On chain gangs, Hudak wins. Deal with it

How serious is the Ontario PC leader?

by Colby Cosh

I want that headline understood: I don’t mean to say the Ontario PC leader has won the actual argument about the usefulness of assigning provincial inmates to “mandatory” work gangs so that they can pick up litter and clean up graffiti until they become model citizens. The truth, which advocates of liberal penology seem unable to put into plain English, is that you can make labour “mandatory” only by the use of one or more large individuals armed with whips, clubs, or possibly, in our enlightened times, tasers.

We cannot hold hostage privileges that prisoners already enjoy by right as a consequence of court decisions. The only foreseeable alternative to having an overseer prepared to inflict pain upon chain-gang inmates on the spot would consist of equal or worse tortures and deprivations, administered out of sight and in cold blood. Some inmates will refuse outdoor work on principle even if it is made “mandatory” by the stroke of a ministerial pen. Are we going to make such objectors serve their sentences in solitary confinement? Or does Hudak propose to treat Ontarians to the sight of prisoners being beaten and terrorized in the streets? Chain gangs, one notices, have historically been features of morally benumbed societies in which law-abiding citizens were quite prepared to contemplate such Roman spectacles.

Hey, I don’t know Ontario all that well, but I can’t imagine very much of it fits that description. I don’t think Hudak is very serious about this chain-gang idea as such. But look at what he accomplishes by bringing it forward: he has stampeded editorial boards and Liberal worthies like James Morton and Warren Kinsella into arguing against him. And what argument do they use? Why, that provincial prisoners are dangerous and can’t be trusted to perform manual work, even under close supervision, in our communities!

This immediately calls attention to the fact that provincial prisoners are, by definition, those who have received sentences of less than two years’ imprisonment. “Why would a convict proven and agreed to be ‘dangerous’ be in provincial custody in the first place?”, asks the Ontario voter: no answer arrives from Crown prosecutors, from judges, or from an explicitly punishment-averse corrections establishment. “And where have these liberal concern trolls been for the past forty years while the federal penal system, which has charge of the really dangerous criminals, has explicitly promoted ‘community release’ and built a bunch of zero-security prisons*?”

Thus is the magic lamp of law-and-order sentiment rubbed, and thousands of conservative-voting genies roil forth. Hudak has certainly learned a trick or two from Stephen Harper. At every election Harper invents pretexts to make the media angry at him, and the media take the bait, not realizing that all Harper wants is the fight—carried on in front of an audience that would happily take Pol Pot’s or John Wayne Gacy’s side against the media as such (that is, as an amorphous blob ruled by a liberal hive-intelligence). All Hudak wants here is a fight against advocates of rehabilitation and humanitarianism in prisons, whose moral standing is, for better or worse, little higher than that of us journalists.

*[As measured by the raw numbers of escapes, of course, the "security" level of federal prisons has become all but perfect in recent decades, improving on the margin even since the year 2000. Prison escapes were a fairly significant preoccupation of the news apparatus in my youth; today they are all but unheard of.]

On chain gangs, Hudak wins. Deal with it

  1. The problem, I think, lay in the word ‘mandatory’. If inmates were offered the opportunity to shorten their sentence in exchange for good behaviour plus manual labor, I can see this sort of incentive creating a motivated workforce that could indeed be called upon to help clean up public spaces.

    This way you turn the “chain gangs” into “work groups”.

    • And what of the private sector jobs they take away? As I understand it, there are many private highway maintenance companies that bid the contracts in good faith. Your thoughts about those contracts? Do these companies continue to get paid in full? Do we take cash out of their pockets? Do we get the prisons to undercut the contracts? Interesting questions no?

      • Especially considering that “chain-gangs” are not terribly profitable, ie they cost a lot.

      • This is what I was going to say. Cosh has deflected us from the real issue by appeal to a historical penology that has no place with ankle-bracelets, GPS, and the like. And certainly replacing whips with the (statistically) more lethal tasers will surely get people foaming at the mouth.

        This is a labour issue. Another end-run around organized and legally protected workers’ rights.

      • Not necessarily. More than just Canada’s many kilometres of roadside can use some tender loving care. There’s community clean-up, for one. There are innumerable neighbourhoods in Toronto that look more like an inner city US slum than something you might think you’d find in Canada.

        But why stop there? What about snow removal? Tree planting? Weeding? City budgets in most urban centres in Canada long ago started allocating less and less to public space upkeep. You’re not losing jobs there, because contracts were never tendered in the first place.

        What about letting companies tender bids to hire work crews? Incarceration costs a great deal, and by doing this you not only offset the costs of incarceration, but you create an opportunity to integrate offenders into the workforce, allowing them the chance to gain the connections and experience they would need to transition into paying jobs upon release (as opposed to having to make a beeline to the welfare office).

        The point is to look at something like this as an opportunity, and to explore ways in which a program like this can benefit all parties. Simple minded, all-encompassing punitive decrees generally do the opposite.

        • It’s pretty doubtful that this program can be run on an incremental cost recovery basis. Transporting and guarding a group of convicts out in public is almost guaranteed to cost more than their labour is worth. So, let’s burn some more cash to punish felons.

          • Well, it all depends. Say the correctional service was going to hire out a work crew, the costs of transportation and guarding would have to be paid for by the employer, and the rates and conditions can easily be set so that they satisfy the requirements of the pertinent codes, laws, or collective agreements.

            Also, what we are talking about here are not ‘felons’ in the the hardened criminal, 25-to-Life sense. These are not hardcore MS-13 lieutenants with half a dozen tear drops tattooed on their cheeks, or full patch Hell’s Angels. We’re talking guys who kited a few cheques, dodged some taxes, or forged a few signatures.

            Overall, however, the intended result here is to create a net positive benefit to the public good. When the goal is to rehabilitate someone so that they can re-enter society on a positive and constructive manner, it is a little harder to achieve your objective when they only action you really take is to lock that person into a little cage for a couple years, and wash your hands of it.

          • What if selling this labour at a rate that recovers the cost of the program results in demand far lower than supply?

          • “When the goal is to rehabilitate someone so that they can re-enter
            society on a positive and constructive manner, it is a little harder to
            achieve your objective when they only action you really take is to lock
            that person into a little cage for a couple years, and wash your hands
            of it”

            I think the prison farm model (recently closed to meet the political needs of a different Conservative politician) makes much more sense. It avoids competing for jobs held by law-abiding citizens, avoids security risks, avoids community fears about prisoners, avoids humiliating the prisoners…

            Meanwhile, the prisoners have an opportunity to work outside in a constructive manner that’s directly relevant to their lives and provides marketable skills. And for the “earn their keep” crowd, prison farms help offset the cost of prisons.

            Bu as Colby notes, this isn’t about prison labour at all. See the Junk Politics post on the Macleans Blog: “This world, to paraphrase sociologist Orrin Klapp,
            is destructively divided up into heroes – “hard-working, law-abiding
            tax payers” ; villains – criminals, terrorists and would-be terrorists;
            and fools – all the elites and so-called experts who are soft on crime
            and soft on terror.”

            This whole policy (like the Federal Cons’ “hug-a-thug” bullsh*t) is about driving that dynamic, to the benefit of the Cons and the detriment of Canadian society.

    • They will have wear distinctive clothing to be identified if an escape takes place. The guards will presumably be heavily armed to deter or stop escapes. You can’t do thjs without bringing in ‘chain gang’ elements. 
      The prison farms behind the prison borders, which the federal Conservatives killed, were a much better idea. 
      Under the Hudak plan firearms will inevitably be used in public spaces at some point.

      • If only we had some sort of tracking system that could be locked on to them, say that sent an alarm if they left a certain area.

        Ah, but what wishful thinking that must be.

        Seriously, anybody who thinks that the guarding of said prisoners is an issue needs to get out of the 19th century.

  2. And the federal Conservatives closed the prison farms and appealed to the same base apparently  on the perception the system was  coddling prisoners and not tough enough. These guys are so good at manipulating both  media and the public they can win on both sides of an issue.

    • Except they can’t, and won’t. Hudak’s idea is DOA – the only thing that would hurt them worse than floating such a silly idea would be actually implementing it, when people see the orange jumpsuits walking around their communities, near their homes schools and businesses. (The pants-pissing that would ensue would be amusing in extremis). Thankfully, the Tories managed to shoot themselves in the foot by floating it as a trial balloon.

      The idea that this is some sort of clever jiu-jitsu to force a debate on corrections is laughable. Faced with an absolutely perfect political climate for them in this election, Hudak’s people are becoming noticeable as the gang that can’t walk straight, let alone shoot.

      • They shot themselves with a trial balloon? Block that metaphor. I don’t know if you were responding to the actual blog entry, but of course I agree (indeed, I wrote) that the idea is DOA and that it’s not intended to provoke a debate. It’s only intended to get Hudak attacked by the right people.

  3. If Hudak gets pulled into a debate on this – say, he’s forced to go on TV and say ‘well, you see, these aren’t the really dangerous criminals anyways’, then he doesn’t win.

  4. I think if Tim Hudak announced that the sky was blue and he loved his mum, Mr Kinsella would come out against both, in a very self-righteous way too.

  5. Well of course based on today’s skin deep political media culture, Colby’s right on the mark.

    In so far as we insist on reducing serious social issues to debates on stereotypes I doubt that will change either.

  6. Dear Editor,

    Tim Hudak has lately discussed his modest proposal of
    favouring prison labour. Everyday in prison is a holiday of no work like
    rock candy mountain.

    Make them pay for their incarceration. Give
    them 65 cents an hour to work. Set up some assembly line work. A small
    light fixture manufacturer or a chip board furniture maker or, I hear
    call centers work quite well in some prisons. Bill Gates had Micro-Soft
    95 packaged in Washington State prison. That was just good business
    sense. Millionaires understand the profits of slave labour – we shouldn’t ignore it.

    In Kingston, prisoners make a lot of the Federal office
    furniture. It’s good because they can work without sick days or unions,
    pensions and corporate income tax. The supervisors have more control in
    motivating workers, no Bill 168 in there, eh? It’s also good because it
    takes the pressure off local and national factories who would otherwise
    have to pay a much higher wage.

    Most Canadians are too lazy to
    work for less than a dollar an hour. It’s all about labour and
    materials. Incentives like this are needed, especially for the private
    prison industry, which needs internal labour to help take the pressure
    off unions. Increasing membership just makes more paperwork for unions
    and that drives up their expenses.

    Ontario Works, right? Besides
    about 60 to 70 percent of prisoners are mentally ill anyway and have
    huge fines they could never pay. What do they know? Some of those jobs
    might be too complicated for the deranged so maybe part of the answer is
    to get a higher quality of prisoner. Some non-violent prisoners from
    normally unreported crime, would help. “Think inside the box.” could be
    their motto.

    A little slavery goes a long way and history does
    show many positive economic benefits of slavery. It works out real well
    for the contractors. Rumour is that most of the prison kitchens don’t
    even have a copy of The Escoffier Cook Book. I guess that’s why they
    call it punishment. The prisoners won’t get fat on all that lobster.
    Maybe through programs like this, some prisoners could be rewarded by
    having more than one bed sheet or allowed vitamin pills or access to
    non-rotten fruit, meat and vegetables.

    I’m hoping that the UFCW
    and UAW can have a chit-chat with Tim Hudak over this. I’m sure there
    are reasonable accommodations that can be made to start with. After all –
    what else are we going to do with all these new prisons planned?

    Course,
    with the wave of a Federal wand we don’t even need to discuss it. We
    don’t have to think anymore, how relaxing. He can do our thinking for
    us. There are definite benefits to having so much of the voter turn out,
    coming from that generation which takes, a half dozen different
    prescription drugs and tranquilizers every day – this is certainly one
    of them. Ontario Works is just good corporatism. Thanks.

  7. ‘Tis to laugh – Chain Gangs? Really? Little bit of fear mongering there no doubt. And any time you can get Kinsella out there arguing against you – you are winning!.  Besides the hug-a-thug crowd has lost federally and will do so provincially. Conservatives lead the polls and as well more than 60% approve of the proposed work program.
    Good!

    • Little bit of fear mongering? Isn’t that what the Conservatives you support do?

  8. If only there were an adequate number of commnity programmes out there, explictly designed to help the young , marginalized or damaged of our rat race society get a leg up, learn some work skills and attitudes that might help them to avoid the bad choices that will eventually put them into our dead end penal system? You know – let em know we’re worried about their present and their futures. Perhaps we could pay them moderately well through programmes run jointly by social aid societies and the private business community. They could help beautify our crumbling cities by picking up garbage and cleaning up graphiti and suchlike good works - helping to stretch out precious limited public funds, while hopefully reducing the need to expand our penal institutions.
    Now doesn’t that sound like a proactive solution for heading off the toxic brew of wasted lives and wasted public resources we currently enjoy?Yeah, i know. They’re just gonna make bad choices anyway, so…
    Or… we could increase manitory minimums. Pack em in. Stack em up like cord wood. Build new prisons. And make em pay their freight by sending them out there in the community to learn em how to be model citizens. You know – let em know we’re worried…
    Man if only we had the gift of foresight – we’d all be gods. Wouldn’t we? So best to go with Hudaks idea – there being little or no other choice available to us.[sarc off]

    • Are you posting from the pen, or? Either way you might have a future as an activist as I hear they don’t worry about your education and in your case your past could be a plus.

  9. Your title should have been “What we got here is a failure to communicate!”

      • I wasn’t joking

      • Any thoughts on my point concerning ‘prison farms’? 

        • I’m guessing they just don’t want “dem criminals” feeling like what they do is useful to society in some way.

          Frankly, manually picking up trash is about as degrading as it gets if you’re being paid less than minimum wage to do it.

          And that’s part of the point I think. Degrading criminals to make the reactionaries feel better about themselves.

          Sick sht.

  10. Competition with private enterprise has always been a problem.  The Mountain Institute, a minimum security Fed. prison has been using inmates to look after Manning Park for 25 years.  They clean up garbage and chop firewood for the campsites and the guys love doing it.  When they tried building a 9 hole golf course and a garden nursery local businesses nixed the idea.

    I thought prison farms were a good idea just for the hands on manual labour working with animals, however there appears to be some truth in there not being a huge demand for farm labour.  Adding another building(s) on site for machine shop or carpentry would have been a better idea to my mind.

    At a cost of about $80-100,000 a year per prisoner, they get chances to take many courses.  Another problem is the cost for these courses as I remember meeting a fellow who bragged about how much money he was making just teaching a basic computer course at the medium security prison in the Fraser Valley.
     
    Then there is this to deal with:
    “BC prisoner union bid seeks to raise inmate pay”
    http://www.vancouversun.com/send-us-your-news/prisoner+union+seeks+raise+inmate/4471738/story.html
    __________
    This story in the StarPhoenix, Regina last year – First Nations to build first ‘private for profit’ prisons, lol!
     
    “According to the sources, First Nations would secure financing to construct and own the new building. Funding could come from bank loans, other levels of government, or the bands’ “own source revenue” from casinos and other First Nations businesses.
    The most likely scenario would see the provincial government operate the facility, paying an annual per-bed amount back to the First Nations consortium, said the sources. Labour agreements, programming and other issues have not been discussed to this point, they said. It would be built close enough to the correctional centre to achieve efficiencies in meal preparation and other areas, but separate enough to avoid contact between these very different types of prisoners.”

  11. I have nothing against manual labour in prisons but it should be paid at a reasonable wage and depending on the skills required or the difficulty of the job itself. That simply won’t happen.

    • How about the inmates being given a wage where i/2 salery goes to room and board to the GVMT to offset the cost of houseing them.
      How about paying back the courts for their time in solving their crime. Thats got to hurt.
      How about the cost of TV, cable, power, computer use for internet, food, water, tax, etc. Hey! If we are going to re-train them lets let them pay for the privilage that we care about them.
      Repeat criminals with two or more thair salery just goes to the GVMT with a thank yous.
      The first “mistake” depending on the crime, maybe a break. Anything after that they get R&B and nothing else and they do manual labour to pay back like a caged tiger.  

  12. Here is a link to some info about Alberta’s approach to work groups.

    Over the years I’ve passed by these groups on a limited nubmer of occasions – it all seems to work out not so badly, and I’ve never noticed any whips.  I’d venture that most of the inmates who end up ‘joining’ these work groups are happy to be there.

  13. At least in Ontario, jail superintendents have often collaborated with local town managers in doing manual work when needed. It’s simple: suitable and willing inmates are offered a day’s work and are transported supervised by municipal staff. Payment? The municipality buys each worker a good, attractive lunch from Colonal Sanders or some other such outlet. Some necessary work gets done, the usually young prisoners get a change from their usual routines and a good lunch. No chains, no whips – and the politicians don’t even know.  

  14. I am willing to listen to any ideas that will help solve the prison problems. James O’Hearns reply in his 3rd paragraph sounds intresting and I will think on it some more. However, we must solve this.
    We have had a problem for centuries with crime. I don’t know what hasnt been tried and maybe you can think about it for a while and say A’HA, but I doubt it.
    All criminals do is create victims. Like animals in the wild they stalk and do harm to someone just like you. There’s a pleasent thought to walkup to every day and then go out to earn a living worrying about your self or family.
    Only after the “event” and capture are they taken off the street and the law takes them to be tried for their crime and something called justice is handed out.
    In the one case a person for whatever reason makes a bad decission and pays for it, once. He is therafter expected to have learned his “lesson” and is returned to freedom and expected to become a normal part of society and carry on. But even in that case many eyes are on him and the pressure, thow low, is there for the rest of his/her life and rightly so.
    In another case something is very wrong. For many reasons, and it takes only one, a decission is made to do harm sometimes for gain and sometimes for pleasure and sometimes both. First off the victim hasn’t a chance as he is being stalked by someone he might not know and he is easy prey for the hunter. There is no warning. A sucker punch or someone using your name stealing money from your bank account or credit card is the least harmful considering the other terrible crimes we hear about. But what to do about it?
     

  15. I just don’t want $20 million of tax money to pay for this emotionally-driven policy. What was that line from Timmy’s buddy Rob about respecting taxpayers?

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