Prison racism

The Senate of Canada’s Standing Committee on Human Rights in its interim report released in February of 2019 on the state of human rights of inmates in our federal prisons addressed racism in the system as part of its investigation.
“The committee wishes to draw attention to the fact that it has heard personal storis of racism and discrimination from almost every Black individual with whom it has had contact during its fact-finding visits.  This includes persons serving sentences and those administrating them.  Discrimination was often based on multiple, intersecting identity factors like gender, race, language and ethnic origin.  These experiences transcend the correctional environment and condition the way Black people in Canada experience the world.  As one witness stated, ‘one aspect of anti-Black racism in the prison system is that it is not only applied to prisoners but also to Black communities, families and advocates.’  Another told the committee that they would need to live a year in her skin to fully understand her testimony.”


Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told the House of Commons standing committee on public safety on Monday, November 2 last year that Indigenous and racialized people experienced “really bad results” in the federal criminal justice system.  “We know that Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in the Canadian justice system and we are prepared to make significant actions, both in investment and legislation, in order to change that,” he added.  Minister Blair agreed with committee members that “timelines clearly defined” were necessary to address racism, some would argue systemic racism, within Correctional Service of Canada.

There isn’t a Black or Indigenous inmate in our federal prison industry who has not experienced racist treatment.  Now, we also have prison staff who allege systemic racism in the agency, too.

“They’re all talk.  Our input, our opinions, our feedback – it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference.  They just slough us off.  This kind of treatment – racism – shouldn’t go on.”  This is Jennifer Constant, one of two CSC correctional officers who are representative plaintiffs in a proposed class-action lawsuit against Correctional Service of Canada filed in Federal court on January 11.  The statement of claim says that, “CSC management and staff treat racialized staff as though they are inmates.  It is an ‘us versus them’ mentality, and racialized CSC staff members are on the outside.”  The suit can proceed once its proposed class – all racialized people who worked for or with CSC – is certified by a judge.


Hold on.  We’re talking here about federal public servants supposedly working on our behalf and in our best interests who are financed from basement to roof, from underwear to tunic, from tire to steering wheel, from first day of training to graduation, and for each hour of a shift, by diverse communities of taxpayers that include racialized minorities who are factually paying government employees to discriminate against them!  Are we still in Canada?

Racism is learned.  Racism is taught.  As hard pressed as we would be to point to a country where racism is not a part of the landscape, perhaps we should credit “the former guy” in Washington’s White House who endorsed racist and white supremacist factions with exposing the depth of it in the United States, and in Canada.

“We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

We out here in the community have the freedom of movement and access to the seats of power to petition for action against this pestilence, unlike the men and women in prisons.  To finish with an excerpt from that senate report, one we’ve printed previously at least twice. “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.”

What Bill Blair told the House committee is old news.  Will anything change this time?

The inmate rating system discriminates, and another lawsuit, next…….





Sick in prison. Death in prison.

Port Cartier Institution is a maximum-security prison with a small inmate population located outside the town of Port Cartier in far eastern Quebec on the north shore of the St. Lawrence.  Opened in 1988, it was built to boost employment opportunities in an area represented in parliament at the time by Brian Mulroney.  He was the member for the electoral district of Manicouagan and the Prime Minister.

The prison is a remote 600 kilometres from Quebec City and roughly a 14-hour drive from Montreal.  This increases operating costs.  Staffers travelling to Montreal or Ottawa must drive 60 kilometres further east to Sept-Iles and fly from there.  And, to meet Correctional Service of Canada’s mandate to encourage inmate contact with the community, visitors can be reimbursed for some travel costs.  It’s a long way from home.

Several years ago, a contact in the institution was placed in segregation for a time.  An elderly inmate was in the next cell, old and feeble and out of his mind.  He muttered through the day, had nothing but bedding and a few clothes, and spent at least some of his time painting the walls with his own feces.  Once a day, two guards would take him to the shower while his cell was hosed down.  This man lived in segregation with only himself for company, and he wasn’t there serving an institutional sentence.  He was intentionally hidden away, and by now has more than likely died, his only relief.  Why was he still in prison?

This is an evident example of cruel and unusual punishment, and it didn’t have to be.  Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger has pointed out that “prisons were never meant to house sick, palliative or terminally ill patients.”  Just so, the legislation and policies which direct Correctional Service of Canada and the National Parole Board allows for compassionate release of sick inmates to hospices, nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

The release authorization process is slow and cumbersome to the point that sick inmates often die before their request is considered.  CSC recently developed its own MAID policy to accommodate inmates who don’t want to suffer through an often futile wait for a decision, but even that is a process.  There’s no question a sick inmate does not want to die in a prison environment, but notices are posted on the CSC website almost weekly announcing deaths from “natural causes.”

In this age of COVID, we frequently hear of sick patients dying in hospital alone, with only nurses and doctors for comfort.  A tragic death we’re told, and so it is.  Death in a prison infirmary is singularly solitary. No one cares.

Should we?  A moral tale may illustrate the conundrum.

A man has a dog, a faithful friend, a part of the family for years, a friend who walks with him every day in the ravine down the road.  There comes a time when the walk in the woods turns deadly.  His dog runs on ahead, an old habit, and encounters a predator….a coyote.  The man runs towards the sound of howls, growls, and barks, picking up a broken tree limb as he goes.  He reaches the fighting animals as the coyote tears at his dog’s throat.  He beats viciously on it  until it rolls away, bleeding, whining, gasping on the ground.  His dog is dead.  The man picks up his old friend to carry him away and pauses to look down at the coyote.  The animal is laying on its side, quivering, breathing heavily, mortally injured.  What does the man do?


The state of health care in the prison industry is dismal despite the tens of millions of dollars spent by provincial and federal carceral agencies.  The need for services by the imprisoned is substantially higher than in the general population and explains in part the disparity between what is done and what is left undone.  The challenge in finding health-care staff who give a damn about outcomes is another piece to the answer.

From a lawyer in Quebec who specializes in post-conviction law we learn that “almost all federal prisoners are dealing with at least one serious medical problem and a quarter of the population are(sic) aggravated by health services which range from slow to spotty to forget-about-it.”  Over 40% of men and women sitting in provincial jails awaiting trial have mental/emotional health issues.  Our jails and prisons have become our largest provider of mental health services, and warehouses for the mentally ill.  And yet, most are left untreated in any meaningful way in spite of what CSC wants to tell us about the role of psychologists in the federal system.

Whether a decayed tooth, a broken bone, a diseased body or mind, the call for care tests the capacity to respond.  Imagine for instance the anxiety of a provincial prisoner who is transferred to the federal system where their prescribed medication is cut off until the federal health-care unit does a reassessment and may change or not renew an established regimen.  Imagine having to wait weeks with a toothache.  Imagine knowing you must live with bi-polar disorder because the treatment you need is not forthcoming.  Imagine men and women punished rather than treated because illness causes them to act out.

Institutional healthcare has been and will continue to be dissected here and elsewhere.  Changes?  Improvements?  Incrementally, yes, maybe.

There’s a long way yet to go.  For now, we move on.