Stephen Harper’s reaffirmation of his tough-on-crime agenda on Sunday, Jan. 23, the fifth anniversary of his gaining power, came at an odd time. Just days before, uber-conservative American Newt Gingrich had publicly denounced the lock ’em up approach.

In a Washington Post article, entitled, Prison Reform: A smart way for states to save money and lives, Gingrich and co-writer Pat Nolan stated: “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential.”

The former Republican speaker of the House pointed out that the tough-on-crime agenda has led to the prison population growing “13 times faster than the general population” at a cost of $68 billion in 2010 — a 300 per cent jump in 25 years — with no improvement in public safety.

In fact, with half the released prisoners back behind bars within three years, public safety is threatened more than ever.

“If our prison policies are failing half the time, and we know that there are more humane, effective alternatives, it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners,” Gingrich and Nolan argued.

They noted that even Texas has turned away from a focus on incarceration to a stronger probation system and community-based programs for the mentally ill and low-level drug addicts — and the crime rate has dropped by 10 per cent over five years, the lowest level since 1973.

South Carolina, too, is imprisoning with much less abandon, trying to keep non-violent offenders out of penal institutions through community supervision.

Gingrich is not alone in this view. Based on his own personal experience in a Florida cell, the newly minted, socially aware Conrad Black has written that the U.S. penchant for jailing marijuana users isn’t working, calling it a “hideously expensive and protracted failure of official policy….”

But these new American facts and observations appear to mean nothing to the Harper government.

According to Carleton University researcher, Justin Piché: “There are a number of pieces of legislation currently before Parliament that aim to put more people behind bars, for longer periods of time, with fewer chances of release into the community prior to the expiry of their sentences.”

Forty per cent of the Conservative agenda to be precise — in spite of a drop in crime rates.

In a blatant pre-election move that has been labelled “prison pork barrel,” Conservative ministers have announced building plans for 634 new beds in several provinces, costing $158 million. They crow about local construction and security jobs, ignoring the fact that a less vindictive government might prefer to invest in schools, hospitals, and childcare.

The main cause of the incarceration explosion is Harper’s abolition of the two-for-one pre-trial custody arrangement, but tougher laws for drug offenders, mandatory minimum sentences, and more will put an estimated 3,400 of us behind bars at a cost of $2 billion.

At least, that’s the government story. Parliamentary Budget Officer, Kevin Page, believes that the number will be closer to 4,200, costing $4 billion. He also fears that Correctional Services of Canada’s annual budget of $4.3 billion will jump to $9.3 billion by 2015. Who do you believe?

The Harper government isn’t enthusiastic when it comes to cost estimates related to the implementation of its incarceration-focussed agenda — arguing that Canadians are willing to pay the costs to live in a safer society.

“If they are so confident that Canadians are willing to pay the costs of their legislation, why don’t they provide us with the numbers and let us decide for ourselves if we want to support their punishment bills?” Piché asked.

Even with new construction, it appears that the rapid influx of prisoners will exacerbate an already difficult situation. Our prisons are overcrowded — with two, three, even four to a single cell, contravening UN minimum standards.

To make matters worse, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, has noted that the government’s get-tough approach will increase the long waiting lines for the kind of programming prisoners usually need to safely reintegrate into society — and this may prevent Corrections Canada from meeting its own official mandate.

As a Kingstonian, I and my fellow citizens are on the frontline of the Harper agenda. Two years ago, the government announced that it was closing Canada’s six, internationally respected prison farms — touted as positive shapers of rehabilitation — two in the Kingston area. The Conservatives claimed the farms cost a total of $4.1 million and few farm graduates were hired in the agricultural sector.

There appeared to be a deliberate strategy to ignore the fact that the farms were teaching inmates a variety of skills, ranging from heavy machine maintenance to shipping and receiving, as they provided food for themselves and several other prisons. At the same time, working with animals and the land was a healthy alternative to sitting idly in a colourless cell.

Although the government has refused to provide employment and recidivism rates, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that the farms’ rehabilitation record was second to none. As one observer put it, prison farms “heal” rather than “harden.”

Now, after rallies, protests and 24 arrests, our prison farms — the Pittsburgh and Frontenac Institutions — have been closed and partially dismantled. We have heard that inmates have been reassigned to things like laundry detail, and several are quite depressed. To add insult to injury, the government has targeted five Kingston-area prisons for an additional 500 cells — with no community consultation.

But all is not lost! A vote took place in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Feb. 2, on a motion asking for a moratorium on any further dismantling of the farms until an independent assessment can establish their true value. It passed, with the unofficial result being 140-136.

Leading up to this vote, on Monday, Jan. 31, two Liberal MPs — Mark Holland, the public safety critic who brought forward the motion, and Wayne Easter, agriculture critic, spoke outside the Frontenac Institution. Our NDP allies were there as well.

On a personal note, I recently had an opportunity to meet Corrections boss, Don Head, after a debate on prison issues. When I introduced myself, he shook my hand and told me it was nice to meet me again. When I asked what he meant by “again,” he pointed out that he had seen my pictures.

Intimidation anyone? How many Kingstonians’ pictures are on file?

But we progressive Canadians shouldn’t be intimidated by Head or any other purveyor of the now-discredited Tough on Crime, Tough on Taxpayers agenda. After all, we have Newt’s new perspective and the facts of the U.S. experience on our side. With such allies, we must spread the word to those citizens who are being frightened and bullied into accepting the cruel, backward, and economically unsound Harper version of the world.

Kathleen O’Hara has worked for the media, government, and non-profit groups. Her book,Lost and Found in London will be coming out this year.


Kathleen O'Hara

Kathleen O’Hara has been a print, radio and television journalist for 15 years. She worked as a producer for national programs, including “As It Happens” on CBC radio and “The...