Prisoners and Pensions

Should federal prisoners get an Old Age Security pension? In this week's essay, Michael adds his two cents.

In 1982, Clifford Olson was sentenced to life in prison for the serial murders of 11 children. He is now 70 and will likely die in prison

Last year, all galloping hell broke loose in the media and in government when it was discovered that since 2005, Olson had been receiving an Old Age Security pension.

His pension amounted to $1,169.47 a month.

Cabinet ministers and the prime minister were profoundly shocked that this was going on and they vowed they would do something about it.

And they did.

On Jan 1, a bill denying Old Age Security to federal prisoners over the age of 65 kicked in. The provinces are thinking about it for their senior prisoners.

The stated reason for the changes goes like this: these people, some of them violent criminals, have all their needs taken care of. They are housed and fed at no cost to them. Why should they be paid by the taxpayers while in jail?

The decision will affect about 600 people in the federal system.

The charged rhetoric is all part of the get-tough-on-crime program by the Reform wing of the Conservative Party and embraced by the Harper government.

On the agenda ----- mandatory minimum sentences, which, by the way, haven't worked anywhere they've been implemented, tougher rules for parole, more restrictions on prisoners' activities and a $2-billion prison building program which the Parliamentary Budget Office predicts will be three times that.

When people commit a serious crime, we punish them by separating them from society; we send them to prison.

We send them there AS punishment, not FOR punishment---at least that used to be the idea.

Years ago as a writer for Maclean's magazine, I visited every maximum security prison in the country and I can tell you they are awful places; they are dangerous, they are noisy, they are overcrowded. They are not the Club Feds some would have us believe.

When we put people in these places, we do not take away all their rights; at least we're not supposed to.

The Corrections and Conditional Release Act which governs federal prisons says OFFENDERS RETAIN THE RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES OF ALL MEMBERS OF SOCIETY EXCEPT THOSE RIGHTS AND PRIVILEGES THAT ARE NECESSARILY RESTRICTED AS A CONSEQUENCE OF THE SENTENCE.

Those who support taking away the pensions don't like to talk about the effect on those prisoners' families.

Consider the case of a pensioner who was sentenced to five years in jail. His wife is also over 65.; she doesn't work. Their house is paid for, but the wife has been depending on the Old Age Security to pay the taxes.

Denied the pension, she will probably be forced onto provincial welfare rolls at a much greater expense to the taxpayers.

All of this is happening at a time when police-reported crime is declining both in severity and volume. Crimes such as homicide, sexual assault, and robbery are nearly 20 per cent lower than a decade ago.

Denying pension rights to elderly prisoners extracts yet another measure of punishment bordering on vengeance.

In an under-reported, but important speech in Saskatchewan in November, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator for Canada pointed out that the function of the prison system is not to seek revenge.

Said Mr. Sapers: "SOMEHOW WE HAVE LOST SIGHT THAT IN OUR SYSTEM, CRIMES ARE PUBLIC, NOT PRIVATE WRONGS AND THE STATE ONLY HAS THE LEGITIMACY TO PUNISH TO MAINTAIN SOCIAL ORDER, NOT TO PROVIDE PRIVATE REVENGE."

Taking away the pension rights of old prisoners may sound tough on crime, but it has nothing to do with fighting it.

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