Plans for 'Super' Jails Provoke Ire in Ontario

Ontario's plan to build two new "super" jails that follow a Spartan, high-tech, American model has created a furor among inmate-rehabilitation groups who call it a "super backwards step."

The "no frills" modular super jails would house 2,200 inmates and replace 14 old jails. But the announcement last month is meeting with resistance from critics who say the $182 million plan will only isolate inmates and make rehabilitation of small-time criminals more difficult.

The majority of offenders in Ontario jails - 49 percent - are serving 30 days or less for property and other nonviolent crimes. The new system will isolate these people in maximum-security-style cells, rather than halfway houses as in the past, they say.

"Ontario is adopting some of the worst elements of the US model," says Barb Nehiley, president of the St. Leonard's Society of Canada, a group that works with people coming out of prison. "We know how unsuccessful that experience has been....."

But Ontario officials say their plan, using high-tech surveillance and other modern features, would drop the cost of holding a prisoner from $91 a day to about $50 a day, mostly by cutting 1,400 corrections officers from the payroll, the provincial government says.

"The cost of operating Ontario's adult correction system is currently one of the highest of any jurisdiction in the country," says Robert Runciman, correctional services minister. "We intend to introduce a system that reduces operating costs to among the lowest in Canada."

The two super jails would complement three refurbished jails, creating a network of five big jails in the Toronto area holding about 8,000 prisoners. Yet concentrating the jails around Toronto (three other Toronto-area jails would be upgraded) will hurt rehabilitation efforts, say those who work with prisoners.

Elizabeth Forestell, executive director of the Ontario chapter of the Elizabeth Fry Society, which works with women in jails, is skeptical. She says minor offenders would be transported hours from family and community supports that typically aid rehabilitation, leaving inmates in worse shape when they return.

"We certainly agree many jails in Ontario are outmoded, brutal, terrible places," Forestell says. "But we don't believe the solution is in ... taking people away from their communities who are serving provincial sentences of less than two years."

Ontario until last year had an economical method for rehabilitating minor offenders - putting them in halfway houses, Ms. Forestell and Ms. Nehiley say. But that idea was out of sync with the tough-on-crime image of Michael Harris, the conservative premier who closed the province's 25 halfway houses last year. Halfway houses cost only about $55 a day per inmate - comparable to the super jail plan, critics of the government plan say.

They also say that the cost-effective way to reduce crime in communities is to work one-on-one with people charged on minor offenses, not put them under video surveillance without human contact. "We know there are people who are so dangerous they have to be separated from the community," she says. "But there are also people who don't benefit from it."

Provincial officials say critics are overreacting and that rehabilitation programs will continue - along with new programs to keep small-time offenders time confined to their own homes.

Such electronic ankle-bracelet monitoring is cheaper than halfway houses and many of those who would have gone there in the past will end up with an electronic tag that confines them at home. So far, only 69 inmates are on electronic monitoring, but the program is expanding.

"We're working closely with attorney general's office to reduce the number of people being incarcerated," says Kenneth Tufts, a spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Corrections. "We realize a number of people don't need to be in jail and it would be a waste of taxpayer money to keep them there."

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