Tim Hudak's PCs Press "Chain Gang" Initiative
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Tim Hudak’s PCs Press “Chain Gang” Initiative

No mention of whether this will actually involve chains.

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Penal labour certainly isn’t uncommon, though framing it as a “chain gang” certainly is. And yet, a recent missive from the Ontario PC Party—titled: “Hudak Government Will Make Prisoners Work,” and an attachment labelled “Chain Gang Backgrounder”—calls for mandatory manual labour, stating that “an Ontario PC government will not make prisoners do anything more than what hard-working Ontario families do every day–put in an honest day’s work.”

The release says that Ontarians pay for such prisoner perks as HD cable packages, cooking lessons, and yoga classes titled “Freeing the Human Spirit,” that are, appropriately enough, designed by a Zen master. Also mentioned are interactive writing workshops that “express and honour each person’s unique experiences” (as if a prisoner’s individual experience couldn’t get any more unique). Any work a prisoner does is voluntary.

For Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak and his party, the desired alternative is 40 hours of required labour such as cleaning graffiti, picking up trash, and raking leaves. This would earn prisoners credits for such perks as gym and television time and coffee. No mention is made as to whether the prisoners would actually be chained.

This enforced labour proposition is sweetened with mention of potential savings for taxpayers, though $20 million (5 per cent of the corrections budget) is being allocated to the proposed program just in case.

And yet, the median sentence of inmates in Ontario prisons is 20 days, according to Anthony Doob, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto. Around 100,000 prisoners are admitted every year into Ontario’s prisons; only approximately 31,000 are sentenced. Of this number, 57 per cent are incarcerated for less than a month.

This makes rehabilitation of prisoners through a hard day’s work, or simply the teaching of a transferable skill, pretty much a non-issue (though what exactly raking leaves and mowing grass would qualify a prisoner for is questionable).

Tim Hudak’s PCs may have in mind U.S. penal labour programs that occupy long-term prisoners in such trades as telemarketing and garment manufacturing (of lingerie, no less). But, as it stands, Ontario provincial prisons only take on inmates with sentences of less than two years (and most are there less than a month). Anyone with a longer sentence goes to federal prison.

Said Doob, “The image that [the Ontario PC party is] trying to portray is that these are tough, nasty people and we’re going to make them work for a living.” And yet, hardened criminals will largely not be eligible for this proposed program.

It’s likely that Hudak is looking to appeal to those who approve of Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda, captured most eloquently by the sweeping omnibus bill currently before parliament, which would implement a three strikes policy and longer drug-related sentences—measures in use by our neighbours to the south.

There’s also the allure of saving the average person a buck, though Doob cautions that the proposed program would be hampered by attendant costs such as providing guards, transportation, and other supports for prisoners leaving jails to work. “We as taxpayers will end up paying more for services done for ‘free’ by prisoners than if we had a municipal labourer perform these services,” he said.

There’s also the issue of whether, with rising unemployment in Ontario, Hudak’s frequently cited “Ontario families” would feel comfortable with convicts edging them out of jobs.

Even more uncomfortable is the issue of how to manage compensation and working standards for a population with no bargaining power. Ontario prisoners may be only behind bars for the briefest “Hi, how are you, and good-day,” but it’s the principle of it that really matters, especially when framed in the context of something so archaic.