Who’s afraid of the big, bad prison guards?

WELL, IT APPEARS EVERY SERVANT OF THE CROWN in Canada from the executive through to the legislative branches of federal and provincial governments, and the judiciary to some extent, are paralyzed by the sight of the uniform worn by “correctional officers.”  Thus it has been for decades.

Let’s cite a relevant posting by CBC News on October 28 of this year:-

“CBC News cross-referenced a decade of Toronto police disciplinary decisions with all of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) investigations in which the police watchdog laid charges against Toronto police officers, and against available data on public complaints.

The review revealed that only 12 per cent of investigations where the SIU laid charges against Toronto cops have led to a disciplinary hearing decision against the officer involved in the last 10 years.

For public complaints, the numbers are even lower.  Just one per cent of complaints made to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) about Toronto police officers in the last five years has led to a disciplinary hearing.”

The CBC release did not analyze how police were disciplined at these hearings, if at all.

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No, this isn’t a misplaced “Policing” posting.  That will come, but for the moment, let’s also look at an excerpt from The Senate of Canada, Human Rights Committee, Interim Report, February 2019 we’ve printed before:-

“The security features inherent to federal correctional facilities are designed to keep people in as much as they are to keep people out.  As a result, the management of the federally-sentenced population is largely conducted away from public scrutiny.  Invisible to the general population, federally-sentenced persons are often forgotten.”

The gist of where this is going?  Despite some indicators to the contrary, police practices are more open to public audit than the environments in which prison/jail guards work.  If the results of complaints against Toronto police are as CBC research concluded, then where would one suppose grievances against guards end up?

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Correctional Service of Canada and its provincial equivalents are bureaucracies, systems characterized by a division of labour, a clearly defined hierarchy, detailed rules and regulations, and impersonal relationships.  Not exactly an arrangement conducive to the rehabilitation of offenders.

Guards have been featured frequently here (e.g. the numerous Soleiman Faqiri entries, “Prison light switch #3” August 4, 2019, “Toronto South…..again” April 28, 2019, “Bob’s ‘Blue Wall’” November 18, 2018) and as with all else with Correctional Service of Canada and the provincial counterparts, guards will continue to attract our attention.

First, let’s define who a guard is, and how the role of a correctional officer (CO) figures into penal system operations.  The CSC site’s details could apply for all custodial agencies:-

  • guards supervise and interact with offenders
  • regularly watch for signs that the safety of others or security of the institution might be at risk
  • take appropriate security measures when necessary

Brief and broadly subjective, the functions are further defined and limited by a plethora of laws, policies, and directives.  This surfeit of regulations burdens all civil servants, and some empathy is deserved.  Regardless, right and wrong doesn’t need a handbook.

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As bleak and tense as the relationship between inmates and guards is much of the time, there are occasional exceptions to the norms.  One example:-

A few inmates are out of their cells on an evening in a maximum security institution.  They’re told to lock up by guards earlier than expected.  They comply.  But, one inmate’s clothes are still in the washer.  He calls to a nearby guard, asking politely if his clothes could be moved from the washer to the dryer.  The guard puts the inmate’s laundry in the dryer.
On his way off the range, that guard stops at the cell of a seasoned long-time inmate who has motioned him over to quietly thank him for helping an inmate in need.  That older inmate knows this young and inexperienced new guard has done a good deed but will pay for it when other guards razz and dig at him for what he did.

The who’s, where’s, and when’s can’t always be put in print.  There are risks.

…..next installment….more guards.

Defunding prisons……

……IS ABOUT TAKING AWAY THE NEED FOR PRISON FUNDING, NOT TAKING AWAY MONEY THE PRISON INDUSTRY BUDGETS TO KEEP ITSELF AFLOAT.

As it is now for example, Correctional Service of Canada which operates our federal prisons can’t meet its mandate for “actively encouraging and assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens,” without more resources.  Efficacious audits underscore the failures of the system to meet the objectives of its Mission Statement.  Or, as has been argued here and elsewhere, is the health of the industry a greater priority for CSC than the success of its commission? 

Isn’t the primary assignment of everyone employed by Canada’s “correctional services” to put themselves out of a job?  Now, that’s an unrealistic ideal but it can’t be dismissed as a target.    No matter, the response from prison ranges is, “They don’t care!”  Meanwhile, Canada’s federal and provincial prison industry does not like media attention focused on inmates and what they have to say.  That detracts from their messaging.  We reviewed that issue here on November 4, in 2018 with “The Firewall…..”

A recent John Howard Society report based on prisoner accounts of life behind the walls had many common themes, many mirroring earlier narratives.  Quoting from John Howard….

  • Poor conditions that got worse in recent years, such as poor food, expensive phone calls, poor ‘pay’ for prisoners (about $3 per day after compulsory deductions).
  • Lack of opportunity to do positive things, such as improve one’s education or learn real job skills.  It’s hard to use one’s time productively in prison, which works against rehabilitation.
  • Lack of access to effective programs to address the problems such as addictions that brought people into prison.  Many prisoners feel that they are released in worse shape than when they were first imprisoned.
  • Poor health care; lack of access to doctors and medication; absence of dental care.
  • Many staff who have no interest in being positive or helpful.
  • Challenges in visiting and communication, making it hard to maintain contact with family and friends.

According to the Society there are other issues that surface like a lack of privacy, endless petty requirements, and threats of abusive treatment if staff don’t approve of behaviour.

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Food is not simply a life necessity but more importantly is life affirming.  Note the 19th century axiom that an army marches on its stomach.  Likewise, if our penal systems were correctional, then a proper provisioning for inmates is basic to the process.  It comes first.  Yet, the Canadian Senate’s 2018 interim report on its study of human rights in federal prisons notes one inmate issue is that the “quality and quantity of food is severely substandard.”  Even a 2019 federal audit of institutions found major problems with prison food services and raised concerns about quality, safety, a warning of food waste, unsatisfactory meal portions, and a “food-related health event” behind the walls. 

Dr. Ivan Zinger, Canada’s Correctional Investigator, used this audit and his office’s own findings to flesh out a case study of Correctional Service of Canada’s prison food in his 2018-2019 Annual Report.  From his report, “CSC’s food services program nominally operates on a national average per diem ration rate of $6.12 per inmate per day………” 
That provides for a 2600 daily caloric intake which is recommended for a low activity male, aged 31 – 50!  Inmates argue that unless they have funds to supplement the diet with canteen food, they would ‘starve.’

More from Dr. Zinger’s report:  “Because food is so foundational to inmate health and well-being, and has other impacts on the order and security of the institution, I am publicly reporting on concerns shared with the Commissioner (Anne Kelly) regarding the findings and, in my view, omissions of this particular audit………I am particularly concerned by some very disturbing developments and adaptations that have accompanied the implementation of CSC’s food services modernization project:

  1. The significant, predictable (and undocumented) amount of ‘cook-chill’ meals that are spoiled, wasted or considered inedible on the regular menu cycle.
  2. An inadequately low (and unreliable) per diem food metric that may unnecessarily put inmate health and safety at risk in an institutional setting.
  3. The rise of food as a commodity in the parallel (or underground) inmate economy.
  4. Inmate canteens that supplement or substitute for meals or portion sizes that are unappetizing, inadequate, poor of inconsistent quality.
  5. Loss of local autonomy to address deficiencies in meal quality and quantity (e.g., running out of certain food items or meals on the service line), which increases the risk of inmate frustration, tension, protest and/or violence.”

Dr. Zinger went on to make two food recommendations to CSC, both graciously received with florid comment but ultimately bound for a file drawer.

In a comment to us, one inmate sourly noted that at Millhaven Institution, considered the worst prison in Canada, a salad with the evening meal consisted of a handful of lettuce with a packet of salad dressing.  But, when he was transferred to Collins Bay Institution a few miles away for a multi-day program, salad included radish, onion, celery, etc. along with lettuce.  But, both prisons are on the same national menu, stressing inconsistencies with the food program.

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Yes, “food is so foundational to inmate health and well-being”, and just so, it is the same for everyone and anyone on Earth.  There’s no intention here to ignore world hunger by spotlighting Canadian prisoners, or federal prisoners in particular.  

There may be less hunger in the world now than a few decades ago, but we still have no excuse for allowing people anywhere to be food poor.  We produce more than we can consume but getting it to where it’s needed is a challenge, and not just that, but putting it into the hands of the people in want and getting it past the impediments that are often thrown up by unscrupulous intermediaries and corrupt governments is a cause looking for help.  A cause looking for your lhelp.

Even here in Canada, the National Zero Waste Council says we waste almost 2.2 million tonnes of edible food each year, costing us more than $17 billion.  58 percent of all food produced in Canada – 35.5 million tonnes – is lost or wasted according to new information, and about a third of that could be rescued for communities in need.  So, why are children going to bed hungry within a few blocks of where you live?  Can you spare some time?

More to come next time……..