The Senate of Canada’s Standing Committee on Human Rights took to the road between February of 2017 and March of 2018 to examine the human rights issues of federally-sentenced persons, visiting prisons across Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. Members of the committee also held 22 meetings, taking evidence from 92 witnesses, including inmates, academics, lawyers, corrections officers, and Indigenous representatives.
The Committee released an Interim Report in February of 2019 but was denied leave to meet that summer to finish the Final Report. That will be completed in 2021.
Three excepts from the Interim Report, commenting on prison guards:
During site visits, the committee was told by federally-incarcerated persons that they often experienced reprisals for accessing the complaint and grievance processes under the CCRA (Corrections and Conditional Release Act), or for speaking out about human rights issues. Staff members confirmed that they discourage this use of the grievance system, preferring to settle things informally. The lack of procedural fairness in segregation decision-making was also highlighted by witnesses. According to witnesses, reprisals could take various forms including harassment, destruction of property, loss of privileges, interference with correspondence, visits and programming, neglect of responsibilities and excessive use of force. These types of reprisals were discussed in some detail by El Jones (Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University), who indicated that retaliation can also come in very subtle ways, such as being labelled as a “troublemaker” on the range or being continually targeted for disciplinary action based on the arbitrary exercise of discretion.
In fact, the committee was informed that a number of federally-incarcerated persons refused to meet with the committee for fear of reprisal. The committee was very concerned to find that this fear extended to communications with senators during site visits. In this context, it was particularly disturbing that at certain institutions, correctional staff surreptitiously listened to the committee’s confidential meetings with federally-sentenced persons, despite the committees (at time repeated) requests for privacy.
It should also be noted that fear of reprisal in the federal correctional system was not only raised by federally-sentenced persons. In confidential meetings with current and former correctional officers, the committee learned that they too feared retribution from their coworkers for reporting inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour by other correctional officers directed at them, other staff or prisoners. During these meetings, the committee was also told that correctional officers are admonished by other correctional officers for being too friendly with prisoners. Behaviours deemed too friendly included helping prisoners file grievances.
Specific instances of inmate experiences will flesh out the Senate report’s findings. This is one, and while it may seem petty and does not involve interactions between guards and inmates, it contributes to a pervasive cynicism in the prison environment.
From Canada’s West, an Inmate’s Observation Examples How Negative Attitudes Toward Guards Develop in the Inmate Population.
Correctional Service of Canada operates a few medium security institutions with a design model incorporating direct observation ranges. Guards work on ranges from a glass enclosure, a ‘bubble,’ that allows sightlines to all cells, improving oversight and command. The arrangement also gives inmates a view of their keepers.
An inmate noted a few weeks ago that as he walked by and looked at the guards in the bubble on his range, one was slumped sleeping in a chair, trying not to fall off his perch, and snoring loudly enough to be heard through the glass. A second guard sitting close by was concentrating on his phone, tapping an outgoing message. On another day, he watched three guards in their chairs busy tapping away on their phones in unison.
Inmates are not out of their cells during the night, so these guards were not on a late shift. Sleeping on the job is not encouraged for one, and policy requires that mobile devices stay in the car or a locker during work. Aside from keeping staff focused on their duties, there’s a practical purpose for the prohibition. A misplaced or lost phone would trigger a lockdown and search. Nonetheless, their use during working hours is pervasive. Repercussions, if any, are minor.
Offenders are imprisoned under the surveillance of public servants whose uniforms grant impunity. What’s the lesson there?
….guards and inmates…once more next time.