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More Jail Than We Need?

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Construction of the Toronto South Detention Centre.

Alex McClelland is a member of the Prison Moratorium Action Coalition. In this guest opinion piece he looks at the construction of a new “superjail” in Etobicoke.

Across the country there has been a statistical decline in crime rates since 1999. The federal government’s own data says that Toronto is the third-safest city in Canada. Both self-reported and police-reported crime rates are low in Toronto compared to other municipalities across the country.
In America, prison expansion measures and the “tough on crime” approach have met neither criminal justice nor public health goals. Instead they have led to the widespread incarceration of racial minorities, people living in poverty, people with mental health issues, non-status people, and people who use drugs, all while exacerbating the syndemic of HIV and Hepatitis C. Despite this track record and Canada’s own falling crime rate, Harper’s “tough on crime” agenda is rearing its ugly head in Toronto—and it’ll come with a big social and economic price tag for residents of the city.
One example: currently under construction—at a cost of $1.1 billion to Ontario taxpayers over thirty years—is the 1,650-bed Toronto South Detention Centre located near Mimico. The 67,000 square metre facility, a so-called “superjail,” aims to replace the 550-bed Toronto Don Jail.


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The facility will be largely composed of pre-fabricated jail cells, which arrived on-site already built and have been stacked to form the various wings of the prison.


Last week on March 10, about sixty people gathered at Old City Hall on Queen Street with the Prison Moratorium Action Coalition for a rally to protest this government direction. The coalition was formed in opposition to “tough on crime” and prison-expansion measures; it aims to put pressure on the Conservative government, and any companies assisting with their prison expansion plan, until funds are diverted into social services and appropriate social housing. As Justin Piché, a renowned critic of the federal and provincial “tough on crime” agenda, has noted, the cost of this new prison is so great that “those of us in our late twenties… will still be paying for the construction of this facility well into our fifties and its operation likely until the day we die.”
Piché’s research has found that these new institutions are being developed based on the argument that the “prison population is no longer a homogeneous population,” meaning: politicians and corrections bureaucrats need a way to deal with the increasing number of women, undocumented people, those with mental health issues, and drug users who are being incarcerated, not to mention the many indigenous peoples who have always been overrepresented in Canada’s prisons. (While indigenous people make up around 4% of the Canadian public, they make up 17% of the federal male prison population and 33% of the federal female prison population. )
Currently, many prisoners are double-bunked at the decrepit Don Jail, a practice that runs counter to the United Nations standards governing the treatment of prisoners, which Canada has signed onto. Although officials may have been saying that we need the new Mimico prison to replace the Don, other prisons constructed in the past ten years (e.g., Central East Correctional Centre and Central North Correctional Centre) were also supposedly built to replace the Don Jail, which has been slated for closure for decades. This brings new life to the adage “if you build it they will come.”
And why not build? After all, big prisons are big business. Following in the footsteps of the American-style prison industrial complex, the Mimico facility is credited with being Ontario’s first pre-fabricated prison. Tindall Corp., one of the leaders in the American privatized prison industry and the inventor of pre-fabricated prison cells, is bringing its invention to Toronto via Zeidler Partnership Architects. Toronto’s Zeidler Partnership Architects (whose projects include the Eaton Centre, Ontario Place, and the refurbished Gladstone Hotel) have designed the new prison as part of a $593-million contract with Toronto-based companies EllisDon Corporation and Fengate Capital.
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But while big prisons will make big Toronto businesses more money, they are not economical for the taxpayer: beyond the $1.1-billion price tag for construction, the annual cost of housing a prisoner in Canada can run anywhere from around $52,000 to $250,000 per person, depending on the level of security at the facility [PDF].
On top of this, Canada’s prisons have become super-hubs of HIV and hepatitis C infection. Rates of HIV and hepatitis C are far above the general population, with HIV prevalence at least fifteen times higher in federal prisons than the general public and hepatitis C prevalence almost forty times higher. (Averting just one HIV infection saves approximately $150,000 in lifetime medical costs, not to mention the massive social cost). Building new superjails without addressing the existing health crisis among prisoners will only lead to more of the same.
When it is completed in fall of 2012, the South Toronto Detention Centre in Mimico will be a $1.1-billion super-prison, the first of its kind for our city and province and an acknowledgment that political games and big business mean more than the lives of marginalized residents of our city.
With thanks to Sandra Chu of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Giselle Dias, and Lindsay Hart for support on this piece.
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.

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