With the law-and-order agenda still very much a centrepiece to what many parties are offering in the election, there are questions to be raised as to what those promises mean. And one particular party plank – a Conservative promise for “drug-free prisons,” is perhaps most controversial of all.
Conservatives want federal inmates to undergo mandatory drug testing at least once per year. Those found in possession of illicit substances would face new criminal charges, and those who fail drug tests would be denied parole.
No additional commitments are made for drug rehabilitation in prisons, and in the 2009/2010 budget year, the Conservatives diverted funds intended for drug treatment in prisons, sniffer dogs, ion scanners and the like.
For opposition parties and experts, this plan smacks of an attempt to create a permanent prisoner population.
“Like the Conservatives’ approach to crime generally, it’s deficient, it’s simplistic and it’s ineffective,” says Don Davies, the NDP public safety critic. “The goal of making our prisons drug-free is something that is shared by everybody and is a laudable goal, but the Conservatives continue to think that they can punish their way, threaten their way, out of every problem, and it just won’t work.”
“We’ve heard the promise before, and it’s been a complete failure,” says Mark Holland, the Liberal public safety critic. “Since the Conservatives have come to power, random urine-sample tests have shown that drug use has actually modestly increased since they’ve implemented their previous policies, but at the same time and most concerning, the instances of infectious disease like hepatitis and like AIDS have been skyrocketing.”
Justin Piché, a PhD candidate at Carleton University who studies corrections systems, points to a 2007 Correctional Services of Canada (CSC) review panel that targeted visitors and other people who gain access to prisons as a means of eliminating drugs.
“They’ve targeted hardened infrastructure, clamped down on visitors,” Piché says. “That only leaves clamping down on staff and prisoners.”
Even with the expensive ion scanners, drugs are still getting in.
“We have to wonder whether even going after prisoners in this way is going to do anything other than create this persistent prison population that the prison-industrial complex can count on to always be there,” Piché says. “To basically adopt this punitive approach to drug use in prison is to completely not acknowledge the harms that are created by imprisonment.”
Piché points to the practice of double-bunking, which the Conservatives have reinstituted to deal with space shortages – something that Canada had previously committed to eliminating, and signed an international convention to that effect.
“Sticking two people in a cell the size of your washroom, having them defecate and piss in front of each other, and all these types of things, in a room that is very small,” Piché says. “How do people cope with this?”
Piché thinks that one way inmates cope is by getting high.
“Double-bunking has been shown to increase recidivism,” Holland says. “We know that double-bunking is bad for rehabilitation, and it means less success in dealing with either mental health problems or addiction issues, and when you think about it, that’s logical. If you take somebody who has a serious mental health concern, and you put them in a cell with someone who has a drug addiction, this is going to be a bad formula for success.
“It’s one of the worst things we could be doing to either deal with rehabilitation, or to deal with drugs, or to deal with infectious disease,” Holland says.
“They can spend $10 million on drug-free prisons. But I can guarantee you, 10 years from now the prisons still won’t be drug free,” Piché says. “We’ll just have more people in there who don’t need to be down the road, who are just trying to get through what is by all accounts a terrible experience.”
Holland says the Liberals are proposing alternatives that would divert people from the prison system.
“We need to restore the funding that was cut from the crime prevention initiatives; we need to make sure that we expand drug courts and mental-health courts; we need to expand the number of workers who are working on addictions and mental-health issues; we need to ensure that we create spaces to deal with those who have mental illnesses so that we’re not using prisons as a repository for those who are mentally ill.”
But this is not articulated in the Liberal platform, Piché notes, which leaves Canadians to believe they may continue the status quo in the short term.
“Michael Ignatieff has said he may revisit Truth in Sentencing and [Accelerated Parole Review],” Piché says. “Well, it’s not in your platform, so are they just making it up on the fly? Canadians should be concerned about that.”
Holland doesn’t feel the criticism is fair.
“If you look at the comments that I’ve made, and how we’ve stood out on saying that we can’t make these same mistakes and we need to overhaul the way we’re doing things, I think you can infer quite easily from that that we’re looking to do things fundamentally differently.
“It’s frustrating for us as well when we have numbers hidden from us, because it makes it hard to deal with specifics when you have no idea what the numbers are,” Holland says.
As for the NDP platform, Piché sees a few positive things — such as an increased spending on prevention — but he feels that the stated amount won’t go far enough.
“We know that for every dollar spent on prevention, we save seven dollars that we’d otherwise spend incarcerating someone,” Piché says. “They’re basically only allocating $100 million for that priority. Currently, it sits at $65 million, I believe. When we’re spending $3 billion on the federal prison system this upcoming year, the balance is dramatically off. It’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.”
As well, he is critical of the proposal to add more programming in prisons for those with mental-health issues.
Davies says this would include those with addictions.
“Addiction is listed in the DSM-4, so when we say that we’ll ensure that appropriate care, treatment and interventions are available for mentally ill offenders in prison, we mean that comprehensively, and that’s as recommended by the Correctional Investigator of Canada, who was talking about both,” says Davies. “We don’t view them differently — we view addiction as a health issue, and it is largely a mental-health issue.”
But Piché wonders if this is the best course.
“If we know that most of the people in our prisons are suffering from drug addiction or mental illness, and instead of asking why are these people being criminalized and what are they doing in the first place, and not looking at programs to try and divert these people out of prisons,” Piché says. “We’re basically pushing forward the prison as this panacea that’s able to deal with the myriad of social problems, and then the NDP starts looking like the Conservatives, for whom if you have a mental illness, we’ve got a prison for that. If you have a drug addiction, we have a prison for that.”