The Safe Streets and Communities Act: Neo-Conservative Crime and Cruelty
[People] fight for freedom, then they begin to accumulate laws to take it away from themselves. ~Author Unknown
Demonstrates the relationships between the corporate elite, right wing governments and the structuring of public policy designed to support corporate interests, including tactics of criminalisation such as Bill C10. Will explore the riddle between conservative claims that tougher sanctions equal increased public safety, and the research which shows the opposite is more likely to be true. Also considering the reasons that could be behind this brand of dishonesty and our means for seeking out the truth.
Law and Order
According to Statistics Canada, 2010 closed with the 33rd consecutive drop in both the rate and the severity of crime across Canada. Despite this, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's conservative government has reintroduced the much anticipated law and order agenda in the form of one enormous crime Bill. Bill C10, the “Safe Streets and Communities Act” combines nine of the former Bills which had failed to pass into law previously due to opposition and repeated prorogues of parliament.
Safe Streets and Communities: Who Wouldn’t Want That?
If locking more people up for longer periods of time made us safer this Bill would be great. However legislating changes to behaviour has never been a successful tactic. Despite these facts and despite how widespread resistance to Bill C10 has been, it has thus far been futile. Sandra Chu, Senior Policy Analyst for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network spoke with me recently about the problem with trying to legislate behaviour changes. She said “...we know many aspects of Bill C-10 will not work to “fight crime”, and in fact, [will] worsen prison conditions, violate prisoners’ human rights (including their right to health), destroy families and communities, and cost significant money without actually achieving public safety.” It seems that there is no bridging the gap between conservative ideology and the truth behind community harm. The truth is that most lawbreaking has its creation in poverty, unemployment, inequality, and trauma. Addressing these issues requires thoughtfulness and a commitment to evidence-based practices which reflect a human rights framework.
Precisely because Bill C10 ignores evidence and human rights, all manner of people have resisted it. Including opposition parties, the 37,000 members of the Canadian Bar Association, 563 doctors who signed the Urban Health Research Initiative’s letter opposing Bill S10 (an earlier version of and now a portion of C10 making changes to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act), the union representing prison guards, NUPGE, the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, NORML Canada, the Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force, Pivot Legal Society, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and the list goes on. Represented are thousands of social workers, healthcare providers, teachers, law enforcement, and clergy who recognize the hyperbole for what it is, partisan ideology, greed, and fear.
Neo-Conservative Ideology and Greed
Harper's political base doesn’t care much about sound statistics and proven best practices. Especially not if these are competing with the satisfaction obtained through retribution and high profit margins. The hang ‘em high approach has been used successfully in the past by the Harris government in Ontario. During the 90’s they made “war on the poor”, demonizing us (as in no more free rides for lazy, drug addicted, criminals) while simultaneously cutting the services and welfare rates that could have prevented many from becoming addicted and criminalised in the first place. Ms. Chu spoke to me about the outcome of such attitudes. She said “[they]lead to increasing numbers of people without access to crucial care, treatment and support, increasing numbers of people feeling marginalized by society, and increasing numbers of people who will be incarcerated as a result.”
Harris’ tactics were successful because he was seen by many to be demanding nothing more than the revered traits of self-sufficiency and hard work, held dear by many Canadians. However its important to remember that the majority of the poor, including those on social assistance would rather not be in that situation. The same holds true for those with problematic substance use issues and those cycling in and out of our jails. Ms. Chu suggests that in order to resist tactics that demonize the vulnerable we need to hear from the vulnerable directly. “I think it’s important to create a space for the vulnerable to speak, so they are not dehumanized. Support them in doing so, by ensuring people who use drugs and other marginalized communities are telling their stories at media events, conferences... etc.”
Neo-Conservative Agenda Equals Increased Crime and Less Safety
Stephen Harper has claimed that Canadians are unsafe and that only by restricting our freedoms further will we achieve safety. In fact what the Harper conservatives will likely achieve is not increased safety but an increase in that which we refer to as crime. As our freedoms are increasingly made illegal, and social programs which stave off desperation are defunded, our “crime” rates will soar, thus justifying the prison building boom and tough on crime rhetoric. The people of the USA have learned these lessons the hard way.
Decades of tough on crime, war on drugs ideology translated into programs of mass incarceration. Studies found that those communities who are most impacted, suffer increasing, as opposed to decreasing rates of “crime”. Those left behind are forced more often to make choices between seeing their children do without necessities or engaging in “crime” in order to provide for them. The US Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes alternatives to drug prohibition explains the US situation, "Mass arrests and incarceration of people of color, largely due to drug law violations have hobbled families and communities by stigmatizing and removing substantial numbers of men and women.” If criminalizing and incarcerating people are known to make us less safe then why is the conservative government doing it?
Those warehoused under the new regime will become the raw material for a profitable industry popular in the U.S., privatized, for profit prisons. “Crime” must be increased to keep the bodies flowing on a pay per capita basis. One of the largest prison privatization companies in the USA, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) noted this last point as a problem of concern in their 2010 annual report. ‘The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices…” CCA is the same US corporation which lobbied our Canadian government in support of Bill C10.
Once locked up, prisoner bodies can be transformed into even more profit in the form of prisoner labour, a common practice in the US, but not yet widely used in Canada. Free labour will be sold to 3rd parties at discounted and very profitable rates. Corporations able to win prison contracts will gain an unfair advantage over the competition while the larger market wages are driven down. Not to mention the impacts on the mental well being of prisoners who are treated as commodities.
The History of Privatized Prisons in Canada
For profit prisons were attempted briefly by the Harris government in the form of a comparison experiment between two of the then newly constructed super-jails. These new jails were devised by the Harris government to warehouse human beings as sparingly as possible. The contract to run the Penetang jail was awarded to the US based Management and Training Corp. While they were indeed able to save the province money on the front end, in 2006 the CBC reported that the facility had been transferred back to the state because of “inferior security”, “health care”, and an increase in rates of repeat lawbreaking. The idea of prison privatization in Ontario has remained quite ever since.
British Columbia's P3 (Public/Private Partnerships) Craze
However BC has picked up the torch and is running with it full steam ahead. With the creation of Partnerships BC, one of a series of such organizations operated at all levels of government across Canada, the doors to public service privatization have been flung open wide. In BC everything from public healthcare services and utilities to longterm care facilities and prisons have been privatized or converted to a P3.
Stephanie Seaton, a British Colombian researcher and the creator of summerlandbc.wordpress, and thieverycorp.wordpress, confirms that there is currently one finalized P3 prison contract in the works in BC. It involves the building and operation of a remand centre by Brookfield Properties Corporation in Surrey, BC.
Contracts awarded to build and run prisons are not the only ones allowing firms to profit from mass criminalisation. According to Stark Raven News, a prisoner support and education service in British Columbia there are currently P3 contracts within the provincial jail system that focus on service and supply contracts rather than prison building and maintenance. These include for profit contracts to supply inmate canteens, food, and telephone services, healthcare, and even substance abuse programs.
Additional prison building and maintenance P3's are being considered in Summerland and Peniticton, BC. Both have been met with substantial opposition from the local communities, who are mainly specifying safety concerns. Ms. Seaton is herself a Summerland, BC resident and she spoke with me by phone recently. She raised a number of potential concerns with these kinds of partnerships including:
ñ Profit to shareholders their top priority
ñ Cost cutting to increase profits (ex: hiring fewer and less experienced staff)
ñ For-profit facilities have a financial stake to ensure facilities operate at capacity
The problem raised here of course is that prison privatization creates an entire industry which benefits directly from the increased criminalisation and incarceration of ever expanding populations. In the US these industries have produced powerful lobby groups which advocate for and in some cases even assist in drafting tougher crime legislation. It has become a runaway train and very difficult to stop.
Exploitative Discrimination in Canada: Then and Now
The 21st century effort to privatize public services is not the first time we have seen a push to put public responsibilities into the hands of private institutions. Historic policies of capitalism and colonisation resulted in the long term, mass criminalisation and marginalisation of vulnerable, aboriginal populations in Canada.
I asked Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society in BC what he thought about the following quote:
“Giving corporations powers over prisoners is a different matter, I would argue, much like giving churches power over residential schools” (as quoted by Keith Reynolds in a blog for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)
Mr. King feels that there are “parallels” between what church and state did to aboriginal families (and continue to do to this day) and what state and corporation conspire to do to vulnerable populations today. King stated that with residential schools, the government had contracted out its policies to non-governmental institutions for the purpose of “changing behaviours.” And that in the residential school system it had “resulted in the physical and sexual abuse of children. He went on to say that “Prison privatization may not manifest in that form specifically, but it may show up in other forms” [of abuse]. Such as conditions related to“overcrowding”.
Stephanie Seaton has a theory around the politics that can lead to these kinds of policies in the first place, “A capitalist society is based on the idolization of people, power, and things that represent money. The marginalised represent the opposite, which is perhaps why society condemns them. They are deemed to be unimportant by those in power....”
Privatization of prisons and expansion of Harper's law and order agenda is but one small piece of a larger picture. The neo-conservative agenda has long been to privatize public resources, slash social services, and provide complete freedom for corporations while simultaneously increasing social control over individuals. Because there are substantial disadvantages to most of us in these methods and because of the potential for resistance on the grandest of scales, the neo-conservatives fear us – that is we the 99%. Because of this we are seeing greater restrictions to civil freedoms including our right to dissent, the erosion of worker rights, a focus on law and order, and prison expansion on a scale unprecedented in Canadian history.
More Canadians Criminalized
One in ten Canadians currently has a criminal record (Canadian Criminal Justice Association, 2010). The majority of whom suffer the consequent and ongoing emotional, social, familial, and financial impacts related to criminalisation. As more Canadians are criminalised and experience encroachments on freedoms, expanded cuts to social services, and diminished hope for the future, the more desperate and angry people will become and consequently, the more ready to resist. There is no reason why this government should feel a need to push people to such a brink of desperation. Far more effective means exist, such as ensuring basic needs are met first and foremost. Ms. Chu agrees, “Wouldn’t resources be better spent on education, health and social supports that have been proven to actually address the root causes of crime?”
To ensure conservative plans for fortune and greed are not thwarted, social control must be continuously ramped up. Judicial and prison expansion agendas, accompanied by deregulation ensure that profits through prison privatization are freer to flow. Prison privatization is attractive to corporations because they are able to attain certain freedoms they could only dream of elsewhere in “free” society. Prisoners often don’t have to be paid, nor are they permitted to form unions, and further many are restricted politically, forbidden to vote. These are gifts to those who wish to see capitalism entirely unrestrained by “irritating” controls like progressive taxation, good wages, and human rights.
Capitalism, Government, and the News Media in Canada
The major media outlets are owned and operated by just a few large corporations in Canada, which greatly restricts the diversity of news we receive. These news conglomerates are often but one piece of a much larger pie. They are mostly owned by huge multinationals and used by their owners to influence public opinion in their own favour. Ish Theilheimer, Publisher of the “Straight Goods”, an independent Canadian news provider, talked with me about these issues. He said,“Traditional media tends to be dominated in their perspective by the corporations that own the outlets and conservative orthodoxy. ...too often Big Media offers the spin and lies of the wealthy interests that run the world.” Our government like most governments is also adept in the art of spin. Members of parliament often attend the same functions and benefits, and run in the same business circles as multinational and corporate media owners. Their interests are the same and one supports the other.
As democratic populace we are wise to question and monitor our governments through independent news sources. Whether they are selling off public assets, locking up those with addictions, or allowing warrant-less searches into our online activities. We are wise to ask ourselves who stands to benefit and who stands to lose.
Taking Freedom Away from Ourselves?
Is it wise to assume that new laws or greater restrictions (regarding online privacy for example) won’t affect us personally? Insisting that intrusions into our personal sphere are OK because as law abiding citizens we have “nothing to hide” is rather short sighted. Where do these encroachments end? How far can we allow our government and police forces to expand into the private realms of others before we too are affected? The rights we now enjoy freely could suddenly be removed and made illegal. New invasions on our freedoms when not challenged have a way of gradually intensifying until it becomes clear that we are no longer free.
Update on Bill C10
Though the conservatives insisted they would have Bill C10 passed into law within the first 100 sitting days of parliament, it seems suddenly to have become less of a priority. The Bill passed the final of three readings in the house of commons this past December. Despite pressure from the Tories to have it also sail through the Senate, our Senators have insisted the Bill be given more time for research and investigation. This may have had as much to do with political pressure from voters as with stated democratic and moral obligation. The Safe Streets and Communities Act (C10) has passed second reading in Senate and is expected to pass into law sometime in February 2012.
There have been many campaigns, rallies, and petitions against Bill C10 and all of its earlier incarnations. Current initiatives at Lead Now (http://leadnow.ca/keep-canada-safe) involved rally's at offices of MP's across the country, and a letter writing campaign directed at Senators and asking them to give appropriate and fair consideration to the Bill. Check out what others are doing to oppose C10 and other anti-prison expansion work at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, www.itcouldgetworse.com, and www.avaaz.org/en/stop_harpers_cruel_crime_bill/.
More Bill C10 Information
http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Docid=5124131&file=4 – Full wording of Bill C10
Alternatives to Law and Order Approaches
Tracking the Politics of Crime and Punishment
Rittenhouse – A prison education organization for the public
Urban Health Research Initiative – Drug Policy in Canada
Sheryl Jarvis is a white, single parent, woman with a history entrenched in poverty and violence. She has first hand knowledge of the issues surrounding problematic drug use and imprisonment, having survived both. She is a recent college graduate, and studied social work within a philosophy of critical feminist theory and anti-oppression. Issues important to her are harm reduction and prisoner rights for which she advocates through community organizing, committee work, and critical writing.
“Locking people in cages can never make a healthier, nor safer place for any of us. Thankfully there are many smarter alternatives” sheryl jarvis, 2011