Owen Sound Jail to Close, Rehabilitation and Mental Health Funding Should Be Government Priority

I spent a little time in the Owen Sound Jail, though not, thank goodness, as an inmate. It was about 15 years ago, I recollect. I was taken on a guided tour of the facility with other members of the local news media.

One image from that tour still stands in my memory: a row of iron-barred cells, each cell about four feet wide by about nine feet deep, with three stone walls and no window. The word that kept coming to mind then, and comes to mind again now, is dungeon.

The Owen Sound jail was built in the 19th Century. I suppose such dungeon-like conditions reflected prevailing public attitudes toward people who broke the law, or were even just charged with a criminal offence and in custody awaiting trial. If you were in jail there was something fundamentally wrong with you: you weren’t a worthy person; you deserved to be locked up in cruel and degrading conditions, to teach you a lesson, or some such thing. It was all about punishment and degradation. Little if any thought was given to rehabilitation.

In those days even the “indigent” people forced to live in county-run homes for the aged were called “inmates” and were subjected, sentenced really, to a term of isolation and bread and water diets for days on end if they broke the rules. It’s not hard to imagine how much worse was the treatment meted out to inmates in jail.

Unless things have changed substantially since I was there, and I’m pretty sure they haven’t, the Owen Sound Jail should have been shut down long ago and perhaps preserved as a heritage building-monument to human ignorance and tragic waste of redeemable human lives.

But it also should have been rebuilt long ago to embody the attitudes and values of a much wiser and enlightened age when rehabilitation, that is, giving people the opportunity to restore their lives, was the guiding principle. Nothing else makes sense, for society’s sake, as well as for theirs. Yes, there may be incorrigibles who should be locked up for very long times, maybe indefinitely. But to label people “criminals,” essentially consign them to a lower caste level of humanity, to treat them like dirt as soon as they commit a criminal offence – that’s a recipe for disaster.

And sadly that’s exactly what “tough on crime” politicians and their supporters who talk of “punishment to fit the crime,” are setting in motion with their plans to spend billions of public dollars on new, American-style “super jails” to lock up many more inmates serving longer sentences.  And all in the name of buying votes. It’s, well, criminal.

(I hope nobody in Owen Sound, currently worried about the economic impact of the planned closure of the Owen Sound jail  at the end of this year, will ever think the Scenic City is a good, potential site for one of those new federal jails after Stephen Harper wins his precious majority in a couple of weeks.)

Sad to think that it’s come to this, that people are so easily swayed by opportunistic politicians – so much so that Canadian society is quite possibly poised in a couple of weeks to undo so much hard-won social wisdom that we will revert to shallow, 19th Century attitudes regarding the treatment of people convicted of criminal offences.  The new jails may not be dungeons. On the contrary they’ll no doubt be super-efficient, hi-tech showplaces of custodial human warehousing. But all the gloss will not hide the cold and inhuman brutality of it all, fostered by the underlying contempt. Meanwhile, the new jails will still function, perhaps even better, as schools of crime in the relative absence of well-funded rehabilitative programs designed to help people renew, rather than ruin, their lives.

While the Harper government was planning to spend a huge amount of public money on building new jails it was neglecting the pressing problem of an increasing number of people suffering from mental illness already in federal jails. Last fall Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, who reports to Parliament, reported more people in federal jails than ever before suffer from mental illness, 39 percent in some regions. He said on average 20 percent of the men coming into prison are on prescription medicine for mental disorders, while the number for women with a history of mental illness is more than 30 percent. But Sapers said the lack of adequate mental health services for all inmates in the federal penitentiary system is a long-standing problem.

The federal government should be spending more money to make sure this country has the best mental health treatment system that Medicare can offer, to help keep people out of jail, rather than spending billions to send more of them there. That too is called preventative medicine.

Much of what Owen Sound councillors and others are saying about the need to keep the Owen Sound jail open rings true, though I hope they too would like to see it rebuilt or thoroughly renovated. People who are going to have any chance of rebuilding their lives after making serious mistakes will need the support of friends and family, and just the sense that their community is nearby. That’s in addition of course to systemic commitment to rehabilitative programs. That the Ontario government would move inmates from this community to another area many miles and hours away from their homes seems to fly in the face of that approach. That’s reason enough right there to reconsider the Owen Sound Jail closure, and Walkerton’s too, for that matter, while planning the reconstruction of both.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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