Post # 189
980 words; 4 minutes to read.
Audio summary courtesy of volunteer Averi Brailey.
The Correctional Investigator is responsible for dealing with complaints about Canada’s prisons. His annual report is often very revealing about the state of these institutions, as shown in our posts about the reports for 2015-16, 2017-18 (with a focus on education), 2018-19, and a special report on youth in 2017.
The latest annual report from the OCI, for 2020-21, was recently released. This edition focuses on six issues: use of force in prisons with Black, Indigenous and other vulnerable populations, a review of changes in women’s corrections since the ‘Creating Choices’ report 30 years ago, structured intervention units (that replaced solitary confinement), the use of medical isolation, an investigation into a suicide in a maximum security prison, and an argument as to why Canada should ratify the international Optional Protocol to the Convention on Torture, which this country has not yet done, unlike most western countries.
This post looks at the first three of these.
Effects of Covid
In his opening message, Commissioner Ivan Zinger also notes the severe negative effects of Covid-19 in prisons, such as cancellation of visits and prisoners spending much more time locked in their cells without access to phones, showers or exercise. These conditions, he notes, ‘violate domestic law and international human rights standards’. His position is that ‘even in the midst of a public health emergency, fundamental human rights and dignity must still be respected’, but evidently that has not been the case in our prisons. Indeed, the Commissioner notes that if previous recommendations of his had been heeded, the situation with Covid would have been much better.
One of the most troubling results was that ‘reductions or interruptions in programs delayed parole hearings and community release. As a result, through no fault of their own, incarcerated individuals who were eligible for community supervision spent more time behind bars than they would have in normal times.’
Sexual abuse and coercion.
This issue was investigated in the previous year. The report notes that ‘Despite the recommendations issued through our national investigation, this office has observed no appreciable difference in the way CSC prevents, detects, tracks or manages these types of incidents. We continue to hear cases of alleged perpetrators simply being shuffled around within and between institutions as the preferred method for “resolving” formal complaints of sexually problematic behaviours…. There has been a disappointing lack of response and action subsequent to our recommendations.’
Use of force in prisons (restraints, batons, stun grenades, pepper spray, guns) is a prime area of focus for the CI. The report provides extensive data on this issue and notes that ‘Despite the overall decrease in admissions to federal prisons and decreases in the prison population, the number of use-of-force incidents has increased steadily over the last five years.’
Indigenous and Black prisoners are subject to a disproportionate share of these incidents – about 2.5 times as high as for other prisoners – relative to their numbers in prison – which are already very high compared to their numbers in the population as a whole. Force is also used often against prisoners with serious mental health conditions; nearly half of prisoners involved in such incidents had a history of self-injury or attempted suicide. ‘Meeting chronic self-harm with chronic use of force is an ineffective (and likely damaging) approach to working with people who have mental health needs…[and] is neither a productive nor humane correctional practice.’
In 1990, a task force set up by the prison system produced a report intended to be a blueprint for women in the prison system. Thirty years later, though the number of women in federal prison has more than tripled, ‘little has changed for most federally incarcerated women… Nearly all of the problems identified thirty years ago (inadequate infrastructure, oversecuritization, lack of programming and services, poor community reintegration practices) remain significant areas of concern today, some have deteriorated even further and all are contributing factors to poor correctional outcomes for many women.’ (All of these also remain problems in for male prisoners as well, as indicated in other reports of the CI.)
In particular, the Investigator says that there is still too much emphasis on security at the expense of rehabilitation. As one heading says clearly, ‘Incarceration does not promote rehabilitation’. For example, strip searches remain common despite little evidence that they are efficacious. Sexual harassment in various forms continues to be a problem… this office has heard countless examples of staff exhibiting the very behaviours and attitudes the Service is attempting to extinguish in the incarcerated population.’ Mental health issues are responded to as if they were security problems – as mentioned in the earlier discussion on use of force. Access to programs is inadequate, resulting in delays in parole, yet at the same time the programs provided do not seem to lead to improved outcomes for participants. And all these problems are worse for Indigenous women, who make up a steadily growing share of the female prisoner population.
Structured Intervention Units (SIU)
In late 2019 CSC, in response to orders from Canadian courts, began to replace its ‘segregation/solitary confinment’ system with a new approach it called Structured Intervention. This process was problematic from the start. Ironically, during Covid the SIUs were often better places to be than the rest of the prison because of the requirements for time out of cell and contact with other people, while the main prison areas were locked down for extended periods leading to very difficult conditions. As a result, some prisoners refuse to leave their SIU cells. At the same time, the report notes that lack of data from CSC made it impossible to judge whether the SIUs were actually meeting their legal obligations.
The reports of the Correctional Investigator provide a thoughtful, informed look at the operations of Canada’s $2.5 billion prison system. Sadly, few of his recommendations appear to lead to serious efforts at improving that system.