Post #209

About 800 words; 4 minutes to read

By Emily Stewart, Blog Associate Editor

Audio summary courtesy of volunteer Hannah Lee

Summary: Discusses four of the main issues in the 2021 report of the Correctional Investigator on Canada’s prisons.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator (CI) of Canada does crucial work providing external oversight of conditions in Canada’s prisons. We have posted summaries of previous reports here: 2020-2021, 2018-2019, 2017-2018, and a special report on youth in 2017).

Four of the main points in the 2021-2022 report follow.

CSC’s Drug Strategy

A major concern identified in the CI’s report is the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) outdated drug strategy. Drug use and addiction are significant issues within Canada’s prisons. Many prisoners have a history of substance use and are at a high risk of overdose and other negative consequences.

But CSC’s Strategy, which hasn’t been updated since 2007, is inconsistent with current Canadian policy and attitudes toward simple drug possession and consumption. CSC practices focus on drug suppression and interdiction, as shown by the increased use of random urinalysis testing and contraband search and seizures. This reduces CSC’s ability to address drug use and also works against successful implementation of harm reduction measures.

More services that focus on harm reduction are critical in addressing the ongoing opioid overdose crisis and the high prevalence of Hepatitis C and HIV. The CI argues that additional harm reduction measures are needed but not occurring.  These include an effective needle exchange program, increasing access to Opioid Agonist treatment (OAT) and other drug-related programs, re-establishing safe tattooing programs, greater availability of naloxone, and increasing access to safer snorting equipment.

Overrepresentation of Indigenous People

CSC has fallen short in addressing discrimination and the over-representation of Indigenous peoples within the federal correctional system. While the overall federal prison population has decreased by 16% since 2012, the number of Indigenous people in custody has risen by 22%. In fact, Indigenous people, who constitute only 5% of the Canadian population, now make up 28% of the federal prison population and that proportion has been increasing steadily.

The CI found that Indigenous people continue to be overrepresented in segregation and disciplinary measures, use of force incidents, and instances of self-harm. The report calls out the lack of adequate risk assessment measures for Indigenous People (which leads to an increased likelihood of being placed into maximum-security facilities), insufficient mental health services, a lack of Indigenous representation among CSC staff, and ineffective Indigenous correctional programming. These shortcomings have resulted in Indigenous people being caught in a vicious cycle of re-offending, experiencing worse conditions while in custody, and having limited opportunities for successful reintegration into society.

Conditions are particularly troubling for Indigenous women. Not only are they the fastest-growing incarcerated population in Canada, but Indigenous women are also overrepresented in maximum security. Increased security and limited movement within these units leads to heightened tensions, more negative incidents, mental health crises, and isolation. The increased restriction on movement can also have devastating effects on Indigenous people, such as losing access to ceremonies or cultural events.

Overrepresentation of Black people

The CI also discusses the overrepresentation of Black individuals in federal custody. Compared to findings from a 2013 study on the experiences of Black individuals in federal penitentiaries, the report reveals that little has changed. Black individuals continue to be disproportionately represented in Canada’s prisons. They are also overrepresented in maximum-security institutions, disciplinary measures, use-of-force incidents, and involuntary transfers that can take them far from their families.

Black individuals also report many experiences of racism and systematic discrimination.  It can be difficult to access culturally relevant services and interventions, including support from Black community groups.  They are often required to engage in correctional programming that does not reflect their experiences. Reports also found that Black individuals are overrepresented in involuntary transfers, which means that many are required to serve their sentences far from their families and social support.

Solitary confinement remains

While the use of restrictive forms of confinement, such as Structured Intervention Units (SIUs), has decreased, a significant number of prisoners are still confined to their cells for extended periods. The CI’s report revealed several areas where inmates were experiencing fewer than four hours of out-of-cell time despite that being the official minimum.

Despite the current policy to limit placements and time in SIUs, one institution started using “hidden cells,” where individuals were kept in solitary confinement-like conditions for weeks. The report also shows an uptake in services like Voluntary Limited Association Ranges, Therapeutic Ranges, and Secure Units. Unlike SIUs, these services are subject to little to no external oversight or independent monitoring yet lead to increased cell time and limited movement. The result is cascading effects on mental health, more violence, and feelings of hopelessness and despair.

The OCI report provides an informed analysis of the current state of Canada’s federal prisons. As the Correctional Investigator has noted in many previous reports, few of his recommendations have led to substantial improved practices within federal custody.

About this blog: The John Howard Canada blog is intended to support greater public understanding of criminal justice issues.  Blog content does not necessarily represent the views of John Howard Canada.  All blog material may be reproduced freely for any non-profit purpose as long as the source is acknowledged.  We welcome comments (moderated).