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Ontario's Planned Super-Jails Worry Prison Reformers

Prison-reform advocates here are worried that Ontario is heading down the wrong path with a major prison construction program.

Official interest in restorative-justice methods (see story above), which are typically more community oriented than the traditional lock-'em-up approach, seems to be on the increase here. "The seeds are planted and they're sprouting everywhere - very sporadically," as a provincial official puts it.

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But the planned construction of larger, more cost-effective "super-jails" some distance from population centers may make it harder for prisoners to get the hometown support so important to reintegrating them, some critics say. Bill Sparks of the John Howard Society of Ontario, a prison-advocacy organization, says, "The more community going in, the better."

Kurt Jensen, director of the infrastructure renewal project of the Ontario corrections ministry, responds to these criticisms by noting that the construction program is designed to replace antiquated facilities, a third of them built before 1900, and allow the province to provide more programs for prisoners, more cost-effectively. "A larger facility tends to facilitate programs. You can't hire a psychologist for a 15-bed facility." He also disputes the suggestion that prisoners will be farther away from their hometowns at the new facilities.

Ontario's new model, to be built on a number of sites across the province, "clumps" six wings of 200 beds each, sharing facilities such as the kitchen, Mr. Jensen explains. Prisoners awaiting trial, prisoners serving a sentence, and prisoners getting some form of treatment will each be in separate wings on the same site. Mr. Sparks is concerned that these "segmented populations" will compete for resources. Jenson counters that it will be easier to provide services - a psychologist from one wing can visit an inmate in another wing.

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