The House resumed consideration of the motion.
Madam Speaker, it is an honour to rise in the House and engage in this important debate. A majority of parliamentarians have just sent a message to the government that a debate around prison farms needs to take place in the House. We represent Canadians who view the continuation of prison farms as key to the work we do in corrections, to the work we do in terms of rehabilitation, and to the work we do as a country in our treatment of people in our correctional system and how we move forward as communities and as Canadians.
I represent an area where people often fall through the cracks and end up in a cycle of violence. They sometimes end up in the correctional system in a much more disproportionate way. The way that we work with these people to rehabilitate them and bring them back to our communities is critical, especially to my part of the country, which is northern Manitoba.
I am part of a generation that has seen the U.S. crime and punishment policies fail. The U.S. has invested billions of dollars in a correctional system that has not been found to be successful when it comes to reducing crime rates and rehabilitating people.
Many of us find it extremely problematic that our Canadian government is carrying on with such ineffective policies when it comes to corrections and public safety. These policies are completely ineffective and are not based on factual information, which is disturbing.
I have had the honour of speaking out, along with many of my NDP colleagues, on the importance of prison farms in our correctional system. Whether it was at committee, at hearings across the country or at community meetings, the message from Canadians was clear. They understand in a big way that prison farms are a key part of our correctional system.
Beyond the specific skills that are taught to inmates at prison farms, numerous other benefits also accrue. I would like to list a number of ways in which the prison farm system is valuable to our correctional system.
Inmates receive vocational training while working on a farming operation, whether it is meat-cutting or equipment maintenance or other direct skills. They are taught a strong work ethic. They wake up early and work long and hard hours. These are skills that they will take back into their communities after they leave the farms.
Working with animals has well established therapeutic value, helping to teach inmates empathy and providing a mutual avenue for caring and affection, something that was perhaps missed in their upbringing, as is often the case.
Inmates learn to work as part of a team and towards common goals, providing direction and motivation that is usually lacking in a prison environment.
Prison farms provide wholesome, locally grown food to correctional institutions and surrounding communities at discount prices. This provides an important link with local communities outside the correctional system.
Prison farms have donated thousands of dollars worth of food to local food banks, which nobody can dispute as not being beneficial.
Prison farms are an avenue for community involvement in our prison system. One successful example is the Wallace abattoir partnership in Kingston.
The prison farm system offers many benefits. To discount those benefits, and certainly to hear the government disregard those benefits and put them aside, truly speaks to the lack of key information that holds this kind of system, this system towards rehabilitation, in place.
Echoing some of the discussions that have taken place in this House already on this important issue is the fact that what we are seeing here, the attack on prison farms, the attack on a rehabilitation policy that has been effective, is truly an ideological attack on the way we ought to be dealing with inmates, with people who have done wrong, but certainly, in many cases, people who want to go through a system and build better lives for themselves, for their families and for their communities.
It is disappointing to let people down who are willing to take that step. In many cases, as we know, prison farms are the best kind of work for inmates and it is not until their record within a correctional institution is a positive one that they get that chance to work on a prison farm.
Many have noted that a prison farm system is one that motivates inmates to do better, to improve while they are in prison. Certainly it builds a system where they hope to get into prison farm work. To lose that kind of motivation, that reason they ought to perhaps do better, is truly damaging in terms of creating incentives, of creating safer places within our correctional system, and of course, it is letting down prisoners who are committed to furthering their skill set but certainly to improving as human beings as well.
A friend of mine works in a correctional system and did work at Stony Mountain prison in my home province of Manitoba, and she spoke of the challenge that rehabilitation systems across the board have faced in terms of lack of funding. She noted that, for many people, while they signed up for a life skills program or a program that would help them, the lack of funding meant that the waiting lists were so huge that people actually finished their terms before they could access this kind of programming.
To me, that is absolutely unacceptable. Here are inmates who recognize that they need to engage in improving, that they need to prepare themselves to get out into society, and the system lets them down. By starving these programs of proper funding, the government is letting them down. We are truly setting them up to fail, to go back into communities without the skills that would help them. Therefore, we see the re-creation of this revolving door that certainly the Conservative Party likes to speak of, but with these kinds of steps, it is certainly encouraging that revolving-door policy in the justice system.
I would like to point out as well my particular exposure to the Rockwood facility in Manitoba. I had the opportunity to speak with people who were associated with this institution and I saw first-hand the good work that took place there. I was also speaking with my colleague from Elmwood—Transcona, who had the opportunity to visit this facility and he shared how powerful it was and how clear it was that such facilities are absolutely essential.
A friend of mine in Northern Manitoba, elder Dave Sanderson, who works in the justice field, spoke of the aboriginal healing programs that took place at Rockwood. We know that our correctional facilities have a disproportionate number of aboriginal, first nations and Métis peoples in them. To get rid of the facilities that allowed for aboriginal-specific programming to take place on their territory, on their grounds, is unbelievable, knowing who is in the system and what kind of help they need. Once again the government is shutting down the capacity for aboriginal people to rehabilitate, to get back into society and get back into contributing to their families and to their communities in a productive way.
There is much debate as to exactly why these prison farms are being shut down. I had the opportunity to visit rural Manitoba and talk about the importance of prison farms. The area that I was in was heavily agricultural. It was shocking to many people that the initial statement that was made about why the Conservative government wanted to shut these prison farms down was because agricultural skills are somehow not needed in Canadian society anymore.
I cannot think of anything more offensive to one of the founding industries of our country than that statement. In Manitoba, across the Prairies and across Canada, we know the agricultural industry is key to our economy and the employment it generates is key to our communities and our regional economies.
We also know there has been an increased demand for temporary foreign workers. Here we have an opportunity to train people who could go back and work on these farms, who could contribute to this economy, and we are throwing that opportunity out the window. At the same time, we are certainly bringing offence to the hard work that people in the agricultural industry in our country engage in day in and day out. That is simply not right, especially coming from a party that claims to stand up for people working in agriculture, for farmers and agricultural communities.
Another critical dimension to this debate is how we are approaching the important discussion around food security. We have heard from many witnesses at committee and across the country about the contribution of prison farms to the food security in the prisons themselves, by way of producing food and the livestock necessary for feeding the inmates, but also the contribution to the surrounding communities, either through the food banks or through the different linkages they have created.
I know in Manitoba work was being done in terms of fertilizer contribution to neighbouring communities, and certainly the agricultural work that happens in the Interlake area. To lose those kinds of linkages is not just damaging in the context of the prisons and the surrounding communities but also speaks to the failure of the government to truly devise a real framework when it comes to establishing food security across the board.
We have seen the government's attack on the Canadian Wheat Board. We have seen the government's attack when it comes to establishing food security in northern areas and the imposed changes on the food mail program. We have seen the government turn a blind eye to the demands made by agriculturalists and producers across the country with respect to the challenges they are facing.
We as Canadians need a government that steps in and says that we have such wealth in terms of resources across our country that we should be looking at making sure that Canadians have food security that they can depend on, that the linkages are serving our communities, that we are supporting local farmers and farming families and are not breaking down these linkages that support these communities and this economy in the name of, well, we are not quite sure what it is in the name of, because the government's decision on prison farms, similar to other agricultural policies, has lacked some factual foundation. And I would use the Canadian Wheat Board example once again.
There is that need for the government to stand up for our communities and for these community linkages, as my area knows quite well.
Increasingly, we do not have a government that stands up for Canadians, no matter what they are going through, to say that what we are facing is not right. I use the most recent example of the need for the federal government to step up and work to protect jobs in the community that I am in, in Thompson, when it comes to mining, for example, the same as we see when it comes to agriculture across western Canada.
When it comes to prison farms, we see the approach to agriculture, at the smaller scale, to be very much in the same vein. The government is pulling back and saying that somehow it does not have a role to play to support these kinds of skills and truly to support Canadians who are on the margins of society. In this case, we are speaking of inmates who, in many cases, made wrong decisions, who want to make a change, who want to come back to contribute to our communities and to our country. As New Democrats, we believe the government has a role to play. It should stand up for these Canadians. It should stand up for implementing effective crime and public safety policy and for protecting prison farms—
Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to conclude.
As a final point, I would like to look at the government's wrong-headed approach to crime and justice. On one hand, we have the eradication of the prison farms that contribute in a great way to employment skills, to the local food economy, to rehabilitation, the value of which we cannot quantify. On the other hand, by getting rid of that, we are taking away contributions in values of money that we cannot even begin to assess. We compare that to the commitments that the government is making in building new prisons and the kind of money that going to bricks and mortar to house more people in prisons, which clearly will not have the needed rehabilitation programming.
We have heard figures of $9 billion to $10 billions to be spent on building new prisons. That money could be spent on extending programming that would serve to rehabilitate people and build healthier communities. Instead, billions of dollars are being applied toward crimes that we cannot imagine or cannot calculate.
A statement was made in recent months that without responding to figures of criminality, when we know crime has gone down, really speaks to the lack of information or fact that is behind the government's policy when it comes to the correctional system and everything that goes with it. It speaks to the failure of putting real priorities on the table, looking at prioritizing prevention, for example.
As I mentioned, I come from northern Manitoba and I have the honour to represent those communities. In those communities young people grow up with no recreation facilities. First nations have substandard schools infested by mould. Young people face levels of poverty that are shocking to most Canadians.
Last night I watched a film, hosted by the Assembly of First Nations, called Third World Canada. I and so many others live in that kind of Canada. Instead of recognizing the root causes of crime, whether it is poverty or lack of access to opportunity, and instead of saying we need to build healthier communities, the government is pulling away from its responsibility to first nations. It is pulling away from government programs that support people on the margins of our society. It is getting rid of valuable rehabilitation programming for people who end up in the correctional system. Not only that, it is spending a gross amount of money on building prisons that will serve nothing more than to make our society less secure and less healthy.
On that note, I—
Mr. Speaker, I am certainly pleased to stand today and perhaps answer some of the questions that have already been put forth. However, we are here as a result of a motion put forward by the parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security. That motion calls for the to halt any steps to close the farming operations in Canada's federal prisons in order to allow a panel of independent experts to be assembled to study the farm program.
To give members some background on how the decision to close the farm program came about, I will first remind them of the government's strategic review exercise that was undertaken in 2008. As members know, government programs are reviewed on a four-year cycle with a view to determining whether they are the right kind of program and whether they are being delivered effectively. The Correctional Service of Canada participated in the 2008 strategic review, which was an excellent opportunity for the service to bring its programs, and indeed its priorities, in line with the government's direction for a federal correctional system.
The government's first priority to Canadians is their safety. To that end, the government provides resources and programs that assist in the rehabilitation of federal offenders to facilitate their transition into law-abiding citizens once released into the community. We are committed to ensuring that the resources for rehabilitation programs are in place and are allocated in a manner that provides the best possible results for offenders and for public safety.
The government offers a wide range of correctional programs to federal offenders. With new ideas and changing offender demographics, we must be adaptive so as to provide the most effective rehabilitation programs, including those that enable the offenders to learn employability skills that enable them to obtain and retain employment upon their release into communities. We know that offenders who have been provided with employment experience and skills are less likely to re-offend and are reintegrated into society far more effectively.
We also know that our success relies on ensuring that the skills the offenders are learning are reflective of the skills that are in demand in labour markets, not only today, but in the future. Canada's prison farms have a long history of imparting skills that have enabled some offenders to find employment in the agricultural sector. However, the government believes that it must move forward and provide programming that meets the needs of the 21st century.
In the last five years, less than 1% of federal offenders released into the community have successfully attained employment in the agricultural sector. I believe we can do better and that we have done better. Through CORCAN, a special operating agency of the federal government, offenders are provided with essential employment experience. CORCAN provides employability skills that can be applied to any number of jobs, and offenders learn job-specific skills.
Offenders work in jobs in CORCAN's manufacturing services and construction and textile industries. As well, they are employed in our correctional facilities and other work programs, such as maintenance and kitchens. In all, in 2008-2009, CORCAN and the Correctional Services of Canada provided 27,715 work assignments for 15,123 federal offenders. This is in comparison to the approximately 300 offenders involved in the prison farm program.
As I have stated, in order for the acquiring of employment skills to have the desired effect of securing offender employment upon release, our programs must be representative of the labour market outside the walls of our institutions. Canada's agricultural sector simply does not supply enough employment opportunities for offenders to aid in their successful reintegration into society. The government wholeheartedly supports our farmers and our farming industry, but with respect to the utility of the prison farm program to offender employment, the jobs are simply elsewhere.
An economy must evolve with the changing times, as must the economy's industries. Employment for all Canadians is affected by this evolution, and this should be reflected in the employment programs we offer throughout the rehabilitation process of federal offenders.
The Correctional Service of Canada has formed, and continues to form, partnerships with businesses and other government departments with a view to developing alternative employment programs in order to gain maximum employability skills for offenders.
Of equal importance to the rehabilitative aspect of this topic are the issues associated with the commercial aspect of the prison farm program. Indeed, this is not only a rehabilitative program for offenders, but the prison farm produces consumable goods. Of CSC's total food budget of $27 million, food valued at $4 million was purchased from CORCAN prison farms by the correctional service for consumption by inmates in 2008-09. This amount accounts for approximately 15% of the food procured during that time. Moreover, beef, pork and chicken purchased from CORCAN were generally more expensive than products that could be purchased from private commercial vendors.
I do not believe it would be difficult for private business to step in and fill this small 15% vacuum left with the closure of the prison farms, through the normal tendering practices. In fact, CSC is expecting to provide food to offenders at a lower price to taxpayers through economies of scale. This will bring CSC in line with the government's national strategy to use a procurement process that is more consistent for all government departments, thus providing better use of Canadian taxpayers' money.
Finally, I would like to bring to members' attention that, in dealing with the provision of agricultural products, there are some issues of liability that should be considered. The health of livestock, the potential contaminants to producers and land and environmental concerns, which go hand in hand with the agriculture industry, should not be a potential concern for CORCAN and Correctional Services Canada. Unlike private industry, with profit as a motive and such liabilities considered as a cost of doing business, it would not be desirable to subject government to such liability. The primary concern of CORCAN and Correctional Service Canada with employment programs should be their effectiveness in rehabilitation.
We have heard the success stories of prison farms; we have heard the criticism of the decision to close the prison farms. Change is not normally seamless; there will always be bumps on the road. The decision to close the prison farms is a necessary one and one that reflects the reality of the times. The government believes in the rehabilitative benefit of work experience provided by CORCAN, but prison farms do not give enough value for the money.
I would like to continue with some important arguments that do need to be heard.
Members have heard the rationale for the closure of the prison farms and have been informed of the successful employment programs under way for offenders in our federal correctional system. I would like to enlighten them today on the impetus that was behind many of these changes.
In 2007, the government mandated an independent review panel to recommend changes to our federal correctional system. This panel carefully scrutinized the service's operational priorities, strategies and future business plans. In October 2008, the review panel put forward 109 recommendations, the implementation of which will be significantly important in guiding Correctional Service Canada towards fulfilling its mandate of public safety.
In order to adhere to and build upon these recommendations, in budget 2008, this government committed $122 million over the course of two years, effectively endorsing the assessment process. This process takes place at the commencement of an offender's federal sentence.
We have heard many people say that we do not care about rehabilitation. I would like to suggest that there has been a lot of work put into thinking about what is appropriate rehabilitation. This is not about not providing the appropriate services. When I look at the opposition members, I wonder sometimes why they are just so reluctant to look at change. We put a program in place and it seems as if the opposition can never stand to see anything change. It is important to change, and we have to be willing to change with the times.
Enhancements included earlier placements in correctional programs that are aimed at addressing the factors that caused the individual to offend and quicker diagnosis of mental health needs. We certainly know that mental health needs are a huge issue in our prison system and we need much more effective ways to deal with them.
At the opposite end of the offender's sentence, upon release into the community, the service has strengthened its community corrections capacity, formed relations with new community partners and established new criteria for operating correctional community centres and parole offices.
Phase two, which unfolded in March 2009, focused on the creation and implementation of more detailed and sensitive forms of programming. This comes at a time when Correctional Services Canada was dealing with a more diverse and complex federal offender population.
We have heard many times public dismay at the overrepresentation of aboriginals in our federal correctional system. In an effort to improve the opportunities of aboriginal offenders to become law-abiding citizens, Correctional Services has done many things.
I would like to continue by sharing with the House that we have expanded the availability of culturally sensitive programs for these offenders and have continued to form relationships with aboriginal communities to provide support to aboriginal offenders.
To facilitate these initiatives, changes have also come in the form of a more diverse and representative workforce who receive culturally sensitive training, therefore placing them in a better position to interact with aboriginal offenders in an institution and in the community.
As phase two has been successfully completed, these and many other initiatives have been fully incorporated into CSC's regular operations across the country and are being applied each and every day.
While the agenda as a whole remains relatively young, there is no denying the efficacy of the CSC's transformation agenda and the sincere dedication of the service's staff to enact the kinds of policies that afford offenders the opportunity to turn their lives around and successfully reintegrate into society as law-abiding citizens.
I would like to continue by sharing with the House some of these initiatives that CSC has implemented.
By enhancing offender accountability, the onus of offender rehabilitation is shifting and being squarely placed on the shoulders of the offender. Now more than ever, federal offenders are being held accountable for developing, embracing and following through with the correctional plan developed for them by the members of their case management team. If the offender fails to embrace this accountability and participate fully in the rehabilitation plans, it will be clear proof upon reaching eligibility for some form of conditional release that the offender is not deserving of an opportunity to return to the community and is certainly not intending to do so as a law-abiding citizen.
This government wants offenders to understand that being given an opportunity to reintegrate into the community is a reward for good behaviour, for completing the necessary programming and for showing victims, correctional staff and Canadians a sincere desire to change. It should be seen as a privilege, not a right.
The Correctional Service of Canada has also made great strides toward eliminating drugs in its federal correctional institutions, by implementing an enhanced anti-drug strategy with an intensified focus on prevention, intervention, treatment and enforcement. Correctional organizations around the world recognize the difficulty of achieving drug-free institutions, but regardless of the challenges, the service remains committed to working toward eliminating drugs from its institutions.
To do so, the service has put in place a number of improvements. There has been an increase in the number of drug-detector dog teams, an increase to its security intelligence capacity, improved security equipment such as x-ray and ION scanners, and enhanced perimeter security.
As illicit drugs are too often a contributing factor to criminal behaviour as well as a prime means of spreading infectious diseases through shared needles, it is vital for the service to do everything in its power to combat contraband items by reducing the supply and increasing the awareness of the consequences of drug use. Once again, there are clear signs that this initiative will further enhance our efforts and results.
To conclude, I would simply like to reiterate the fact that sound government policy, like that under which the Correctional Service of Canada operates, enhances public safety and at the same time provides federal offenders with opportunities to improve their potential to become law-abiding and contributing members of Canadian society.