Until the potential sites for a proposed Okanagan prison were identified this week, trying to get clear picture of the impacts on the region was simply a shot in the dark. And the potential of hearing shots in the dark is what seems to have many in the region concerned.
I think there is little doubt the prison could be a major boost to the region’s economy. The hurdle to overcome is a fear of the changes a prison will bring to the region. Estimates suggest the facility would employ about 240 correctional employees, as well as additional contracted staff. Many of these jobs will require specialized training and will not result in large numbers of local people being hired off the street. But even if the majority of these high-paying jobs to go to people outside the region, the benefits to the local economy will still be numerous. New workers will be shopping in local stores, eating at local restaurants, paying taxes to local municipalities and pumping funds into the local real estate market.
It’s hard to view the economic impact in anything other than a positive light. The real concerns that have been expressed by residents are the potential damage to the South Okanagan’s image as a vacation paradise and the possible danger the inmates pose to their new neighbours.
The prospect of a prison in Penticton has prompted some (well, photographer Mark Brett anyway) to suggest the city change its slogan from A Place To Stay Forever, to A Place To Stay For Two Years Less A Day. But wise cracks from my staff aside, potential damage to the area’s lucrative tourism sector is a serious concern. That is why the location will play such a pivotal role. The facility will no doubt need to have relatively easy access to the major transportation corridor — in fact, the travelling time to Kelowna and points north will likely give the Summerland sites a slight advantage over the three in Penticton.
Most of the potential sites now identified are somewhat off the beaten path, or at least shielded from the view of those on their way to frolic on Okanagan beaches. That being the case, barring search lights and beacons to announce the facility’s presence (or orange-clad chain gangs waving to passersby while picking up litter on the roadside), there’s a pretty good chance that most visitors to the area will never even know it’s there.
That brings us to the prospect of a major influx of an undesirable element being housed in our midst, or worse yet remaining here after their sentence is served to prey upon our most vulnerable.
Roaming the halls of the Vernon Courthouse as a reporter for more than a decade has given me a pretty good idea of who we can expect to be housed in the new prison.
Provincial prisons are used to incarcerate those serving sentences of under two years, meaning those convicted of the most serious crimes (in the courts’ view anyway) will not be housed in the facility. Although, some charged with more serious offences could be held there for a temporary period while awaiting trial.
For the most part, I would expect to see car thieves barely past their teens and lifelong petty criminals who’ve worked their way through the system to the point where a shoplifting offence draws some significant jail time. Maybe a few drunk drivers who caused untold carnage, drug dealers and a few white-collar criminals with otherwise unblemished records.
What we likely won’t see are those convicted of crimes against children. Because unless those crimes are shockingly heinous (not that there are really any other kind), the pedophiles will be given a set of court-ordered conditions, told to stay out of the kiddie pool, and sent merrily on their way. The pedophile’s mother now may be another story — that is if she happens to be growing a few marijuana plants to supplement her pension.
But no matter which government of the day is promising to get tough on crime, you can bet the policy will do little to protect our children from predators. (But that’s a rant for another day.)
In reality, the people incarcerated won’t be that much more dangerous than those who are already walking among us. And concerns that many will view Penticton as a place to stay forever upon their release doesn’t seem to be backed up by any hard evidence.
A recent study by the Vancouver Sun found that Victoria and the Lower Mainland had the highest per capita rates of federal parolees in all of Canada. The study suggested that halfway houses, and not prisons, were a prime factor in determining where federal inmates would locate upon release. Kelowna’s rate was nearly 50 per cent higher than that of Kamloops, despite the presence of a provincial jail.
The high cost of housing would deter most from remaining in the South Okanagan, and those intent on continuing their criminal activities will always prefer the anonymity provided by a larger city. Vernon’s methadone program has done wonders in making that city a mecca for junkies — and no shiny new prison will be able to rival that.
In the end, the tangible economic benefits the facility will bring is worth confronting our fears which will likely never materialize.
Dan Ebenal is the editor of the Penticton Western News.