Conrad Black’s broadside against Canada’s prison plan
TheStar.com – news/canada
Published On Mon Sep 05 2011. Tonda MacCharles, Ottawa Bureau
OTTAWA—Conrad Black befriended mafia bosses, drug dealers and other inmates during his time in prison.
And though he has been one of the pre-eminent small-c conservative thinkers in Canada, Black is no friend to the Stephen Harper government right now.
His jailbird’s-eye view was more than a rude awakening. It was fodder for his memoirs and now, before he goes back to jail next week, for a tirade against the Harper government’s law-and-order agenda.
Black — who returns to prison Tuesday for another eight months after exhausting his appeals — has launched yet another broadside against the government’s tougher sentencing bills, prison expansion plans, and prisoner control programs in a series of interviews promoting his book, including a CBC interview.
The Conservatives regularly dismiss their critics as “special interests” — ivory tower academics or “soft-on-crime” wimps.
Now they are determined to ignore one of their own.
“Our office has no comment,” a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews wrote in an emailed response to the Star.
Brian Lee Crowley, of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a small-c conservative think tank, said Black is unlikely to sway the debate in Canada “partly because the fact of the matter is that he’s in kind of a conflict of interest in talking about how people are treated in the prison system because he’s now in it.”
Crowley said he agrees “several” of Black’s criticisms of the American system are “correct.” Individual states embarked on costly prison construction projects, and punitive “three-strikes-you’re out” laws increased prison populations, with people who are “a pretty marginal danger to society.”
But Crowley added Black is not correct to suggest Canada is going down that path. Rather, he argued, Canada is embarking on reforms to deal with the small number of repeat offenders who commit the largest number of crimes in Canada.
“To the extent that he’s saying to Canada ‘don’t make those mistakes,’ I think his observations are perfectly in order.”
But Crowley suggested Black, who believes he got a “raw deal” from the American justice system, is “allowing his feelings about the American system to influence his view about Canada, not looking at what’s happening in Canada on its merits.”
To Black, Canada is about to model the U.S. prison system — which he describes as an inhumane and unjust factory farm that dehumanizes inmates, breeds an underclass that can never reintegrate and will exact a long-term toll on society.
It wasn’t the close confinement (no worse than boarding school), the strip searches (“tedious”) or the public address system that blared all day long (“extremely irritating acoustically”) that appalled him.
Rather, Black says the penal system isolates and punishes for life “a very large number of people who have been for the most part socioeconomically comparatively disadvantaged.”
Black said prisoners, packed like sardines and ignored by all except “corrupt” prison guards, are “bound to be relatively despised and underutilized by society.”
More important than how such treatment “festers in their minds” is how “great a social damage a country does or society does to itself by pursuing that kind of penal and justice system,” he said.
He cites the “utter failure and hypocrisy of the U.S. war on drugs,” saying he now views as “nonsense” the “more extreme and demagogic versions of the law-and-order lobby wherever it appears including unfortunately in Canada.”
Black says he is in “violent disagreement” with the Conservatives’ “so-called roadmap” — a blueprint document that sets out the Harper government’s corrections policy.
He told The Globe and Mail the Harper government approach is “sadistic and malicious.” He told the CBC it is “barbarous.”
“Not only is it emphasizing severity on sentences, not only squandering money for prisons that don’t need to built on this basis of build-and-they-will-come, not only is it going to end up housing an inordinate number of native people who should be treated altogether differently, but these programs that are foreseen to reduce the effort made to help people to overcome their problems and therefore become more likely candidates for successful reintegration into society, and even more appalling to me, these plans to crack down on contact between prisoners and their visitors is just a terrible and barbarous thing.”
Black said weekly prison visits by his wife Barbara Amiel and others sustained him. Post-visit inmate strip searches were conducted under the excuse of checking for smuggling “but smuggling into prisons is conducted entirely by corrupt guards.”
“That families will not be even able to shake hands let alone embrace their relatives and will be separated by glass and speak through speakers, is simply barbarous and a giant step backwards and it is being undertaken for precisely the wrong reasons,” Black said.
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