Post # 160
About 900 words; 3-4 minutes to read.
Transparency is an often used word but seldom observed practice in government. Nowhere is this contradiction between theory and practice more evident than in the annual report of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC).
CSC’s latest report, for the fiscal year 2019-20, was recently posted. While purporting to describe CSC’s track record, it really has a different purpose – to make the organization look good through selective presentation of information.
The report lists the implementation of Structured Intervention Units (SIUs) as a replacement to solitary confinement as its top achievement for the year. However by the time the report was issued it was already known that this initiative had many serious problems, none of which are mentioned. Indeed, the report is written as if this change had been a complete and unqualified success. though at least some problems would be almost a certainty in any such complex change (even if the SIUs had been a well thought out idea, which they clearly were not based on what we now know happened).
Other problematic areas
The report congratulates CSC on its success with Indigenous prisoners – even though the Correctional Investigator seems to have almost the opposite view. The proportion of indigenous prisoners is rising, they are still less likely to be paroled and more likely to be returned to prison. The CSC self congratulation arises from choosing a few discrete pieces of data that look better, without any comment on the overall situation, which remains very troubling.
Similarly, when the report mentions important issues such as Opioid and drug control, and needle exchanges, these are presented as if there were no major challenges in doing them. The challenges of Covid are briefly described, with the cancelling of visits, work and therapeutic programs barely mentioned even though these are of huge consequence to prisoners and to the operation of the institutions.
The report does admit issues in a few places if one knows how to interpret the language. For example, “Results pertaining to the rate of serious security incidents, and all levels of safety incidents, were also outside the established targets.” This means the results were bad. As the report shows, the rate of deaths in custody has gone up by about 80% and the rate of serious security incidents by about a third in 2 years.
These problems are primarily explained by blaming them on factors outside of CSC with no mention of a plan to address them. “The results for serious security and safety incidents can, therefore, be partly explained by the increased number of incompatible populations that affect the safety and security of institutions…”. In other words, it’s the prisoners’ fault that prisons are more violent places, with no mention of worsening conditions There is far more discussion in the report of budget variances than there is of any of the major human problems in the organization.
Actions with no results, arbitrary targets
Similar examples occur throughout the report. On Indigenous issues, the report mentions several reviews and committees, but mentions no outcomes from any of them. Similarly, a review related to releasing Indigenous prisoners under s84 of the Criminal Code is mentioned, but no data are provided on whether there are in fact more releases happening.
Another aspect is that CSC measures its results against targets it has arbitrarily set for itself, many of which would be regarded by most lay people as far too low. As an example, CSC’s target is to provide vocational training to at least 60% of those who need it so any number above that is rated as success. But a 40% failure to help people get skills for work would surely be unacceptable in virtually any setting, especially one that is spending more than $120,000 per prisoner per year. It would be much cheaper to send them all to Harvard!
Misleading even given many challenges
Overall, one reads this report with no sense that CSC or the prisoners in its charge face any serious challenges at all, even less that there are any serious plan to improve. Tellingly, there is no reference at all to the ambitious mandate letter given to Commissioner Ann Kelly in 2018. All of this is patently dishonest, though in fairness also typical of the way many organizations, whether in the public or private sectors, report on their activities. Everything is about impression management, entirely contrary to the spirit of transparency.
It is important not to understate the challenges CSC faces in operating a prison system. The system contains many people who have very complicated issues, from mental health to physical health to lifetimes of trauma to drug addiction to fetal alcohol syndrome, and in many cases more than one of these. When we put people with serious problems into a highly restrictive setting like a prison, where there is a great deal of control and very little support, there will always be serious issues to manage.
CSC also has a deeply ingrained paramilitary culture and huge problems of staff morale resulting both from the inherent nature of the work of caging other humans, and from many years of poor management and budget cuts. A few days of staff training are not going to change these characteristics to any meaningful degree. Anyone who thinks otherwise should read the Correctional Investigator’s reports on prison problems in Edmonton and Saskatchewan.
Fair reporting needed
A fair and honest annual report from CSC to the public would be clear about the organization’s challenges and weaknesses, not written to give the impression that all is well. That is the only way that Canadians can actually know what we are getting for the more than $3 billion the organization spends each year.