The Hill: Government looks at making inmates ever poorer

Something happened to Conservative MP Guy Lauzon in Sudbury, Ont., 30 years ago that has stayed with him all his life.

Now it has made its way to Parliament and ended up as a law passed unanimously on the evening of Oct. 31 this year.

It wasn’t the only strange thing that happened at our Parliament on Halloween night this year. In fact, it wasn’t any stranger than the law putting people in jail for up to 10 years for wearing a Halloween mask at a demonstration that turns ugly.

Lauzon is no trained seal on the backbenches. He’s the national caucus chairman of the Conservative party. So his bill C-350 to make prisoners give back some, if not all, of the money awarded to them in legal actions they might win against the government had the backing of the rest of his party.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lauzon began last April 26 as he tried to explain his motivation for the new law. “I can speak to the emotional distress suffered by a victim of crime.”

Someone entered his home in Sudbury about 30 years ago while he and his wife were sleeping and stole his wallet off his dresser, he explained.

“Neither of us woke up. I can’t begin to tell you how traumatizing that is when you wake up and realize somebody has invaded your privacy and stolen your money and you weren’t even aware of that.

That was 30 years ago, but I can still remember the emotional distress that particularly my wife and my children, but I, too, to a certain extent as well, went through over that incident.”

Now as an MP only a heartbeat away from a minister’s job, Lauzon is in a position to do something about it. That’s where his private legislation under bill C-350 comes in.

His new law ensures that any monetary award given to an inmate as a result of a successful legal action against the federal government must first go to fulfil child support and restitution orders; second, to pay off any damages or injuries to victims; third, to debts owed to innocent third parties who acted in good faith; fourth, to cover the court-ordered victim surcharge; fifth, to pay money owing as a result of any other court cases; and finally to cover outstanding civil judgments.

After that, the prisoner can collect whatever remains, if anything.

The issue is important because offenders earn minimal pay for their work in federal jails.

The maximum a prisoner can earn was $6.90 a day in 1981. It’s the same rate 30 years later. Unlike MPs’ rate of pay, the government never adjusted it for inflation or the cost of living.

Back then, a basket of prison canteen items cost $8.49. Today, that same basket costs $61.59. That’s a 725-per-cent increase.

Now, under the Conservative government, prisoners must buy non-prescription items such as Tylenol and medicated shampoo through the canteen. A bottle of Buckley’s cough syrup costs $7.58. That’s more than a day’s wages.

Nobody gets rich in jail. And with the new Lauzon law, some will have even less.

But nobody knows how many prisoners, if any, win cash awards from the courts for wrongs done to them while behind bars.

The committee members looking at the issue asked the Justice Department, the Correctional Service of Canada, and anyone else who’s supposed to be an expert. They didn’t get any answers. Nobody knew.

But that didn’t bother the committee.

They just kept right on talking as they debated Lauzon’s legislation on and off for a year. Everyone on the committee felt good about what they were saying. There were fine speeches about restitution and about making offenders better people.

And now, Lauzon’s legislation heads to the Senate for final approval. Lauzon himself was most eloquent in his arguments.

“They need to be held accountable for their actions,” Lauzon said in reference to offenders. “The bill holds them accountable, assisting in their rehabilitation.”

None of the MPs from any of the major political parties explained how taking money awarded by the courts away from prisoners would help their rehabilitation.

But Lauzon was flying high by now. “Many offenders have never been responsible for a day in their lives,” he said.

The New Democrats were there in force on the committee.

What seemed to please them most was the order of priorities for the award money taken away from prisoners.

Payment would go to women and children first before reaching the inmate’s victims, innocent third parties who acted in good faith, and then the courts through the victim surcharge, money that actually goes into a government fund for helping out all victims.

It seems nobody questioned whether poor lawyers would get their money from the funds taken away from prisoners.

But who cares about lawyers?    

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail
address is
[email protected].

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