Jails and prisons are out of the public eye; what goes on there tends to get very little scrutiny unless something very dramatic occurs. However there is much evidence (for example the famous Stanford Prison Experiments) that in places where some people have a lot of authority over others some abuse of that authority will inevitably occur. The less outside scrutiny, the more likely such abuse is to take place. As recent events have shown (for example the Adam Capay or the Ashley Smith cases), jails and prisons are by no means immune from this tendency. Nor, as we have seen in many other institutions, can we trust organizations to investigate their own wrongdoing. The temptation to make light of one’s own errors is simply too strong. Some kind of third party scrutiny is necessary, just as businesses have auditors to ensure they are conducting their financial affairs appropriately.
The Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) was set up by the Government of Canada in 1992 as an independent institution to investigate abuses and mistreatment of prisoners in federal pentitentiaries. (In Canada, a sentence of less than two years is served in a provincial jail; sentences of two years or longer are served in federal institutions.) Over the last decade, as criminal justice policy in Canada was getting steadily harsher, the OCI has played a vital role in bringing to public attention many significant problems in federal prisons. In addition, the OCI receives complaints from federal prisoners – 6500 of them in the last year, which seems a lot given a total prison population of only about 15,000. The previous Commissioner, Howard Sapers, was particularly good at raising issues based on careful consideration of facts and evidence, something that did not make him popular with the previous federal government. Last year, Sapers left OCI to head an Ontario inquiry into jails (see earlier post) and was replaced by Ivan Zinger, who had been Sapers’ deputy for years.
The OCI recently released its 2015-16 annual report which, like previous reports, makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the federal prison system. A short post like this can’t do justice to everything in the report, but a few highlights must be mentioned, with more to be discussed in future posts.
Problems in the system
– There are far too many suicides in prisons (21 attempts, 9 successful, in 2015-16) and the Correctional Service of Canada does not do enough to address many of the factors leading to suicide attempts. Internal investigations make the same recommendations over and over, but these don’t lead to action.
– There is more use of force in prisons and less reliance on de-escalation, while accountability provisions for use of force have been eroded.
– Prisoners still receive a maximum of $6.90 per day for their work, of which nearly half is deductions for ‘room and board’ and telephones (even though prisoners also pay very high rates for every telephone call). This pay level, equivalent to 30 cents and hour, has not changed in 35 years but the deductions have increased significantly, and prices for things prisoners must buy for themselves (such as stamps or phone calls) have also increased, according to CSC, by 700%! Most prisoners cannot save any money, so will leave prison with no money to try to rebuild their lives.
– More than 25% of the prison population is now Aboriginal; these numbers have increased by more than 50% over the last 10 years. The proportion of Black prisoners has gone up even more sharply (CSC testimony to the Senate Committee on Human Rights, Feb 1, 2018). Black and Aboriginal prisoners are also much more likely have force used on them at some point. They are also less likely to be paroled, and wait longer to get parole.
– In 2015-16, only 30% of prisoners were released on parole prior to their statutory release at 2/3 of sentence. Supports for rehabilitation such as education and vocational training have been cut.
Anyone interested in understanding the problems in Canada’s prisons should be familiar with the work of the Correctional Investigator. Our prisons are far from being the ‘easy’ places they are sometimes represented as being in media accounts.