Monday, October 6, 2014
State Of Incarceration: Canadian TV At Its Best
Make no mistake about it --these are dark days for Canadian public television threatened by government cut backs and dwindling ratings.
And then along comes a special so powerful and forceful it will have you cheering for CBC-TV's survival.
It's an hour titled State Of Incarceration written, directed and produced by veteran Andrew Gregg (We Will Remember Them)--a look at the federal Tories wrong headed determinations to spend billions more on incarcerating criminals.
Gregg tells me he got the idea after reading an article in The Economist about the huge expenditure in building new jails in California and Texas.
"It mentioned crime is at an all time low --for various reasons and yet here was Texas about to built three more prisons at a cost of $600 million."
It was Gregg's ambitious idea to turn the story into a wide ranging discussion of why Canada was trying to imitate a concept of being tough on criminals when the concept was being dropped in Texas and California.
"Justice Minister Peter MacKay had already turned down a CBC network invitation to be interviewed on the subject. He gave us just 10 minutes to ask the tough questions. I found him gracious but unyielding on the points."
Indeed under MacKay and Prime Minister Harper there's been a radical rethink of the customary approach to prison populations.
Mandatory sentencing has been introduced and rehabilitation programs cut back with precious little help for prisoners to train themselves for release into the civilian population.
But Gregg also provides the dazzling visuals to support his thesis --one California inmate takes us on a tour of his facility where overcrowding has reached such heights prisoners exist literally on top of each other.
The U.S. with five per cent of the world's population has 25 per cent of the world's prison population.
We meet one prisoner doing 50 years for robbing a convenience store --without a gun --he was sentenced under the "three strikes and you are out" law.
Says Gregg: "In Canada you have to request a certain prisoner you want to interview. In the U.S. it is entirely different --you can get in easily but you can't request any one but have to wait until you're inside.
"We found lots of inmates who wanted to talk. The guy with the cell the size of a closet is wonderfully animated--he's studying for the ministry and taken courses in public speaking."
The shots inside U.S. prisons make the documentary --most operate at 140 per cent capacity in conditions that can only be called degrading.
Back here Gregg profiles the Lifeline program which was federally funded out of Windsor, designed to give convicts training and skills so they could operate in the free world and not slip back into old habits.
It was cancelled by the Harper government because it was seen as granting favoritism to cons.
And yet the beneficiaries certainly were Canadian civilians saved from future break-ins and other violent crimes.
Gregg gets moving statements from Kevin Page, the former Parliamentary Budget officer and Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada, who both argue against the current policy of getting tough on crime.
On the opposite side Gregg has comments from some powerful American conservatives who acknowledge the policy in the U.S. has backfired and become so costly even Texas governor Rick Perry balked at the high cost of building more prisons.
Gregg argues forcefully for a program that is "smart on crime"--retraining convicts to ensure against recidivism.
"I don't think many Canadians are all that aware what is happening because so few of us have a friend or relative in prison --unlike the U.S."
State Of Incarceration is a mini-masterpiece of summoning up all the relevant facts, marshalling the witnesses for and against and presenting vivid images of a system that just isn't working.
And Gregg's film (for 90th Parallel Productions) also points to CBC's continuing relevancy in pretty impressive terms.
STATE OF INCARCERATION PREMIERES ON CBC-TV'S DOC ZONE THURSDAY OCTOBER 9 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.