Sunday, March 12, 2017

Seniors and prisoners, food, and the shortcomings of the principle of less eligibility

by Laura McKendy (PhD Candidate, Sociology, Carleton University) 

“The province spends less per day feeding seniors than it does feeding prisoners”, reads the byline in a recent article published in the Toronto Star.

This statement attempts to capture the social neglect of our senior population by comparing their treatment to that of prisoners who are positioned as less eligible or deserving of access to adequate food. The article also erroneously implies that prisoners have better food since their meals cost an extra dollar per day in comparison to seniors in Ontario's care. In fact, the food served in Ontario provincial jails and prisons is a far cry from what advocates might use as a benchmark for other institutionalized groups.

Recall that the 2014 report by the Community Advisory Board for the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre condemned meals served to prisoners as “soggy, spoiled or unpalatable”, to the point that “65-90% is uneaten”. In 2015, Matt Day of the Ottawa Sun published an article suggesting that the official menu at Ottawa’s jail didn’t seem that bad. Just weeks later, he conducted a taste test of jail fare and described the food as “barely palatable”.

For Ontario prisoners – many of whom have yet to see their day in court – the institutional diet takes its toll. One prisoner released from Ottawa’s jail explained, “I’ll put it this way, I went in and I was like 225 pounds, and I left, I was about 190”.

While prison food has a reputation for being unappetizing, the food crisis in Ontario penal institutions can be traced back to political shifts in the 1990s. As part of a wider restructuring of public services in Ontario, provincial jails and prisons underwent a ‘modernization’ process, coupled with a ‘no-frills’ transformation.

Before this, on-site kitchens not only provided work opportunities and structured activities for prisoners, but enabled the supply of fresh and nutritious food. As food services were privatized, however, many on-site kitchens were closed. In 2002, the Ontario government entered into a public-private partnership with Compass Group Canada to run a central food production centre at Maplehurst Correctional Centre in Milton, Ontario. Using a ‘cook-chill’ model, food is now mass-produced, shipped to provincial sites of confinement, reheated and served.

It is perhaps no surprise that the quality of meals declined when food became the responsibility of a for-profit company. However, privatization also failed to achieve the cost-savings and efficiency goals that were promised, according to the Office of the Auditor General of Ontario (see reports from 2000, 2002, 2008 and 2010).

Indeed, while private contracts are often seen as a cost-saving measure for taxpayers, an article by Global News showed that provinces using them were spending millions more to feed prisoners. When Saskatchewan was using a public system, they spent $2,312.50 per prisoner in the 2012-2013 year. In comparison, B.C. and Alberta, who have private systems, spent $3,200.00 (27.7% more), and $3,666.66 (36.9% more) respectively.

Of course, those advocating for the rights of seniors and other vulnerable groups in Ontario should be outraged at the incredible costs of incarceration. Taxpayers are paying around $200 a day for each prisoner behind bars in the province. Of the thousands of provincial prisoners in Ontario, most have been charged with a non-violent offence and over half are legally presumed innocent.

If Ontario reduced its reliance on incarceration it could mean millions of dollars more being put towards essential social services and programs in our communities, including for seniors. But using the incarcerated population and their 'frills' as a lens through which to assess the treatment of other vulnerable groups is harmful, fostering marginalization rather than social justice.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Government of Canada promises alternatives to confinement, while funding carceral expansion

by Justin Piché, PhD (Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa)

* Click here to access a version of this op-ed that was published online by the Ottawa Citizen on 16 March 2017 *

Shortly after the 2015 federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mandated his Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to conduct a review of penal reforms initiated by the Conservatives during their decade in power. Among the outcomes sought through this process was to increase the “use of restorative justice processes and other initiatives to reduce the rate of incarceration amongst Indigenous Canadians”.

To date, little concrete action has materialized on this front, while new reviews of some mandatory minimum sentences and laws in various sectors impacting Indigenous peoples have been announced. Canadians still don’t know how the broader review of the penal system is progressing. We don’t know what measures the Government of Canada will be taking to build capacity for restorative justice to expand access to processes that aim to meet the needs of perpetrators, survivors, and other parties impacted by criminalized acts, conflicts, and harms. We also don’t know whether a plan to roll-back the mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples – which is intimately linked to colonialism and its oppressive structures that still have reverberations today including the reserve system, residential schools, mass adoption and the like – will ever materialize.

What Canadians do know at this point is that the Liberal Government of Canada is now embarking on a vast infrastructure spending program that currently lacks an overarching strategy to generate economic growth and transform communities across the country for the better. This could perhaps explain why last month $56.6 million in federal infrastructure funding was allocated towards the new $75.8 million, 112-bed Qikiqtani Correctional Healing Centre that is slated to replace the notoriously decrepit and crowded 68-bed Baffin Correctional Centre despite the fact that the Liberals critiqued prison expansion in the Harper years while in opposition. In a jurisdiction whose average cost to house just one prisoner was $597.85 per day in 2014/2015, one would not have to get too creative to find more effective alternatives that would not drain Nunavut’s coffers for decades to come. This largely federally funded project is also taking place in a jurisdiction whose territorial prison system managed the highest adult rate of incarceration in the country (534 per 100,000) in 2014/2015, with Indigenous peoples representing 100 percent of the territory’s prison admissions that fiscal year.

Having not concluded their penal system review, the federal government has still opened the door to funding penal infrastructure that runs counter to their commitments. Having done this, Ottawa should expect more of their provincial-territorial counterparts to come knocking on the door for prison construction funding if they haven’t done so already – jurisdictions like Newfoundland and Labrador whose plan to build a 373-bed facility to replace Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s was put on hold due to decreases in offshore oil revenue.

None of the above is surprising given that the current Liberal Government of Canada is in the habit of making contradictory public policy. For instance, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale announced a National Immigration Detention Framework in 2016 to “enhance alternatives to detention”, while making “key investments in federal detention infrastructure”, which took the form of a $138 million allocation towards renewing migrant warehousing facilities in Laval and Vancouver. With the federal government promising alternatives to confinement as they invest large sums of cash to expand detention and imprisonment, Canadians should again be asking themselves whether Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise to deliver “real change” was really an empty gesture paving the way for more of the same.

Before the Liberal Government of Canada does anything more that will steal time from those pushed to the margins by placing them behind bars in ill-conceived, ineffective, inhumane and costly facilities, it should immediately enact a prison construction moratorium and encourage their provincial-territorial partners to do the same so that promising alternatives to confinement can be given consideration and an opportunity to flourish across the country.