Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a political hit this week from an unlikely source.
He was verbally flailed by a man of great wealth and influence; a man with a deep and abiding conservative mindset; a man with a big vocabulary and a prison inmate number.
Conrad Black was convicted by an American court in 2007, spent years in American jails and headed back there this week after being out on bail.
Now he has taken the prime minister to task for slavishly following a broken American model over the prime minister’s plan to massively expand our federal prison system.
I was never a fan of the former billionaire industrialist for either his personality or his politics. I hated it when he tossed away his Canadian citizenship as if it were a trifle.
I was happy to see him sent to jail in 2007 for fraud and obstructing justice.
Experiences in that prison system have apparently taught Black some humbling truths. It’s odd to see Black’s name and a variation of the word “humble” in the same sentence, but there it is.
Life in jail has taught Black that the U.S. prison system is horribly broken. He believes Canada is marching down that same dead-end path.
In recent interviews, Black has characterized Harper’s approach as barbarous, malicious and sadistic.
In an typically wordy passage, the most voluble former financial titan wrote: “Not only is it emphasizing severity on sentences, not only squandering money for prisons that don’t need to be built on this basis of build-and-they-will-come, not only is it going to end up housing an inordinate number of native people who should be treated altogether differently, but these programs that are foreseen to reduce the effort made to help people to overcome their problems and therefore become more likely candidates for successful reintegration into society, and even more appalling to me, these plans to crack down on contact between prisoners and their visitors is just a terrible and barbarous thing.”
Whew; a 103-word sentence, full of grim truth.
Harper plans to spend $2 billion in the next five years adding 2,700 new beds to a system whose deficiencies are legion and well documented.
Critics say the real price tag will be even higher.
Black’s personal experiences with incarceration have been centred in the United States, but he has had enough time in recent years to think and learn about their woeful similarities here.
Jails are designed to punish individuals for crimes against society; to persuade other people that crime does not pay; to rehabilitate lawbreakers and turn them to useful and lawful pursuits.
All are worthy goals. The problem is that jails in North American consistently fall short on every count.
Harper’s tough-on-crime approach appeals to a section of Canadian voters who unreasonably fear that they are likely to become victims of criminal violence.
It especially appeals to his hard-core conservative base, who think that keeping as many criminals off the streets for as long as possible is an astute crime-reduction policy.
It does so, to a degree, but at an enormous social and economic cost.
Most criminals, unlike Conrad Black, do not come from backgrounds of wealth and privilege.
Disproportionately, far too many are from disadvantaged minorities. They grew up poor and badly educated, with few positive role models. Increasingly in the past generation, they have grown up addicted, physically or financially, to illicit drugs.
Trafficking in drugs to feed their habit lands them in jail. For too many young inmates, prison becomes a crime college where they acquire “skills” from men who were adept enough to make a living of sorts from crime, but not smart enough to escape incarceration themselves.
The stigma of a criminal record and the woeful inadequacies of Canada’s penal rehabilitation systems grossly narrow the life options for inmates when they are released from jail. More crime becomes the first choice of many.
Harper’s solution to the problem seems to consist chiefly of building more and bigger prisons, creating longer mandatory sentences, hiring more staff to guard inmates when they re-offend and receive new sentences.
All this is happening when national crime rates are low and falling.
Bowden Institution is part of that plan.
Under a $25-million expansion plan, spaces will be created for 146 new inmates in the next two years at the federal penitentiary. It’s an economic plan of sorts but not a very productive one. In a sluggish economy, public works spending creates needed jobs. Wise public spending, however, creates not just short-term construction jobs, but the infrastructure needed for Canada to expand our economy and add long-term value to the nation.
On that front, building more jail cells and hiring more guards is not a high-payback venture. Bowden Institution now contains about 645 inmates and 450 staffers, including about 200 correction officers.
With a guard-to-prisoner ratio of almost one-to-three, the current expansion will create steady long-term work for new trustees and higher operating costs for the federal government.
Watching this happen when infrastructure development that could genuinely accelerate long-term economic growth languishes makes you fearful about misplaced priorities.
Bridges that sustain our economy are collapsing. Teachers are being laid off. University students are being crammed into overburdened lecture halls.
Admittedly, most of these deficiencies are in areas of provincial responsibility.
It’s a fact of life in Canada, however, that the provinces and municipalities bear most of the spending burdens and the federal government holds most of the taxing authority.
As fellow Saturday Advocate columnist David Crane wrote in these pages three weeks ago, the key issue facing Canada is equipping the next generation to become a more innovative and highly skilled workforce.
Warehousing more prisoners and creating more jobs for guards in bigger jails won’t do that. In the short-term, it might assist Harper’s personal employment prospects by consolidating his conservative political base of support. But it won’t do squat to help troubled young Canadians escape a life of crime, or create jobs for contemporaries of Harper’s children.
I have little doubt that in a face-to-face meeting, Conrad Black would tell him the same thing (in more voluminous and florid language).
Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.