Mr. Speaker, I am certainly pleased to stand today and perhaps answer some of the questions that have already been put forth. However, we are here as a result of a motion put forward by the parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. That motion calls for the Minister of Public Safety to halt any steps to close the farming operations in Canada's federal prisons in order to allow a panel of independent experts to be assembled to study the farm program.
To give members some background on how the decision to close the farm program came about, I will first remind them of the government's strategic review exercise that was undertaken in 2008. As members know, government programs are reviewed on a four-year cycle with a view to determining whether they are the right kind of program and whether they are being delivered effectively. The Correctional Service of Canada participated in the 2008 strategic review, which was an excellent opportunity for the service to bring its programs, and indeed its priorities, in line with the government's direction for a federal correctional system.
The government's first priority to Canadians is their safety. To that end, the government provides resources and programs that assist in the rehabilitation of federal offenders to facilitate their transition into law-abiding citizens once released into the community. We are committed to ensuring that the resources for rehabilitation programs are in place and are allocated in a manner that provides the best possible results for offenders and for public safety.
The government offers a wide range of correctional programs to federal offenders. With new ideas and changing offender demographics, we must be adaptive so as to provide the most effective rehabilitation programs, including those that enable the offenders to learn employability skills that enable them to obtain and retain employment upon their release into communities. We know that offenders who have been provided with employment experience and skills are less likely to re-offend and are reintegrated into society far more effectively.
We also know that our success relies on ensuring that the skills the offenders are learning are reflective of the skills that are in demand in labour markets, not only today, but in the future. Canada's prison farms have a long history of imparting skills that have enabled some offenders to find employment in the agricultural sector. However, the government believes that it must move forward and provide programming that meets the needs of the 21st century.
In the last five years, less than 1% of federal offenders released into the community have successfully attained employment in the agricultural sector. I believe we can do better and that we have done better. Through CORCAN, a special operating agency of the federal government, offenders are provided with essential employment experience. CORCAN provides employability skills that can be applied to any number of jobs, and offenders learn job-specific skills.
Offenders work in jobs in CORCAN's manufacturing services and construction and textile industries. As well, they are employed in our correctional facilities and other work programs, such as maintenance and kitchens. In all, in 2008-2009, CORCAN and the Correctional Services of Canada provided 27,715 work assignments for 15,123 federal offenders. This is in comparison to the approximately 300 offenders involved in the prison farm program.
As I have stated, in order for the acquiring of employment skills to have the desired effect of securing offender employment upon release, our programs must be representative of the labour market outside the walls of our institutions. Canada's agricultural sector simply does not supply enough employment opportunities for offenders to aid in their successful reintegration into society. The government wholeheartedly supports our farmers and our farming industry, but with respect to the utility of the prison farm program to offender employment, the jobs are simply elsewhere.
An economy must evolve with the changing times, as must the economy's industries. Employment for all Canadians is affected by this evolution, and this should be reflected in the employment programs we offer throughout the rehabilitation process of federal offenders.
The Correctional Service of Canada has formed, and continues to form, partnerships with businesses and other government departments with a view to developing alternative employment programs in order to gain maximum employability skills for offenders.
Of equal importance to the rehabilitative aspect of this topic are the issues associated with the commercial aspect of the prison farm program. Indeed, this is not only a rehabilitative program for offenders, but the prison farm produces consumable goods. Of CSC's total food budget of $27 million, food valued at $4 million was purchased from CORCAN prison farms by the correctional service for consumption by inmates in 2008-09. This amount accounts for approximately 15% of the food procured during that time. Moreover, beef, pork and chicken purchased from CORCAN were generally more expensive than products that could be purchased from private commercial vendors.
I do not believe it would be difficult for private business to step in and fill this small 15% vacuum left with the closure of the prison farms, through the normal tendering practices. In fact, CSC is expecting to provide food to offenders at a lower price to taxpayers through economies of scale. This will bring CSC in line with the government's national strategy to use a procurement process that is more consistent for all government departments, thus providing better use of Canadian taxpayers' money.
Finally, I would like to bring to members' attention that, in dealing with the provision of agricultural products, there are some issues of liability that should be considered. The health of livestock, the potential contaminants to producers and land and environmental concerns, which go hand in hand with the agriculture industry, should not be a potential concern for CORCAN and Correctional Services Canada. Unlike private industry, with profit as a motive and such liabilities considered as a cost of doing business, it would not be desirable to subject government to such liability. The primary concern of CORCAN and Correctional Service Canada with employment programs should be their effectiveness in rehabilitation.
We have heard the success stories of prison farms; we have heard the criticism of the decision to close the prison farms. Change is not normally seamless; there will always be bumps on the road. The decision to close the prison farms is a necessary one and one that reflects the reality of the times. The government believes in the rehabilitative benefit of work experience provided by CORCAN, but prison farms do not give enough value for the money.
I would like to continue with some important arguments that do need to be heard.
Members have heard the rationale for the closure of the prison farms and have been informed of the successful employment programs under way for offenders in our federal correctional system. I would like to enlighten them today on the impetus that was behind many of these changes.
In 2007, the government mandated an independent review panel to recommend changes to our federal correctional system. This panel carefully scrutinized the service's operational priorities, strategies and future business plans. In October 2008, the review panel put forward 109 recommendations, the implementation of which will be significantly important in guiding Correctional Service Canada towards fulfilling its mandate of public safety.
In order to adhere to and build upon these recommendations, in budget 2008, this government committed $122 million over the course of two years, effectively endorsing the assessment process. This process takes place at the commencement of an offender's federal sentence.
We have heard many people say that we do not care about rehabilitation. I would like to suggest that there has been a lot of work put into thinking about what is appropriate rehabilitation. This is not about not providing the appropriate services. When I look at the opposition members, I wonder sometimes why they are just so reluctant to look at change. We put a program in place and it seems as if the opposition can never stand to see anything change. It is important to change, and we have to be willing to change with the times.
Enhancements included earlier placements in correctional programs that are aimed at addressing the factors that caused the individual to offend and quicker diagnosis of mental health needs. We certainly know that mental health needs are a huge issue in our prison system and we need much more effective ways to deal with them.
At the opposite end of the offender's sentence, upon release into the community, the service has strengthened its community corrections capacity, formed relations with new community partners and established new criteria for operating correctional community centres and parole offices.
Phase two, which unfolded in March 2009, focused on the creation and implementation of more detailed and sensitive forms of programming. This comes at a time when Correctional Services Canada was dealing with a more diverse and complex federal offender population.
We have heard many times public dismay at the overrepresentation of aboriginals in our federal correctional system. In an effort to improve the opportunities of aboriginal offenders to become law-abiding citizens, Correctional Services has done many things.
I would like to continue by sharing with the House that we have expanded the availability of culturally sensitive programs for these offenders and have continued to form relationships with aboriginal communities to provide support to aboriginal offenders.
To facilitate these initiatives, changes have also come in the form of a more diverse and representative workforce who receive culturally sensitive training, therefore placing them in a better position to interact with aboriginal offenders in an institution and in the community.
As phase two has been successfully completed, these and many other initiatives have been fully incorporated into CSC's regular operations across the country and are being applied each and every day.
While the agenda as a whole remains relatively young, there is no denying the efficacy of the CSC's transformation agenda and the sincere dedication of the service's staff to enact the kinds of policies that afford offenders the opportunity to turn their lives around and successfully reintegrate into society as law-abiding citizens.
I would like to continue by sharing with the House some of these initiatives that CSC has implemented.
By enhancing offender accountability, the onus of offender rehabilitation is shifting and being squarely placed on the shoulders of the offender. Now more than ever, federal offenders are being held accountable for developing, embracing and following through with the correctional plan developed for them by the members of their case management team. If the offender fails to embrace this accountability and participate fully in the rehabilitation plans, it will be clear proof upon reaching eligibility for some form of conditional release that the offender is not deserving of an opportunity to return to the community and is certainly not intending to do so as a law-abiding citizen.
This government wants offenders to understand that being given an opportunity to reintegrate into the community is a reward for good behaviour, for completing the necessary programming and for showing victims, correctional staff and Canadians a sincere desire to change. It should be seen as a privilege, not a right.
The Correctional Service of Canada has also made great strides toward eliminating drugs in its federal correctional institutions, by implementing an enhanced anti-drug strategy with an intensified focus on prevention, intervention, treatment and enforcement. Correctional organizations around the world recognize the difficulty of achieving drug-free institutions, but regardless of the challenges, the service remains committed to working toward eliminating drugs from its institutions.
To do so, the service has put in place a number of improvements. There has been an increase in the number of drug-detector dog teams, an increase to its security intelligence capacity, improved security equipment such as x-ray and ION scanners, and enhanced perimeter security.
As illicit drugs are too often a contributing factor to criminal behaviour as well as a prime means of spreading infectious diseases through shared needles, it is vital for the service to do everything in its power to combat contraband items by reducing the supply and increasing the awareness of the consequences of drug use. Once again, there are clear signs that this initiative will further enhance our efforts and results.
To conclude, I would simply like to reiterate the fact that sound government policy, like that under which the Correctional Service of Canada operates, enhances public safety and at the same time provides federal offenders with opportunities to improve their potential to become law-abiding and contributing members of Canadian society.