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The Canadian federal prison system is missing many opportunities to work more effectively with young people in federal prisons, according to a report issued in 2017 by the Correctional Investigator and Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.
“Clearly, intervening early not only provides individuals with an opportunity to make changes and lead law-abiding lives, but has the potential to significantly reduce correctional costs.” (page 20)
The report, entitled ‘Missed Opportunities’, interviewed about 20% of the 400 federal prisoners in 2015 who were between 18 and 21. The research on crime shows that young people have both the highest risk to commit more crimes and also high potential to change their life to a more positive one. Given the high costs of continuing involvement in crime, the justice system should do as much as it can to help young people find a better path.
Fortunately, the number of young people in federal prisons is declining, in line with sharp declines in the youth crime rate. However Black young people are also over-represented among prisoners, and Indigenous young people are hugely over-represented, especially so for Indigenous women.
How young people get to prison
There is no standard set of circumstances for young prisoners. While many of those interviewed reported substance abuse issues, a significant minority did not. Many had serious family problems growing up (about a quarter had involvement with the child welfare system), but many others reported having supportive families. About 60% had been involved in the youth justice system but 40% had not. Most (80%) had not completed high school, but 20% had. People come to be involved in crime in many different ways and for many different reasons.
Needs of imprisoned youth
The report outlines many areas in which Canada’s prison system does not sufficiently address the needs of this high risk age group. These include:
- Young prisoners are more likely to be in a higher security setting, which is itself associated with worse outcomes in many areas.
- Most reported feeling unsafe in the prison. Young prisoners are disproportionately involved in ‘use of force’ incidents in prisons and in self-injury, especially for Indigenous young people.
- Very few reported having positive interactions with prison staff, which includes insufficient contact with the parole officers who are their ‘case managers’. The report describes positive interaction with front-line staff as ‘virtually non-existent’. Prisoners close to release often had no idea of what would happen when they were released.
- Most prisoners reported having nothing meaningful to do with their time. Most of the jobs prisoners are expected to do are menial.
- Even though most young people needed and wanted more education, most were not receiving it while in prison. Waiting lists for school were a serious problem, and the report documents many other issues with the schooling provided, such as the lack of special education services and no access to the internet.
- There are few programs and those that do exist do not take into account the particular needs of this group of prisoners. There is no special training for CSC staff in working with young prisoners.
- Food is inadequate. Many prisoners described themselves as constantly hungry. CSC official food guidelines are, the report notes, inadequate for young people who are doing serious exercise, as many prisoners do.
- Gang membership is a major issue especially in some prisons but there is no organized effort to help prisoners get or stay out of gangs.
As is the case in the prison system generally, the report notes that Indigenous and Black young prisoners have worse outcomes in terms of things like being placed in segregation or obtaining parole than do other prisoners. They also report many incidents of biased treatment.
The report concludes with 20 recommendations that would make the system significantly more responsive to this group of prisoners.
Source: Missed Opportunities, The Experience of Young Adults Incarcerated in Federal Penitentiaries – Final Report, August 31, 2017. Can be downloaded for free at http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/rpt/oth-aut/oth-aut20170831-eng.aspx.