740 words; 3 minute read
30 second audio summary courtesy of volunteer Averi Brailey.
Canada’s prison system would be totally transformed if the recommendations in a recent Senate report were adopted, though the report seems to have garnered very little attention. And in 2021, as in 2019, criminal justice issues played almost no role in the federal election campaign.
In 2016 the Senate Committee on Human Rights began an inquiry into ‘issues relating to the human rights of prisoners in the correctional system, with emphasis on the federal system, and with reference to both national and international law and standards, as well as to examine the situation of vulnerable or disadvantaged groups in federal prisons, including indigenous people, visible minorities, women and those with mental health concerns’
The committee was supposed to report in 2017, but actually released an interim report in 2019 and its final report only in April of 2021. During that time it visited many prisons and associated sites, and heard from many witnesses, including people who had been imprisoned. (All the hearings and testimony are available online and much of it is fascinating and compelling.)
Many major recommendations
The final report has 71 recommendations, though several of them have multiple sub parts so in total there are about 100 recommendations. If they were all implemented the result would be a total transformation of Canada’s prison system, though the report does not at any point call for such a transformation. Rather, after looking thoughtfully at many aspects of the current system, the Committee concluded, without saying it in so many words, that is needs to be changed fundamentally.
It is impossible to summarize the report in one or two posts, but some flavour of it can be given.
The very first recommendation calls for the implementation of ‘the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action relating to the overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in the federal correctional system’. These include eliminating overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the prison system by 2025, moving away from mandatory minimum sentences (repeated in Recommendation 10), and more supports for community services for people with FASD.
Recommendation 3 makes a somewhat similar call for Black people, and Recommendation 4 for women in the prison system.
System inadequacies are many
There are analogous recommendations for the 25% of prisoners who are over 50, for prisoners who are parents, and many related to provision for prisoners with mental health issues – estimated to be at least 70% of prisoners (page 120). The mental health recommendations alone would require massive changes in how prisons work.
Many other recommendations are just as far reaching. For example, the report concludes that many prisoners do not have timely, or even any access to programs that would help them rehabilitate. So recommendation 5 calls for all prisoners to have such access as a matter of right. And recommendation 6 is that to improve living conditions for imprisoned women by classifying them all initially as minimum security rather than the current classification into maximum, medium and minimum.
But perhaps the most striking single recommendation is #35.
A culture of human rights
That the Correctional Service of Canada urgently take all necessary measures to implement and promote a human rights culture within the federal correctional system, including by:
- enforcing a zero-tolerance policy with regards to mistreatment and abuse of federally-sentenced persons by correctional staff and contracted employees and other service providers;
- enhancing harassment prevention and resolution training among managers and staff;
- fostering a healthy and human rights promoting work environment where staff can report abuse without fear of reprisal; and
- responding promptly and effectively to mistreatment complaints from staff and federally-sentenced persons by other staff or federally-sentenced persons.
This single recommendation would require that prisons have an entirely different culture than they currently do, and very different practices. Creating a ‘human rights culture’ would be a major task in any institution, but how much greater a change for prisons, which are ‘total institutions’ where every aspect of the life of prisoners is controlled by others – completely opposite to a rights-based approach. Indeed, it isn’t clear how one could have a prison that fully embodied principles of human rights. Prison is, after all, a place where people are forced to be, and required to follow endless rules in which they have no say. Think strip searches, solitary confinement, compulsory work, very limited access to the outside (visitors, the internet, even books and magazines).
More on this report in a future post, including the failure of the report to say anything about how the proposed changes might actually be brought about and the lack of media coverage of the report itself.