The Conservative prison policy is a white elephant with bars

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In its first major policy announcements of 2011, the Conservative government revealed eight additional prison expansions, putting new bars on the windows and adding new walls to (by latest count) 24 facilities across Canada, at a cost of $2 billion over five years.

In his year-end summary of good works from his government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lauded their efforts at crime fighting. Of the domestic list of 13 "major successes achieved," fully seven involved legislation to get tough on crime.

In The Fear Factor, a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study, Paula Mallea, a criminal law specialist, points out that crime rates have been falling for 20 years, and that just one of the new pieces of so-called anti-crime legislation introduced by the Conservatives -- by abolishing two-for-one credits for remand time -- would cost Corrections Canada $5 billion to implement. She concludes the upshot of the new crime measures would be to increase violent crime, and pay more to do it.

Any reasonable individual should be appalled by the Conservative policy to invest in more criminal detention at great expense for no apparent reason. The CCPA study explains how locking up people for longer periods increases the risk of inmates committing violent crime inside prison -- and after they get out.

And it gets worse. The one sector of the prison system geared to rehabilitation -- prison farms -- is seeing six closures despite local protests that in Kingston included distinguished writer Margaret Atwood.

In an era of one-man rule, no one in Harper's party caucus dares to question the autocrat in power. Yet there is nothing to stop party members, one-time Progressive Conservatives especially, from calling for a different priority from our national government than bogus crime fighting. In fact, the Progressive Conservative Party still exists, and may well stage a comeback if Harper continues to govern using an American Republican playbook.

The CBC are certainly on the crime agenda. Local radio and TV news casts lead with whatever incident of violence turns up, and usually features several stories. Say what you wish about "if it bleeds, it leads" reporting, it is cost effective. Just send a journalist with a camera, and/or a microphone down to the police station, and stories have a way of turning up.

Suppose Canadians could hear "reporting" about new art exhibits, or new plays being produced when they turned on the local CBC news as the leading stories. Would they object? If news about the publication of a new Atwood book led the National, would be that be a problem? Should we not be treated to a clip of a forthcoming Atom Egoyan film on another night?

Conrad Black says additional prison expenditures are "utter nonsense". Be that as it may, tabloid journalism took over at the once respected Southam broadsheets when Black seized control. Under Canwest and now Postmedia ownership, space once reserved for news and public affairs has been given over to crime reports. Fading circulation major daily papers now do their best imitation of The Police News in competition with the original down-market Sun newspaper chain.

When the Conservatives shut down the long-form census they knew perfectly well what was at stake. The alternative to good statistics is not "no" statistics, it is "bad" statistics. Statistics are used to settle disagreements about policy. Given reliable evidence, people can make up their minds about what has happened, and debate what needs to be done. Statistics Canada research is the basis for the CCPA report The Fear Factor. Given bad statistics, none of us will ever know enough about the parameters of what is being talked about in order to make up our minds sensibly about anything.

For the moment, we have all the evidence we need to say no to the Conservatives on the crime agenda, and the accompanying prison spending spree the prime minister wants us to be so proud about.

Duncan Cameron writes weekly on politics and is president of rabble.ca.

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