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Good news, bad news | John L. Hill

Wednesday, October 06, 2021 @ 2:20 PM | By John L. Hill


John L. Hill %>
John L. Hill
The province of Ontario has taken a step to reduce incarceration for people on intermittent sentences and to keep close tabs on people released on bail. Rather than have such sentences served in a jail, offenders will wear an ankle bracelet and be tracked by GPS. The system will also track those in the community on a temporary absence permit, those with monitoring conditions on conditional release, parole or bail release.

Ankle bracelets have been used for years. What’s the big deal? A news report in the London Free Press notes that a change in how monitoring takes place will result in the closure of the Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre’s regional intermittent centre, a 112-bed facility opened in 2016 at a cost of $9.3 million. A similar facility in Toronto will also be decommissioned.

News of the closure came through a press release sent out to Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) members who may lose their jobs when the new monitoring system takes place. As one would expect, the union was critical of the decision, no doubt fearing loss of jobs. This was certainly bad news for those affected.

But it was good news for critics of incarceration who have been calling for increased monitoring rather than subject people to the brutal correctional system. These critics claim it is high time the government obeyed the provisions of the Criminal Code sentencing provisions that call for least restrictive measures to be used. The Free Press quotes lawyer Kevin Egan as saying, “This presents a valid alternative to incarceration. We have the technology. It is the 21st century. It is high time we started using that technology.”

However, it is not just spokespersons for OPSEU that fear the change in practice should not be accepted uncritically. The bad news for some is that the task of monitoring will be turned over to private enterprise. This raises the spectre of what a former Conservative government attempted when the “super jails” were built. At the time, operation of the newly built Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC) in Penetanguishene was handed over to an American firm that operated privately run prisons in the United States. When profit became the motive, concerns for inmate health, security and rehabilitation took less prominence. Ultimately, the CNCC was returned to provincial control with then Minister of Community Safety Monte Kwinter expressing the view that in an apples-to-apples comparison with the publicly run Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay, Ont., the publicly operated facility ranked ahead of the private prison in every way.

The failure of the CNCC and its reversion to public control in 2006 was thought to have spelled the end of privatization of our prisons. However, that was not the case. The province of Saskatchewan outsourced telecommunication services in 2010. Almost immediately the privatized service faced criticisms of price gouging since the monopoly granted to Tellmate Inmate Communications allowed the company to charge exorbitant fees for packages that allowed inmates telephone calling privileges. With many unable to afford purchasing a call package, maintenance of essential community ties withered.

Not surprisingly, these attempts at privatization are regarded as “operational” and not a change of policy. This allows the bureaucrats to administer as they desire without input from groups that may have an interest in how inmate services are delivered.

On the one hand, incarcerating fewer people at hefty cost to our correctional system will be seen as a tax-cutting solution. However, with a monopoly vested in a private company, it is a service that cannot be terminated on a moment’s notice. The contracts must be carefully considered not only to prevent skyrocketing price increases, but to ensure that public safety is protected should the GPS system go down for any reason.

Maybe the worst news is that the changes for inmate monitoring came without government press release indicating that nobody cares.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. Contact him at johnlornehill@hotmail.com.

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