Only province can bust out of Kemptville prison plan

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by Tom Van Dusen

When it comes to the proposed $250 million Kemptville Prison which the provincial government seems determined to build on prime farmland across the road from a school no matter the crippling COVID-19 debt and hard core community opposition, North Grenville council has adopted a “carefully weighed” response.

Really, as Mayor Nancy Peckford has pointed out, it’s the only reasonable response to adopt. Although Peckford observes that council was “very surprised” by the announcement of a correctional facility on 182 acres of former Kemptville College land, she’s the first to allow the ball is completely in the provincial court. That’s where sole responsibility for such projects lies; the land has been owned for decades by the province and the proper institutional zoning is already in place.

So council has been focusing on other aspects, notably keeping apprised of the plans, making sure the province is responsive to concerns, and that the facility doesn’t undermine investments in tourism, economic development, and municipally owned Kemptville Campus. Council has also reiterated an interest in whatever potion to the 182 acres doesn’t get absorbed in the prison grounds.

Suspecting the writing is on the jailhouse wall, Peckford and her deputy have been meeting virtually with mayors across the province with correctional facilities in their backyards for pointers on how best to approach the Kemptville situation. Peckford observes her vision as mayor didn’t include dealing with a pandemic… or a prison!

No matter the outcome, North Grenville prison objectors will never be able to say with a straight face that they didn’t get their day in court. They got to list their litany of complaints several times, most recently March 23 during a Zoomed North Grenville council meeting.

The faces were familiar and so were the comments. These people have been heard during several other sessions, reciting objections to prisons in general in an age of rehabilitation, a preference for public housing over a prison if the province is going to spend $250 million in Kemptville, underlining lack of local infrastructure, the need to preserve prime farmland and the rural way of life, the belief the community won’t gain jobs or economic spinoffs, and the increased burden on taxpayers.

Announced last August, the project is part of a provincial overhaul of the prisoner accommodation system including construction of a new jail in Brockville and upgrades to three others. Both Kemptville and Brockville are in the same provincial riding.

The Kemptville project, the 235-bed Eastern Ontario Correctional Complex, is intended to take the strain off the “notorious” Ottawa Carleton Regional Detention Centre which, one objector noted, has already been relieved by C-19 which led to a reduction of 33 per cent in the prison population province-wide.

As plans now stand, the complex will be directly across County Road 44 from what has become the North Grenville Education and Community Centre on 625 acres of campus acquired three years ago after University of Guelph bailed on its satellite college.

The centre services four regional school boards and has several other irons in the fire… all of which aren’t particularly compatible with a prison as a neighbour. Opponents insist attempts to block the correctional complex aren’t simply a NIMBY reaction: They don’t want the prison in anybody’s backyard!

It’s the wrong approach in dealing with lawbreakers. The emphasis should be on rehabilitation, something traditional prisons are poorly equipped to provide. The prison threatens to turn Kemptville into a “prison town” and ruin the commonly held vision for its idyllic future.

In addition, the Solicitor General has failed to demonstrate significant economic benefits arising from the prison with most jobs likely going to existing Ottawa Carleton staff who can easily commute from Ottawa neighbourhoods where they now reside.

Ultimately, opponents don’t want to see Kemptville’s future “forever tied to a failed correctional system” bogged down by endless remand and bail hearing dates, with the government constantly trying to reduce the prison population it boosted by building a new one.

If she felt she could rattle the chains without jeopardizing potential benefits that might come with the facility, Peckford would probably agree.

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