960 words; 4 minutes to read
This is the seventh in an ongoing series of posts sent to us by a former prisoner who wishes to remain anonymous. Previous posts in this series are here (#1) here (#2) here (#3) here (#4) here (#5) and here (#6)
This post describes the process through which prisoners in Canadian federal prisons are assigned to a security level (high, medium, minimum) where they will serve the next part of their sentence. I cannot emphasize too strongly that even though this is a process of huge importance to prisoners, they are told nothing at all about how it happens and have to find out as best they can on their own, mostly by talking to other prisoners.
Phases of Assessment
I came to think of time in the Assessment Unit as having 3 phases. The first one is just trying to figure out how the place works and how you can survive it with the least travail. You develop routines around things like sleeping, eating, showers, laundry, exercise and so on. At the same time, you’re going through the basic parts of the Assessment process – a medical check, education level test, and so on, as well as figuring out the canteen system, perhaps buying a TV, getting your phone numbers and phone card set up, figuring out the money system, and other such tasks. That takes 3-4 weeks – or longer in the case of getting my TV (5 weeks) and my phone numbers approved so I could actually speak to my family (that took a ridiculous 6 weeks).
The second phase is, ideally, one of a kind of comfort, at least within the very stringent limitations of a prison. You have a sense of how things work, you know most of the people on the range and ideally have some you relate to reasonably well, as well as routines to get most things done. That can last another 4-6 weeks.
By then you are starting to think about leaving and where you will go next. You meet with a parole officer and perhaps a psychologist, and try to figure out where they might send you and how you can get to your preferred prison. By this time you’re just anxious to move on, tired of being locked in a tiny cell 16 hours a day, tired of poor food and boredom, tired of having to adjust to new people arriving all the time, and just wanting to get out of there and into a setting that, you hope, will be more comfortable as well as longer-lasting.
At the time I was there, new prisoners were supposed to spend 3 to 4 months in the Assessment Unit. During that time, CSC (Correctional Service Canada) determines a security level for each prisoner decides where to place them initially.
These placements are critical to prisoners for several reasons. First, conditions for prisoners are much more onerous in maximum security and even in medium security than they are in minimum. CSC has about 20% of its approximately 13,500 prisoners in maximum security and about 20% in minimum, leaving 60% to be in medium. Prisoners can and do ‘cascade down’ from higher to lower security over time, though others are sent to a higher security level for violating various rules.
The most dangerous people or those who have committed the crimes with the longest sentences are often sent directly to maximum security and never go through the assessment process; of the 50 or so men who cycled through my range, only a couple ended up in maximum security prisons.
CSC determines security classification on the basis of a scale which is available to prisoners. A prisoner scores points for aspects such as violence, having a previous criminal record, escape attempts, and so on. The more points, the higher your security rating. When I put myself through that scale I came out rated very low, or minimum security.
Nobody tells you how it works
Whether you are required to take one of CSC’s supposed therapeutic ‘programs’ is also supposed to be related to your score on a scale. The research evidence is that for low risk prisoners programs do not help prevent future crimes and may actually have the opposite effect. However in my case, even though my score was well below the threshold for requiring the program, the psychologist who interviewed me (for about an hour) recommended that I be required to take the program regardless, and that recommendation was put into my correctional plan. I believe that decision was made, as were many decisions about my case, because my case was high profile and the system was afraid of being accused of being lenient.
At the time they are going through this process prisoners generally have no idea how it works, and nobody explains it to you. There is no ready information for prisoners about any aspect of how the system works. Instead, everything runs on rumour. Some people had been through the system before and could (and did) speak from their experience, even though that experience may no longer have been valid as laws and policies change. (For example the Conservative government had made major changes to parole in 2010 so that much of what prisoners ‘knew’ was no longer valid. Of course there was no explanation available to prisoners on how parole worked either).
In terms of security placement, there was a huge amount of talk among prisoners as to how the system works and what one should do to try to get the best placement possible, most of it based on hearsay, as well as quite a bit of uncertainty as to current conditions in the various jails to which one might be assigned. The next post will talk about the strange ways in which this played out.