Mr. Speaker, it gives me pleasure to rise in the House to speak on this topic.
Perhaps one of the more seminal moments in the last couple of years that really brought public attention to the problems in our prisons, particularly with those who are facing mental health issues, is the story of Ashley Smith. At the time, Ashley was a 17-year-old girl whose crime was to have thrown an apple at a postman and to have stolen a CD.
Ashley entered our penitentiary system where she was kept in solitary confinement for 11 months. She was never properly diagnosed as having mental health issues and yet she was constantly on a suicide watch in solitary confinement in various prisons. She was transferred from facility to facility.
When I was at the Grand Valley Institution in Kingston, I had the opportunity to be in the cell in which Ashley passed away. It is incredibly tragic to think that she died there as prison guards watched, with orders not to enter her cell. She asphyxiated herself, after 11 months of complete failure by our prison system to address Ashley's root problems and after her having gone to jail for a very minor crime in the first place.
This tremendous tragedy on its own is deeply sad not only for the family of Ashley but for all Canadians that it could happen in Canada. What is far more sad is that the Correctional Investigator tells us that this is symptomatic of something that is happening every day in prisons across the country.
The reality is that those faced with mental health concerns are dealing with a system that is utterly failing them. More often than not, they are placed in solitary confinement because the system does not have the ability to provide them the services they need to get them better.
As an example, when I was in St. John's I had the opportunity to visit Her Majesty's Penitentiary and the solitary confinement cells there. In a tiny cell, barely larger than a closet, were two people, one of whom I was told faced a serious mental health issue and was self-flagellating, hitting himself. In that cell was somebody else laying on the ground with a blanket over his head, trying to drown out the noise.
My overwhelming feeling after watching that was to wonder how anybody could possibly get better. How could that person, who clearly had such a serious mental health concern, get better in an environment of being stuck in such a tiny cell, isolated from anyone else? In fact, today in committee, just a little less than half an hour ago, mental health professionals said that the worst thing for somebody facing a mental health issue was to be confined, to be removed from interaction with other individuals.
The reality is that, unfortunately, our prisons are being treated as hospitals without doctors or nurses who know how to treat those patients. In fact, prison guards are given little to no training on how to deal with those who have mental health issues, meaning that they are poorly equipped to help inmates.
This tragedy is obviously terrible when we think of all the suffering that is going on unnecessarily, but we also have to keep in mind that as these individuals are being released directly from solitary confinement into the population at large, the likelihood they are going to reoffend is almost certain. This not only is a terrible tragedy because of what it does to those who have mental illness, but it is a terrible tragedy for the community as a whole. The reality is that this is driving up rates of recidivism and making our communities less safe and more dangerous.
When I left Her Majesty's Penitentiary, one of the corrections officials told me that the reaction of the former Conservative public safety minister, after having toured the facility, said to the media when asked about the conditions in the facility, “Good, it will act as a deterrent. People won't want to go in there”.
The idea that somebody who is facing a mental health issue will stop and think about the abysmal, horrid conditions in a prison before committing a crime, is to so fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the problem as to ensure that person will enter that environment and offend and offend and offend and offend.
We look at other jurisdictions like California where the recidivism rate now is over 70%. We should think about that for a second. More than seven out of ten individuals who enter prisons in California will reoffend. The rate here in Canada is 36%. Why is that the case in California? It is because those who are facing mental health issues or addictions, which I will come to later in my speech, are given no programs and no services and are entering into environments that are overcrowded and exacerbate existing problems. It means that they enter as minor criminals but they come out as hardened criminals ready to offend and offend again.
We often forget that prisoners get out of prison, even if we increase their sentences. In fact, over 90% of prisoners will come back into society. The question is, how do we want them to come out?
In a recent report by Mr. Stewart and Mr. Jackson they talked about a broken compass and that the government's direction with respect to corrections is leading us on a catastrophic path that has been done before. What we have learned from them is that we are walking the very same road that the Americans walked in the early 1980s when the Republicans in the United States thought the only way to solve crime was to put more and more people into prisons. What resulted in the United States is what will result here in Canada: an ever increasing permanent prison population that churns out more and more criminals, costs billions more dollars and at the end of the day makes our communities far less safe.
Already in Canada we know that somewhere between 12% to 20% of the male population in our prisons are facing serious mental health issues. For women the statistics are even more grave and more severe. A full one-quarter or more of female inmates face serious mental health issues.
This brings me to the question of addictions. We do not often think about what the root cause of crime is, but more often than not, what begins that path down a dark road toward crime and toward problems is addictions. Don Head, who is the head of our corrections facilities, has said that some 80% or more of criminals in our prisons right now are facing addiction issues. Problems with addictions are at the root of most of our prison population, yet the reality for those inmates is that we are not providing the services they need to break the deadly cycle of addiction, crime and violence.
For people who are addicted to drugs, more often than not they have to feed that habit, so they commit at first smaller crimes, crimes that have major detrimental impacts on communities but are really the start of a more dark path that they are beginning in their life. They do break and enters to pay for whatever drugs they have. We see particularly in Vancouver where the rates of drug use are much higher, the problem of property crimes continually on the rise.
We do not ask what happens to that person who commits a break and enter. Perhaps it is a young person 18 or 19 years old who breaks into a house and steals some things so that he or she might be able to pay for that next hit of drugs. The person goes into remand more often than not. The sentence is served in overcrowded, deplorable conditions where no program and no services are offered whatsoever.
I agreed when the House passed measures to end the two for one and sometimes even three for one credits of remand. However, let us not kid ourselves that if we are getting rid of that, we also need to get rid of the conditions in remand, period. When there is someone who goes into those conditions who is facing addiction problems and his or her only environment is an overcrowded place with other addicts and other criminals, what happens is that person comes out even worse than the person was before. We are turning our prisons into crime factories.
Dr. Jones, the executive director of the John Howard Society, quoted somebody the other day who said that our prisons are like gladiator schools where young men--more often than not it is young men--go in and learn how to be hard criminals, learn how to commit ever more serious crimes. In fact when commenting on the direction the government was heading, Dr. Jones stated that the government's agenda on crime, particularly as it relates to prisons but its agenda more generally “contradicts evidence, logic, effectiveness, history, justice and humanity”.
Those are very strong comments from someone who has to deal with inmates day in and day out. He is saying that the government's agenda flies in the face of all logic, all evidence and all history. It makes the point that this has all been tried before and it has failed miserably.
What is the answer? What is the right approach to dealing with these issues? The first thing we must do is to invest in local communities. No one understands better how to stop crime in the community than the community itself. I was in Summerside, P.E.I. where its crime prevention committee has pulled together the whole community ranging from police to not-for-profits, such groups as the Boys and Girls Club, Salvation Army, the local chamber of commerce. All of them have been brought together to ask how they can defeat the problems they are facing with crime in their community. They developed a plan.
The problem is that their funding is being cut. Imagine, at a time when we have a government which says it has an agenda on crime and that is its priority, the crime prevention budget in this country has been slashed by more than half since the Conservative government came into power. Groups like the Boys and Girls Club tell me they have less money for programs, not more, that the agenda they have developed locally is not only not receiving any money, but more troubling, what money is left they are being prescribed national directives that do not work for the local communities.
I heard the same thing from members of the crime prevention council in Kitchener when I was there and had the opportunity to talk to them about their incredibly well considered, intelligent plan to combat crime in their community. Their greatest frustration is that for the very things that are the cheapest way of dealing with crime, which is prevention, they are seeing their funding being slashed. Where there is still money in Kitchener as in other crime prevention efforts across the country, they are being prescribed edicts from Ottawa that do not work for their communities. They are being told that if they are a round peg, they have to fit into a square hole. It does not make sense. Communities have to be allowed to develop their own solutions.
If anyone is wondering how serious the slashing of funding is to local crime prevention efforts, in the last full year of the Liberal government, the National Crime Prevention Council supported more than 509 projects in 261 communities for a total of nearly $60 million. Today that funding has been slashed by more than half. There have been cuts every single year the Conservative government has been in power to the point where there are 285 fewer projects now being funded and actual spending has now been reduced to just $19 million. We can talk about having a prison strategy, but imagine at the same time that Conservatives are following a failed Republican model on prisons, that they are slashing the very things that stop people from going into prisons in the first place. It is a policy that is backward in the extreme.
It is worthwhile to consider what did happen in specific statistical terms in the United States in the late 1970s and particularly in the very early 1980s. In 1981, the incarceration rates in Canada and the U.S. were very similar. Canada incarcerated 91 individuals for every 100,000 people. In the United States that figure was 243. It was higher, but it was relatively similar. By 2001, in Canada that rate had only grown slightly, to 101 individuals incarcerated for every 100,000. In the United States it had soared to nearly 700 people for every 100,000, a rate 700% higher than that for Canada. In that same period of time, between 1981 and 2001, the United States had grown its incarceration rate relative to Canada's by 500%.
What did the United States get for that? What happened to the violent crime rates or overall crime rates during that same period? Remarkably, or perhaps not so remarkably, if we understand the full story of crime, the reduction in crime rates in Canada and the U.S. were almost identical. All of that additional incarceration, a rate 700% higher than Canada's, meant that the U.S. had no safer communities.
In fact the argument has been made that because of the conditions and stresses of prison, having a large, permanent prison population actually increases recidivism and increases the rate of crime. To me, perhaps the least logical thing we could do is spend billions and billions of dollars on something that has been proven to make the situation worse, not better.
What we should be doing in our prisons seems self-evident. When I visited with the chiefs of police in all different parts of the country, in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto and Cape Breton, what they said again and again was that we have to have a way to break the cycle of addictions. One of the things that were recommended specifically in Calgary was that we need prison facilities where people go and serve their time but where they can actually get treatment.
I have had parents of children who have committed crimes who have said that they would turn their own children in, that they would go and grab their children and take them to the door of the prison and ask that they be incarcerated if they knew that those kids would actually get the help they needed to get better. Instead what they know is that when they are sent to these facilities, they get much worse.
We also know that we need to train those who are on the front lines, such as the prison guards, to identify and deal with mental health issues. We have to make sure that those who are brought into our prison facilities are identified on entrance as having the mental health conditions they have and make sure that they get proper treatment, so that when they are released, they can actually get better.
In all of this, I point out that we have consistently supported tough sentences for serious crimes. Of course if people commit serious crimes, they should face serious sentences. The problem with the Conservative approach to this is that they wait for victims. They wait for the serious crime before they do anything. It is only once the victimization has occurred that they talk about the solutions.
We are saying that of course once that has happened, once the situation has gotten to that horrible stage, then yes, tough sentences must be implemented, and we have supported them. However, in the lead-up to that, whether in prisons or through prevention or other actions that are taken, there are far better ways of addressing crime.
The last point I will make deals directly with our police, the men and women whom we count on to keep our communities safe. We know that particularly when policing is proactive and community-based, it plays a huge role in reducing crime. What is so disturbing about the actions of the government is that they have really betrayed police. Those are the words of police themselves. In fact the Canadian Police Association called the broken promise to put 2,500 new officers on the streets a betrayal.
In his speech in Vancouver, the Prime Minister promised to give the RCMP wage parity with other police. The Prime Minister even signed a contract with the RCMP, which he then ripped up and threw out. The government was not even able to give the RCMP wage parity with other police forces, something which is going to have a huge, detrimental impact on their recruitment.
The other thing the government did to the RCMP, which I thought was extremely offensive, was to challenge their right to collective bargaining. They are actually going to court on that while it is a right enjoyed by every single other police force in every other part of the country.
Four years ago, the Liberal government introduced a bill to modernize policing techniques, to give them the tools they need to go after criminals in cyberfraud and child pornography. We introduced that in 2005. This government sat on it for four long years and when it finally did introduce it, it was at the end of a session at the 11th hour, so we could not even debate it until the fall. So four years later, it failed the police.
In conclusion, the government's approach to corrections and crime is wrong. It is wrong on crime and tough on cops, and it is time for us to have an approach that is intelligent and balanced and that actually addresses the root causes of crime to ensure the safety of our communities.