The Politics of Prisons


Does Canada need bigger prisons, as proposed by the now newly elected Conservative government and at what cost?

At a time when violent crime is decreasing and costs to sustain prisons are astronomical, when half the inmates in prisons have either a serious mental illness or drug addiction problem which is not aided by prison internment, and when there are cheaper and more humane ways to make us more secure, is this the answer?

The answer is a resounding no, as prisons already are teeming and the human and fiscal costs of maintaining them are astronomical.

At a panel discussion on this subject held by the Montreal Citizen’s Forum, Simon Potter, a lawyer and the former president of the Canadian Bar Association, spoke against the proposed additional 189 prison cells which are estimated to cost  $90,000,000 and calculated to double to 4.4 billion and 9.8 billion dollars.  Potter explained that violent crime rates have decreased between1999-2008 from 8,474 offenders in a population of 100,000 to 7,274, a decline of 12 %, yet the Harper government still ploughs ahead with the plan for “bigger prisons” and more “security”.

He sounded the alarm and cautioned against youth being sentenced as adults, not just for hard crimes but for all crimes, and warned against the call for more police and and more sentencing. With this new “bigger prison” policy comes the plan for more prison guards: 4000 to 5000 approximately.

More people will be in prison for shorter sentences and more will be in detention cells while awaiting trials, the plan is for more police and more prosecutors. Potter also noted that the social costs are much more than $10 billion; there will be a larger underclass, more marginalization and less funding for legal aid. The privatization of the prison system a la Dick Cheney could breed a new style of “slavery.” Potter concluded that taxes should be spent on social programs rather than on “security.”

In absentia was Justin Piché, Ph.D. candidate, criminologist whose thesis paper was presented. His hypothesis is that penal institutions are dumping grounds for those suffering from drug addiction or mental illness, the poor, Aboriginal peoples and other marginalized groups. Prison facilities are decreipt and dilapidated and unfit for human beings.

In Canada’s provinces and territories, 23 new prisons and 16 additions to to existing facilities are being planned and completed. The construction cost for this is over $ 3 billion and rising. 7000 new prison beds are slated at a cost of $59, 057 per year; taxpayers would pay $400 million a year plus other costs. On the federal level an equilvalent of 34 additional units are to be built.

The federal costs of the 18 bills would be approximately $2.7 billion over 5 years  but this document does not provide the basis statistics such as headcounts, annual inflows, unit costs per inmate and per new cell construction which have not been made public.

Costs incurred by provincial and federal governments resulting from these measures are also not included in the federal government’s projections.

Again based on Piché’s findings, according to the best available evidence from the most recent issue of Criminology and Public Policy with contributions from 22 leading scholars in the field including even conservative criminologist James Q. Wilson, increasing the rate of imprisonment has:

1) a negligible impact on crime as it is a short term benefit outweighed by long term consequence.

2) it diverts resources away from from the needs of the criminalized and marginalized.

According to Piché, it is one choice among many other policy options such as that a federal  punishment legal moratorium be adopted and that a task force for the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security bring to the table all affected parties to evaluate the efficiency of addressing social issues through criminalization and to share the best practices such as justice reinvestment and prevention.

Also present at the forum was Lorraine Bersins, a social worker for the Church Committee on Corrections, who felt that the Harper government’s plan to expand the prison system, based on the American model, is both tragic and misguided.

The Church Council was founded by 11 churches and partnered with other faith and community groups 40 years ago for the rights of victims and offenders to strengthen community safety and as an advocate for both victims and prisoners.

Their view is that this plan of expansion must be stopped and their organization has written letters to condemn these nefarious plans.  At a time when many other countries around the world are reducing the use of prisons it is very questionable of Canada (influenced by the American Newt Gingrich ideology) to be implementing this. This massive investment, at a time of cutbacks and deficits when most citizens want government to be accountable and transparent, is a huge mistake. After fifty years of questionable prison policy, the highest incarceration level in the world has not reduced the crime rate. The reliance on prisons is not the solution and often hardens and recriminalizes low risk offenders.

What is needed is victim care and not more spending on prisons; even victim’s groups echo and state this.

The cost in Canada of maintaining a male prisoner is approximately $67,686 a year and of maintaining a woman prisoner is $115,465 a year. The cost of prisons for nonviolent crimes in federal and provincial institutions is disproportionate. Homelessness, alcoholism, mental problems and abuse lead to criminalization and are only exacerbated by the prison system. Intervention in the community is more effective and less expensive on the human and fiscal level. The criminal system causes victims to feel re-victimized.

In contrast,  the cost of alternatives to prison, such as probation, bail supervision and community supervision work orders range from $5 to $25 a day!

Kim Pate, a lawyer and the director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, has worked with criminalized and imprisoned youth, men and women for more than 20 years. She also spoke at the Montreal Citizen’s Forum and condemned the colonization of indigenous peoples and mentioned that the jailing of native people is at a rate of 1,000 prisoners among a population of 100,000, which is even higher than that of African-Americans in U.S. prisons. The marginalization and criminalization and imprisonment of First Nations peoples has impacted generations still to come. Her view is that our prisons and “injustice system” are the biggest social problem.

Conditions in prisons are abominable and human rights’ violations are rampant with such questionable violations as double bunking, where in cells the size of an average household bathroom can be found one, two and even three prisoners crammed together.

The cutbacks to mental health services, which have resulted in people being dumped on the streets, leading to criminalization and incarceration, have been nothing less than criminal. Programs have been cut and 82% of women prisoners are in federal prisons.

The Elizabeth Fry Societies are a federation of autonomous societies who work on behalf of marginalized, criminalized and institutionalized women and girls throughout Canada to increase public awareness and the promotion of decarceration for women and to reduce the number of women imprisoned. Their mandate is to increase the availability of community-based, publicly funded, social service, health and educational resources available for imprisoned women. They work in collaboration with other women’s groups to address the issues of poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression.

Kim Pate’s 2004 report “Prisons as Panacea” argues that “prisons are inadequate responses to poverty, homelessness and mental illness.” The Canadian Human Rights Commission recognized the systemic violation of human rights in Canada’s prisons for women.  “In Canada 30% of the women serving two years or more in prison are Aboriginal. In fact, Aboriginal women account for the overwhelming majority of women prisoners in some regions of the country despite making up less than 2% of the Canadian population.”  According to Pate, the Commission “called for the immediate development of more appropriate community supports and resources for Aboriginal women.”

In addition, Pate notes, “increased numbers of young women with mental and cognitive disabilities—women who used to fill psychiatric and mental health facilities—are now being increasingly criminalized and incarcerated.”  According to Pate, severe cutbacks have led to more mentally disturbed women being imprisoned rather than being “de-institutionalized,” as past “progressive trends” favoured.  As “more people are literally being dumped on the streets,” they cannot cope and their behaviour leads to “increased criminalization and imprisonment.”  Once in prison, however, they are classified as “maximum security prisoners,” because they are deemed “difficult to manage.”

Kim Pate states ‘that we must not continue to abandon the most vulnerable and marginalized in society to this most expensive and inefficient system.Instead we must demand that public money be re-invested in rebuilding our social, health and educational services to correct the current human and democratic deficit.”

Also speaking at this panel discussion was Marc Garneau, M.P. for St. Louis-Westmount Like Pate, he said a loud no to larger prisons and spoke to the need for a focus on prevention.

In 2001, 123 of every 100,000 Canadians were imprisoned, which is a statistic well above the western world average. No research shows that putting more people behind bars lowers the crime rate. On the issue of self injury in prisons, 59% of federal sentenced women have reported engaging in self injury. Suicide rates are more than twice as high in prisons for women than in the  general population.

The case of  Ashley Smith, a young Canadian girl begs the question of the use of prisons to punish rather than rehabilitate and heal. She was sentenced to one month in prison for throwing crab apples at a postal worker and ended up spending more than 3 years in prison where she was pepper sprayed and Tasered on numerous occasions  and frequently placed in segregation/isolation which only increased her antisocial violent behaviour. Clearly disturbed,she had committed many offences and violations, she never received much  psychiatric or psychological help and ended up committing suicide in prison at 19 years of age while guards watched. This  begs violently the argument for rehabilitation and not punishment; she is one of many unfortunate victims of an uncaring and punitive penal system.

Between December  1988 and the spring  of 1992 in Canada, 7 women committed suicide at the prison 94w–6 of them were First Nation women. The “justice” system focuses on blaming and punishing. Little effort is devoted to addressing the needs and losses of the victim and the offender. In Canada, 19 % of Canadian women live below the poverty line; 33% are Aboriginal and 25% have disabilities and 28% are visible minority women.  Aboriginal women are 9 times more likely to go to prison than the non -Aboriginal population, a shameful statistic for those whose land this originally was.

Also present was Agir,an organization  in conjunction with the Elizabeth Fry society and Engrenage Noir,a presentation of  audiovisual artwork by women in prison, a collaboration of 49 incarcerated women and 8 professional women.  Thirty-five artworks explore the link between incarceration and poverty which is economic and social, familial and cultural or emotional. The exhibition reveals the individual struggles of women in prison and with the law and acknowledges this in an artistic context,beyond crime, jail bars,prison sentences or stereotypes.

Spokeswomen for AGIR include the actress, filmmaker and singer Carole Laure and interdisciplinary artist Devora Neumark.

The exhibit is being shown at Galerie Eastern Bloc, 7420 Clark Avenue from May 27th-June 16th, with roundtable presentations with some of the exhibiting artists and specialists in the field of criminology and social justice, Thursday June 2nd at 7 PM, Thursday June 9th at 7 PM and Thursday June 16th at 7 PM and also on the role of prisons and possible alternatives Thurs June 2, 9 & 16 at 5:30 with guided tours.

For more information

Before concluding, I present this model below from A Program for Prison Reform as an alternative view to the present prison system.

Alternatives to Incarceration

Imprisonment should be a last resort. The presumption should be against its use. Before any offender is incarcerated, the prosecution should bear the burden of proving in an evidentiary hearing that no other alternative exists. An equal burden should be required for the denial or revocation of “good time”, probation and parole, which really are only other ways of imposing imprisonment.

We should further reduce our excessive reliance on prisons by making extensive use of alternatives to imprisonment, such as fines, restitution, and other probationary methods, which could at least as effectively meet society’s need for legal sanctions. However, such alternatives must be made available to all people who have committed similar offenses, so as not to become a means for the more affluent to buy their way out of prison. And where some kind of confinement seems necessary, halfway houses, community centres, group homes intermittent sentences, and other means of keeping offenders within the community should be preferred to prison.

(A Program for Prison Reform: The Final Report. Annual Chief Justice Earl Warren Conference. Pamphlet.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Roscoe Pound American Trial Lawyers Foundation, 1972. 10-11. )


In conclusion, these findings indicate that prisons under our present socioeconomic system reinforce the status quo, punish rather than heal and rehabilitate, and are a breeding ground and apprenticeship for further crime with the bulk of Canada’s prison population being predominantly the oppressed, women, First Nations people, minority groups etc. Once more, it is crucial to  reiterate the desperate need for  alternatives. Not only must we not expand prisons, but let us  think of abolishing them altogether and let us look to alternatives such as in the above model and to traditional aboriginal models where healing circles and sentencing circles are paramount and where the emphasis is on healing and rehabilitation, a holistic, humanistic and even radical innovative approach to crime and punishment.


Sylvia Goldfarb is a writer and activist based in Montreal.