The implications of denying prisoners pensions

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Fear, anger and distraction are great tools for getting your way, particularly in government.

If the opposition asks about detainee torture, accuse them of supporting terrorists. If they want information from your staff, bully your way into a meeting and shout them down ...and if you want to pass law without interference, attack a monster no one will dare to defend.

It hardly matters that with the recent proposed amendment to the Old Age Security Act the pitchforks came out before the bill itself. Prime Minister Stephen Harper learned in March that serial child murderer Clifford Olson was collecting OAS and Guaranteed Income Supplement payments. He was outraged, and ordered that they be stopped.

Not surprisingly, the Conservatives took things a bit further than Harper's original fiat. The bill, announced June 2, would suspend OAS and GIS payments to all federal prisoners. Human Resources Minister Diane Finley also wants provincial approval to cut off any senior serving more than 90 days in jail.

Finley clearly had her calculator in hand, pointing out that taxpayers could save $2 million annually, plus an extra $8 million if the provinces pass legislation extending the suspension to all prisoners serving more than three months. Of course, this is also a veiled threat that puts pressure on the provinces to co-operate. However, Finlay didn't bother to compare the proposed cuts with the cost of incarceration, nor with the existing pension claw back, which phases in for all Canadians earning over $66K.

The message is clear; She didn't have to. We are talking about monsters like Clifford Olson. Why do we need financial or legal grounds to hurt them? They deserve it.

"Canadians who work hard, who contribute to the system, who play by the rules deserve government benefits such as Old Age Security. It's wrong, and obviously unfair, that prisoners who break the rules receive the same entitlements." Finley said.

"They should be getting punishment, not pensions," Finley said earlier this spring.

Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society believes government could make a principled argument for inmates who will probably never leave prison and have all their needs met. "But clawing back OAS is another matter because it is a right of citizenship, and would require carving out an amendment for 'despised minorities'."

The real problem is with the government's method, Jones said. "It is drive-by legislation based on sensational headlines and notorious criminals. No attempt has been made to game it out for other offenders. There doesn't seem to be any sober deliberation. They are so focused on symbolic harm, that they have lost sight of other consequences."

"To build policy based on Clifford Olson is the most irrational idea, yet it has become the default setting for this government." Jones said.

In fact, 59 per cent of Canadians support cutting all inmates' pensions, according to a recent EKOS poll. "The government reads these public sentiments and knows the opposition will play dead. No one is going to go to an election based on Clifford Olson, " Jones said.

Opposition parties question the Tories' hasty law making, and whether the amendment would be constitutional, but there has been hardly a word about inmates' welfare and rehabilitation, or about the possible threat to universality of all Canadians' pensions.

As for the press, the monster angle makes for catchy headlines: Harper Cuts Clifford Olson's Government Pension Payments or Olson to lose old-age benefits under new bill, complete with file photos of the bill's poster boy, Canada's longest-serving prisoner and most reviled serial killer.

And there's this headline: B.C. supports cutting pensions for killers like Olson even though the story says nothing about murderers specifically. MLA John Van Dongen just said B.C. supports the federal legislation. But does it matter if all the facts are correct, or who else gets hurt? We're after a monster.

Some got it right: Prison inmates to lose old age benefits, and print has been more muted than the online coverage. Even so, no one has dared to raise an unpopular but central question: will this do anything to reduce crime? Indeed, might it contribute to some people re-offending?

The Olson angle is just a smokescreen. The majority of prisoners are not murderers, and hardly any are lifers with no responsibilities in the outside world. If prisoners serving three months lose their pensions, as the Tories want, it is certain that some will be forced to default on leases, loans, payments and other financial responsibilities. Threatening someone's home and credit rating is hardly good preparation for a return to life on the outside.

Finley was careful to point out that inmates' spouses don't deserve punishment, so they won't lose their pensions. Very magnanimous, considering Ottawa has no grounds for cutting them in the first place. But does the minister imagine that household bills suddenly shrink in half when someone's spouse goes to jail?

Members of the public service also fear the change will create a monstrous administrative challenge, since some people cycle in and out of prison, and will have to apply, lose, reapply, and lose, Jones said.

Clearly some Canadians think prisoners deserve all the punishment we can throw at them. But neither the government nor the public should ignore the consequences. Like many aspects of the Tories' get tough on crime policy -- pushing for larger prisons (even though the crime rate is dropping), and trying to end programs which actually work, like prison farms and the safe injection site, this plan ignores the fact you can't solve something by throwing a problem behind bars and assuming it will be gone forever. Just look at the results of similar policies in the United States.

Ironically, Harper's order, which started this all, may help Olson more than it hurts him. In the first place he doesn't need money. He'll likely never have to deal with life outside of prison, unlike the thousands of prisoners whose rehabilitation will be made harder by this law after Olson is long dead.

He does seem to like publicity though. Olson has been forbidden from contacting the media since 1995. Before this media flurry the only press he had to look forward to was the odd parole hearing and an eventual obituary (which he wouldn't get to see anyway). Now, thanks to the prime minister and a compliant press he can enjoy several months in the national news spotlight.

Dale Jack is a freelance journalist based in Saskatoon.

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