Tories headed down 'dangerous road' with prison closures

Federal prison guards showed up to a speech by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews this morning and said they are worried about the effects of closing the Kingston Penitentiary, Leclerc Institution and a psychiatric facility.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said during a speech Wednesday that closing the Kingston Penitentiary is the right move, but the union representing prison guards is concerned about the implications. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews this morning took on critics of the government's decision to close the Kingston Penitentiary – including prison guards who attended his speech – and said he makes no apologies for the government's law-and-order agenda.

The government is closing Ontario's historic Kingston Penitentiary, the Regional Treatment Centre, a psychiatric facility located at the Kingston Penitentiary, and Leclerc Institution in Quebec by 2014-2015.

Toews opened his speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa by saying he wanted to dispel "egregious myths" and "blatant untruths" that are told to the public by his political opponents and that he wanted to set the record straight.

One of those myths, according to Toews, is that the government is going to be forced to build new prisons to house a higher inmate population because of new justice legislation. Toews said the predicted increase in prisoners hasn't materialized in the last two years and that in fact, the government is closing prisons.

Toews said the Kingston Penitentiary is no longer an appropriate facility because of its "crumbling infrastructure" and costly upkeep. But the union that represents Kingston Penitentiary guards says it is a functioning facility that has had millions of dollars worth of renovations.

"I think we made the absolute right decision," Toews said.

The government isn't building new prisons, but it is adding beds – 2,752 of them – in existing institutions. The inmates from Kingston and Leclerc will be displaced at other nearby prisons. Toews said he doesn't know exactly where yet because he hasn't been advised by the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, but he's sure there is room for them.

"The fact of the matter is, despite what many of you have heard, we have the capacity," he said.

When a union representative tried to ask Toews during the question and answer period how more than 400 maximum security prisoners from Kingston will be absorbed by only 192 new maximum security beds, the public safety minister interrupted him.

"These are issues that you're welcome to come and see me about. You choose deliberately to see me in public meetings like this. You have my staff to come and see at any time you want, and what I can tell you is maximum people will go to maximum cells," Toews said.

More double-bunking a concern

Jason Godin, Ontario's regional president with the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, said Toews's comment was "humorous."

"We've tried to meet with the minister on several occasions, he never seems to want to talk to us," he told reporters. "He won't sit down and discuss the real issues."

The union has a number of concerns related to the prison closures that it wants to discuss with Toews. The corrections officers said other facilities do not have the infrastructure, including training and rehabilitation programs, to support more people and they are worried the displacement of inmates from the closed prisons will cause more double-bunking.

Fitting two inmates into a cell designed for one is already happening too often at facilities, the union said, and the practice  raises tensions and inmates end up lashing out at them.

One of the union representatives asked Toews if they were going to face more double-bunking. "Double-bunking will be used in appropriate circumstances and I'll leave that to the commissioner. Next question," he responded.

Godin said double-bunking is never appropriate. "It certainly doesn't contribute to correctional officer safety, it doesn't contribute to a safe prison environment. It just leads to more problems down the road," he said.

The union also says there is "no plan" for approximately 132 inmates at the Regional Treatment Centre, the only accredited facility of its kind in the Ontario region.

Toews didn't mention closing that facility in his remarks, but he was asked about mentally ill inmates by a member of the audience and he said it's a problem that is getting worse.

The public safety minister said building parallel mental health systems within penal institutions is the "wrong approach."

"If mentally ill people have to be kept in an institution it should be an institution that has a mental health focus rather than a penal focus. That's something that I've said over and over again, that's the direction that I want to go, I think that's the direction that society would want us to go in," he said. 

Toews said during his speech that the government's corrections policies will continue to emphasize mental health, but the union said if that's true, the closure of the RTC doesn't make sense.

Union mounting 'political stunts'

Godin also rejected Toews's assertion that the Kingston Penitentiary isn't up to par. He said millions of dollars have been invested in it in recent years, it has a fully functioning hospital within it, a new mental health unit and a new segregation unit.

He said the union bought a table at the breakfast speech because it is trying to raise questions about the government's decisions and that it will continue to stand up for public safety.

"We're headed down an extremely dangerous road. And we believe that the minister is not forthcoming in what is actually happening," he said. "The fact of the matter is he's not sitting down and talking to the men and women that are actually tasked to take care of these federal institutions."

Kevin Grabowsky, a corrections officer from Edmonton who was at Toews's speech, said the government's math doesn't add up when it comes to accommodating the inmates from the closed prisons.

He said prisons are becoming more violent and inmates more often have to be separated from each other because of gang problems. Grabowsky said Toews talked about wanting more training programs for inmates but with the Correctional Service of Canada facing budget cuts of $295 million, that doesn't seem likely, he said.

"There's a real contradiction in what he says today and the reality that correctional officers, and all staff generally, are living with working in these facilities," he said.

Toews's director of communications said the claims made by "big public-sector union bosses are baseless and inaccurate," and that the facility closures are the right thing to do in the interest of taxpayers.

Julie Carmichael also said Toews and his staff have met with union officials in the last few months and that no new requests have been made since the prison closure announcement. She said instead. the union is "preferring political stunts in public to productive meetings."