Post # 151
710 words; 3 minutes to read
Most Canadians have very little sense of what it is like to be in prison. Perhaps most people don’t care, on the theory that ‘if you are in prison it’s for a good reason and you deserve what you get’. However as many legal theorists have pointed out, being deprived of liberty – being in prison – is the punishment, not having to deal with harsh conditions while you are imprisoned.
Two previous posts (here and here) have featured work from The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, a publication headquartered at The University of Ottawa and edited by a group of academics and graduate students, a number of whom are former prisoners. This journal is unique in providing a voice for people who are or have been incarcerated to write about their experience. Over its years of existence, it has published many compelling and touching stories by prisoners as well as providing a window into what the prison experience is like.
The latest issue, Vol 28, Nov 2, contains 28 contributions by prisoners (in English and French) and about a dozen by other people, including the editors. About two thirds of these are from Archambault prison in Quebec, named after a judge who wrote a very progressive report on prison policy in Canada in 1938. The contributions can all be downloaded free of charge, though the Journal asks for subscriptions and purchases to support its work.
The prisoner contributions range from one page to a dozen, from entirely personal to drawing extensively from research. Some of the contributors are identified by name, others use pseudonyms. Quite a few are still incarcerated.
As the co-editors point out in their introduction the articles tend to have many common themes, echoing previous issues as well. Among those that emerge most strongly:
- Poor conditions that have actually got worse in recent years, such as poor food, expensive phone calls, poor ‘pay’ for prisoners (about $3 per day after compulsory deductions).
- Lack of opportunity to do positive things, such as improve one’s education or learn real job skills. It’s hard to use one’s time productively in prison, which works against rehabilitation.
- Lack of access to effective programs to address the problems such as addictions that brought people into prison. Many prisoners feel that they are released in worse shape than they were when first imprisoned.
- Poor health care; lack of access to doctors and medication; absence of dental care.
- Many staff who have no interest in being positive or helpful.
- Challenges in visiting and communication, making it hard to maintain contact with family and friends.
These issues come up repeatedly in the prisoner accounts. So do the less obvious issues, such as the almost complete lack of privacy, being subjected to endless petty requirements, and the constant threat of negative treatment if you behave in ways the staff don’t approve.
Poor preparation for release
Another issue is poor preparation and support for parole, as if the institutional parole officers would rather prisoners not get paroled. Long-term prisoners, long past their parole eligibility dates, cannot even get the temporary absences that would help them begin to readjust to ‘life on the outside’. There are not enough places in halfway houses so prisoners can spend many extra months in prison waiting.
Several prisoners also write about the particular issues facing those with life sentences, which include poor access to therapy as well as all the problems with parole just mentioned.
The same old problems, little progress
These problems are not new. Prisoners have been complaining about them for many years, and the Correctional Investigator has reported on them repeatedly in annual reports. But if anything they have got worse in recent years, largely due to budget cuts. And the commitments to improvement made by the Liberals in 2015 were never actually implemented.
What Shook (one of the editors) calls ‘the monotonous critique’ of the prison has led to little change. We know what is wrong, we know quite a bit about how to do better, and the money to do so is already in the system, but being spent on the wrong things. Will we be smart enough to do what is in our own interests, which would include paying careful attention to what prisoners are telling us about their experience?