Monday, December 15, 2008

Sheer madness and massive waste of money to release BC prisoners to homelessness

What I’d planned for today’s column was a look at what happens when somebody without housing is released from a provincial jail in B.C.
I’d run into an interesting fellow named Reg in my downtown travels, who’d wanted to talk about the practise of releasing prisoners straight onto the streets after they’ve served their time at the jail on Wilkinson Road. He told me it had happened to him more times than he could count.
But sometimes a column ends up becoming the story of what happened on the way to the story, and this is one of those.
First, a few statistics to give you a sense of the issue at hand. B.C. has nine jails, which at any given point in time are housing close to 2,800 prisoners serving sentences of less than two years. The average stay is 55 days, so that means as many as 18,500 people moving in and out of B.C. jails in any given year, at a cost of almost $160 million.
That’s just the cost to lock them up, of course. On top of that are the far larger costs of crime itself - obvious things like policing and courts, but also the incalculable costs borne by the 300,000 British Columbians who are victims of crime in a typical year.
Big stuff. You’d presume somebody in the provincial government would be keeping a careful eye on all of that, wouldn’t you? You’d presume somebody would have realized that releasing prisoners to the street is a recipe for more crime, more street problems and more cost.
But you’d be wrong. It turns out the government doesn’t even keep records of how many prisoners are being released into homelessness, let alone question the practise.
Nor is anyone monitoring the number of repeat offenders cycling through B.C. jails. BC Corrections spokesman Bruce Bannerman tells me the provinces have never been able to reach agreement on a single definition of “recidivism,” so nobody tracks it anymore.
I’d initially set out to try to talk to somebody at Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre about the problem, but that turned out to be a wild fantasy. I was diverted to BC Corrections first, then made my own way to the Public Safety Ministry four days later when my calls still hadn’t been returned.
Six days after my first inquiry and half an hour past the time I’d given as my absolute deadline, I got a call from Bannerman.
Corrections worries about corrections issues, he told me. Once a prisoner’s sentence is done, it’s up to “community partners” and other government agencies to take it from there.
Considering that there is no government agency that actually finds people housing - and no housing to be found by the weary, underfunded “community partners” who are out there looking - I guess that answers my question about whether prisoners are being released straight to the streets.
Bannerman says that at least these days, everyone coming out of B.C. prisons gets $200 or so from the welfare ministry as they leave. That’s a change from a few years ago when they walked out the door with nothing. Reg says it’s hard not to want to buy drugs or alcohol with the money, especially given how many prisoners these days have addictions.
BC Corrections wants me and you to believe that we can leave it to “community partners” to take care of things on the other side of the prison wall. But it’s just not true. Agencies are doing what they can to find housing, but there’s very little housing to be found. The new Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team (VICOT) is showing some early successes in housing 50 chronic offenders with diagnosed mental illness, but there are far more people than that who need the help and VICOT already seems to be at capacity.
Reg says he can always tell during a stint at “Wilkie” when a fellow prisoner is due for release, because all they’ll be talking about is whether anyone knows a place where they can stay.
When Reg got out of jail three weeks ago, he was under a court order stipulating he stay at a recovery house as a condition of being released. Yet he still ended up released to the streets. He dreams of opening a transition house specifically for men coming out of prison and trying to stay out of trouble - men like him.
“Right now, people are getting out of Wilkie and are back there almost immediately,” he says. “How long’s it going to take once you’re out on the street before you get some crack and booze in you and kick in somebody’s door?”

1 comment:

Ian Lidster said...

This was excellent. When I ran CVRC we used to get boys fresh from Wilkie who had gone inside in July and came out in January, and they hit the streets in their summertime duds. Nobody really cared about their lack of clothing.
Anyway, is it any wonder they are back inside so quickly? This is a penal system with rehab as an objective? Bullshit, as we know.