collins Bay Institution
Bowden Institution $$$$plans announced
Drumheller Institution $$$$plans announced
Drumheller Institution (Minimum)
Bowden Institution $$$$plans announced
Pê Sâkâstêw Centre
Willow Cree Healing Centre
William Head Institution
Nova Institution for Women
Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario
Edmonton Institution for Women
Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge
Fraser Valley Institution for Women