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One of the best ways of understanding the state of an institution is to listen to the people who inhabit it. We learn about the reality of hospitals by hearing from patients. We learn about schools by hearing from students. We learn about welfare by hearing from recipients. And there is no better way to learn about the realities of prison than by hearing the views of prisoners.
It is, however, very hard to hear from prisoners, who are generally invisible, have all their communication monitored, and may be afraid of retaliation if they express criticisms. Fortunately, The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, operated from The University of Ottawa, has provided an outlet for prisoners and former prisoners to write about their experiences of incarceration. Although all contributions to the journal are screened and reviewed by editors, contributors, who come largely from Canada and the US, may be anonymous if they so wish.
A recent issue of the Journal (2017) contained an excellent discussion of the state of things in Canada’s prisons. Written by Jarrod Shook and Bridget McInnis, the article is based on a Canada-wide invitation to federal prisoners to write about their experiences and views. They had a very large number of responses – all in writing, of course, because federal prisoners have no internet access. Many of the submissions are in the article; Shook and McInnis provide a summary at the end.
What prisoners are saying
“What these letters convey to us is that imprisonment, independent of the Harper-era punishment agenda, is damaging, yet the laws, policies and practices instituted under the last three Conservative federal governments have impacted prisoners in all the more cruel ways – ways that both undermine honest attempts by prisoners to better themselves and ultimately put at risk their chances for successful re-integration into the community if given the chance.”
The article goes through some of the changes of the last ten years, such as tougher sentencing, many changes for the worse in conditions in prisons, less access to parole and making pardons much more difficult to obtain. The authors also note the sharp reductions in CSC’s budget, which had a disproportionately negative effect on programs and services for prisoners, which were already a small part of overall spending.
Prisoners who wrote recognized that they had committed a crime and that those actions needed to have consequences. Still, they expressed many concerns, including sentencing, mental health, health care, work, pay, education, parole and pardons, and how these factors made it more difficult for them to do what they needed and wanted in order to live a positive life. The article reviews both prisoner views and official data on many matters. For example:
Some specific issues
- There were more searches of prisoners and visitors; the possessions prisoners can have were restricted; and visits were made more difficult.
- Prisoners had more difficulty meeting with their parole officers in prison; correctional plans were delayed; access to programs became more difficult which delayed parole.
- Crowding became a bigger problem, with more prisoners having to share cells or rooms for longer times – although this has improved in the last couple of years as numbers in federal prisons have dropped. CSC dropped a commitment to individual cells from its official policies.
- Use of force, primarily pepper spray, against prisoners increased sharply.
- While library and other services were cut, and prisoner ‘pay’ has been frozen for 30 years at a maximum of $6 per day, prisoners were also charged more for phone calls and for ‘room and board’ so that most were unable to save any money at all for their release, even though having no funds at release is a major risk for future criminal activity.
- Non-emergency dental work was eliminated.
- A ‘mother and child’ program that allowed women in prison to keep babies and very young children with them was cut back.
- Prisoners over 65 had their old age security taken away.
- Food service was centralized and food expenses cut, resulting in food that many prisoners described as both insufficient and often inedible – for example moldy bread.
Many prisoners wrote to describe the terrible state of health care (weeks to see a doctor or to obtain a required drug) and absence of mental health services other than drugs – an issue frequently identified as well by Canada’s Correctional Investigator.
Another major area of concern was the lack of opportunities for education and training. Programs that provide real skills for the labour market are almost non-existent while the high school completion program is very limited and is all self-study. Prisoners who want to pursue further education are unable to do so.
Prisoners also reported that the general atmosphere in prisons was punitive and humiliating, and that whatever their wishes to create better lives in future, they were often treated as if they were nothing more than their crime, and would never be anything more than that. Correctional plans were seen as unrealistic and lacked support for their fulfillment (for example through lack of access to training or to therapy).
Although the National Parole Board reports that many prisoners defer or waive their parole hearings, prisoners report that it is parole officers in the prisons who urge or even threaten them into doing so. When parole is granted, it often comes with a large number of broad and vague conditions that are very difficult to adhere to. For example a condition to abstain from alcohol (even for a person who may not have a drinking problem) can turn in practice into a prohibition on being in any place where alcohol is served or available.
The article concludes with concerns about whether the current federal government will actually make the improvements it promised in many of these areas. So far, promises by the Liberals to change mandatory minimums, to reform the pardon system, to increase restorative justice and generally to modernize the justice system have not been fulfilled.
Source: Jarrod Shook and Bridget McInnis. More Stormy Weather or Sunny Ways? A Forecast for Change by Prisoners of the Canadian Carceral State. Available, along with other articles from the journal issue, here https://uottawa.scholarsportal.info/ojs/index.php/jpp/issue/view/284