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.

 

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