The Ontario government is proposing an unusual strategy for economic recovery from COVID-19: build more prisons.
This past fall, residents of Kemptville, a small community of 4,000 people near Ottawa, learned that they will soon live next to a maximum-security prison. It’s part of an infrastructure plan, called the Eastern Region Strategy, that includes building two new prisons and expanding two others.
Premier Doug Ford has said that the investment will both reduce overcrowding in the justice system and support economic recovery after COVID-19. “These four projects will also help create jobs right here in Ontario, both during construction and once the facility is built,” he said at a press conference in August. “It’s clear that these investments will contribute significantly to the economic recovery.”
The premier isn’t the only one talking about new jobs. Jason Baker, the mayor of Brockville, has said that building an expanded correctional complex
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There’s one problem: there’s scant evidence that’s true. Little
Studies out of the United States show disappointing results. A 2010 United States study of employment in counties with prisons from 1976 to 2004 found that, after 1990, prisons did not result in higher employment. In counties that had fewer highly educated residents, prisons led to lower employment.
In 2017, Humber College professor Greg McElligott released a paper that found that, in Canada,
The companies that dominate McElligott’s list are such huge national firms as Bondfield, Bird Construction Company, PCL, and Maple Reinders Group — which, he says, are likely to bring their own specialized workforces with them.
Only eight of the 25 prison towns that McElligott investigated had local companies win any contracts, and even those fared poorly. In Kingston, where there are four prisons, fewer than half of construction contracts went to local businesses. In Abbotsford, British Columbia, home to three federal prisons, only a
McElligott says that some local businesses could get contracts to, for example, deliver food or supplies but that “they're likely to be nowhere near as big as the money that's going to the people building the prison, who are probably going to be from somewhere else.”
His research focused on federal prisons, and he says there could be more part-time staff at
Governments have made this pitch before. In 2011, Stephen Harper’s federal government argued that building new prisons would bring economic growth to the surrounding communities. And, in the 1980s and ’90s, towns across the U.S. competed for state prisons with the expectation that they would bring a recession-proof industry with them.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General tells TVO.org via email that major infrastructure projects such as the prison “are of a size and scope that bring economic benefits to the communities in which they are built.”
“For example,” they continue, “builders often employ local residents and purchase from local suppliers, where possible. There are also economic spin-offs in the form of increased demand for restaurant meals and other services in the area that can benefit the entire region for years to come.” Information about the number of construction jobs, they state, won’t be available until the project is off the ground and contracts are signed.
That’s different from what ministry officials said during a public consultation with the North Grenville community in November 2020, when they presented a slide indicating that “hundreds'' of direct and indirect jobs would be created by the construction of the new prison.
One example they provided was the South West Detention Centre in Windsor, where, at the peak of construction, there were “approximately 200 workers employed and 80 per cent of those were local to the surrounding area.” (The contract was awarded to the Bondfield Construction Company, based in Vaughan.) Listed economic benefits for the Durham Region Courthouse, a private-public
The mayor of
“Like everyone else, we are in the process of assessing information from Ontario ministries, municipalities and academics,” she tells TVO.org via email. In response to a question about her statement that the facility would bring 500 jobs to the community, she writes that she was simply relaying information she’d received from the Ontario government: “It is their number, not mine.”
Colleen Lynas, an organizer for the group Coalition Against the Proposed Prison in North Grenville, attended both a closed-door stakeholders’ meeting and the public consultation — and says she found the economic evidence unconvincing. “From what I can see, this plan was literally cooked up by bureaucrats in Queen’s Park who have never set foot in Kemptville,” she says. “If they truly wanted to invest in North Grenville, then consult our local council, consult the community, and seek opportunities that make sense for the vision of the community.”
Her group, along with the North Grenville Jail Opposition Group, has begun pushing against the construction of the prison. She says she’s not worried about public safety in Kemptville —she’s concerned that the new prison will hurt tourism and isn’t the right way to revitalize the downtown. “It's not particularly healthy for anybody to be working in the correctional system,” she says.
“Rather than build a prison at all, you could send fewer people to prison, which might be better for society,” says McElligott. “You might spend more money on schools, training programs, counselling programs, anti-addiction programs. Any of that might have a very similar effect on crime, and it might actually be better in terms of job creation than anything you're doing in the