Why are we still talking about…..


“I can only say that I do not think it is absurd to suggest that a person should not be kept locked up in a small cell 24 hours a day, and that if there were security concerns , they should be dealt with otherwise than by simply denying an inmate an opportunity to step out of her cell…..However, once again it seems that even if the law is known, there is a general perception that it can always be departed from for a valid reason, and that, in any event compliance with prisoners’ rights is not a priority…..it was part of a general punitive attitude which required inmates to earn entitlements to everything perceived as a privilege rather than a right.”
The Honourable Louise Arbour, Arbour Report 1996, Commission of Inquiry into certain events at the Prison for Women in Kingston.


Canada’s Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger submitted the 49th Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator to Parliament on June 30, 2022.  As a part of the report’s National Level Investigations section, “Restrictive forms of Confinement in Federal Corrections” focused specifically on the six standalone maximum-security institutions for men, Atlantic in New Brunswick, Donnacona and Port-Cartier in Quebec, Millhaven in Ontario, Edmonton in Alberta, and Kent in British Columbia.

The extract from Madam Arbour’s 1996 report was the foreword to this investigative segment into the continued uses and forms of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) in Canada’s prisons.  Maximum-security prisons are a restrictive form of confinement by design, and while the report identified and described how this environment can negatively impact inmates in general, we will limit ourselves here to how old practices of segregation persist.

Ontario and British Columbia courts determined that solitary confinement violated fundamental rights protected by the Charter.  The federal government responded with Bill C-83 in 2019 to eliminate the practice and replace it with Structured Intervention Units (SIUs) which put minimum standards into law and required external oversight and external review.

The correctional investigator determined these standards are vulnerable to interpretation on the one hand, while the legislation that governs SIUs does not require Correctional Service of Canada to apply it provisions to other areas in federal prisons.  As the Annual Report put it, “a wide range of restrictive confinement conditions and practices exist outside of SIUs that are subject to little or no external oversight or independent monitoring.”

The OCI resolved that a reasonable definition for a restrictive confinement is anything less than four hours a day out-of-cell time.  Its investigation uncovered a number of areas, outside of SIUs and temporary lockdowns in place for COVID-19, where prisoners were given less than four hours of out-of-cell time.

In one institution (the report does not identify specific prisons), and aside from the prevailing standards in the SIU unit, the rest of the prison operated like a former administrative segregation range, allowing inmates less than three hours of out-of-cell time.  At another institution, what staff at the facility often referred to as “hidden cells” were used to keep prisoners in solitary confinement-like conditions for weeks at a time.  As a contrast, staff at a third institution were using their discretion to allow for more out-of-cell time than was standard.  As a result, none of the inmates interviewed complained about out-of-cell time and they all reported having more than four hours a day.  They did complain about having nothing to do with the time, but that is another maximum-security prison issue to be addressed in the future.

The Annual Report noted too that while the investigation focused on maximum-security institutions, their findings applied equally to some medium-security institutions as well.

What we have here is an instance of the disparity between policy and practice in our federal prisons which may include a disregard for the law.  Not only is there no uniform exercise of all prescribed standards across the system, but the CSC national headquarters in Ottawa will face down calls for accountability.  Not even parliament and the courts are spared.

Thus it has ever been, as Madam Arbour would find if she were to revisit operations in our federal prison system today.



Prisons don’t care….


The simple answer is that, with few exceptions, every man and woman in our federal prisons will one day be released back into the community.

Canadians take for granted and are encouraged to believe that our prison agency which oversees the rehabilitation process of offenders, and parole board members who decide the prospects for early release, meet their obligation to ensure a safe reintegration into society.  But frequent criticisms point to lawlessness by former offenders, accusing the system of failing its mandate to protect our neighbourhoods and for not supporting services to reduce recidivism.

We should care because we’re entitled to feel safe, and we want to be safe.

We should care because we want offenders to leave a life of criminality behind and contribute to the common good, even to mentoring children and youth in conflict with the law.

We should care because we want to trust that some very few offenders will never be released.

We should care because we own the shortcomings in the system.  They belong to us.  Apathy and indifference only serve to perpetuate our prison industry’s revolving door.

Releasing a prisoner on parole prior to their warrant expiry; that is, before the end of their sentence, allows for a strategically controlled release into the community.  It’s a good model.  Technically, ex-offenders are monitored as they move toward freedom, and constructive interventions can be deployed when and if necessary.  In theory, this is the preferred option, but in practice, there is a tendency more often to look for ways to return parolees to prison as an easy recourse rather than working with them to reverse missteps.

Before reaching the point in their sentence where applying for parole is possible though, prisoners must navigate the complexities in a carceral agency that is not always pro-rehabilitative.  The challenge for activists, lawyers, researchers, and family members working on behalf of our prison population is to find ways to make people care.  Prisoners are an easy political target and without public interest there is little political incentive for reforms.

Correctional Service of Canada is responsible for the incarceration and successful reintegration of federal prisoners and is mandated to manage their rehabilitation and potential risks.  In 2014, under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, CSC experienced deep cuts in funding, affecting staffing levels and programming in both penitentiaries and in the community.

That left community partners, funded by other government levels or non-profits, to absorb ex-offenders into support programs for addictions, mental health, and indigenous and cultural healing that are already oversubscribed.  In the meantime, there’s been no compensating federal government funding for beds and spaces on which these programs rely for positive reintegration outcomes.

Further, Karen Hogan, Canada’s auditor general, writes in her 2022 report that our ‘prison service’ has not given offenders timely access to programs to help ease them back into society, including courses specific to women, Indigenous people, and visible minorities.  What’s more, Ms. Hogan’s office raised similar concerns in audits in 2015, 2016, and 2017, but little has been done to change policies, practices, tools and approaches that produce differing outcomes.  CSC agreed again to act on her recommendations, but then we’ve seen these assurances from Correctional Service of Canada on many issues over a lot of years, only to learn the agency is a lip service specialist.

(Sourced in part from Robyn Urback/Globe and Mail, February, 2021, Canadian Press, May, 2022, and David Neufeld/Globe and Mail, September, 2022)

As a postscript, the chase for the revision to Commissioner’s Directive C-022 Media Relations, promised three years ago by Correctional Service of Canada, is not abandoned.  More will come.