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Ontario's kids need more education today, not more cages tomorrow

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Image: Mr.Kitsadakron Pongha/Flickr

Citing "fiscal responsibility," Premier Doug Ford and his team say it's unfair to mortgage the future of our children by leaving them with a massive provincial government debt to pay when they're older. We're told everyone needs to do their part. Yet, instead of asking people with the means to do so to contribute more towards balancing the books, most deficit-reduction announcements coming from Queen's Park these days will affect those who can least afford less government assistance and services, including our children.

What would it say about Ontario's adults if we allow our government to do things like eliminate the Child Advocate Office and make changes to autism support that will translate into diminished opportunities for affected kids to reach their potential? What would it say about us if we allow our government to raise average high school class sizes from 22 to 28 students and eliminate free post-secondary tuition for young people from low-income families?

Will the cuts noted above and others to come not create significant debts -- financial or otherwise -- to be paid by individuals and families? Does Premier Ford really think such measures shaping the lives of our children in their formative years will translate into better social outcomes and a resilient, dynamic workforce capable of taking on the collective challenges we'll face in an age of profound economic, environmental, political, and social disruptions?  

While our kids are facing an avalanche of austerity rushing towards them to balance the books and put more money in the pockets of "the people" that's not worth the weight, Premier Ford is set to follow through with infrastructure projects previously announced by the Wynne government that will expand the province's human caging capacity. One such example is the planned replacement of the 585-bed Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (OCDC) with a new 725-bed jail.

Infrastructure Ontario estimates the Wynne-Ford detention centre -- which is roughly 25 per cent bigger than the OCDC -- will cost taxpayers up to $1 billion over 30 years to design, build, finance and maintain through a public-private partnership (P3). That's a jail mortgage costing up to an average of $33.3 million per year, every year, for 30 years or over $91,000 per day, every day, for 10,950 days once the contract kicks in. If filled, the extra 140 beds in the Wynne-Ford detention centre will cost us roughly $32,900 a day or $12 million per year more to operate than the OCDC.

Mountains of academic research and government reports produced over several decades demonstrate imprisonment is the least effective, most costly, and inhumane way of responding to social harm and meeting the needs of victims. Can Premier Ford not think of better ways of spending up to $124,000 more a day or $45 million per year down the road to improve community well-being and safety? Would this money not be better spent on education and social services for kids, rather than cages to lock up those amongst them who, as young adults, may fall through the additional cracks presently being created through punishing austerity measures? Would this money not be better spent on proven prevention, diversion, and decarceration measures to reduce imprisonment and make more resources available to staff in Ontario's existing jails to limit the harms of incarceration they face alongside prisoners?       

Should the government "remain committed to building a new jail in Ottawa" and other Liberal-era human caging projects -- past failures like the Toronto South Detention Centre be damned -- the new builds that will open years from now, doing nothing to alleviate poor prison living and working conditions today, should be smaller than those planned. If built, they also shouldn't be bankrolled through wasteful P3s that line the pockets of big banks, investors and infrastructure giants, while fleecing taxpayers. Savings could then be spent on more cost-effective alternatives that will diminish our reliance on imprisonment, while improving community well-being and safety. This work should start with investing more, not less, in our children. 

Justin Piché, PhD (Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa) is co-founder of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project. Their #NOPE / No Ottawa Prison Expansion campaign calls upon Premier Ford to say #YESS / Yes to Education and Social Services, not building bigger jails. 

Image: Mr.Kitsadakron Pongha/Flickr

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