Mr. Speaker, I move that the first report of the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security, presented to the House on Wednesday, April 14, 2010, be concurred in.
It is an honour for me to move this motion and to have it seconded by the member for Malpeque, and I will be splitting my time with the member for Malpeque on this issue.
If we look at the content of the motion that is before the House, it asks something that is pretty simple. It asks that before we close down the prison farm program, a farm program that has provided invaluable effort to rehabilitate inmates over the last hundred years, the government should provide some modicum of evidence that the program was not working.
In committee it was fairly startling to learn that the Correctional Service of Canada is keeping no statistics when it comes to the effective rehabilitation of inmates who complete programs. It also keeps no statistics on whether those individuals were able to get jobs when they were released. Further, it keeps no statistics even on the costing of the program. The Conservatives refused throughout the debate in committee to provide what exactly was the cost of the prison farm program and how much money we would specifically save.
This motion asks that, before the government moves forward, in each of those areas they demonstrate that the program was not effective. Here is the reason. As I and our critic for agriculture had the opportunity to travel the country, we came to see really the most effective program that we have in corrections at helping inmates rehabilitate.
At the end of their sentence, just before they are released, inmates are given the opportunity to work in the prison farm program. It is a program that lets them work with animals and develop empathy. It lets them build the compassion that comes from working with another living thing. As we have seen in research from other jurisdictions, this type of work is now on the leading edge of making sure that when inmates are released they do not reoffend. At the bottom line, is that not what public safety really is all about, making sure that crimes do not happen either in the first place, or in this case, when somebody is being released from prison, that it does not happen again?
I had the opportunity to meet with the men who went through the prison farm program, to look into their eyes and see the difference it made in their lives, how transformational it was. I heard from a gentleman who was in a terrible situation. No one can excuse his crime, but it was not an easy situation. He was 19 years old. He had a step-parent who was abusing his mother, and through a confrontation when alcohol was involved, there was manslaughter. He took the life of the person who was abusing his mother, a crime he deeply regrets, but a situation that was deeply regrettable.
He talked about how the prison farm program changed him as a person, made him stronger, not just how it built empathy but the process of voluntarily, and understand that this program is voluntary, getting up at five in the morning and going to a farm and putting in 10 hours of work. They get to know the dignity of a job well done and understand the structure of work. For individuals who never really had that structure in their life before, it becomes transformative. In so many different ways, this individual was able to articulate how it made a difference in his life.
Then I talked to correctional officials, people who have been working in the prison farms in many cases for longer than 30 years. They told us there is no more effective program in corrections than the prison farm program. In every instance where I talked to a correctional official, they said when it came to the prison farm program there was not a single incident of violent recidivism. It is absolutely stunning that the government would axe a program that is that effective.
Its rationale ostensibly was twofold; one was the cost. Let us look at the cost.
The government is embarking on chasing after California, spending tens of billions of dollars on megaprisons, locking people up for longer and longer following a Republican model that leads to less safe communities and turns prisons into crime factories. It turns them into crime factories specifically because people go in for crimes, and instead of getting better, they face reduced or cut back programs. Conservatives are willing to spend billions of dollars on all these new prisons, but when it comes to a program that is effective and is proven to work, a model internationally, they do not have the dollars. How much are we talking about? The government tells us it is $4 million, but it will not give us a breakdown of that $4 million.
The Conservatives tell us no one is being laid off as a result of these closures. They tell us that they are now going to have to go to market to buy the milk and eggs that the program now provides for Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Yet, they say that somehow there is a mysterious $4 million to save, on which they cannot give us any information.
Even if it does save $4 million, that represents two fake lakes. That is barely more than a second of G8 and G20 spending in a weekend. It is a pittance compared to how the government blows money.
The second rationale, aside from cost, is that agriculture is a dead industry, if members can believe it. Conservative ministers have stood up and said that agriculture is a dead-end, that people do not need to learn those skills as there is no future in it. I think a lot of Canadians would find that offensive. It also misses a fundamental point.
I have visited most penitentiaries in this country. For example, I have visited a literacy program in a penitentiary. I talked with those going through the program. We do not expect most inmates to become writers, but we do understand that the basic skills of literacy are an essential component to getting a job and having a future. Similarly, I have visited prison programs where inmates sew pockets onto materials to be used by our soldiers, or sweep floors. I do not ask how many will get a job sewing pockets on garments. I do not ask how many will get a job sweeping floors. Instead, I ask about the base skills they are getting. For those inmates who have not had the opportunity to find the structure of work and the pride that comes from putting in a full day's work, this type of experience is one that makes a huge difference.
I cannot help but reflect upon something the member for Malpeque once said to me. He visited a prison farm and there was a cow that had foot rot. In normal circumstances the cow would have been put down. He reflected upon the fact that it was the inmates who asked that the animal not be killed and that it be protected. They had become so close to that animal and had built so much empathy through that process that they had rallied around the animal. They wanted to nurse it back to health and take care of it.
I cannot help but think that if somebody is about to be released from prison, that would be the kind of person we would want the person to be when he or she walks out those doors. Let us remember that more than 90% of those who go to prison come back out. Shutting down programs like this is a travesty.
This is just a continuation of other things the government is doing.
Take a look at the fact that the crime prevention budget has been cut by more than 70%. Groups such as the boys and girls clubs and churches have been providing services to youth trying to get them to turn away from a dark path and not commit those crimes in the first place and not wind up in prison. The Conservatives have slashed money to those programs.
Similarly, the victims of crime initiative has had a 42% slash of its budget. This is a program that helps break cycles of violence and victimization. Often the people who commit crimes themselves have been victimized in their lives. By cutting funding there, the government is refusing to break that cycle of victimization that can so often happen.
The government is slashing from things that stop crime, that keep communities safe, and is dumping more and more money into prisons with fewer and fewer programs.
If that were not enough, the government has now announced it is going to violate international conventions to which Canada is a signatory and proceed with double-bunking. The government says there is nothing wrong with double-bunking, despite the fact that in many provincial facilities double-bunking is not only happening, but it is becoming the norm. In some cases, it is triple-bunking.
I talked to provincial corrections officials in some provinces where they are literally transforming the library into prison space. Prison guards are stepping over inmates at night to count them.
One could say, who cares? “Stack them on top of each other”, the Conservatives would say. “Make the conditions as deplorable as possible”.
The problem is, they get out. People will come out of that system that is broken, that has no focus on rehabilitation, that stacks inmates on top of each other and cuts all of the programs, or never invested in them in the first place, that cuts prevention programs and programs that help victims. And what type of people do the Conservatives think will walk out that door?
When I was in St. John's, Newfoundland, I went to Her Majesty's penitentiary and took a look at the deplorable conditions that so many people with serious mental illness are also facing. This point is just further illustrated.
We dealt with this in the public safety committee. The government sees no problem with solitary confinement. Inmates who are suffering from mental health illnesses are put into isolation where their condition degenerates and they get much worse. Our prisons are not hospitals so they are kept there. The disturbing thing again is that they are just released on to the streets. Because they are mentally ill and their condition has become even worse, and because the government puts no money into proper facilities to help deal with those mental illnesses, we end up having high rates of recidivism.
Where is all this leading? It is not as if this is all just conjecture on my part or the part of just about every expert in the country. The reality is this has been tried before, this cancelling of effective programs, building of mega-prisons, double-bunking, stuffing people in with each other. It was tried in places like California and other states in the United States. The result there was that it sucked like a vacuum money out of health care and education. It sucked money away from infrastructure and for helping those who were in need. What it left was a recidivism rate in California of over 70%.
We need programs like the prison farm program. We have to take action.