CLIFFORD OLSON IS ONLY ONE OF THE MANY ---
If everyone doesn't know, they may find out. MP White has visited more than a dozen of Canada's 43 federal prisons, where inmates serve sentences of two years to life for crimes ranging from fraud to first-degree murder. The forays are key to a Reform campaign aimed at exposing to public view the cushy conditions and soothing methods of the jail system. Ordinary Canadians believe that prison has to do with punishment for crimes, says Mr. White. But the Correctional Service of Canada, a federal department that spends more than one billion tax dollars each year running prisons, is of an entirely different mind. It views the more than 14,000 offenders in its charge as incarcerated citizens, not convicted criminals. There is no room for punishment in the modern Canadian prison, which warehouses inmates in a style that many law-abiding Canadians would envy.
To date, Mr. White has compiled a list of 25 "absurdities" in the penal system -- a collection of rights, amenities and benefits that are available to prisoners of every stripe. They include:
- Free room and board. It costs taxpayers an average $48,000 each year to house a criminal in a federal prison and up to $80,000 to keep a high-security prisoner like Paul Bernardo, convicted of murdering teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. But inmates, whether wealthy or not, don't pay a penny towards their costly keep.
- Free time. "A criminal in the system can only be asked to work, not made to work," says Mr. White. "It's his right to 'just say no'.
- Unemployment pay. When inmates don't work or can't because of a job shortage, they still get paid the "level one" $1.60 per day, for just "lying around" as Warden Linklater mentioned.
- Paying programs. "Work" in the system, by which an inmate earns $5.25 to $6.90 per day, extends to self-improvement programs for prisoners. In 1994-95 the federal government spent $106 million on programs ranging from "substance abuse" and "living skills" to "anger management" and "leisure studies."
- Price-reduced education. Inmates are paid for academic upgrading too. They can get student loans and study university courses cheaper than the average Canadian. Killer Karla Homolka, Bernardo's accomplice, is reportedly working towards a degree in social work from Kingston's Queen's University, assisted by Canadian taxpayers.
- A wide range of recreational facilities. Golf courses are a common sight at prisons now. So are tennis and handball courts, shuffle-board and pool tables, video and pinball machines. At Edmonton Institution, inmates are issued ice skates for the hockey rink (after some violent incidents involving skate blades, the penitentiary purchased skates with anchored blades). Prison gymnasiums are equipped with state-of-the-art exercise machines, and free weights so inmates can pump up before they are turned out on the street again.
- Conjugal visits. Every prison features at least one comfortably furnished "cottage" or "trailer home" where inmates can have "private family visits." Every two months, inmates can schedule up to 72 hours for sex.
- Television. Taxpayers pay more than $1 million per year providing cable television in prisons. At Edmonton Institution, inmates do contribute some of their program pay for a satellite service that brings them all the regular programming plus a few perks including the Discovery Channel, the Arts and Entertainment Channel, CNN, TSN, MuchMusic and more.
- Private property. Even when they are put in segregation or " the hole," inmates have the right to take along all the personal effects permitted in their regular "room" (the term "cell" is taboo) including, if they own them, personal computers, televisions, stereos, fish tanks, etc.
- Personal appearance rights. Inmates can shave and shower if and when they like. Their clothes are provided free of charge by the prison if they wish, but they are permitted to dress more or less as they choose.
- An elaborate system of rights and grievance outlets. Inmates are encouraged to know their rights and complain if they are not met. In 1993-94 federal prisoners launched 836 official grievances. It's a busy business. The incomplete figure for 1994-95 was 1,156.
- Free legal aid. Victims of crime may have to pay for a lawyer if they want one. But inmates in prison have unlimited access to legal services and legal resources must be made available to them on request through the prison library. Serial child molester and murderer Clifford Olson has sued the federal government more than 30 times for everything from being refused the "right" to join the Book of the Month and Tape Clubs and for "cruel and unusual punishment" because he was allowed to exercise for an hour a day only. In a rare move, Olson was declared a "vexatious litigant" in 1994 but he was back in court, at the provincial level, last month protesting a prison transfer.
- Old age security income. Inmates are entitled to collect old age security benefits while they do their time.
- Free medical and dental care. Although pensioners and other people in the nonprison population have to pay toward their medical care, prescriptions and dental work, convicts don't.
- GST rebates. Notwithstanding all the freebies they get in prison, some inmates are entitled to collect GST rebates.
- Free condoms. Sex between inmates has always been outlawed for hygienic and safety reasons and it still is, but inmates are provided with condoms for "safe sex" in prison nonetheless.
- Clean needles. Correctional officers estimate that up to 75% of inmates serving time are habitual drug users. While trying to counter drug use through other measures, however, the correctional system is pilot testing "Project Bleach," which issues a complimentary ounce of bleach to inmates wishing to sterilize their illegal drug equipment in jail.