Canadian Values and Prisons

Solitary confinement Kingston PenitentiaryA view inside of one of the segregation cells at Kingston Penitentiary. - A view inside of one of the segregation cells at Kingston Penitentiary. | The Canadian Press

Two articles on opposite pages of the Globe and Mail this morning. One spoke of the tremendous support for Canadian values— tolerance for others and equality—that native Canadians and immigrants supported at the same level, the other of the conditions within our prisons, in particular the plan in the Omnibus Bill to deny visitors to people in solitary confinement. The Canadian Bar Association calls that “mean-spirited and counterproductive”. The article quotes  2008 Florida study as showing that prisoners who had family visitors were less likely to reoffend. The evidence against the punitive, unyielding nature of the measures in this bill continue to mount, yet the government remains committed to an approach that is being discredited and dismantled in the prototypic programmes in the US. Even a right-wing stalwart like Newt Gingrich has spoken against this approach, mainly because it is to expensive and it does not work.

If Harper thinks that he must continue with this because he believes he has a mandate to do so, he needs to think again. Those people who supported Canadian values in the survey quoted above, a vast majority, are not likely to long support a prison run on the recommendations of jail guards and their unions alone. Solitary confinement and the punitive instincts of prison administrators led to the death of Ashley Smith in a Kitchener prison. Four years have passed and this “mean-spirited” bill is the result. How many more people have to die?

Agnes McPhail one of the Famous Five, whose statues confront the politicians every day on the Hill, led the demand for prison reform in this country. Prisons in that unenlightened time were based on principles of retribution, not rehabilitation. Are we returning to that, not only inhumane but useless, expensive and unconscionable in a time of economic uncertainty and falling crime?

Guards are afraid of prisoners’ anger and violence. Measures which increase that anger make them less rather than more secure.

I wonder if the Prime Minister should make an unannounced visit to the Kingston Pen or to the prison here in Lindsay, as Agnes McPhail did in 1935. What she saw ignited a crusade that brought down the Conservative Government of R.B. Bennett later that same year. On second thought, maybe one of the opposition leaders should be making that visit.

Famous Five on Parliament Hill

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