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Based on interviews with former male federal prisoners, Memorial University Professor Rose Ricciardelli found that higher levels of security in Canadian prisons produce higher rates of violence and feeling of being less safe.  On the other hand, the positive practices in minimum security were seen by former prisoners as effective ways of reducing aggression and encouraging desirable behaviour.

Security in Canadian prisons

Jails, correctional centres, and prisons are generally considered unsafe and violent places, with high levels of physical assault – rates as much as 20 times as high as in the general community.  As is the case for many assaults and sexual assaults in the community, many more incidents are reported by those involved than the officially reported rates.

Canada’s federal prisons are divided into three security levels – maximum, medium, and minimum.  Prisoners are assigned to these levels through a rating system that uses a number of different factors.  Over time, prisoners can through good behaviour reduce their security rating, allowing them to move to a lower security institution.  About 20% of the 15,000 or so prisoners in the system are in maximum at any given time, about 60% in medium and about 20% in minimum.

Coercive and remunerative controls

Order and security in prisons are maintained by two different kinds of controls.  Coercive controls rely on rules and punishment, whereas remunerative controls use rewards and positive incentives.  Higher security tends to rely more on coercive strategies.  For example, in maximum security prisoners are confined to their cells most of the time, their movement is strictly controlled, video cameras are everywhere, and there are many armed guards.  On the other hand, minimum security prisons do not have any cells or even fences, and prisoners are generally able to move freely around the institution for work, education, recreation, or other purposes.

Experiencing violence

Dr. Ricciardelli interviewed 56 men who had spent time in federal prisons, with at least 30 having spent time at an institution classified at every security level.

Every single man reported having witnessed at least one violent incident while in prison.  Every single man reported at least one incidence where he was involved in a confrontation or was threatened with violence.  However prisoners made a large distinction between higher and lower security prisons in this regard.  They commented on how the heavy restraint of high security bread aggression and violence, and on how much less threat and violence there was in lower security.  Especially in minimum, prisoners are careful to avoid misbehavior because it could result in their being moved back to a higher security level, so these institutions are, and feel, much safer.

Ricciardelli’s article also has good descriptions of what prisoners experience in these different security levels – for example the challenge in maximum security of spending almost all one’s time locked in a small cell, or the frequent lockdowns in higher security, where prisoners may spend many days without getting out of their cells even to shower.  On the other hand, prisoners greatly valued whatever opportunities they had for recreation, education, or other positive activities.  They also commented on how difficult it was to pursue education in a prison, even though considerable research has found that prisoner participation in work, schooling, and vocational training is related to lower rates of violence.

Overall the men she interviewed “felt strongly that maximum and high-medium security penitentiaries did little to promote or even allow the opportunity for personal change in a positive direction”.  Given the huge cost to the public of imprisonment, this is a disappointing finding.


These interviews were conducted in 2011 and 2012; conditions in Canadian prisons got significantly worse in the years after that due to budget and program cuts and increased numbers of prisoners.

Dr Ricciardelli’s paper, Producing Social (Dis)Order in Prison: The Effects of Administrative Controls on Prisoner-on-Prisoner Violence, was published in The Prison Journal in 2016.  It is available here.

@R_Ricciardelli (Twitter).