Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Should we work prisoners on chain gangs in Canada?

Anyone who has ever seen the movie, Cool Hand Luke, has some idea of what life was like for prisoners who worked in chain gangs in a Florida prison camp. A chain gang is a group of prisoners chained together to perform menial or physically challenging work, such as mining or timber collecting, as a form of punishment. Such punishment might include building roads, digging ditches or chipping stone.

However in the movie, Cool Hand Luke, the men weren’t chained together and they worked on the roads. In 1955, chain gangs more or less came to an end however, chain gangs in the United States were reintroduced by a few states during the "get tough on crime" period in the middle of the 1990s, with Alabama being the first state to revive them in 1995. The experiment ended after about one year in all states except Arizona, where in Maricopa County, inmates can still volunteer for a chain gang to earn credit toward a high school diploma or avoid disciplinary lockdowns for rule infractions.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the Guelph Reformatory for first offenders in Ontario had a tough means of punishment for prisoners who were disciplined for infractions. They worked moving dirt in wheelbarrows from one area of the reformatory grounds to an other area of the grounds, seven hours a day from Monday through Friday, come sun, rain or snow. When all the dirt had been removed, they had to take it back to the original place it had been. Then again, they moved it to where it was before. That institution was closed down years later and no one works in the provincial or federal prison system like that anymore.

During the 1960s, industry at the Mimico Reformatory showed an annual output of 275,000 bricks; 12 tons of tile; 4829 slippers; 700 boot/shoe repairs; 662 picnic tables; 449 rolls of snow fence; as well as a number of fireplace grills and flag-poles. At the peak of its era, inmates in the Guelph Reformatory were employed in the abattoir, wood-working shop, woolen mill, tailor shop, laundry, and mattress factory in addition to working on the institution’s farm. Other provincial correctional facilities had work programs for their inmates also.

Back in the 1960s, a prisoner in Ontario would be released with a new pair of shoes, a cheap suit and $19.50 even if he spent two years less a day in the reformatory. Nowadays in Ontario, there is no payment for work done by prisoners. There are no savings they can earn for their release. Only those who have money sent from home have the ability to purchase items in any of the correctional institutions, leaving those who are poor or have no community supports at a disadvantage.

Ontario correctional facilities currently house 8,488 inmates. According to the government, 5,353 are awaiting trial, while 2,889 are serving less than two years for offences such as break and enter, assault and drug trafficking. The rest are serving federal or intermittent sentences, or are under hold orders.

For the most part, provincial prisoners in Ontario simply sit around tables in the cell block they are housed in playing cards, watching TV or simply talking amongst themselves unless they have volunteered to work in the kitchens, laundries or mop floors outside their cell blocks.

Ontario’s Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is now promising the people of Ontario that if his party wins the provincial election, he as the new premier of Ontario, will force provincial prisoners to work 40 hours a week, picking up garbage off the sides of the highways, cutting the grass on the sides of the highways and in public parks and removing graffiti from city and town buildings. In other words, he will bring back the chain gang concept that the United States has abandoned. Hudak said he has no plans to have prisoners manacled while they’re doing their tasks, but security details will have to be worked out with correctional service officials and the superintendents of the correctional facilities that the prisoners are in.
He has also said, and I quote him word for word, “I’m not asking prisoners to do anything more than what hardworking Ontarians do every day — and that is go to work.” I don’t think anyone is contesting that concept. Certainly we don’t want prisoners sitting around all day doing nothing but chatting with one another, playing cards and watching TV.

We must keep in mind that the kind of prisoners he is talking about are not prisoners who are waiting for their trials. Hudak said only those who are “found guilty and are serving in our correctional institutions” would be put to work. He is really talking about prisoners who have to serve any time from at least a month to sixteen months. In Canada, a person can only be sentenced up to two years less a day in a provincial correctional institution and they automatically would be released (if not sooner) after serving two-thirds of their sentences (that would be sixteen months out of a two-year less a day sentence).

Ontario could be the first province in Canada to force inmates to earn their keep by working outside the correctional facilities that house them if his Progressive Conservatives party take the reins of power. He is making a bold play for votes ahead of the October 6th election by vowing to make thousands of provincial inmates work for their perks if he becomes Ontario’s next premier. Hudak said that if he is elected, his government would spend $20 million to put inmates to work outside their prisons.

In what’s being billed as a Canadian first, inmates in Ontario prisons would be forced to perform 40 hours of manual labour a week to earn rewards like coffee and gym time. It seems to me that the prisoners should be awarded with a regular wage, even if it is just at minimum wages. This way, they will have money to live on when they are set free and are looking for work. Admittedly, they will qualify for welfare providing they can show that they have a room in a house to live in. That will be difficult if they leave prison with no money at all.

Hudak said, “Prisoners can watch TV, they can play cards, they can play poker at the same time we do — after a good day’s work,”. They do that right now without working. That will never change. The worse thing that could happen is for the correctional authorities to take away the privileges the prisoners already have such privileges as playing cards and watching TV. What would prisoners do in the day rooms of their cell blocks if those prisoners had those privileges taken from them? They would riot of course.

Ontario prisons currently house 8,488 inmates. According to the government, 5,353 are awaiting trial, while 2,889 are serving less than two years for offences such as break and enter, assault and drug trafficking. The rest are serving federal or intermittent sentences, and/or are under hold orders or waiting for their trials.

His pledge is similar to former premier Mike Harris’ “workfare” program, which forced able-bodied people on welfare to work for their benefits. It was among the main planks of his controversial Common Sense Revolution platform that propelled the Tories to power 16 years ago.

Hudak is trying to tap into the same vein of taxpayer outrage, accusing the Liberals of lavishing criminals with yoga lessons, cooking classes, writing workshops and premium cable TV channels — all on the public dime.

Hudak said he would aim to make the program revenue-neutral by having the inmates do work the province usually pays for, or solicit contracts from municipalities and other groups. It doesn’t require new legislation, as the province already has the power to force prisoners to work. He said, “We’re seeing more and more graffiti in our cities, even our small towns. I think it makes a lot of sense to ask prisoners who have taken from society to give something back.” His projected price tag of $20 million is fanciful. It would probably be much more especially when you consider how much will be paid to the unemployed public workers who have been fired so that the prisoners can take their jobs.

He added, “By putting criminals to work, the taxpayers dollars that used to be spent for that work would be spent on law-abiding citizens and benefits that matter to all of us, like health care.” That statement is stupid right from the get go. He has not taken into consideration all of the current government employees who are already being paid by the provincial and municipal governments to do that work. What will happen to them when their jobs are given to the prisoners? They may very well end up on welfare after their employment insurance runs out.

Critics say the move will kill jobs by replacing workers with unpaid prison labour, but Hudak insists there’s plenty of work to go around. There probably is because I have never seen anyone cleaning up the secondary roads in Ontario. There’s a lot of garbage along those roads that should be picked up by someone.

The Liberals condemned Hudak’s “reckless” plan, warning it would put thousands of dangerous criminals — including drug dealers and sexual predators — in parks and neighbourhoods with children and families. I am not that concerned about that danger simply because it is unlikely that dangerous violent prisoners and sex predators would be working outside the prisons they are in. Regrettably, the Liberals chose to stoke public fears rather than take a more reasoned approach. They could at least have been honest, acknowledging that violent criminals are normally sent to federal penitentiaries, not provincial jails. If the provincial prisoners work in public parks, they can work during the work week when children are not in the parks. Further, they can work elsewhere during the summer months when the children are in the public parks.

Criminals need to be behind “high walls and steel bars” to keep the public safe, said Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Jim Bradley. “They cannot be seen in our neighbourhoods with our kids.” But not all Liberals share those concerns. Jim Brownell, who represents the eastern Ontario riding of Stormont-Dundas-South-Glengarry, is giving Hudak’s plan a thumb’s up. He said, “I’ve always believed that folks in Ontario should be — if they’re able bodied and well enough to do work — should be out working and contributing to their communities,” he told Cornwall radio station CJSS. “I think it’s (Hudak’s proposal) very positive.”

Brownell said he’s seen chain gangs working in the United States while heading on vacation to Florida. But he questioned whether it would be appropriate in Ontario to visibly label prisoners working in the community. I don’t think it would be really appropriate having prisoners being seen working along our highways while wearing bright orange jump-suits. Imagine being a former prisoner and someone at your work place says out loud, "Didn't I see you picking up garbage on Highway 427 wearing an orange jump suit?"

British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the federal government all have work programs for prisoners — but they’re all voluntary, the Tories said. Some pay the inmates for the work they do while other programs help prisoners earn early release. Manitoba has been using prisoners to help sandbag during the floods, while B.C. inmates help with prison laundry, cleaning and kitchen duties. Voluntary federal work programs for inmates generate about $70 million a year, according to the Tories.

But some are questioning the Tories’ commitment to seeing the program through. Many prison work programs were casualties of the Tories’ war on government spending during the Harris years, said Don Ford, a spokesman for the Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union.

The Harris cuts closed many institutions that had work programs where inmates canned food, worked with the Transportation Ministry and even planted flowers on the grounds of the Ontario legislature, he said.

“We’re all in favour if inmates are out doing work that might actually be a transferable skill when they get out of jail,” Hudak said. Now that is stupid. Am I to believe that when a prisoner is released after spending half a year picking up garbage from the side of our highways, that they will automatically get hired picking up garbage from some other place other than highways when they are released?

Imagine being a former prisoner and you are applying for a job. You are asked,"What was your previous job?" You reply, "I picked up garbage along side the highways for the past sixteen months." The prospective employee asks, "And who was your employer?" And you reply, "One of the correctional facilities in Ontario." Now being a former prison inmate is not legal grounds for denying you a job but whisper in my ear that sixteen months of garbage collecting off the sides of Ontario's highways as a prisoner is a great work background that will excite your prospective employer and convince him that you are just the right person he or she is looking for.

The bad news is that this sort of simplistic thinking wins votes. The good news, for those who worry about possibler dangerous convicts invading their communities, is that the scheme is so ill-conceived that Hudak would have to either abandon it or scale it back drastically if he became premier.

After this fool made his public announcement, public sector unions rushed to their workers’ defence. Newspapers ran graphic images — some taken from Hollywood movies — of American chain gangs. And the governing Liberals, hoping to beat Hudak at his own game, warned that families would be exposed to violent criminals in their neighbourhoods and parks. Of course, let's face it. That is all political hyperbole.

Hudak’s proposal has problems.

Problem one: Hudak’s proposal would drive up public security costs. It takes many more guards to supervise outdoor work gangs than watch over inmates in jail.

Problem two: Most of the inmates in Ontario’s prisons wouldn’t be eligible for the work program. They are awaiting trial. Punishing them would violate the Charter of Rights.

Problem three: Most communities don’t need garbage collectors, lawn cutters or graffiti scrubbers. They employ municipal workers and hire students in the summer to do those jobs.

Problem four: Would his program include young offenders who are better off studying?

I am very much in favour of making prisoners work while in provincial correctional institutions. But they should be working in those facilities and not outside the confines of the prison property. One of the correctional institutions in Brampton has a magnificent woodworking shop but the government in its stupidity closed it down years ago. Now it is closed with all the equipment sitting around for no purpose at all. The Guelph reformatory had a training program for barbers. They had an abattoir where the men were taught how to butcher animals and prepare meat. They had a woollen mill where blankets by the thousands were made. The reformatory in Millbrook had a metal shop where signs and licence plates were made. All of these work projects were closed down. Now the most the prisoners can hope to do even though they aren’t paid for doing the jobs is working in a laundry or kitchen or mopping floors.

Hudak appears to only have one idea and it is apparently not a very good one. There is something really wrong with our correctional system in Ontario that a politician in order to garner votes in an upcoming election would suggest that we send the prisoners out onto our highways and cities and public parks to do work and do it only for the privilege of having coffee and/or gym time while in prison.

We have all learned though our collective years of experience that abstract ideas are often the source of some of our greatest blunders that have befallen Mankind.


Unknown said...


Unknown said...

Bravo! I know this article is two years old, but any reader might be interested to know that prisoners at Vanier Institute work for free for Eurest Services, preparing food for prison. They are paid one chocolate bar for two eight hour days. The work is assembly line style and is very physically demanding. Prisoners are often in pain at the end of the shift. Prisoners are not forced to do this work, but refusal is not advised if you are looking to be paroled when the time comes.
Hudak, in the past two years has recently he hasn't gotten any smarter - what was the latest nonsense about teachers doing extra work for free? It seems he has a one track mind - free labour.