How do prisoners get a life……

…..WHEN THE PRISON INDUSTRY SAYS NO?

Part I

The half dozen or so blocks of Bay Street south of Old City Hall in Toronto are the heart of the city’s financial district.  This is Toronto’s Wall Street.  Generally, the people who occupy the offices and walk the streets in the area are fiscal conservatives and socially ambivalent.  It is the route our heroes, champions, and special guests once were paraded through ticker tape streamers in the days of older technology and open windows up to a welcome at the grand building at the top of the route, the seat of municipal government years ago.

The canyon of office towers on Bay and its intersecting streets attracts many of Toronto’s homeless.  Heating grates on the sidewalks and the nooks and narrow spaces between buildings offer shelter and warmth, making such districts a common destination for the poorest in every large city.  The contrast between the neediest among us and the barons and their trains who manage much of the country’s wealth is stark and unwelcome.  The unfortunates tend to be shunned, seen as a nuisance.

A few years ago, one of the street’s financiers submitted a short opinion piece to a Toronto daily newspaper.  In it, he wrote about leaving his office for a short walk up Bay Street to lunch at his club.  On the way, he had to step over the body of a man laying over one of those hot air grates.  Normally, that would provoke a protest, an intrusion into his ordered world, but this time he took a different perspective.  This man lying on the sidewalk he thought, and all those men and women like him, were in truth lost consumers of society’s common life, people who could be lifted up, given the resources to regain dignity and purpose and to contribute to a higher good.  Not all would succeed but deserved care and support, nonetheless.

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What about our hidden population of men and women locked away in our prisons and jails?  Most of us assume that because the words “correction” and “correctional” are incorporated into the names of the provincial and federal agencies who manage offenders, that a correcting service is what these men and women are provided.  Inmates need only to take up the baton and run with it to a better future.  Right?

To be sure, the organizations that operate these institutions lay claim to the life-changing principles that underwrite rehabilitation.  The federal Correctional Service of Canada is representative of all in this field when its Mission Statement states that it “contributes to public safety by actively encouraging and assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens, while exercising reasonable, safe, secure and humane control.”

Sounds good?  This is what we expect, don’t we?  Referring once again to the Senate of Canada’s 2019 report, “the security features inherent to federal correctional facilities are designed to keep people in as much as they are to keep people out.” Same for provincial institutions.  Further, “the management of the federally-sentenced population is largely conducted away from public scrutiny.”  Same for provincial.  So, not only are these men and women out of sight, out of mind, but how much attention do we pay to what services and programing is really available, or how widely available those services are?

Lee Chapelle spent just over 20 years in prison.  He’s been the president of Prison Consulting Services Canada for some years now, which offers a wide variety of comprehensive informational, reform and advocacy-based services.  Lee estimates that about 80% of incarcerated men and women can turn themselves around if the necessary supports are in place.

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“How can prisoners be rehabilitated without proper access to education?”  That headlined an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail from the end of December in 2019, authored by Lisa Kerr, an assistant law professor at Queen’s University, and Paul Quick, a staff lawyer at the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic.  It begins:  “Few will be surprised to learn that our prisons house our most poorly educated citizens.  What is less known is that incarcerated people in Canada are effectively not allowed to obtain the education that might help them get and hold a job after their release”

Correctional Service of Canada is required to provide education up to Grade 12 to everyone who needs it.  But, policies effectively bar prisoners from using their own money to go any further than high school.  We’re told that CSC has a policy expecting prison staff to help inmates access postsecondary courses, but then there’s a total ban on access to the internet.  In today’s world, how many educational institutions still offer paper correspondence courses?  As the Office of the Correctional Investigator said a vey few years ago, “It’s hard to understand how an environment deprived of computers and internet, and thereby deprived of information, can be rehabilitative.”

Canada does have promising programs in its federal prisons, and Walls to Bridges is a great example.  For-credit courses are taught by university professors in classes that are equally composed of students from the university and the prison.  There’s an emphasis on equality among teachers, students and prisoners to advocate for inclusivity.  But, there are few institutions offering this program and space is strictly limited.

The United States and some European countries are way ahead of Canada, and what we do here may even be unconstitutional, a cause waiting for a Charter-based challenge.  Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger’s latest report tells us:  “In Canada, those behind federal prison walls have long been deprived of most technological advancements in learning.  The current state of inmate access to information and technology is backward and obsolete.  Offenders have limited access to outdated and stand-alone computers that still use floppy disks.  CSC runs Local-area Networks, which are equipped with software from the early 2000s, have no access to the internet, contain limited reference materials and have almost no technical capacity to support or facilitate eLearning of any kind.”

Bad enough?  It doesn’t get better……more on its way.

 

Inmates. How would you rate?

“WE DON’T BELIEVE THAT CORRECTIONAL SERVICE CANADA WILL CHANGE ITS BEHAVIOUR UNLESS IT’S COMPELLED.”

So said Vancouver-based civil-rights lawyer Jason Gratl, who filed a proposed class-action against the government in Federal Court on Monday, January 11, claiming systemic bias in Correctional Service of Canada’s security classifications. 

The lawsuit argues that living assignments, access to programs, parole opportunities are negatively impacting thousands of inmates through prejudiced and outdated risk tools.  The Senate of Canada’s study of prison inmates’ human rights also noted the Custody Rating Scale, CSC’s first key assessment of inmates, was designed in the late 80s, where the sample of individuals to develop the ratings was predominantly composed of white males.

According to the Globe and Mail in early January of this year, watchdogs and academics pressed concerns long ago about this most important risk tool’s fairness towards women.  The prison agency is overseen by Public Safety Canada, and it investigated the charges, issuing a report in September of 2004.  The Globe noted the report “found serious flaws” with the rating scale and “recommended the agency (CSC) design a new one.  Sixteen years on, the tool remains unchanged.”

Globe and Mail investigations show prison assessment mechanisms are not only biased against Indigenous women and women in general but for Indigenous and Black men they have “far-reaching consequences for an inmate’s experience in prison.”  To quote further from the paper, “Black men were about 24 per cent more likely than white men to receive the worst possible security scores at admission.  Indigenous men, meanwhile, were roughly 30 per cent more likely than white men to receive the worst reintegration potential score at any point during their sentence.”

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So, what is this ‘rating system’ about?  Brevity when detailing bureaucratic procedures is challenging, and more likely than not they are intended to be enigmatic, but an attempt here is in order.

A person ordered into a federal prison will have a preliminary assessment interview with a Correctional Service of Canada parole officer.  The result sticks with the inmate for the duration, will inform all further assessments and every decision, from where a sentence is served, access to programming, future meetings with staff, the use of restricted confinement, visiting privileges, odds of parole…every aspect of prison life.

The Custody Rating Scale, the first key assessment, measures what kind of security risk an inmate poses inside a prison.  It’s a 12 multiple-choice question evaluation focused on an offender’s history, it’s filled out by a parole officer, and the ‘score’ sets an inmate’s security level at minimum, medium or maximum.  Scores can be overridden if an officer believes it’s too high or too low.  Since treatment, programs, privileges, and jobs vary with institutions and with security levels, an inmate’s security ranking is their single most important score.  Levels can change with time, but the initial assessment is decisive.

A second key assessment is the Reintegration Potential Score, important near the end of a sentence, is used by the Parole Board of Canada to estimate an inmate’s preparedness for parole and what risks to public safety release presents.  Outcomes are based partially on two math-based actuarial risk assessments, such as the Custody Rating Scale for one, but two other assessments rely on the judgement of officers administering the tests which allows potential biases to interfere with impartiality.

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Much of this is impersonal and methodical, perhaps justified in a decision-making process.  But, between that preliminary assessment at the beginning of a sentence and an evaluation for a potentially successful reintegration near the end should come a plethora of multi-faceted opportunities for inmates to work towards a life most have never known.  That is fodder aplenty for upcoming postings.

In the meantime, the House of Commons public safety committee recently committed to a study into bias in prison risk assessments.  All the while, Correctional Service of Canada spokespersons say the agency “regularly conducts research to ensure they’re (risk assessment tools) still reliable.”  How is that possible?

“We want to see the system change,”
lawyer Jason Gratl told the Globe and Mail during his January interview.  Mr. Gratl has been focused on that for some time, and will no doubt live with Jobian patience.

How ‘bout housing?  How ‘bout education and jobs?  How ‘bout…..more to come.

CANADA – Champion of human rights?

REALLY?  Canada talks the talk, and claims to be a human rights’ world leader.  Friendly countries agree.  Yes, Canada advocates for people under repressive regimes, and for refugees who depend on the largesse of less than welcoming neighbours, and supports calls for democratic principles where there are few, if any.

But how well does Canada score in protecting the rights of its own citizens?  And no, this is not another prison posting.  That will resume next time, featuring the prisoner rating system’s discrimination against minorities, a human rights issue to be sure.

With this today, the focus is on Canada’s treatment of Abousfian Abdelrazik, previously referenced in “What does it take…..” from May 20, 2018, and “What’s a screwdriver?” posted October 7 in 2018.

Simply put, Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Sudanese-born Montreal resident and Canadian citizen went back to visit family in Sudan in 2003 and was imprisoned there at the request of the Canadian government who knew he would be tortured in custody.  CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) agents interviewed him there about possible terrorist links.  There weren’t any and Sudan had no interest in detaining him, claiming Canada could have requested his releasee at any time.

Sudan released Mr. Abdelrazik after a year, and he then spent six years more trying to come home, most often camping out in the Canadian embassy in Khartoum.  Canada barred him even though the RCMP and CSIS confirmed formally and in writing they had no reason to suspect he was a terrorist or a threat to national security.  Canada would not admit him until a Federal Court here ordered his repatriation.  Abousfian Abdelrazik filed a $27 million lawsuit against Canada and has been waiting over 11 years for compensation.

According to the Globe and Mail on Monday, February 15 of this year, Canada…Canadian taxpayers….have spent $9.3 million so far to fight this legal action:-

February 16, 2021

The Honourable Bill Blair, Minister of Community Safety,
House of Commons,

Re:      Abousfian  Abdelrazik

Minister Blair:

So, here we have yet another example of CSIS behaving badly, bringing Canada’s human rights record into disrepute, disrupting the lives of the people to whom it is accountable, and costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars along its destructive warpath.

I’ve been following Mr. Abdelrazik’s journey to justice since it began.  How much more beyond the $9.3-million spent to date is the government allocating to contest its responsibility for what it did to this man? 

There will be a settlement, just as there was with Maher Arar ($11.5-million), Omar Khadr ($10.5-million), Mssrs. Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati, Muayyed Nureddin ($31.5-million), Benamar Benatta ($1.7-million).  And, we have little information on the status of the claims of Djamel Ameziane ($50-million), Hassan Almrei ($16-million) and Adil Charkaoui ($24.5-million).  Why wait?  Why make us look worse than we do?  Why pay attention to Islamophobes, as Paul Champ claims?

And, why too are we not censuring the public servants who are responsible?  Why are we not holding them accountable?

Copies of this letter were sent to David Lametti, Minister of Justice and NDP justice critic MP Jack Harris.

Paul Champ is one of Mr. Abdelrazik’s lawyers.  And yes, as the letter concluded, there are Canadian public servants who are responsible for this injustice to a Canadian citizen.  Are they not accountable for violating this man’s human rights?

This is only one very public instance of Canada’s careless treatment of one of its own.  What else might there be swept under a carpet in some bureaucrat’s office, or hidden behind closed doors or high walls?

Okay, now to get back to the matter of prisons.