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Conservative candidate campaigns in a prison, has ‘robust debate’ on criminal justice

OTTAWA – It’s not your typical debate setting.

Instead of parties making their political pitches inside a university hall or local community centre – Global News has learned that some candidates have taken a trip to a women’s prison.

Even more surprising, one of those candidates was Nova Scotia Conservative Scott Armstrong – whose party hasn’t exactly been shy about its tough-on-crime agenda.

The Conservatives have brought in mandatory minimum sentences, taken away programs and attacked the opposition parties for focusing on rehabilitation over punishment.

Still, Armstrong, the incumbent for Cumberland-Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley, said his trip to the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, N.S. was “wonderful.”

“I was very, very happy to go and talk about what our party’s been doing in the area of criminal justice legislation,” Armstrong recently told Global News.

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“There was a robust debate in there, and one of the things that I can tell you is that the prisoners who were asking questions had well-researched questions, they’d worked hard on them, it was a very well-organized forum, and I was very pleased to discuss our point of view as a party. Of course you’re not going to agree on every aspect with every single voter that you meet.”

The debate, organized by the Elizabeth Fry Society, was held inside the Nova institution last month. About 40 women from the medium and low security settings attended.

The only other candidate to go in person was the Green party’s Jason Blanch. The Liberals and NDP sent candidate representatives instead.

Blanch said many questions were directed at Armstrong, including about his government’s mandatory minimum sentences.

“(The inmates) were, at one point, they were pretty riled up actually,” Blanch said.

“They more than once mentioned that the Conservatives were making it harder for people with mental health issues, addictions and poverty to get along in society. So they were quite critical.”

Blanch said he was “quite impressed” Armstrong showed up, especially considering the Liberals and NDP only sent people on behalf of the candidates.

“Of anyone who had the least to gain, I thought it would be him, and I thought it was good of him to come out,” he said.

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Canadian inmates weren’t always allowed to vote.

Rick Sauve was 26 when he was convicted of first-degree murder in 1978, a crime he says he didn’t commit.

The former member of Satan’s Choice motorcycle club was given a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.

But he made the most of it.

During Sauve’s time in prison, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect. The Charter guaranteed the right of all citizens to cast a ballot – but the law still said they couldn’t.

Sauve challenged the law all the way up to the Supreme Court – and won.

WATCH: Former inmate Rick Sauve talks about why he fought for prisoners to get the right to vote

“All of a sudden guys were talking about something other than prisons, they were talking about politics and what was happening on the outside, and what party would be better for them and their families,” Sauve said.

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More than 17,000 inmates voted in the last federal election. This time around, election day for prisoners is Oct. 9, ten days before everyone else.

Like students studying away from home, prisoners fill out a special ballot so they can vote in their home riding – or where they were arrested and convicted.

Prison advocate Catherine Latimer says justice issues are top of mind for inmates.

“Many of them are adamant that the justice system should work as it should and that people should be held accountable for wrongdoing, and that the penalty should fit the crime,” she says.

For his part, Armstrong says all candidates should face their voters – even those behind bars.

“During an election campaign, I think it’s the job of every candidate to try to put yourself in front and be accountable to all constituents and all voters.”

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