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This post is drawn from an article in June 2022 in Lawyers’ Daily.
Covid disrupted many aspects of prison life, making these places even more difficult than they already were. For example, during Covid visits were largely suspended, cutting prisoners off even more from family. Canada’s Correctional Investigator has documented many of these problems.
There is another, less well known area area where Covid also created additional problems, and that is parole. Lawyer Alison Craig explained that there is “currently a crisis with the federal correctional and parole systems” and that “federal offenders are staying in custody months or even years longer than they should.” At a time when there were complaints that overcrowding in prisons was producing high levels of Covid, we were keeping prisoners inside much longer than required or than than specified in law, at a huge cost to prisoners, their families and to Canadian taxpayers (every additional month in prison costs about $10,000).
Lack of access to programs
One main reason for the delay has to do with prisoners being required to take programs. Everyone sent to a federal penitentiary is given a correctional plan which usually includes “at least one major program that they’re told they have to complete” before being released. If an individual has not completed the program, their parole office will not support their release, which makes the granting of parole much less likely.
However when Covid hit, programming was cancelled, and CSC did not take steps to address the backlog that was created. “No video programs were implemented, no extra programing was implemented. Nothing was done to clear the backlog. Now everybody is reaching their eligibility dates, but they can’t get parole because they haven’t completed their program, and it’s happening to everybody,” said Craig, stressing that the situation is “infuriating.” (As previous posts have shown, even before Covid there were serious problems in prisoners having timely access to the programs necessary for parole. Covid only made these significantly worse).
CSC fails to respond
Craig sent an e-mail to Anne Kelly, the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, stating her concerns with the parole programming delay, and noting many of her clients were long past their eligibility dates but were still being advised by prison parole officers to push back their parole hearings because their correctional plans were incomplete.
“The failure of CSC to make any accommodation has rendered the entire parole regime — which is prescribed by law — completely moot,” she wrote to Kelly.
The delays are not just affecting those already in prison, but those facing trial and plea bargains. “The first problem is that when we as lawyers are giving our clients advice about resolution positions and plea deals, the very first thing they [the client] always want to know is when they’ll be eligible for parole and when they’ll be able to go back to their family. None of that advice is accurate now, so even from the first stage when a person pleads guilty, this is now creating a problem because we can’t tell them they’re going to be getting parole when they’re eligible”.
Delays in parole could also affect recidivism. “When you’ve been in the penitentiary for four years, five years, six years, and the door is just opened and you’re kicked out, and your sentence is done and they say, ‘goodbye, good luck, sir.’ People have nothing there to support them… They don’t have anything to help them reintegrate, so it can also be a major factor in causing the criminogenic cycle to repeat,” she said, noting people released often have problems renting an apartment or finding a job after being in prison.
Craig believes there are two “obvious” solutions to the problem: 1) increase programing, and 2) provide video programming.
“As I understand it, there’s only still one class at a time being run, just like pre-pandemic levels. Increase that. Have two, or three, or four going on at the same time, so that the backlog can be cleared. If for whatever reason they see that as unfeasible because of COVID concerns and crowding, do them by video. We have video court… Why can you not have offenders doing this by video?” There is “absolutely no reason, other than a complete lack of care to bother doing it, that this cannot be done by video.”
Other lawyers agree
Another lawyer, Simon Borys in Kingston, had similar views. He said of some of his clients, “Even before they are convicted, they can do the calculations to figure out when they will be eligible for parole, if they know how much time they are getting. In my view, inmates have a legitimate expectation that if CSC prescribes something for them to do to prepare them for parole, then, in general, CSC will (or should) provide the opportunity to do that before their parole eligibility dates”.
“The fact that has proven to not be the case for many inmates over the past two years undermines inmate confidence in the fairness of the correctional system and, more broadly, the whole justice system”.
In Borys’ experience, the “inmates who most need the programs that CSC offers are often the most marginalized and disadvantaged (and often racialized or Indigenous as well).” The “failure to deliver programs in a timely manner contributes to marginalized people being less prepared for parole, being denied parole more frequently, spending longer in custody, eventually getting out of custody with less knowledge and skills to avoid coming back to prison, and, ultimately, being more likely to reoffend”.
Parole has a long record of success in Canada, despite occasional media outcries about it. It clearly works to improve, not diminish public safety. More data on parole is available in the annual Corrections and Conditional Release Statisical Overview, which shows the high success rate of this program.