On chain gangs, Hudak wins. Deal with it

How serious is the Ontario PC leader?

I want that headline understood: I don’t mean to say the Ontario PC leader has won the actual argument about the usefulness of assigning provincial inmates to “mandatory” work gangs so that they can pick up litter and clean up graffiti until they become model citizens. The truth, which advocates of liberal penology seem unable to put into plain English, is that you can make labour “mandatory” only by the use of one or more large individuals armed with whips, clubs, or possibly, in our enlightened times, tasers.

We cannot hold hostage privileges that prisoners already enjoy by right as a consequence of court decisions. The only foreseeable alternative to having an overseer prepared to inflict pain upon chain-gang inmates on the spot would consist of equal or worse tortures and deprivations, administered out of sight and in cold blood. Some inmates will refuse outdoor work on principle even if it is made “mandatory” by the stroke of a ministerial pen. Are we going to make such objectors serve their sentences in solitary confinement? Or does Hudak propose to treat Ontarians to the sight of prisoners being beaten and terrorized in the streets? Chain gangs, one notices, have historically been features of morally benumbed societies in which law-abiding citizens were quite prepared to contemplate such Roman spectacles.

Hey, I don’t know Ontario all that well, but I can’t imagine very much of it fits that description. I don’t think Hudak is very serious about this chain-gang idea as such. But look at what he accomplishes by bringing it forward: he has stampeded editorial boards and Liberal worthies like James Morton and Warren Kinsella into arguing against him. And what argument do they use? Why, that provincial prisoners are dangerous and can’t be trusted to perform manual work, even under close supervision, in our communities!

This immediately calls attention to the fact that provincial prisoners are, by definition, those who have received sentences of less than two years’ imprisonment. “Why would a convict proven and agreed to be ‘dangerous’ be in provincial custody in the first place?”, asks the Ontario voter: no answer arrives from Crown prosecutors, from judges, or from an explicitly punishment-averse corrections establishment. “And where have these liberal concern trolls been for the past forty years while the federal penal system, which has charge of the really dangerous criminals, has explicitly promoted ‘community release’ and built a bunch of zero-security prisons*?”

Thus is the magic lamp of law-and-order sentiment rubbed, and thousands of conservative-voting genies roil forth. Hudak has certainly learned a trick or two from Stephen Harper. At every election Harper invents pretexts to make the media angry at him, and the media take the bait, not realizing that all Harper wants is the fight—carried on in front of an audience that would happily take Pol Pot’s or John Wayne Gacy’s side against the media as such (that is, as an amorphous blob ruled by a liberal hive-intelligence). All Hudak wants here is a fight against advocates of rehabilitation and humanitarianism in prisons, whose moral standing is, for better or worse, little higher than that of us journalists.

*[As measured by the raw numbers of escapes, of course, the “security” level of federal prisons has become all but perfect in recent decades, improving on the margin even since the year 2000. Prison escapes were a fairly significant preoccupation of the news apparatus in my youth; today they are all but unheard of.]

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