“Fighting crime by building more jails……

Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly’s quotation appeared here five years ago. It was relevant long before he said it first, is still timely today, as it will be tomorrow.

Suppose you were able to tour our provincial jails and federal prisons from Victoria to St. John’s. Aside from a gender imbalance, a noticeable observation is the difference between the racial make-up of an incarcerated population and the people in the communities from which they came. No matter what perspective you choose to explain the contrast, it remains a symptom of societal inequity.

The COVID pandemic has exposed the inadequacies of our supports and safety nets for vulnerable groups, conditions we’ve conveniently ignored and allowed to deteriorate through negligence, lack of resources and even intentional defunding. We’ve seen the tragic outcomes from viral infections in our seniors’ care facilities as an example, and are now attempting to save face, even though we’ve been aware of the unacceptable state of the situation for years.

At risk from any and all hazards facing the disadvantaged along with the elderly are the poor and homeless and addicted and people with physical and mental health conditions, and…….prisoners. The pandemic has underscored a lack of help for an increasing number of jail/prison inmates with mental health issues, with access to rehabilitative programming, and with support in transitioning back into the community upon release.

Addressing provincial conditions, Rajean Hoilett with the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project and quoted from a June Toronto Star article says, “We’ve seen a lot of folks who’ve been released without any support, who are telling us they don’t have shoes, they don’t have clothes, they don’t have a place to go. We know that there’s a lot of folks who use drugs who are coming out without any sort of harm reduction supplies, and we already know we’ve lost people in this way to overdoses.” Ergo, recidivism’s revolving door.

For offenders sentenced to a federal prison, we have what is called Correctional Service of Canada.
Many could and would argue the agency is better tagged Punitive Service of Canada, or Offender Warehousing Service of Canada, or Criminal Retention Service of Canada, or our preference, Prison Industries of Canada.
No, Canada calls what we have a “correctional” service. That, and “corrections” is the label provincial and territorial governments use to describe the role of ministries that oversee their jails.

This space has argued for years that putting a name to something does not necessarily make it so, like the offices that manage our jails and prisons for instance. It seems that either what we call them is a sop to people who believe they should serve that better purpose, or the intention to be a correcting influence on lawbreakers is genuine if not a touch jaded. No one in authority looks to be paying attention to compliance in the trenches with policy, procedure, or the law, or the efficacy of the way things are or what more can be done.

The criminal justice conglomerate is a mammoth monolith, costing billions of taxpayer dollars a year and employing tens of thousand of people. Most of these men and women, from policing to the courts and on through to our penal institutions and all the attendant supports and apparatus, are or believe they are working for the best interests of the country. And as we pointed out earlier, it works well….for those who control it.

Rehashing earlier critical appraisals isn’t on today’s agenda. How to fight “City Hall” is. How to effect change is. Quite simply, don’t give up, don’t give in.

Joshua and his army marched around the walls of Jericho for seven days until the noise of the shouting and rams’ horns caused those defenses to collapse.

Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis learned from that old Biblical battle.

Persist. Persist. Persist.

That is the lesson.

“A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”
Edward R. Murrow

Going to prison. Why?

“A Disparate Impact”, the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s “Second interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Service” was published within the past week. The reactions from municipal and community leaders are as we would expect. The calls for reform and our politician’s pledge to seriously consider the reports “next steps” are as we would expect, too.

However, what will come of this report is in question. Only community vigilance can succeed in preventing influential forces from appearing compliant to public concerns while preserving the status quo. There cannot be real reform without input from impacted neighbourhoods, and written concessions from stakeholders. While this issue is on the table, awaiting its fate, we move on from where we were last time.

According to Jonathan Rudin, program director at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, “If we ran a program that failed as much as the criminal justice system, we would not be funded. We would not be able to operate. We just keep throwing money at it and keep relying on it even though it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do.”

Added human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan, “The system is not structured to rehabilitate. We need to stop relying on this falsity. It helps us feel more comfortable with what is a really brutal system.”

If calls to defund the police were answered it would mean far fewer people in custody. This in turn has some people demanding we defund the jail and prison system, too. Ontario’s jail population was reduced by 30% by mid-June due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic and is an example of what is possible. “These are people who, under the logic of the system as it was, shouldn’t have been behind bars anyway,” said Justin Piché, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa.

At the federal level, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who oversees Correctional Service of Canada, asked both CSC and the Parole Board of Canada in early March to consider releasing low-risk offenders due to the threat of COVID-19. What is telling is that Minister Blair, who is after all supposed to be in charge, did not do more than politely ask the agencies to “consider” early releases. As a result, according to Douglas Quan in the Toronto Star on August 5, “there was no increase in the number of prisoners released during the first three months of the pandemic compared to a year earlier In fact, there were slightly fewer inmates released.”

Does that say that Correctional Service of Canada would prefer to hang onto its assets?

Now, more than half of sentences handed down by adult courts in Canada are for less than one month, 20 per cent are for more than six months, and only 3.6 per cent carry judgements of more than two years. Jonathan Rudin argues putting people in jail for 30 days because, “Oh, they’ll learn a lesson,” does more harm to the community than would funds redirected to social services and supports. “We’re just being cruel for the sake of being cruel,” he says. And, of course, minorities are more negatively affected by how the system operates than whites, exacerbating the already unacceptable social norms.

Our criminal justice system continues to put people in jails and prisons, knowing they don’t work for the good of us all. Yes, there are circumstances where some people need to be separated from the community, but better jails and prisons are not what the protesters in the streets want. The call is for an entirely different approach.

Can we really fight City Hall? Next…….

Bail boondoggle cured?


Toronto City Council recently proposed a series of reforms to the city’s police service that have a significant similarity to reforms suggested by the U.S. Senate for American policing. They are both sops, which according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, are things of little importance or value that are offered to stop complaints or unhappiness. The same ineffective scenarios should be anticipated elsewhere at all levels of government in North America.

Politicians are elected to serve their constituent’s best interests, to have their backs. And yet, there is no appetite in North American municipal, provincial/state, or federal governments to confront head-on what brought so many people onto the streets to protest policing and its impenetrable blue wall.

What can be expected over time with what’s on the table now? The goal of law enforcement, under the auspices of police unions and with government indulgence, is to create a perception of change and reform, to vilify within police ranks the proliferation of cameras, and develop strategies to avoid being filmed. Business as usual. As Toronto human rights lawyer Anthony Morgan claims, “You create a lot of supply through policing. You overpolice communities – Black, Indigenous, and racialized communities, impoverished folks, folks living with mental health challenges – and so you create a massive supply of folks that would need to then be incarcerated.”

About 70% of men and women in our provincial jails are in custody on remand. They are technically innocent and yet have lost their liberty. According to a recent Globe and Mail editorial, many of these people have been charged with violating bail conditions, itself subject to as much as a two-year sentence. Even a new Supreme Court of Canada ruling calls this country’s bail practices “unfair and harmful”, particularly for the poor, people with addictions and racialized minorities.

This ruling should make for substantial changes to the way bail is granted but there is and will be resistance unless and until the disadvantaged leverage the Court ruling in their favour. “Too often, the Court said, bail court judges have agreed to ‘boilerplate’ conditions that are applied to all defendants, regardless of their circumstances. In some cases, the conditions included unwarranted attempts at behaviour modification that are impossible for the accused person to live up to, such as telling an alcoholic they can’t drink, or ordering a homeless person to stay at a fixed address.”

With this new ruling, bail condition violations may compel a return to custody but without additional charges that simply create a “cycle of incarceration.” As it has been, people can end up serving sentences even if they were never convicted of any of the crimes for which they were initially charged. “The bail system is also partly to blame for overcrowded jails, and it contributes to the slow administration of justice by flooding the courts with unnecessary cases.”

When someone goes to jail for a few days, what happens is that people lose their homes, they lose their place in programs, they lose access to services, and for women in particular, lose access to their children. None of this makes someone’s life better or easier. High rates of recidivism continue, while what is needed are programs that divert people away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate services that get at the root causes of community rot.

It’s not rocket science, so what’s the hold-up? More later…..