Prisons – The “why” question

This writer lived a year in Vancouver in the late 60s, and at one point spent a spring weekend visiting a friend in the town of Duncan on Vancouver Island, travelling by ferry to Nanaimo and then a bus south to Duncan, about half-way to Victoria.  The routing along Trans-Canada Highway 1 passed down the main street of picturesque and colourful Ladysmith where some of the town’s buildings appeared to have façades larger than the structures behind them, reminiscence of early Western settlements.

That begged the question of how and why those false fronts were an architectural feature in frontier towns.  Possibilities come easily, but more important for this purpose here and now is how Correctional Service of Canada is a constant reminder of those long-ago buildings in Ladysmith.  What one sees, what one hears, what one is expected to assume, accept, and believe about our prison agency and its operations is too often a false front masking a reality that is purposely and aggressively shrouded to protect the status quo.

There have been frequent references in this space, including the lead-in for the last posting, to a relevant quote from the Senate of Canada’s 2019 interim report on prison human rights, references such as, “The security features inherent to federal correctional facilities are designed to keep people in as much as they are to keep people out.”  Why is that?  What is it that Canada’s prison industry so intent on keeping from the public eye?

Why that is has been on turnoverarocktoday’s front burner since the site’s inception in the fall of 2014, and before that with Klassen’s Mailing List and earlier with Klassen’s Korner.  More importantly, so it is too with the Office of the Correctional Investigator, established in 1973 as an ombudsman for prisoners and which has recently published its 49th Annual Report.

The OCI is government funded, with several investigators and support staff.  Copied from its site:- “In any given year, the Office receives and responds to 5,000-6000 offender complaints….the Office meets regularly with inmate committees and other offender organizations and makes regularly scheduled announced visits at each institution….will meet with any inmate, or group of inmates, upon request….over the course of reporting year 2021-2022, in excess of three hundred meetings with various offender organizations, including inmate committees, lifer groups, black inmate associations, native brotherhoods and sisterhoods.”

The correctional investigator and his staff annually make several recommendations to accompany its annual reports (there were 18 in 2021-2022).  Many are repeated from previous years, and some have been on the list for up to a decade or more.  To the discredit of the Ministry of Public Safety which oversees Correction Service of Canada and, in an earlier incarnation, created the Office of the Correctional Investigator, the ombudsman was made a paper tiger, unable to do more than consult, recommend, and advise.

Why did CSC wait through years of OCI recommendations to agree to establish an office of an assistant commissioner for Indigenous affairs?  And as is the case when it announced last year an intent to do that, the order came from the boss, Minister Mendicino of Public Safety, and not because of OCI multiple requests.  Is there a timeline for getting the office up and running?  Why has turnovrarocktoday published numerous entries about an agreed-on revision between CSC and OCI for prison policy regarding inmate contact with the media when three years have passed since the commissioner of prisons undertook to have it on the books by June of 2020?  That has still to materialize.

Why is it that there are so many complaints from prisoners?  Why so many recommendations from the OCI?  Correctional Service of Canada has a mandate to rehabilitate and safely return inmates to the community, it operates with a considerable number of policy directives to meet those outcomes and has its own self-monitoring process.  What’s more, CSC says it’s doing what is should be doing, admitting to challenges along the way, but messaging that all’s well to the OCI, its political and bureaucratic masters, the public, and of course the offenders in its charge, and the families, supporters and organizations that advocate for their welfare.

Lawsuits are an option when complaints and grievances don’t get results.  (Grievances are a subject for another time.)  Lawyers employed by or under the direction of the Ministry of the Attorney General respond to actions against the government, and given the ministry’s workload, the process is grueling and drawn out.  Actions against the prison system are filed by inmates as individuals or in groups as class actions.  There are millions in costs, settlements and awards every year, all financed by tax dollars.

We submitted an access to information request to the Attorney General a year ago asking for the total amount paid to satisfy court awards and settlements during the latest fiscal year with respect to claims against CSC.   It took time to answer the ministry’s requests for clarification.  The response came in late summer.  Apparently, money is a matter of solicitor client privilege and exempt from disclosure.  We passed on an opportunity to appeal on the grounds that we wanted a single total amount, rather than a breakdown by case.

What was sent instead was thirty-two pages listing current cases involving our prison system.  Many entries involved the same complaint, but the total still numbered in the 100s.

Why wouldn’t we be asking “why”?


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