I am opposed to locating a prison in Penticton. Here are some of my reasons, all based on solid research.
Contrary to the wishful thinking of Coun. Mike Pearce and others, the vast majority of evidence does not support a net economic benefit from prisons located in small, rural communities like ours. In fact, a prison could chase existing businesses and talent away to other communities, resulting in economic degradation.
This begs the question: has the city completed a detailed impact analysis? If yes, then citizens must know the results. If not, the prison discussion is premature, and we certainly should not be voting on it.
Developments that could alter the character of our city forever require decision-making based on due process, which seems to be absent in this case. Residents need to know if the city’s new Visioning and Strategic Planning Committee, which promised to bring a fresh, consultative approach to doing business in Penticton, has participated in city council’s determination to bring what will be B.C.’s largest jail to town. Shame on mayor and council if this consultation has not occurred, a clear dereliction of duty on the part of our elected officials.
With respect to job creation, research shows that up to 80 per cent of prison staff prefer to live outside the prison town to avoid exposing themselves and their families to potential harm from inmates with whom they have had disciplinary dealings. Well-paid skilled positions are usually taken by experienced staff who transfer from other prison facilities, and most “local” jobs that are created are low-level, service-oriented positions.
What effect would a prison have on the social/cultural fabric of our community? Maintaining public safety would be a challenge. Crime follows criminals. Inmates do escape. Why have recent escapes in the Fraser Valley not been reported in our local media? There are no guarantees that released prisoners will leave town. We can be sure that we will have ex-cons wandering our streets, as has been the experience in Surrey.
Even if these are rare occurrences, for most people perception is reality and the “prison town” stigma will stick to Penticton. Indeed, prisons are negative institutions that thrive on incarcerating criminals, hardly a healthy concept on which to build a strong economy. Except, perhaps in communities desperate for economic renewal, which seems to be the case in Penticton. Our leaders ought to look elsewhere for economic salvation; for example, to the knowledge-based economy, which is brilliantly illustrated by Okanagan College’s new Centre of Excellence.
Finally, we must remember that prisons are inward-looking institutions. Their chief mandate is to preserve the integrity of what goes on behind their walls. Their mandate is not to be community builders in the broad sense. Indeed, nothing progressive can be said about prisons, and there is no evidence to suggest that prisons in small towns have a positive effect on the quality of life. The opposite is sure to be the case here. Imagine the consequences of losing the characteristics that make Penticton “a place to stay forever!”
Penticton residents who are concerned about safeguarding our quality of life should do whatever is legally possible to prevent the construction of a prison in our town. A good start would be a resounding No vote in the opinion poll at City Hall from June 14 to 18.