900 words; 4 minutes to read

The annual reports by Canada’s Correctional Investigator (CI) provide a unique lens into conditions in Canada’s federal prisons.  Both the current Investigator, Ivan Zinger, and his predecessor, Howard Sapers, along with their staff, have done a great job for years in describing the many inadequacies of the system and, increasingly, the unwillingness of the Correctional Service (CSC) to address those problems.  Overall the report describes a system that has little desire to change or improve.

The most recent report of the CI, from 2018-19, was released last summer.  One of the report’s conclusions is that many current practices don’t at all meet the direction the government gave in 2018 in a letter to the new CSC Commissioner.

High costs, poor results

Based on careful investigation, some of the main findings of the report (paraphrased except where in quotation marks) include:

– Canada’s prisons have very high costs and very high staffing levels, especially in regard to security.  The system costs $330 per day, or $120,000 per year per prisoner – much more than it would cost to send someone to a top flight university.  Many prisons now have more staff than prisoners.  Given these resources, the system should be excellent and a world leader.  Instead, it has rising rates of violence and other problems.

“… CSC’s organizational ‘culture’ – the patterns of beliefs, assumptions, norms, codes of conduct, and ways of thinking and doing that define how an organization acts and behaves – has  become too insular, rigid and defensive. A professional culture that has grown wary and resistant to change.. .”

–  Edmonton Institution displayed an ongoing pattern of abusive behaviour to staff and prisoners, yet CSC was very slow to take any action.  Similar problems were documented, again with little real effort to improve, at Atlantic Institution.  “It is simply unacceptable that four years of reviews, recommendations, reports, discussions and reminders have done very little to change the occupational culture at Atlantic Institution.”

Poorly implemented policies and programs

– There is too much use of force on prisoners, especially at some institutions, and the problem has continued despite new policies.

– The needle exchange program, intended to improve safety, has not been well implemented.

– Prisons house, but refuse to release even to palliative care, quite a few prisoners who are very old or terminally ill.  “..far too many older terminally ill individuals are dying behind bars”. Many of them could and should be released into community settings.

– Food in prisons continues to be inadequate and of poor quality.  This is one of the main causes of prisoner dissatisfaction, as well as bullying and extortion.  There is no evidence that efforts a few years ago to save money by reducing the quality of food actually saved any money, though they certainly did make the food worse.  “the totality of the audit’s findings are sufficient to bring into question the Service’s capacity to meet its legal and policy obligations to ensure the inmate population is provided adequate and nutritional food.”

Lack of education

– Prisons simply do not provide adequate education or training.  Most prisoners have no opportunity to develop any real skills that might help them after release, and the situation is not getting better at all. Yet much research shows that good quality education and training have highly positive effects and are very cost-effective.


– Indigenous people continue to be imprisoned at much higher rates than their numbers in the population, and that trend has been worsening despite promises to make improvements.  “Since 2010, while the population of White inmates has decreased by 23.5%, the Indigenous population has increased by 52.1%.” Indigenous people are less likely to be paroled and serve more of their sentence before release than do other prisoners.  They are also more involved in self-harm in jails and more likely to be in segregation.

– The proportion of prisoners identifying as minorities is increasing, but practices in the prisons are not recognizing these changes sufficiently.

– Numbers of women in prison are increasing.  Most imprisoned women have serious issues of abuse and poverty which receive little or no attention.  Too many are kept in maximum security.  A recent change to search policies leads to far too many women being subjected to strip searches, which do little for security but can provoke distress and trauma.

Lack of attention to community support

– While parole rates are increasing (very slowly), community supervision remains inadequate.  Half-way houses are full resulting in long waiting times for release, even for prisoners who may not require time in a half-way house.  CSC needs to reallocate resources from prisons to community supervision.  And, as described elsewhere on this blog community supervision should provide more support to released prisoners to help them rebuild their lives.

Older prisoners

Some of the issues that the CI has reported are showing up clearly now in the Covid epidemic, where prisoners are particularly vulnerable, with an infection rate more than 20 times as high as the general public (based on available data).  Inadequate health service are one reason, but so is the refusal of the Correctional Service to release prisoners who are very old, very sick, or both.  That refusal has been almost total, even though the CI has recommended for years that more be done in this area.  It’s hard to see how people who are very infirm or in wheelchairs present any risk to public safety.  Yet there is little provision for the increasing numbers of such prisoners to be in the community even though that would be much cheaper and much more effective.

Anyone who wants to understand the realities of Canadian prisons should be reading these reports.




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