Closure of Two Local Jails

A tip of my toque to two of our local Progressive Conservative MPPs for their determination to hold Ontario’s Liberal government to account for its decision to close the Owen Sound and Walkerton provincial jails.

It’s a fait accompli: people from the Grey-Bruce area are already serving their court-ordered jail time or are in custody awaiting bail or trial several hours away from that vital connection with their home community, and their family and friends.

I know, some people out there who chance to be reading this might smirk and say something cynical about how anyone in jail probably deserves to be there, even if in some cases they’re technically “innocent until proven guilty,” or at best they don’t deserve anything but “tough love.”

So what’s this bleeding-heart nonsense about “their vital connection with their home and community?”

Well, it’s about what’s good for the community, as well as people behind bars: This community of Grey-Bruce, especially the parts of it many hours and many more kilometres away from the provincial “super jail” in Penetanguishene will pay a price, possibly a very big and as yet unknown price, for warehousing people-in-trouble from this area so far from home.

Whatever they may have done, or not done, whatever some or many others think of them, home is still the place where those who love and care for such people live in hope for them.

It is a dangerous thing to take them too far away from that, to lock them away in a place where, in their loneliness and sense of isolation, they may be tempted to become part of another community that cares nothing for them, and certainly will do nothing to offer them the opportunity to heal. On the contrary it offers vulnerable people more troubling influences.  It will break them even more.

This is a risky trend. Super jails, be they provincial or federal, are virtual schools for crime. If somebody thinks I’m wrong, like the federal or provincial ministers of justice or correctional facilities, I invite them to tell me why. And tell me how well super jails have worked in the U.S. where 2.3 million people are in prison.

Has anyone at Queen’s Park given that sort of thing a moment’s thought? Has there been any kind of report or study that considers something other than the economics of closing local jails in favour of such faceless institutions, like the impact on the lives of people, from the person most directly affected, to Ontario and even Canadian society in general?

I mean no disrespect to the aboriginal people whose lives and communities were damaged beyond measure by the residential school system when children were taken from their homes, uprooted from their communities and sent far away to government-support, church-run schools to be indoctrinated into white culture. But the point is relevant: Canadians and their governments should know better.

The focus of the issue, the closure of the two local jails, has been largely economic. And that’s fair enough, as far as it goes. Dozens of local jobs have been lost.  People in custody awaiting trial will have to be transported back and forth to court in Owen Sound at great cost. There’s even an environmental cost there that needs to be considered, if it has. Who knows?

Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound MPP Bill Walker and Huron-Bruce MPP Lisa Thompson are right to keep pressuring the McGuinty government to provide the financial details, the cost-analysis that justifies the local jail closures.

The longer the government fails to do that, the more people are entitled to conclude there is no such detailed information, and certainly nothing like a study, socio-economic or otherwise. In the absence of any such thing we are also entitled to conclude it’s nothing but thoughtless and careless slash-and-burn cost-cutting, and to conclude the government is not telling the truth when it says the jails are being closed because they’re “underutilized.”

I am no great fan of the dungeon-like Owen Sound jail. Like the Walkerton jail it was initially built in the 19th Century and reflects the punishment-focused attitudes of those times. It was high time long ago for them to be replaced.

The idea of a new, regional jail is a good one. Unfortunately, the timing isn’t good from a financial point of view. It’s not as if governments don’t still waste tonnes of public money – at the G20 event in Muskoka and Toronto, for example – But the McGuinty government is coming under increasing pressure from the financial institutions that really run the world to cut costs and bring the burgeoning Ontario debt under control, or face the prospect of its credit rating being lowered. And that would just add to the debt. Go figure. The latest warning came from Moody’s Investment Services earlier this month. The provincial debt has surpassed $220 billion, with another $16 billion expected to be added this year.

There’s no chance a new regional jail will be built in this area to replace the Owen Sound and Walkerton jails.

Mistakes have been made. They are still being made. And we will all pay the price, whatever it is.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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