JUSTICE

The politics of a prison

DAN BURKE July 7 1986
JUSTICE

The politics of a prison

DAN BURKE July 7 1986

The politics of a prison

JUSTICE

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stood in a high school auditorium one year ago and pledged to strengthen the economy of a depressed community 400 km east of Quebec City. To that end, he ordered the construction of a new $60-million prison. For the 7,000 residents of Port-Cartier, the announcement was the most heartening piece of news since ITT Rayonier Inc. closed its cellulose pulp plant in 1979—a development which eventually resulted in the town losing half of its population. And critics suggested that the contract was an instalment on a pledge made by Mulroney during the 1984 federal election campaign: to pay close attention to developments in his Manicouagan riding. But last January civil rights activists, criminologists, sociologists and doctors from 19 organizations formed a coalition to oppose the proposed prison location. Said Dr. Bruno Cormier, a psychiatrist at Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital: “When people need care, you don’t isolate them from the people who can provide it. This institution will be a monument to stupidity.”

The protective custody penitentiary, scheduled to open in September, 1988, will house 240 child molesters, rapists, informers and convicted police officers. They constitute a group which usually requires protection from other inmates. Coalition spokesmen say that sending such inmates to Quebec’s North Shore will make them less accessible to social workers and psychiatrists—most of whom are based in Montreal and Quebec City—and cut them off from their families. They also note that about 85 per cent of the convicts currently serving sentences in Laval Institution, a maximum-security prison near Montreal, come from the heavily populated Montreal-Quebec City corridor. Said Paul Williams, director of the John Howard Society of Quebec, a service organization for offenders and their families: “Building this prison in Port-Cartier was a clearcut political decision made without any respect to the inmates or their families. Nobody was consulted.”

As well, ground-breaking ceremonies at the prison site in May coincided with plans to reduce the 12,500-member federal prison population. That may be achieved by granting nonviolent offenders automatic day passes after they have served one-sixth of their sentence, and other measures. Coalition representatives say that the Manicouagan project contradicts the proposed federal policy. But corrections services officials say the new prison will be needed to replace 188 protective custody cells at the 113year-old penitentiary near Montreal. And they note that it is not the first new prison to be built in a remote location: a federal prison in Renous, N.B., is at least 110 km northwest of Moncton.

Coalition spokesmen say that prisons built far from major centres loosen critical ties between inmates and their friends and relatives. For one thing, friends and relatives from Montreal will have the choice of flying to Sept-îles (the airport nearest the penitentiary) before embarking on a 64-km taxi ride— a round trip cost of $350—or enduring a 14-hour, one-way bus ride from Montreal to Port-Cartier.

Still, for residents of a town with a 30-per-cent unemployment rate, the prison project will create 700 construction jobs and 260 full-time positions as guards and clerks when the institution opens. Said Port-Cartier mayor Anthony Detroio: “It is comforting to know that prisons don’t go bankrupt.” But coalition members say they will continue fighting. If Ottawa does not reverse its decision, they predict that the social harm caused will far outweigh the economic benefits for Mulroney’s constituents.

—DAN BURKE in Montreal