Stephen Harper’s Bad Idea: Bill C-10 and the Strategy to Fill Our Prisons

Governments and corporations commission studies all the time, and are usually able to get the results massaged in a way that reinforces their position. How bad must an idea be when even the people you hand-pick to study it can’t find anything worthwhile in it? I remember feeling confident that there was no way the Conservatives would be successful in getting this bill passed.

And initially C-15 died in parliament, but the federal government continued to doggedly pursue it, along with a number of other fear-based “law-and-order” initiatives. Harper and his people kept telling us that we needed to be “tough on crime” to protect our communities from increasing numbers of dangerous people. The only problem with that argument is that both the crime rate and the crime severity index have been steadily dropping in Canada since 1994.

Then, in the summer of 2010, Stockwell Day informed reporters that the government’s $9 billion proposed expenditure to build new prisons was necessitated by a rise in “unreported crime.” Of course he was laughed out of the room, but a week later a smug article appeared in the Toronto Sun crowing that Day’s assertion had been backed up by polling data. Even if that were true, “unreported” crime, by virtue of being unreported, does not end up in the court or correctional systems, and so has no bearing on prison populations.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

So what do you do when you have a factually insupportable crime agenda? You create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even before Harper won a “majority” in May 2011, his government was already putting their plan to fill the jails into action.

In November of 2009, they passed a law getting rid of the 2-for-1 credit for people in remand. Up until that point, judges had the discretion to reduce people’s sentences by two days for every day they spent in pre-trial custody. This was meant in some small way to compensate for the horrible conditions people had to endure, sometimes for months at a time, while awaiting trial, mostly because they were not in a financial position to post bail. By eliminating the 2-for-1 credit, the government clearly showed its indifference to the inhumane treatment of people who have not been convicted of any crime, in a country whose judicial system has a presumption of innocence and enshrines the right to a “speedy trial.”

Then in March of 2011, with the support of the Bloc Quebecois, the Conservatives passed Bill C-59, abolishing Accelerated Parole Reviews. These Parole Reviews had allowed people convicted of non-violent offences to get day parole after serving 1/6 of their sentence, and full parole after serving 1/3 of their sentence.

By eliminating the 2-for-1 credit and Accelerated Parole Reviews, the Harper government guaranteed that people would spend more time behind bars.

Creating More Criminals

And then of course there is Bill C-10, inaccurately titled “The Safe Streets and Communities Act.” Introduced in parliament on September 20th, C-10 brings together nine crime bills that the government was unsuccessful in passing previously. This omnibus bill, if passed as it is written now, will ensure that our prisons are full to overflowing, thus justifying Harper’s construction plans. However, the prisons will not be packed because there is more actual crime happening, but because the government is criminalizing more communities and behaviours, as well as net-widening to create more incarcerable offences. They are also trying to enact legislation that will make it harder for prisoners to get out of jail, and easier for law enforcement to throw people back into jail.

On the front end, we have mandatory minimums, changes to the youth justice act, and the elimination of house arrest (also called conditional sentencing) for many crimes. Mandatory minimums (Bill S-10) take away judicial discretion. Until now, judges have been able to look at mitigating circumstances and make decisions about sentencing based on the accused person’s level of involvement in the crime, history, family or employment situation, etc. Now someone caught with as few as six marijuana plants will be charged with trafficking and receive a minimum jail sentence of 6 months. Changes to the youth justice act (Bill C-4) will result in more youth being held in pre-trial custody, more youth bring tried in adult court and sent to adult prisons, and increased custodial sentences rather than community sentences (like probation or community service). And Bill C-16, which is touted as eliminating house arrest for “serious” crimes, will result in jail time for people convicted for minor and property crimes.

Bill C-10 will also impose considerable additional hardships on people while they’re in prison. Bill C-39 removes language about rehabilitation and reintegration from the purpose of federal corrections in the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, focusing solely on “the protection of society” as the paramount consideration. There is already very little effective or easily available rehabilitative programming inside Canadian prisons, especially for people serving long sentences, so with this language removed federal prisoners are even less likely to receive essential programs.

This is particularly troubling in light of the bill’s strengthened focus on prisoners having to complete their correctional plan before their release. It creates a Catch-22 where a prisoner’s future freedom is dependent on services that are not made accessible to him/her. This bill also removes the language that the “least restrictive measures” must be used by guards to control prisoners. This will undoubtedly lead to more staff-on-prisoner violence and other potential human rights violations. It also adds new institutional charges, including “disrespecting” correctional staff, which can lead to punishments such as segregation and the restriction of family visits. C-39 also makes it significantly more difficult for prisoners to get parole.

On the back end, with Bill 23B the term “pardon” is being replaced by the term “record suspension,” the waiting periods will be longer before someone can apply, and certain convictions will make one altogether ineligible for a record suspension. Without having their criminal records expunged, it will be much more difficult for ex-prisoners to find employment, and make it more likely that they will reoffend and end up back in jail.

Bill C-39 proposes another amendment that would allow police officers to arrest someone without a warrant, if the officer “feels” that the person might be breaking their parole conditions. It is often said that once people get involved in the criminal system, it is very hard for them to get out. With this legislation, the revolving door keeps picking up speed.

Meanwhile, the opposition to these draconian responses to crime has been growing. Quebec and Ontario have refused to pay the astronomical costs associated with the bill. The Canadian Bar Association came out with a list of ten reasons to oppose the bill, and an association of defence lawyers from the US wrote an open letter to the Harper government imploring them not to go down the same road of mass incarceration that has been an utter failure there.

Even Texas law enforcement officials told the Conservatives they were making a mistake. Texas is the state that uses the death penalty more than any other, and has seen fit to execute children and intellectually disabled people. If law enforcement from George W. Bush Country is telling you that your crime agenda is too harsh, you know there’s a problem.

The mainstream media, which often colludes with governments to create a culture of fear in which harsh laws will be accepted by the public, has for the most part gotten on board in denouncing the bill. And from a community perspective, many individuals and groups have come together to organize demos and events to discuss the devastating consequences of Bill C-10, particularly to already marginalized communities.

“Warehouses for the Poor”

So given all of the public outcry, and the complete lack of evidence that this bill will do anything to make our communities safer, why is Harper insisting on ramming C-10 through parliament as quickly as possible? Is his party full of rabid ideologues who actually believe that they have a mandate from the people to pass this legislation? Are they mean-spirited? Contemptuous of facts? Not very bright?

While all of these things may play a part in the saga of C-10, I think there’s a simpler answer. People who have stuff want to keep it, whether that stuff is money, material possessions or political power. Criminal laws were first instituted to ensure that wealthy people had their property protected, and that hasn’t changed. The dominant culture has no interest in a shift in the balance of power.

While C-10 may cost billions in taxpayers’ dollars, a lot of rich people are going to get richer thanks to Harper’s prison expansion plan. Many corporations have contracts with Correctional Services Canada (CSC). If you go to the CSC website and click on “Proactive Disclosure” and then “Disclosure of Contracts” you will get a sense of who is benefitting from the increased prison population.

I have a sign in my office that says “Jails are warehouses for poor people.” In fact, jails are warehouses for poor people; homeless people; Aboriginal people; people from racialized communities; people with physical and intellectual disabilities; survivors of physical, sexual and emotional abuse; psychiatric survivors; people who use drugs, queer and trans people; people living with HIV, and as we saw so clearly illustrated during the G20, people who express political dissent.

People in power are invested in keeping things the same, and squashing those who have the nerve to suggest that things could be, and in fact should be, different. Prison in general, and Bill C-10 in particular, is a highly effective means of exerting social control. Whether it’s Aboriginal people asking to have what was stolen returned to them, or other groups looking for the considerable wealth and resources of this country to be more equitably distributed, or simply those who challenge the status quo, locking people up and removing them from their communities is an effective way of silencing those voices.

But all is not lost. The Senate refused to capitulate to Harper and pass C-10 before parliament broke for Christmas. This will give them more time to investigate the bill and hopefully make changes. And if worse comes to worse and it’s passed as is … governments can be defeated, bills can be repealed, and a more compassionate, just society can be created. We just have to keep fighting.

Joan Ruzsa has been the coordinator of Rittenhouse, an abolitionist agency that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, since 2000.  She also works at PASAN (Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network) and is studying to become a psychotherapist.