Post # 169

925 words; 4 minutes to read

By Martina Arcuri, recent political science graduate 


After a year of consultation with prisoners and staff, journalist Justin Ling, in an article in Macleans, illustrated many of the problems in the Canadian prison system. Under the pretense of rehabilitation and treatment, the current system operates in an inhumane and violent manner, offering little room for redemption or positive change. 

A Broken Prison System

Canadian prisons are extremely dangerous. Ling notes that “five murders [occurred] in Canadian prisons last year, making the homicide rate in our prisons 20 times higher than in Toronto”. In a year, force was deployed more than 2,000 times, while “60 per cent of prison staff were subject to physical violence”. Canadian prisons are filled with gangs, many of which perpetrate violence and are involved in the prison drug trade. As reported by the Correctional Investigator, “There is no strategy that specifically and intentionally aims to prevent sexual violence in Canadian federal penitentiaries.” 

 The prison system is racist. With 12,500 inmates in federal prisons, “nearly one-third of them are Indigenous, eight per cent are black. Upwards of three-quarters of the prison population in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are indigenous.” Black and Indigenous prisoners are “twice as likely to be subject to use of force, more likely to be classified for maximum security, more likely to be involuntarily put into solitary confinement, and less likely to be paroled.”  

Our prison system is falling apart. Many prisons ought to be condemned and torn down. Four are more than a century old, and another two are nearly that old” with “crumbling” infrastructure and dated technology that threatens the safety of officers and prisoners. A Winnipeg lawyer stated another problem in Stony Mountain prison, “It’s freezing in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer…It’s so bad, she has to keep her coat and gloves on while she meets with her clients, and she still shivers. It’s  not comfortable in terms of human habitation”. 

Failing to deal with  mental health challenges

The prison system is also “warehousing people struggling with their mental health”. “It is estimated that at least 10 per cent of inmates meet the criteria for fetal alcohol syndrome, 80 per cent have substance abuse issues when incarcerated, while some 45 per cent have antisocial personality disorders.” Despite investment to reduce the prevalence of drugs in prisons, 70 prisoners overdosed inside federal prisons in 2017.  Prisons do not adequately respond to the mental health needs of prisoners. Staff do not receive the necessary training for mental health challenges and do not have the proper support. Mental health challenges are further exacerbated by the use of solitary confinement, rebranded in 2019, as “structured intervention units” although in reality not much seems to have changed.

The prison system is also extremely expensive, amounting to “ $110,000 per year to house each inmate, with about three-quarters of that number going to employee costs”. “Correctional Services Canada (CSC), with its $2.6 billion budget, is the 15th largest department or agency by spending — it is larger than the CBC and Department of Justice combined”. 

Unfortunately, the “prison system isn’t even working” with evidence revealing that “prisons are doing little to reduce crime, and may even be increasing it.”  Moreover, the prison system has done little to rehabilitate prisoners since; according to Ling, 40% of prisoners are returned to prison within a two-year period. 

Poor education, poor nutrition

Despite their stated goal of rehabilitation, Canadian prisons lack good education or job training programs. Rather, schooling programs adopt a “one-size-fits-all” model. The jobs available for prisoners do not cultivate marketable skills for the economy.  Prisoners earn minimal wages of about $6 per day, of which 35% deducted for phone and ‘room and board’. There is a clear absence of skill building for prisoners, many of whom will leave the prison unprepared for a pro-social life. 

Ling also highlighted the widespread issues relating to food supply in federal correctional facilities, a problem that compromises the health of inmates. Many meals in federal prisons do not meet Canada’s Food Guide requirements or caloric intake, nor do they meet dietary restrictions of inmates. Food is prepared unhygienically. Kitchen staff noted that food supply is “barely enough to keep a guy alive” while a correctional officer noted that “any massive riotous situation we face in the next five years is going to be because of the food” . These issues can largely be attributed to a major change in food production occurring in 2014 in order to reduce the CSC budget, one that forced federal prisons to adapt to a “cook-chill model” whereby food was prepared, frozen and transported to institutions to be reheated and served to inmates. This model costs about $5 a day per prisoner. 

 What does this mean for Canada? 

 Ling’s findings confirm substantial flaws within Canada’s prisons, concerns which paint a grim picture for the rehabilitation and progression of those incarcerated. These findings are also consistent with many other reports, including those of Canada’s Correctional Investigator some of which have been posted on this blog. Ling’s findings are perplexing given the current socio-political context, one that prides itself on its call for criminal justice reform and restorative justice. If substantial changes are not made, prisons will continue to be ridden with crime. Individuals leaving the system will be worse off than when they entered, despite the large sums of money spent (or wasted) on keeping them in prison. The need for community reintegration and the subsequent search for alternatives to the traditional prison system has been suggested for years; the findings of the Macleans article underscore that conditions have worsened.



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