A previous post referenced the important work done by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, which gives an outside perspective on the state and problems of federal prisons in Canada.  The previous Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapers, is now leading an inquiry into the state of jails in Ontario, also discussed in a previous post.

Sapers’ last official report as Correctional Investigator was for the 2015-16 year.  It’s worth quoting at length from the opening message he wrote for that report (quoted material is shown in italics).  He identifies 6 issues and trends in the system for special comment:

  1. An unabated increase in the number of Indigenous people behind bars, a rate now surpassing 25% of the total federal incarcerated population.
  2. The reliance on and escalating number of use of force incidents involving inflammatory agents.
  3. The demonstrated but unfulfilled need for more vocational and skills training programs in corrections.
  4. Continuing decline in the quality and rigour of case management practices.
  5. Inadequate progress in preventing deaths in custody.
  6. Alternative service delivery arrangements for significantly mentally ill offenders.

Concerns on major issues

On mental health, Sapers notes that federal offenders are prescribed psychotropic drugs at a rate that is almost four times higher than the general Canadian populationimprisonment has become the contemporary equivalent of being sent to the insane asylum. In fact, 13% of federal prisoners are getting more than one psychotropic medication!

Indigenous people not only account for a growing proportion of the prison population, but are held longer and at higher security levels than other similar prisoners.

Most importantly, Sapers writes that through recent changes in the Criminal Code, the government of Canada has largely abandoned the commitment to rehabilitation of prisoners in favour of a sole focus on what is called public safety.  The result has been worse conditions in prisons, and a system that is now firmly stacked against early discretionary release (day and full parole) and in favour of presumptive or statutory release (two-thirds point of the sentence). CSC is making fewer recommendations for release to the Parole Board of Canada. The number of offenders accessing the community through temporary absences and work releases fell to new lows again last year.

While these policies may be attractive to those who want more punishment, Experience and evidence tell us that the protection of society is the outcome of safe and effective correctional practice.

Doing better

 Some problems in the system, such as the reluctance to grant bail or parole, are the result of people being afraid that something will go wrong.  There is, Sapers writes, very little tolerance for risk of any kind.  Yet… The recent past teaches us that Canada’s custody and release  machinery does not optimally function in an administrative, legal or policy environment where there is little tolerance for error or riskDelaying or denying release to statutory or warrant expiry does not in and of itself lead to gains in public safety.

Finally, Sapers emphasizes the need for external oversight of prisons, which remain organizations that are largely away from public scrutiny.  Where some people have lots of power over others with relatively little oversight, abuse is almost inevitable.  In a robust and vibrant democracy, independent oversight, external review and outside intervention by assurance providers, the courts and Parliament continues to be necessary in ensuring Canada’s prison system is safe, lawful and accountable.

Fortunately, Dr Ivan Zinger, the new Correctional Investigator, is very likely to adopt a similar approach to the work, having been working with Mr Sapers for many years.  We have every reason to be optimistic that Canadians will continue to get the same high standard of analysis and advice that characterized Mr Sapers’ time in this role.  Perhaps we’ll also have a government more willing to act on that advice.



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