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One result of the abolition by the previous federal government of conditional sentences (house arrest) for many crimes has been a significant increase in what are called ‘intermittent sentences’. These can be served on Saturday, Sunday, both days (sleeping in the jail), or sometimes weekdays during the day only (from 9 AM to 4:30 PM). The idea is that persons with an intermittentsentence can retain their employment or fulfill other key obligations during a short sentence. So a 60 day sentence might be served on 30 consecutive weekends.
The dramatic increase in the number of such sentences – from 1600 in 2010 to 3100 in 2016 – had created a whole series of cascading problems both for jails and for these temporary prisoners. These implications are revealed in a recent report by the Quebec Ombusdman, who received a large number of complaints about this situation.
The report finds that those serving such sentences tend to be younger, better educated and have fewer health issues than do other prisoners. They are twice as likely to be employed. More than 60% did not have a prior criminal record. One third had been convicted of drug offences or impaired driving, while another one in six had violated a probation order or other such condition.
Most people held on remand
One shocking piece of data in the report is that of the nearly 44,000 people who did time in a Quebec jail in 2016-17, only 5000 (12%) were serving a ‘regular’ sentence. More than 6000 (nearly 15%) were serving an intermittent sentence, and an astounding 32,000, or nearly 75%, were on remand, waiting for their case to be resolved. Remand prisoners spent an average of more than 27 days locked up, even though many of them will never be convicted. While the report notes this fact, it does not specifically make the point that many of the problems in provincial jails would be solved if the number of people held on remand was reduced significantly.
Problems of disorganization
Having such large numbers of people going in and out of jails each day creates many problems. One challenge is the very process of admitting and releasing so many prisoners each day. Admitting especially is a complex process involving strip searches, recording of personal possessions, changes from civilian to prison clothing, check-ins with health staff, and assignment to cells. It can take several hours. Adding hundreds of these admissions on a given day requires a lot of staff time, whereas staff numbers tend to be lower on weekends.
Jails do not even know in advance how many people will be showing up on any given day. As a result, prisoners may not be informed about the institution’s policies or their rights as prisoners. Depending on the crime, intermittent prisoners may have to be housed in separate areas for their own or others’ protection. Access to medications or communication with families may also be a problem.
Problems of crowding
The report notes the problem of overcrowding caused by so many people coming and going. People serving only a day or two days at a time may be housed in visitor areas, classrooms, gymns, or whatever other space is available. There may be limited or no access to beds, seats, or toilet facilities. “In these non-traditional spaces, people are often crammed into the same room, where air quality is poor, heating is inadequate and overcrowding is such that it is difficult to move about, especially when there are mattresses on the floor.” In one case, 80 people were placed in a gymn for the weekend where they had to share one toilet.
Other problems include not enough guards to supervise weekend prisoners (which can lead to violence among prisoners), and extra transfers of prisoners to jails that have more space, which means being transported in a van, sometimes for considerable distances, while handcuffed and shackled. Transfers also mean additional strip searches both when leaving one jail and arriving at another. And of course intermittent prisoners have little or no access to any programs or services offered by the jails, since these typically do not operate on weekends.
Especially difficult for women
The problems are particularly acute for women, according to the report. In one case, women serving sentences were put into solitary confinement cells to make room for weekend prisoners.
Because so many people are being checked in and out, mistakes can be made about arrival and release times (which can vary from person to person), and that has resulted on occasion in additional charges against a prisoner who was released at the wrong time and is therefore, strictly speaking, illegally at large.
What to do?
Among the 17 recommendations of the report is to take steps to avoid short-term incarceration, such as the use of community programs or conditional sentences (house arrest). Another recommendation proposes “dialogue with the legal community—judges, crown attorneys, defence attorneys, police officers, Ministère de la Justice representatives—to make them aware of the reality of prison life and to deliberate on solutions together.” It seems startling that crown attorneys and judges would not already have some idea of the real conditions in the province’s jails, but apparently they do not.