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Anybody who’s ever watched ‘Cool Hand Luke’ has a pretty good idea about prisons in Texas. They’re tough, they’re hot and there are a lot of them — 109 in fact, filled with 150,000 inmates. Compare that to Canada, where we have less than 35,000 people in our federal and provincial systems combined.

The town of Huntsville is Texas’ prison central. There are nine “units” around the area but the most notorious of them all is The Huntsville Unit itself – “The Walls,” where all of Texas’ death row inmates go when their time is up.

At the Texas Prison Museum, just on the outskirts of downtown Huntsville, Jim Willet never seems to tire of giving tours. In the quirky museum collection there’s a nickel-plated pistol that was snatched from Bonnie and Clyde’s death car; vintage posters for the bygone prison rodeo and ‘Old Sparky,’ the electric chair that was decommissioned in the 60s

Jim Willet is grandfatherly. His manner of speaking is calm and measured. He spent his entire professional life in prisons and his last job with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was as warden at The Walls. He oversaw 89 executions in the lethal injection chamber there; saw other less severe criminals come and go, and then come back again. He also saw the largest single expansion of prison construction the world has ever known.

“Well, we got in a situation here in Texas,” says Willet, “where we didn’t build any prisons for several years. For quite a while. And the population of Texas was becoming bigger so you had more crime. And the prison system just didn’t have a place to put these people.

“The answer was to build more prisons. And we built a bunch of prisons, over a short period of time, starting, I guess, in maybe the late ’80s and up through the mid-’90s. They spread out all over Texas.”

At the start of the 1990s there were about 50,000 prison beds in Texas. Then the state added another 100,000. The cost was enormous.

So now, Texas is undergoing a complete rethink of the way things used to be done, because the prison business has gotten too expensive.

“You wanna talk about real Conservative governance? Shut prisons down.”

That was outgoing Texas Governor (and quite possibly future Texas inmate) Rick Parry speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington last March.

“We’re not a soft on crime state. I hope we get the reputation as a smart on crime state.”

Parry got a huge round of applause and no wonder — every single state in the US is copying Texas by looking at prison and criminal justice reform. They’re putting more money into rehabilitation and efforts to get people out of prison, as opposed to devising ways to lock more people up.

“Early on,” says Jim Willet, “I was one of those guards that thought, ‘maybe we’re wasting money on these people’. But, you know, after a few years, it hit me that it’s better for everybody, the taxpayers and everyone in the state, the citizens and these inmates too, that they learn something and be able to get out of here, one day, and not come back. That it’s better for all of us.”

This Texan criminal justice odyssey brought them to a place that resembles Canada – or at least, used to resemble Canada. We have had a pretty effective system here – we don’t throw nearly as many people in jail as they do in the US (there are over 2 million incarcerated individuals in the US right now, costing a whopping $60 billion a year). We haven’t used many mandatory minimum sentences that come with automatic jail time. And our crime rate is currently at a 40 year low.

So it’s fair to ask: why are we undergoing our largest prison construction expansion since the 1930s? And why are we overhauling our justice system to put more people behind bars?

“You need to be taking a lesson from the United States,” says Michele Dietch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Affairs on the University of Texas campus. “We’ve been there and done that and it didn’t work real well for us.”

“Since crime has also basically been flat or declining in Canada, this seems like this is a solution in search of a problem,” says Marc Levin, who is with the Conservative think-tank Right on Crime in Austin, Texas, “So why they would want to pick up things that we did in the ’90s and are now moving away from is really a mystery to me.”

When the Reform Party emerged from Alberta in the 1990s, one of its founding platforms was to bring in tougher criminal justice.

“Its early rhetoric,” writes Globe and Mail columnist Jeffery Simpson, ”was full of criticism about mollycoddling criminals, protecting ‘law-abiding Canadians,’ victims’ rights, more punishment and less rehabilitation, stricter parole laws and more vigilant application of those laws.”

It’s easy to go after criminals if you’re a politician. There aren’t too many members of the opposition who would want to stand with the bad guys. But that old original Reform Party plank was devised in the 90s, when crime rates were much, much higher. Things are different now, which is probably why you normally see the government’s Omnibus Crime Bill referred too with the word “controversial” stuck in front of it.

“This is political policy, it’s not crime policy,” says Tony Doob, professor emeritus of criminology at The University of Toronto, “Governments always do things which are designed to be vote getters rather than good public policy. What this government has done is to do nothing or almost nothing that I can think of which is good policy for the criminal justice system.”

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“For 40 years our criminal justice system was going in a very different direction,” says Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “and I think people understand that that approach has not been very effective.”

That is a curious assessment that’s kind of hard to qualify: effective compared to what? The crime rate hasn’t been this low in 40 years. Doesn’t the criminal justice system have at least something to do with that?

It turns out that it doesn’t, really.

“The US actually has five percent of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population,” says Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. “And a lot of the reason this has happened is the false belief that more punishment always leads to less crime.

“And so if you were to tell someone that over the last 20 years crime has dropped precipitously across the country and then tell them that the prison population has increased by 84%, people will naturally draw the conclusion that the incarceration level must have caused the crime decline. But that’s simply not true.”

The drop in crime rates – which is happening not only in Canada but in the US and Europe too – can be attributed more to social conditions than to incarceration. Things like baby boomers getting older and moving past that age cohort that would be more likely to commit a crime. Heroin and crack-cocaine use is way down, cars are harder to steal, the ability to find DNA at a crime scene has greatly advanced – all those things have had more effect on the dropping rate of crime than incarceration has.

But that hasn’t discouraged the Harper Conservatives from adding 2700 new prison cells to our federal system. They aren’t building any new prisons per se, but they are adding cells onto existing facilities.

“That represents about five medium security prisons worth of expansion,” says Howard Sapers, the government-appointed watchdog for Correctional Services Canada. “We’re at the point where we are putting more resources into incarceration. I’m not sure that we’re going to get the public safety result that people are hoping for by doing that.”

New prison cells cost a lot of money. Before Texas decided to reverse direction, the State was planning to build three new prisons at a cost of over $550 million. Canadians are picking up the tab on our new prison cell construction, but the government as never come forward with an actual price tag. It’s been withheld as “cabinet confidence.” In other words, it was kept secret.

“Normally they would say ‘here’s our estimate, we’re adjusting our numbers,’” says former Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page. “None of this financial information was in the department report on plans and priorities. Parliament got nothing in the federal budget. Everything was buried.

“How could you bring forth legislation (that) we know is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially billions of dollars over the median term, how could you tell parliament that this is a cabinet confidence, but go vote?”

Kevin Page reached folk-hero status in his time as the budget watchdog in Ottawa. He was fearless in going after the government for contravening its own 2006 Accountability Act. When he left the job last year, he said “our institutions of accountability are in trouble. Parliament does not get the information and analysis it needs to hold the executive (the prime minister and cabinet) to account.”

Now Page holds a research chair in the University of Ottawa’s School of Social Sciences, but he is no less critical of the government he once was paid to keep an eye on. Frustrated by his inability to pry the true cost of the crime bills out of the PMO’s grasp, Page devised an economic model based on the cost of building prison cells in other parts of the world.

Page’s model processed the numbers and revealed that we spend about $140,000 to keep one man in a federal Canadian prison for a year. That’s a lot higher than Texas, which is more like $55,000. But that’s because the size of the correctional infrastructure there is not commensurate with the huge prison population. A lot of people work for Correctional Services Canada, especially considering that the federal prison population is only about 15,000 people. That drives costs up – and so does the job of running 36 different institutions across the country.

So it’s already expensive. But Page’s economic model kept churning out more numbers, looking for the construction costs of those 2700 new cells we’re getting: it turns out that one new low security cell runs about $270,000 to build.

“And if you try to build something high security, you’re talking about something two to three times higher than that. And add a few thousand more people in the system, you quickly get up into the hundred millions of dollars a year.”

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The grounds of the Fenbrook Institution in Gravenhust have been a construction site ever since the government announced that it was accepting bids to add 96 more prison cells here.

Fenbrook is a medium security facility – the inmates are considered too dangerous for minimum security, but they either aren’t bad enough for maximum security, or they are bad but they’ve been locked up long enough that they’ve learned to behave themselves. Greg McMaster is one of those latter guys.

“Started the life sentence in Minnesota in 1978,” he says, “I spent a total of 7 years in segregation but in the early days it as four straight, most of it solitary confinement.

“I found myself in a quiet box, in the total darkness. And I was in it for several months. And I just started asking myself questions – essentially how could I make myself a better person.”

When McMaster was 20 he went on a drug-fuelled crime spree from Montreal to Manitoba, murdering three people before he ran through a border crossing into Minnesota and fatally shot a police officer. Luckily for McMaster Minnesota abolished the death penalty in 1911, so he was given life, in prison. After 12 years he was extradited to Canada to serve time here for the three Canadian murders. He’s been incarcerated now for 36 years.

“When I left the US system and was introduced to the Canadian system I almost felt like I got paroled. There was so much activity going on that focused on family, healing rehabilitation, restorative justice, community. And they understood you have to nurture that within the person to make them whole again.

“The first time I ever saw held in my hand a compact disc was Collins Bay (Penitentiary, in Kingston). First time I saw a stereo in a prisoner’s cell. First time I saw a personal computer and they could have access to it, was Collins Bay. Family socials, family gatherings, private family visiting with … with your loved ones. This was all new to me.”

Back in the 90s, when the Reform Party was upset about prisoners being “mollycoddled,” they were referring to exactly what McMaster is talking about. Prisons had gyms and baseball diamonds and inmates could easily get access to university courses, maybe take up guitar, even do some yoga. To the Reformers this sounded more like a holiday camp than corporal punishment. So they vowed to change it as soon as they got the chance.

“And now,” says McMaster, “they’ve curtailed social functions within the institution, cut back on the bursaries and grants for educational process, severely cut our pay by one third which dramatically interferes with a man’s quality of life within the institution and his ability to be of any help whatsoever with his family.

“And we’re evolving into an animal factory. That’s the route we’re heading.”

McMaster says that inmates tend to spend their days doing nothing, stewing, biding their time till they get released. And they will get released – over 90% of the inmates in federal prison today will be getting out.

“They’re coming out. Ask yourself who do you want standing next to you at the bus stop, on the tram with you, who do you want at the café or in the movie theatre?”

McMaster is a mound of a man. He played football in high school, down in the US, before he got into trouble with drugs. Since he’s been inside he’s been lifting weights and you can tell – 35 years of pumping iron has made him into a powerful presence.

But McMaster is also a writer, a thinker and he considers himself a “work in progress.” He knows he probably won’t ever get out, even though he’s still trying. In the meantime if there is an inmate committee, he’s likely in charge of it. And if there is a chance to work with other prisoners who are facing parole and need some help getting ready for release, he’s there too.

“I hit every rock in the road, twice, in my learning process. I didn’t come out of the box like this, obviously. And so if I can’t share what I’ve learned, if I can’t give something back, if I can’t help others, I have a hard time justifying my existence.

“I’m a firm believer that men and women are sent to prison as punishment not for punishment. And that anyone, whether it be a citizen, a politician, if they think we’re supposed to be punished on a daily basis, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, I would strongly suggest there’s something wrong with them, versus something wrong with us.”

It’s hard to sympathize with someone who has been bad enough to be sent to prison –especially a guy who murdered four people and destroyed the lives of their friends and families. But what McMaster understands from all his years inside is that prison is a correctional service, designed to rehabilitate offenders and release them with a new chance to live their lives away from crime.

“The purpose of prison is not just to separate people from their community,” says Howard Sapers, “it’s to prepare them for release back into that community.”

“When you have crowding; you have a scarcity of treatment, for healthcare. A scarcity of vocational training, of institutional employment. When you have a scarcity of those resources then you diminish the potential for the rehabilitative part of corrections.”

“With all the different cutbacks,” says McMaster, “cuts, deficiencies, loss of programming, over-crowding, double bunking, a young man coming in with say, a three to five year sentence, just has no interest. He’s counting down the days. He could care less. There’s less to do, there’s less amenities, there’s less constructive things to become involved with.

“And they just unwittingly, without even realizing it, sink into the sub-culture of the criminality within a penal institution. If you don’t keep them positively active, he’s getting sucked into the negativity of it all, the underbelly of the beast, so to speak.

“And penitentiaries have always and will always be a school for crime, guaranteed.”

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At San Quentin Penitentiary in California, James Metters gives a tour of his 12’ x 4’ cell. The space – including an open toilet at the foot of the bottom bunk – was designed for one person, but James shares it with another inmate because the prison is overcrowded.

“It’s kind of degrading,” he says, “but it is what it is and you have to make the best of a bad situation.”

Metters is serving a life sentence for stealing $80 from the till of a Wendy’s. That was his “third strike,” his third conviction in the State of California and that meant an automatic, mandatory life sentence. San Quentin is full of people like Metters – petty criminals who were unlucky enough to qualify for California’s Three Strikes Law.

“The theory behind Three Strikes,” says Frank Zimring of UC Berkeley’s law school, “was that high-rate offenders do most of America’s street crime. And that there were only two things we could do with those folks: either lock them up or we would have to tolerate continued high rates of crime from them.”

So starting in 1994 they opted to lock them up. Twenty years for robbing a liquor store, 25 years for shoplifting some children’s clothes. One man is in there for 55 years after getting nabbed for three house burglaries. It might sound crazy but in the 90s that’s where America’s thinking was at – crime rates were high and people thought prison was the best tool to bring them down. But three strikes backfired: the prison populations swelled up to 200% capacity and the cost of running them almost bankrupted the state.

“We have created the worst possible sentencing policy out of this political opportunism,” says Nancy Mullane, a San Francisco based author and journalist. “Like, ‘I can be tough on crime. So I’m going to make you safer. We’re going to lock everybody up.’

“What have we created? We’ve created a system that we can’t afford (and) is creating an unsafe community because people are sent to prison. They’re in a violent culture in prison. They get out, they’re more violent. We couldn’t do it any worse if we tried.”

The Conservatives considered bringing in a version of the Three Strikes Law in 2006, but since they were a minority government then, the idea was shelved. Now that he has a majority government, Prime Minster Stephen Harper is introducing a series of mandatory minimum sentences, like automatic jail terms for possession of marijuana.

“We don’t think it’s appropriate that very serious or repeat crimes would not be subject to at least some kind of minimum prison time,” said the Prime Minister. “If you create a system where there’s always a loophole and you can always get out of the punishment, or the punishment can always be downgraded or forgotten, then it’s clear that kind of a system does not deter people.”

But the government’s mandatory minimums have gotten a chilly reception in Canadian courts. The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled one of them, a three-year automatic sentence for possession of an illegal firearm, unconstitutional. The Canadian Bar Association’s magazine says “mandatory minimums have no future at all.”

Tony Doob, Canada’s senior most criminologist, doesn’t like them either, because the laws assume that the courts are simply negligent in doing their jobs.

“The Conservatives say the reason we haven’t had hard punishments in the past is because judges are not competent, and so we the Conservative Party are going to show you who really is competent. And so they bring in mandatory minimum sentences and say ‘ok judges we’ve gotten around you now you have to follow the law.’”

James, who is in the 16 year of a 30 year sentence under California's 3-strikes law. He robbed $80 from a Wendy's.

“We do have a lot of work to do in the Criminal Justice System, says Justice Minister Peter Mackay, “it’s been a priority for our government. We’ve tabled some 40 bills with respect to Criminal Justice legislation.

“I think it’s encouraging that we are seeing crime rates in decline, however we do have a lot of work to do. We were elected on a mandate to address some of those shortcomings.”

Mackay has been having a rough ride as the person charged with enacting the changes to Canada’s criminal justice system, although in person you wouldn’t know it. In his office in Ottawa, beneath an iconic Alex Colville painting on the wall, of a dog that looks like it’s chasing its tail, Mackay is affable and confident that he can succeed in convincing Canadians and the justice establishment that his government’s philosophy on crime and punishment is the right one.
“Supporting victims has been a primary goal of this government and protecting the public is at the very core of every government. Certainly the constitutional responsibility of any government.”

But even that hasn’t worked out so well. The Globe and Mail broke a story that said the Victim’s Rights Bill that was sent to the Senate from Mackay’s department was in fact the wrong version, putting this cornerstone of the Conservative’s tough-on-crime agenda in jeopardy. Before that, Macleans Magazine reported that the criminal law policy section of the Justice Department had been slashed to the bone.

“They have hardly any, it seems, role to play in terms of trying to make a real contribution to the development of public policy in the area of criminal law,” said a lawyer who had retired from that section in 2011.

So if no real research is being done on new criminal justice policy within the very department that is bringing in changes, then where is the government getting the guidance it needs to make sure the new laws are effective – and necessary?

“We did an extensive cross-country consultation with all kinds of stakeholders,” says MacKay, “from across a spectrum: from victims groups and advocates, victims themselves, police, prosecutors, lawyers, judges, those tasked with that frontline provision of services and response and responsibility for justice.”

But others familiar with the process say that the consultation wasn’t that thorough.

“There was no federal or provincial meetings,” says Kevin Page. “There was no discussion with municipalities.”

“At one point I went up to talk about what they referred to as the Truth in Sentencing Bill,” says Tony Doob. “And I pointed out that there was a problem with the way in which they were legislating.

“And one of the Conservatives came up to me and said ‘you know Tony I know you’re right.’ And ‘I said are you going to change it?’ And he said ‘of course not, because our constituents like it the way it is.’ And I said ‘but you’re telling me that you understand that I am right and the bill is wrong.’

“And he laughed.”

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St. Leonard’s House in Windsor, Ontario, was Canada’s first halfway house for men getting out of prison. And until recently, it was the home of Lifeline, a federally financed program that helped recently released long-term offenders adjust to life on the outside by employing other ex-cons as counselors.

“The sentence doesn’t end at the gate,” says Rick Sauve, one of those Lifeline counselors. He served 30 years for first-degree homicide after a barroom brawl in 1979. “You’re on parole, for the rest of your life. And so what better way of meeting those challenges of coming back into the community after 20, 25, 30 years, 40 years, than to have somebody that’s walked that experience.”

But Lifeline became a target for the Conservatives when they were still a minority government. Vic Toews, who would become the Minister of Public Safety, said “why are we letting the criminal supervise the criminal when you have trained professionals to do that? It’s foolish risk-taking.”

What Toews didn’t mention as that Lifeline had a long history of success. It had won awards because ex-cons in the Lifeline program had a much lower rate of recidivism than others receiving parole. It was even lauded on the Justice Department’s own website, up until the day Toews, once his government got into power, announced that Lifeline’s $2 million budget had been axed.

“Well, it happened quite dramatically,” says Skip Graham of St. Leonard’s House, “with a single phone call to me that the program had been cancelled. It was the core program for long term offenders.”

“Lifeline was vulnerable,” says Tony Doob, “because it was people who the government could see as bad guys. Why should we give tax money to people who have killed people? And that resonates until you say those people who have killed people are on the street right now. Maybe we should help them be full members of society.”

“The Lifeline decision still makes no sense to me,” says Howard Sapers. “These kinds of decisions seem to have been made very quickly without a lot of consultation, without a lot of thought.”

“Judges, commissioners, the wardens,” says Greg McMaster, “the parole officers, the criminologists, the professors – anybody and everybody whose anything in corrections and the criminal justice system said what are you doing? You can’t cancel this program.”

In the lunch room at St. Leonard’s House Skip Graham still has a look of shock on his face about Lifeline’s demise, many months after the announcement had been made. He wonders why something that worked, that was being emulated by organizations in other parts of the world, would be whacked so suddenly. After all Lifeline is exactly the kind of program that many states in the US are looking at bringing in now – corrective services that are designed to make sure that the people getting out of jail don’t go and do something that will send them back inside, where the government has to pay dearly to keep them incarcerated.

“If we don’t have the support here and the programs inside, it only make these men all the more unprepared for the community,” says Graham. “And we’re going to reap what we sow.”