As the provincial election draws ever closer, perhaps the most hotly debated issue on the North Grenville side of the Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands & Rideau Lakes riding will be the proposed correctional facility on the Campus grounds, or as it has become known colloquially – the Kemptville Prison. When debating something as unsightly and unpleasant as a new prison, it is just as important to ask “why” as it is to ask “where”.
Few, if any, communities will ever welcome a new prison with open arms (and note that I only use the term “prison” for familiarity, since prisons are federal institutions, and the Kemptville facility would be a provincial jail). The argument can easily be made that a new prison should be in a more remote area, outside of a town but still accessible by populated areas. However, such a build would create countless extra infrastructure challenges, such as water well drilling, septic tank installation, and the search for an inexpensive source of heat in the absence of natural gas. Valid concerns have been raised that suggest Kemptville may not have the right amenities to support a prison, either. Even though it has full utility services, Kemptville does not have a taxi or bus service, creating fears that those released from the facility who cannot secure a ride will lurk in town, possibly engaging in more criminal behaviour.
With valid, pointed questions naturally come broader and more obvious questions, which is where the “why” comes in. Why does Ontario need a new correctional facility? Aren’t we supposed to be moving away from a “law and order” mindset, and toward an approach that addresses the systemic issues which lead to crime in the first place?
I am a mental health counsellor by training, and completed the second half of the clinical placement for my degree just as COVID-19 was beginning to sink its teeth into everyone’s lives in early 2020. Nearly everyone I provided counselling for at that time – adults, elderly, and even teens and children who I provided service to at school – needed help dealing with the mental health ramifications of the pandemic. Many clients I provided service to didn’t even need help until COVID-19 became a reality. Several months into the pandemic, I was woken up late in the evening and became an unexpected provider of help to a man who tried to hang himself off the side of his own balcony (he thankfully survived). Did pandemic stress drive him over the edge? We may never know, but I do know that the system was already failing pre-COVID. During placement, I was involved in a couple of crisis line calls made on behalf of suicidal clients – in both cases, crisis line staff attempted to talk my clients off the phone, effectively saying they were too busy to send a team that day. A call to an ambulance is inevitably next when a crisis intervention team won’t come, at which point hospital responses can be highly varied. I have had close family members struggle to get help for their mental health concerns in hospital, and have even written stories in the Times of local residents who have had to say dramatic, impactful, and downright awful things just to be taken seriously enough to receive mental health help in hospital. Outside of hospitals, most professional mental health help costs money, except free psychiatrist services (assuming a person can afford to wait potentially years on a waiting list).
Writing out my own concerns with “the system” has even helped open my own eyes. Are mental health issues an excuse for crime? Of course not. But there is no use for ignorance. When someone who can’t get proper mental healthcare turns to drugs to cope instead, we now have crime. When someone actually wants help with their anger, or their crippling depression, or any other number of mental health issues that can impact well-being and decision making and therefore lead to crime, what are we proving when we refuse to help them, but are quick to punish them? Imprisoning people is expensive. Though the cost varies depending on the type of inmate, and the security level of the incarceration, a simple rule-of-thumb estimate is $100,000 per year per inmate. Imagine the type of mental health supports that could have been provided for $100,000. Or $1 million for an inmate incarcerated for 10 years.
To make matters worse (yes, it gets worse!), the type of crime that would land someone in provincial jail is the type of crime that is likely going to become more commonplace in the coming years due to the current economic situation. We’re talking about things like petty theft to feed one’s family, or stealing gasoline in order to get to work. These crimes hurt both small and large businesses, drive prices up even further, and are inexcusable, but they are also understandable. It’s a tough world, and raising taxes to cover the cost of caging up the public instead of fixing underlying systemic issues, does not help to make the world any less tough, and only continues the cycle.
As with many others, the thought of a prison in Kemptville scares me – for one, it will give me and countless other parents a reason to want to keep our kids just a little bit closer. But when it comes to the Kemptville Prison debate, let’s stop asking our provincial political candidates “why Kemptville?”, and instead just leave it at “why?”