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access to programs, parole opportunities are negatively impacting thousands of inmates through prejudiced and outdated risk tools.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.

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