Prisoners have a lot of useful things to say, even if they are rarely asked, about how to improve the criminal justice system. Here’s a slightly edited version of a good recent example:
October 19, 2017 (Algonquin Territory / Ottawa) – Today, the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP) launched Volume 26, Number 1&2 online (see www.jpp.org). This special issue, titled “Dialogue on Canada’s Federal Penitentiary System and the Need for Change”, features dozens of contributions written by criminalized women and men currently incarcerated in Correctional Service Canada (CSC) institutions. The writings document the counterproductive changes to federal imprisonment made by the previous federal government. These incarcerated writers seek to contribute to the reflections of Justice Canada as it conducts a review of the penal system mandated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and to the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights as it engages in a study about the treatment of prisoners in CSC penitentiaries.
Individual prisoners and Inmate Committees from CSC institutions in the Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, Prairie and Pacific regions who participated in this dialogue collectively express hope that the Government of Canada will move away from the punitive laws, policies, and practices of the previous administration. To this end, these writers tabled several recommendations to be enacted in the short-term to improve the lives of those who are imprisoned and who work in federal penitentiaries, while also benefiting Canadian society by contributing to public safety including:
➢ Enacting legislative reforms including the restoration of accelerated parole review for first-time federal prisoners convicted of a non-violent offense
➢ Reducing the number of mandatory minimums that restrict the ability of judges to consider at sentencing circumstances related to criminalized acts and alternatives to incarceration;
➢ Expanding access to community-provided mental health services, with an emphasis on counseling and preventive care, to address psychological needs that existed prior to incarceration (where applicable) and to offset the pains of imprisonment;
➢ Expanding access to community-provided health and dental care services with a focus on preventing conditions that become more costly to address once they arise and which place prisoners at unnecessary risk of injury, disease, or death;
➢ Improving the health of the incarcerated, reducing tension within penitentiaries, and expanding training and work opportunities for prisoners by eliminating the centralized ‘cook-chill’ food regime, while also restoring prison farms and re-opening on-site kitchens in all CSC institutions;
➢ Promoting safe reintegration by allowing prisoners to maintain contact with support networks in the community (e.g. families, community volunteers, etc.) and to accrue a modest amount of funds to re-establish themselves in Canadian society post-release by (a) eliminating additional room and board fees, (b) increasing prisoner pay beyond levels established in the 1980s, (c) restoring Old Age Security payments for seniors behind bars, and (d) ending the centralized purchasing catalogue monopoly while reinstating institutional purchasing officers who could assist captives with buying local, less-costly, and higher-quality goods;
➢ Bolstering access to community-provided educational and vocational training opportunities that will better position federal prisoners to obtain employment post-release, which will promote their safe reintegration into society;
➢ Bolstering training and accountability measures for CSC institutional staff to ensure that they are fulfilling their obligations to respect the human rights of prisoners, while assisting captives with the completion of their correctional plan objectives prior to their parole eligibility dates to facilitate their timely, safe reintegration, improving public safety outcomes and reducing the costs of incarceration;
➢ Expanding gradual release opportunities (e.g. escorted and unescorted temporary absences for work, schooling and vocational training, health and mental health care, family events, religious observance, and other pro-social activities that contribute to the well-being of prisoners), along with ensuring adequate CSC staffing and resources to promote the safe and timely reintegration of the imprisoned;
➢ Restricting the ability of Parole Board Canada members to impose release conditions that are not clearly linked to prisoners’ offence(s) and often set them up for trivial, non-criminal breaches that return individuals to federal penitentiaries at a considerable cost to taxpayers; and
➢ Establishing a new pardon system that supports former prisoners with opportunities to redeem themselves as well as obtain timely, reasonable access to employment, housing, and other necessities on an equal footing with their fellow citizens.
This collection is the forty-second issue of the JPP. Since its creation in 1988, the journal has featured peer-reviewed articles written by current and former prisoners. Based on the tradition of the penal press (see www.penalpress.com) and published by the University of Ottawa Press, the JPP continues to combine prison writing with academic arguments to enlighten public discourse about the current state of carceral institutions, as well as inform the development of reforms to penal policies and practices that promote accountability and human rights.