Prisons – Stay out. Get out.

Nova Scotian social worker Robert Wright was asked by the defence back in 2014 to testify at the sentencing of a 16-year-old Black offender for attempted murder after he shot his 15-year-old cousin in the belly.  The prosecutor argued against allowing the testimony, claiming Mr. Wright wasn’t qualified as an expert.

Justice Anne Derrick, then of the Nova Scotia Provincial Court allowed him to speak. She cited his qualifications as a past executive director of the province’s child and youth strategy, as a PhD candidate in social work and as an instructor at Mount Saint Vincent University.

He is also coincidentally a seventh- or eighth-generation Black Nova Scotian and knew from his life’s experience that he was qualified to speak on behalf of the convicted offender.  One of six children raised by a single mother, a mostly absent father, witness to domestic violence and alcoholism, a celebrated athlete sister murdered in her mid-20s and a brother who did time for robbery made him ‘expert’ on the topic he addressed.

What Robert Wright wrote in an assessment and said in court was that the prosecution’s depiction of the 16-year-old as a hardened and remorseless criminal, a conclusion supported by several psychological assessments as an unsalvageable youth necessitating a long adult prison sentence, missed one pertinent point:  what it means to grow up Black in Nova Scotia.  After considering the family history, the “racial trauma” pervasive in the African-Canadian community because of mistrust, rivalries and violence, the judge sentenced him as a youth, noting an adult sentence would most probably give him little chance at rehabilitation.

Mr. Wright’s testimony was the first of its kind for Black offenders in the province and it led to more race-based reports, by him and other clinicians, triggering changes in the sentencing of Black offenders.  By the summer of 2021, Nova Scotia’s top court issued a 5-0 ruling written by that same Justice Derrick, telling judges in the province to consider the race-based issues of Black offenders at sentencing, or risk having their sentences thrown out on appeal.

With federal government funding, what are known now as Impact of Race and Culture Assessments are about to spread across the country.  Provincial courts aren’t required to give special consideration to Black offenders, and while accepted as important and helpful, Ontario courts for instance underscore that offenders do exercise free will.

Just as Gladue Reports offer some guidance when determining the fate of indigenous offenders, Impact of Race and Culture Assessments will do much the same for Blacks caught up in the criminal justice system.

Keeping people with a potential for redemption out of the hands of the prison industry benefits us all.

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“Stymied, Stigmatized and Socially Excluded”, a 2020 report released by the Community Advocacy & Legal Centre located in Belleville in eastern Ontario, is a study conducted on the civil legal issues confronting people released from the Quinte Detention Centre.

The challenges there for people released from that provincial institution are mirrored across the provincial/federal prison industry spectrum from coast to coast.  How does a person with a criminal record steer a path through a labyrinth of social and civil legal issues from housing to employment to income assistance to counselling to potent and timely mental health/addiction programs to discrimination and harassment?  How does a person avoid the ripple effect of a criminal record, stuck in a cycle of recidivism and poverty, one door after another shut in their faces?

The John Howard Society of Ontario, prompted in part by the Belleville study, developed a resource for use by front-line workers assisting people released back into the community who almost always also need help dealing with multiple problems related to their criminality and for which they didn’t know help was available.  “Knowing your rights is very important,” said a peer counsellor with the JHS Ontario’s York Region office.

jhslearninghub.ca is accessible by anyone, and though intended for front-line workers at the John Howard Society and other community service agencies, it’s designed to be easily understandable and useful to family, friends, and supporters of offenders before, during and after incarceration.  Yes, this is on Ontario initiative, but is or will be replicated across the country.

Next – Oh no, it’s still not safe to get sick or get hurt in prison!

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