Tory plans for U.S.-style prisons slammed in report

The Conservative government plans to bring in an American-style prison system that will cost billions of taxpayer dollars and do little to improve public safety, according to a report released Thursday.

The Conservative government plans to bring in an American-style prison system that will cost billions of taxpayer dollars and do little to improve public safety, according to a report released Thursday in Ottawa.

"It tramples human rights and human dignity," University of British Columbia law professor Michael Jackson, co-author of the 235-page report, titled A Flawed Compass, told reporters.

Moreover, there is "a near total absence of evidence" in the government plan that its measures will "return people to the community better able to live law-abiding lives," said co-author Graham Stewart, who recently retired after decades as head of the John Howard Society of Canada.

Their report provides a scathing review of a government blueprint for corrections called A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety. A panel led by Rob Sampson, a former corrections minister in Ontario ex-premier Mike Harris's Tory government, drafted the plan, which is being implemented by the Correctional Service.

In addition to constructing super prisons and implementing work programs, the program will eliminate gradual release and deny inmates rights that are now entrenched in the Constitution.

However, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said the plan is not based on a U.S.-style prison system at all. "I don't know where that suggestion comes from," he told CBC News in an interview.

"We don't have a capital program for creating and building new prisons right now, so attacking the government is a little odd."

Rather, "the changes we're proposing [are] to improve our system, protect society more and make sure offenders get the help they need," particularly mental illness treatment, Van Loan said.

The government wants to create an incentive system for prisoners to participate in rehabilitation programs, "because that's important for not just the safety of society, which is … the most important principle, but also for the prisoner to integrate into the community ultimately," he said.

The current practice of statutory release is the "wrong approach," he added.

"That means somebody has a nine-year sentence; at six years, even if they're not participating in their programs, they're automatically … released into society."

But Jackson said the plan undermines public safety by making prisons more dangerous places and constricting inmates' reintegration into society.

By keeping prisoners locked up longer, the plan places an enormous financial burden on taxpayers, he added.

Perhaps worst of all, Jackson said, it "will intensify what the Supreme Court has characterized as the already staggering injustice of the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in the prisons of Canada."

A recipe for prison violence: Jackson

By stressing punishment rather than rehabilitation, the plan ignores lessons of the past, which led to the prison riots and killings that dominated Canadian news in the early 1970s, Jackson said.

"My greatest fear is with this road map's agenda and its underlying philosophy, we will enter a new period of turmoil and violence in Canadian prisons," he said.

"I do fear that prisons will become more abusive, prisoners will become more frustrated and that we could go back to a time not only when the rule of law was absent but a culture of violence is the dominant way in which prisoners express their frustrations."

Stewart called the blueprint "an ideological rant, which flies in the face of the Correctional Service's own research of what works to rehabilitate prisoners and ensure community safety."

"The fact is that you cannot hurt a person and make them into a good citizen at the same time," Stewart said.

The government has already allocated hundreds of millions to the plan, even though it has had no input from either Parliament or the public, according to the report.