This post is about 550 words and can be read in 2-3 minutes.
For the past two years, the Senate Committee on Human Rights has been inquiring into “respect for the human rights of federally-sentenced persons in the federal correctional system”. This past week they issued an interim report that is yet another in a long list of reports that find major problems in Canadian prisons.
The nine senators on the Committee (a number of other senators participated to some extent) held many hearings, heard from many witnesses (including John Howard Canada Executive Director Catherine Latimer), and visited several federal prisons across the country where they talked to prisoners. All the proceedings, including all the testimony of witnesses and a series of photos of the prisons visited, are available online at https://sencanada.ca/en/committees/ridr/studiesandbills/42-1. Much of the testimony in these records is revealing and informative.
Summary of findings
The committee summarized its interim report as follows:
“Throughout its study, the committee has become aware of a wide range of challenges faced by federally-sentenced persons. The committee was troubled by the frequency and consistency with which these issues were raised. The stories shared by federally-sentenced persons were similar from one institution to the next and from one region to another. The committee heard that access to healthcare is inadequate, admission to gradual and structured release is insufficient, correctional programming is deficient, conditions of food is severely substandard.
“One overarching theme was that CSC policies often discriminate against Indigeneity, race, gender, disability, mental health, ethnicity, religion, age, language, sexual orientation and gender identity. An important consequence of discriminatory policies is that federally-sentenced persons, especially those who are women, Indigenous, Black and racialized, have difficulty accessing culturally relevant rehabilitative programming. Without access to these programs, federally-sentenced persons are ill-prepared to reintegrate in their communities, which places them at a higher risk of reoffending. Tackling this issue is particularly urgent for federally-sentenced Indigenous and Black persons who are significantly overrepresented in the correctional system.
“Security reasons were frequently cited by the CSC as a justification for discriminatory policies or behaviours. The committee is aware that violence in correctional facilities is not uncommon and that correctional officers are at risk. The committee is also aware that individuals in federal penitentiaries have committed a crime serious enough to be charged with an indictable offence. That said, the committee is focussing its study on the human rights of federally-sentenced persons. Irrespective of the actions that have lead them into the criminal justice system, they are human beings with rights that must be protected in this context. It is important to remember that people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The objective of the correctional system, as enumerated in the CCRA, is to make society safer by preparing federally-sentenced persons for a successful reintegration.”
Can this system ever work?
These findings by the committee are consistent with many other studies, as noted in the report – in particular many years of reports by the Office of the Correctional Investigator. It must be taken as fact that Canadian prisons routinely create conditions that not only violate the human rights of prisoners but make their lives worse and their rehabilitation and re-entry to society more difficult. Despite many calls for change, and indeed commitments to change, these problems remain. The report raises the question of whether a prison system can, even in principle, achieve the important goals of supporting public safety by helping people convicted of crimes improve their lives.