Prisons & Racism

About twenty years ago, a colleague stood on the south side of Queen Street in downtown Toronto after shopping at The Bay.  He flagged a cab; to be correct, he was trying to flag a cab.  Two or three passed by, ignoring his upraised arm.  Perhaps they were on their way to a call; perhaps they didn’t want to accommodate a Black man.  Born and raised in New York City, he was inured to potential racial inferences; annoyed, resigned, but undaunted, he settled into the back seat of the cab that eventually pulled over.  Just another day in the big city.


We continue to live with social inequalities and inequities despite grassroot initiatives from individual and community groups in marginalized neighbourhoods, along with charitable and non-profit associations, often supported by socially conscious corporate bodies.  Governments and related agencies voice concerns and legislate and finance programs to mitigate discrimination.  And then of course there is the Charter.

Nonetheless, the scourge of racism persists, and like an iceberg, much of it is disguised and masked below the surface.  Meanwhile, COVID’s impact on minority communities spotlights our failure to remedy the causes of social disparity, while Donald Trump’s “license to hate” emboldens the irrational and often dangerous fringe in the United States and elsewhere.


Racism and discrimination are endemic in all areas of society.  Relevant to our purpose here, it infects our criminal justice system too, from policing to the courts and through to our prison industry.  For the last 25 years, the Criminal Code [section 718.2(e)] makes it clear that incarceration is a last resort for Indigenous offenders.  Gladue reports, which are a type of pre-sentencing and bail hearing report for Aboriginal offenders, assists the courts when considering sentencing.  All the same, this hasn’t slowed the increase in the number of Indigenous peoples in the prison population, now at 31.5 per cent of all offenders, while our First Nations represent only about 5 per cent of Canada’s population.

Black offenders are caught in this same web.  While section 718.2(e) sets out incarceration as a last resort for Indigenous offenders and does not reference any other racialized group, it does say that judges must consider all available reasonable sentences other than imprisonment for all offenders, given the circumstances and consistent with the harm done.  Nova Scotia’s highest court ruled in August that considerations made specifically for Indigenous offenders must apply to Black offenders.  The reports on Black offenders are known there as an Impact of Race and Culture Assessment (IRCA).  This will soon be copied elsewhere in Canada.  As it is now, 9.5 per cent of federal prisoners are Black, although Black people make up roughly 3.5 per cent of the population.

So, here we are with the best intentions on paper to make the justice system more attuned to realities in the world while in practice we appear to be going backward.  A look at a potential pathway forward next time out.


Correctional Service of Canada must accept whomever the courts send to it.  Racialized minorities in federal prisons are subject to the same hostility and discriminatory practices they experience in the community.  Worse, a Black or Indigenous inmate is more helpless to respond in the prison environment when they’re up against it.  CSC may have the tools to investigate and reprimand staff and inmates where warranted, but most incidents never come to the attention of any level of CSC management that could intervene if motivated.

There’s a missed opportunity here for Correctional Service of Canada to combat systemic racism, an opportunity it would argue is not available to it.  While CSC is the final repository for the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous men and women in our criminal justice system, it doesn’t use its voice to stress the posturing of a government that claims leadership for righting society’s wrongs and which are so apparent behind the walls. 

Activism may not be a part of Correctional Service of Canada’s mandate, although the consciences of the people who fill its offices are certainly under assault by social injustices.  CSC is not the only silent public agency of course but its high profile would lend authority in addressing the blight of racism if it chose to speak out.

As noted, a progressive perspective next time.

Prisons – COVID – Protests

How can a person protest that their social responsibility is an unacceptable impingement on their freedoms?  Where does that illusionary concept even germinate? 

Why would anyone vociferously reject their commonality with the rest of humankind on the one hand, but demand acceptance by the whole on the other?  How could logic become so corrupted?

We’ve all been impacted by COVID.  We’re all tired of having to accommodate restrictions.  To boot, we’re now coming to a place where “living with COVID” is likely to be our norm until a response to eliminate the menace is available.  Even then, success is dependent upon acceptance.

In the meantime, our health care system and all who work within or along side it is frequently overwhelmed by the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”  Some of us are unable to access the health care we should have or could have otherwise, despite the warnings from our hospitals not to ignore potential emergencies.  All the same, many routine and elective procedures and services are often delayed or unavailable.

Protestors, antivaxxers, anti-maskers, and the angry apostles of disinformation and misinformation are costing us all and unnecessarily prolonging this crisis.


This brief aside from the continuing prison commentary cites harm this canker is inflicting upon the community mirrors the injury it exacts on inmates in our federal prisons.  For all the criticism due Correctional Service of Canada elsewhere, its response to the COVID pandemic is appropriate and reasonable. 

Vaccinated and unvaccinated inmates mingle in the congregate settings of prison populations and calls for strict vigilance to prevent outbreaks.  In the process though, offenders we expect to be prepared for an eventual safe re-entry into society are in a partial limbo because protestors are contributing to higher infection rates in the community, which in turn warrants the continuing restrictions inside the walls. 

CSC programs are running, but all “extra-curricular” initiatives that depend on community volunteer participation are suspended.  With limited substantive rehabilitative options, every opportunity inmates have for some constructive occupation is good for them in the instant and for the community in the long run.

What about in-person visits from family and friends?   Mask mandates are in place for both visitors and inmates in the visiting room of course, and ‘social distancing’ is reinforced by barriers.  No physical contact is possible.  The three-day Private Family Visit (PFV) program resumed for qualified inmates and approved guests, but even there, inmates are required to isolate for 14 days following a PFV.  Unvaccinated inmates are required to isolate for 28 days, perhaps a CSC nod to encourage vaccine compliance.  No matter.  Getting close to the people who are important to the lives of offenders, and are an assumed part of the rehabilitation process, is COVID inhibited.

This strange anomaly where a few people are intentionally denying established COVID -19 science and protesting in support of “alternative facts” without any credible foundation, is affecting the best interests even of our prison inmates.  Compassion for criminals is not in the equation here, but community safety should be a concern when offenders are released with less preparation than we expect.


Prison – Media Relations revisited

“Inmates have no rights”, published May 9 of this year was an apt title to spotlight media relations in federal prisons as governed by Correctional Service of Canada’s Commissioner’s Directive 022.  This CD provides “guidance on media relations activities, including media interviews, to staff and to offenders under the jurisdiction of the Correctional Service of Canada.”


Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger’s 2019-2020 Annual Report addressed the legal challenges CSC risks with this directive’s procedures for inmate/media contacts, citing measures that are “unreasonable, irrelevant or not founded in law,” arguing there is no legal basis for CSC “to muzzle, deny or justify restricting citizen access to the media, including those deprived of liberty,” insisting “the wider public has a right to be informed of what goes on behind prison walls,” and warning the current policy does not comply with the Charter.

Correctional Service of Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly committed to revise policy on media relations to “acknowledge inmates’ right to freedom of expression.”  With no revision after more than a year, a May 9 letter to the commissioner this spring, and published as a postscript to the May 23 posting, questioned the delay.   No response was expected.  No response came.  After all, CSC does its best to ignore its political masters, so it would have no reservations in ignoring the people to whom it is accountable.

As a follow-up, a letter went out to Ivan Zinger on June 22:-

Dr. Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator,
The Office of the Correctional Investigator,
Ottawa, ON  K1P 6L4

Re: Commissioner’s Directive 022 – Media Relations

Dear Dr. Zinger:

On page 18 of your 2019-2020 Annual Report, “Inmate Access to the Media”, you note the Commissioner’s commitment to revise CD-022.  Given that intention, there was no reason for you to include that in your list of Recommendations.

I did write Commissioner Kelly in early May of this year to ask about this forthcoming change and questioned the delay in releasing the update since CSC NHQ had this in front of them for almost a year.  To this point, no revision has been released.

No doubt your 2020-2021 Annual Report has long-ago gone to press, and with your usual due diligence, I do expect you have not let this matter ‘slip through the cracks.’ 

I continue to await a satisfactory resolution that brings CSC Media practice into compliance with the Charter and hope the work you have already done does not necessitate further encouragement.

To that, a response dated Friday, August 27 did come from Stacie Ogg, Deputy Director of the Office of the Correctional Investigator:-

Thank you for your correspondence of June 2021.  I apologize for the delay in responding.  I am responding on behalf of Dr. Zinger.  The Office has been in contact with the Correctional Service of Canada regarding the Media Relations Commissioner’s Directive and as soon as we have more information to share regarding an update, we will provide you with additional information.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing for Correctional Service of Canada to do what’s right without legal action?


What’s the big deal about inmate access to the media?  Think about “the wider public has a right to be informed of what goes on behind prison walls.”  The wider public is ill-informed now and doesn’t grasp the impact prison environments have on the community.  It’s no fault of the media, but present coverage can be limited by a lack of public interest.  Easier access to prisoners by the media, and for prisoners to the media is a portal for reform through an increased awareness.

Psst!  Wanna know a secret?  Well, in truth, it isn’t much of a secret.  Inmates can reach out to media and easily circumvent prison protocols.  However, cloak-and-dagger contacts lack corroboration and a means of verification and don’t get the same attention as information coming by way of an open process under the auspices of authorized protocols.


A relevant reflection:  Many years ago, perhaps twenty years or more, this writer was made aware of a disturbance at Kingston Penitentiary.  The passage of time has dimmed specifics, but recollections say this was more a protest than a riot, but it was a significant event.  Resources were brought in to manage the situation, and no information escaped those high walls.  This writer spoke with a friend, an editor of a major Canadian newspaper, and the information was passed on to one of the papers investigative reporters.  In a call to the prison, the reporter was told all was well, and there had been no incident. 

There is a real need to let in the light.

Prison ‘dry cells’

“In Canada, we don’t send people to prison to be held in demeaning, undignified and painful confinement.  You’re sent to prison to serve a sentence and to be prepared for release.  And you can’t do that while you’re isolated in a dry cell under 24-hour surveillance.”
Howard Sapers, Correctional Investigator of Canada (2004 to 2016)


Dry cells don’t have running water or a flushing toilet, lights are always on, and occupants are watched by guards and security cameras 24 hours a day, even when using the toilet.  A dry cell is a search procedure authorized when an institutional head (warden) has reasonable information to believe an inmate has ingested or is hiding contraband in a body cavity.  If an inmate has ingested or hidden contraband inside their bodies, the expectation is that it will eventually be expelled.

Bill C-83 eliminated the use of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) and established structured intervention units.  It also made changes to the use of dry cells.  The bill removed x-rays as a search option for contraband and left dry cell confinement as the only recourse.  The bill did add a provision that an inmate under such scrutiny “shall be visited by a registered health care professional at least once a day.”

Howard Sapers accepts that dry cells can play a role in keeping institutions safe but insists their use should only be a last resort, and then only with strict oversight.  In his 2011-2012 annual report, he recommended an “absolute prohibition on dry cell placements exceeding 72 hours,” after compiling evidence from the overseen and the overseers, reviewing CSC policy, and studying international practices.  Correctional Service of Canada wouldn’t put a time limit on dry cell placements but agreed to more guidance and input from senior staff members.

Current Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger calls dry cell conditions “by far the most restrictive imaginable, even more so than the conditions of administrative segregation.”  The procedures CSC introduced upon Mr. Sapers recommendations don’t satisfy Dr. Zinger and he again called on the agency to place a 72-hour limit on dry celling in his 2019-2020 annual report.  Again, CSC rejected a time limit, “as it is more than feasible to delay bowel movement beyond 72 hours.”

Women have a greater risk of maltreatment in dry cell placements under the law as it stands now.  A court challenge was set in motion in Nova Scotia last November on behalf of a Nova Institution for Women inmate who was confined in a dry cell for 16 days in May of last year after guards accused her of hiding contraband in her vagina.  A subsequent doctor’s examination found no foreign objects in her body.

The woman’s lawyers claim she was subject to extreme stress that exacerbated existing mental illnesses and described her experience as torture.  Further, the law discriminates since objects are not expelled from the vagina.  What’s more, back in 2011 a warden at an Alberta women’s institution testified before the federal Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security that dry cell interventions are less effective with women.  That was in 2011!

Source:  Shaina Luck, “Federal prison investigators press for changes in use of ‘dry cells’.”  CBC News – posted November 10, 2020


Addendum – “Dry celling” is a contentious issue, just as is any form of close custody.  Conditions of confinement figure prominently in the number of complaints to the correctional investigator’s office, and the appeals to prisoner advocates. 

Note the earlier quote from CSC in rejecting a limit to the use of dry cells, “as it is more than feasible to delay bowel movement beyond 72 hours.”  To the degree that the point is valid, and it’s a stretch, it has more to do with rejecting outside interventions than it does with a person’s bowel habits.

In general, credible and lawful placements in restrictive detentions and/or loss of privileges aren’t in dispute when supported by policy, like it or not.  But practice is often in conflict with policy, resulting in arbitrary actions that are retaliatory, punitive, and reactionary.  All the while, the absence of an effective grievance process only serves to charge the tension.

As always, more to come……

Prison isolation.


December 10, 2020

The Honourable Bill Blair,
Minister of Public Safety,

Is Correctional Service of Canada a rogue agency?

CSC knew its solitary confinement policies would not survive scrutiny but left it to your government to legislate C-83 and has since worked to find a path around the bill’s intent.

Some time ago, you had to intervene on behalf of Professor Anthony Doob and his panel to get information on the implementation of C-83’s provisions that Correctional Service of Canada had failed to deliver in a timely manner.

Now, with two reports in hand that are critical of CSC’s isolation techniques, the Globe and Mail said on November 16 that, “Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the findings raised ‘serious concerns’ and vowed to address them.”

The only option to make a “correctional service” out of a “prison industry” is to knock down what we have now and start over.  CSC knows though that you can huff and putt the day long, but you will soon move on, thankful to be rid of the file, and the agency will be left to indoctrinate your successor.

So much for good governance.


Bill C-83 is an Act to amend the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, under which Correctional Service of Canada is governed.  C-83’s primary obligation, although not its only aim, is to eliminate “administrative segregation” (solitary confinement) in Canada’s federal prisons and to establish “structured intervention units” as the alternative.  (Note that nowhere does Correctional Service of Canada ever use the words “solitary confinement.”) 
C-83 received Royal Assent on June 21, 2019.

The legislation was a response to rulings by Courts of Appeal in British Columbia and Ontario that rendered the use of administrative segregation unlawful.  The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Mandela Rules, adjudged Canada’s practice of solitary confinement as torture.  Intentionally then, the policy around C-83’s structured intervention units exceed the minimum Mandela Rules standards.  Canada considers itself a champion of human rights, as it should be, and takes pains to criticize human rights abuses in other countries, as it must.  But what is that adage about throwing stones while living in a glass house?


So, where are we now?

Patrick White’s “Federal prisons still use solitary confinement, report says,” in the Wednesday, February 23 edition of the Globe and Mail earlier this year, and Murray Fallis’ “Canada’s prisons consistently violate Mandela Rules,” in the Thursday, February 25 Toronto Star say we’re not doing well.  As criminologist Dr. Anthony Doob put it, “We think that the time has come for Canada to acknowledge that it still has solitary confinement and torture by another name.”

To be fair, Correctional Service of Canada has made efforts to implement the provisions of C-83 and wants to be seen and heard to be making an effort.  The agency can’t claim genuine support for the bill’s intrusion into its monopoly though, and there’s no doubt it hasn’t found favour in the trenches.  In any case, CSC must identify the roadblocks to successfully meeting the bill’s mandate, and proactively work to resolve what it finds.  As a suggestion, additional mental health and mediation resources are certainly a part of the solution.

Bill Blair announced the creation of a two-year advisory panel in late July to look into prisoner isolation practices and assess and report on issues with implementing new policies.  Former correctional investigator Howard Sapers (2004 to 2016) will chair the panel which will include a range of experts, including Anthony Doob.  There are plans to provide a secretariat function to support the panel and work with CSC when necessary.

A good move, but the final paragraph of the above December 10 letter is always relevant.

Bill C-83 and ‘dry cells’……next time.

Prisons & Bill C-22……


The Liberal government tabled Bill C-22 in mid-February to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people in the justice system.  It would repeal mandatory minimum penalties for all drug offences and some firearm offences, expand the use of conditional sentences (i.e. house arrest) for a number of crimes and allow police and prosecutors to divert drug possession charges away from the courts.

Critics say it’s a step in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.  For one, it does not repeal simple drug possession from the Criminal Code.  Lawyers and advocates say this was a missed opportunity to what is otherwise a strong bill.  “It’s probably the first progressive piece of criminal justice reform in the last two decades, so it’s a sight for sore eyes.  It’s a huge step in the right direction.”  This from Daniel Brown, vice-president of Ontario’s Criminal Lawyers’ Association.

The sentencing laws imposed by the Stephen Harper government did not deter crime, and for one, led to the custodial overrepresentation of minorities and low-risk, first-time offenders.  “This rigid one-size-fits-all approach makes it impossible for judges to take into account mitigating factors in order to impose a sentence that fits the crime,” said Justice Minister David Lametti earlier this year.

Senator Kim Pate, who is heavily involved is social justice issues, introduced the legislation in the Senate.  “Bill C-22 emphasizes the vital importance of alternatives to criminalization and imprisonment to redress systemic racism.  It is regrettable that the government acknowledges these realities yet stopped sort of taking the kinds of bold steps we need right now,” she said.

Opposition Conservatives were quick to bash the bill, claiming removing mandatory minimums will not help Canadians living with addictions.  Frankly, the Conservatives do not know what they’re talking about.  A pushback letter in the spring challenged Conservative justice critic Rob Moore and House leader Gérard Deltell:…..

Messrs. Rob Moore & Gérard Deltell:

Conservative Party attitudes towards crime and punishment are medieval.

……. I accuse you and your fellow party members of advancing punitive, regressive, and retributive policies in support of a reactionary judiciary and a brutish prison industry.

Bill C-22 is anathema to you.  It doesn’t go far enough but deserves to become law all the same.

I hope that pisses you off.

Critics say the bill should have eliminated drug possession offences altogether rather than requiring police and prosecutors to consider alternatives to criminal charges and incarceration.  According to University of Toronto criminologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah,  “we know that police officers do not exercise their discretion evenly across social groups, and so racialized individuals, Indigenous people and economically marginalized people are less likely to benefit from positive police discretion.”


Okay, so we have this bill moving through the House and Senate towards Royal Assent.  Right?  This Bill C-22, “hailed as one of the most progressive pieces of criminal justice legislation in years”, according to Jacques Gallant writing in the Toronto Star in early July.  Right?

Well, not so fast.  The Liberal government was first elected in 2015, promising criminal justice reform, but waited ‘til February of this year to produce what Toronto criminal defence lawyer Annamaria Enenajor calls “progressivism pageantry.”  “Which is an outward display of values and enunciation of principles that are consistent with progressive ideals, particularly in terms of reforming the criminal justice system, but no actual, meaningful changes or action.  It’s all pageantry.”

The bill barely budged in the House of Commons, which rose for the summer in June.  If a fall election is called, the bill will die.  The Liberals and Conservatives are blaming each other for delays.  In the meantime, during the present government’s tenure, between 2015 and 2020, the proportion of federal prisoners who are Indigenous rose from 24 per cent to 30 per cent.

Again, Criminal Lawyers Association Vice-president Daniel Brown noted that while the government may “lament” the delays in getting C-22 passed, it’s had years, including four years as a majority government, to implement meaningful reform.  “Six years later, they haven’t been able to accomplish it, and anyone watching would wonder whether or not (C-22) was a hollow promise at the tail end of their tenure.”

Justice Minister David Lametti must answer for that:

The Honourable David Lametti,
Constituency Office,

Re:       Bill C-22

Minister Lametti:

Your government has had years, four of them with a majority, to craft and shepherd C-22 through Parliament’s bureaucratic labyrinth from the bill’s inception to Royal Assent.

What happened?  Yes, there’s been justifiable criticism that C-22 doesn’t go far enough, but all the same, it’s been called a “huge step in the right direction,” a strong bill, and “one of the most progressive pieces of criminal justice legislation in years.” 

Where is it now?  A parliamentary custodian is poised with it over a recycle bin, pending the call for a fall election when C-22 would die.  We can only hope that won’t happen.

This failure to execute is on you.  As Daniel Brown put it, “anyone watching would wonder whether or not (C-22) was a hollow promise……”

What are you going to do?

Now.  Prisons.  Back to where we were…..

Leaving prison……MORE


“Joe” was released on parole and permitted to bypass a half-way house and go home.  He was required to meet with his parole officer regularly but otherwise was free to move on with his life.  One night about three months after his release, two police officers showed up at his front door, placed him under arrest and returned him to prison.

When asked how he was managing in the community during a meeting with his parole officer earlier in the day, Joe felt confident enough to say that he was adjusting well and had only slipped a little recently by doing “a couple of lines.”  That no-no was reported and brought the police to his door.  Why, he was asked by fellow inmates when he showed up back on the range, would he admit to that.  Well, he told them, he was simply trying to be honest.

Yes, what Joe did was prohibited under the terms of his release, and policy warranted a return to custody for two/three months.  All the same, parole officers and half-way house staffers are too ready to return an ex-offender to prison, disregarding offsetting positives.  It’s as if there is a template that’s skewed in favour of punishment over rehabilitation.  That former inmate or others like him may have found a job, keeping in mind that help from CSC with finding employment is hardly more than the mandate to “go out and get a job.”  He may be helping family, making new friends, and confronting the challenges of life in the real world again.  None of that matters.


“Jack” was sentenced to 30 years in prison in the United States, later transferred to Canada to serve his remaining time, and he did not apply or accept parole or early release because he didn’t want any compulsory attachments to CSC or the Parole Board.  He spent a full 30 years inside working as a paralegal, participating in over 300 cases against the prison industry in both the U.S. and Canada, and building links to law firms in the community.

When released, he continued with work in the law, eventually married, and is buying a home.  Last November he wrote, “I’m paying taxes and being good.  I’ve been out six years now and it’s really easy once you get into a routine and are around people who don’t drag you into the gutter.”


Joe and Jack had more support and resources than many of the men and women released into the community.  Some don’t have a stable home, or the family and friends in their lives aren’t tuned to ward off future criminality.  Groups committed to propping up an ex-offender’s recovery often don’t have the means to fully engage with the lives of the people they’re trying to help.  And there’s the dispiriting prospect of working with some ex-cons who are released back into the community in worse shape then when they were first sentenced. 

To clarify, there are some men and women who won’t or can’t make a transition from a criminal lifestyle.  The unfortunate are the people whose mental/emotional health challenges combined with controlling addictions that go untreated drives them to reoffend and are too often resigned to living a life they do not want.


“Affordable housing for former prisoners helps us all”, headed a contribution by Murray Fallis to the Toronto Star back on Sunday, October 25 of last year.  He was an articling fellow with the John Howard Society of Canada at the time and was researching the impact of recidivism on the community.

It costs taxpayers about $116,000 per year to maintain a prisoner in federal custody, more for maximum security inmates, less for minimum security offenders.  As Mr. Fallis wrote, “the fundamental goal of our correctional system is to ensure these individuals do not reoffend.”  We   agree that’s the policy but argue the practice does not usually meet the standard.  Nonetheless, Mr. Fallis makes a strong case on affordable housing for ex-cons.

Canada says the recidivism rate is 25%, although the figure is likely higher.  For one, when an ex-offender has been out of the system for five years or more, and then breaks the law, that is not included in recidivist statistics.  So, let’s say as things are now one in four will reoffend.  According to Mr. Fallis, “when an individual has adequate housing upon release, one study indicates that reincarceration drops by approximately 19 percentage points.”  That would amount to $459 million in savings by CSC in the first two years if a housing program existed.

Prisoners aren’t included in affordable housing initiatives because society feels criminals deserve their punishment, and maybe they do.  But just how much can we do with $459 million?  Including former prisoners in Canada’s National Housing Strategy makes sense, and those dollars would go a long way to build housing for the tens of thousands on waiting lists.  Murray Fallis concludes, “It’s not rocket science or radicalism: it’s an evidence-based solution to an expensive, long-term problem.”

Affordable housing for prisoners is a pipe dream.  After all, it would interfere with the status-quo, wouldn’t it.

Leaving prison……


A few years ago, when inmates could still make three-way calls through one of their approved outside contacts, two young men in Kingston Penitentiary were talking about the girls in their lives.  One was anxious to meet somebody new while the other was willing to pass on the number of a woman friend.  With that in hand, a call was made, and a bright cheerful voice answered.  This inmate didn’t begin by introducing himself; rather, he jumped into friendly banter and the curious voice on the other end of the line played along, seeming to enjoy the conversation.  After a few minutes, she asked how he came to have her number.  When he named his source, there was a pause.  “Are you calling from inside a prison?”   “Yes.”  The line went dead.

Good move.  Prison romances are tough. 

Inner suburban rows of townhouses are a familiar sight in every city.  Often, in one of those townhouses on one of those streets in every urban centre is a family, a woman, her husband and their two kids.  Her best friend lives next door, a woman raising two kids alone.  Her husband is in prison.  There is a dramatic difference in the lifestyles of these two families.

Prison families live in hope.  There is little else.

A group of women sitting in a prison visitor waiting area chat as they are processed into the room where they’ll spend a couple of hours with their inmate spouses/boyfriends/brothers.  There may sometimes be a middle-aged couple coming to see a son, but rarely are men visiting on their own.  Conversation will flow easily on mundane everyday nothings until the prisoners arrive.

But, when women who are familiar with each other have a one-on-one conversation, talk will turn to the challenges of living with a partner or spouse in prison.  Frustration and anger and despondency will be forefront.  Overheard from one such conversation: “He has been very good to me, and I try to support him, but if he is not finished with prison this time, I don’t know that I can stick with him.”  A common thread is that men, women, and children who are an inmate’s community support are stressed, first from managing their own lives in the community, and then coping with the tensions of prison life.

All is not as it should be.


Correctional Service of Canada readily agrees connections to the community are an important component of a rehabilitation process.  Visiting programs have options for short face-to-face visits to all-day special event gatherings to three-day “private family visits.”  An applicant with an established history with an inmate is pre-cleared for visits and is of course subject to security protocols when entering an institution.

All the same, Canada’s prison industry allows two conflicts at least with its public position on the importance of community relations.  For one, visitors don’t always feel welcome.  Depending on the day or the institution or the staffing assignments, visitor experiences can be awkward.  Men and women in CSC uniforms have a low opinion of their charges and will often paint the people closest to inmates with the same brush.  Friction can lead to grievances and even legal actions (search Paul Saliba on this site for “Correctional Officer Darin Gough” from December 20 of 2020).  CSC policy and CSC practice is not always in concert.

Visitors going into institutions is one thing.  Prisoners returning to the community is something else, and it’s here where CSC trips in “assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens.”  If, as some estimate, up to 80% of the men and women in our prisons can be turned around, they need more support than a spouse, parent, sibling, or friend can deliver.  What’s missing are assigned CSC staffers whose role is to work with willing inmates and the people behind them to identify challenges resulting from institutionalization and establish connections to government financed and sponsored resources that maximize prospects for success.  (Resources that presently do not exist.)  As it is, ex-offenders are left to rely on essential and dedicated volunteer organizations for support, groups which are in truth filling the void for services our governments neglect.


Community support is only one piece to reducing recidivism.  More on that later
A bottom line here says CSC lacks the commitment to make a difference when a prisoner leaves the walls and bars behind.

Prison health. Prison wealth. Prison food.

What does it take for a federal agency in the public service with a simple and clearly stated Mission to do what it claims to be doing?

Money, food, and health have been questioned before….once, twice, more?  For as long as Correctional Service of Canada doesn’t do what it knows it should, the probes continue.

CSC Health Services is mandated by the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) to provide “every inmate with essential health care and reasonable access to non-essential mental health care that will contribute to the inmate’s rehabilitation and successful reintegration in the community”.

From the CSC website:  “The delivery of care is provided by health care professionals who are registered or licensed in Canada including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, social workers, dentists, and other relevant specialists.”

There’s no question our federal prison agency spends many millions on health care services each year.  So why would it be the leading source of inmate complaints?

The needs of inmate populations outstrip the means the system has to respond for one, and service delays even in emergencies can make for poorer outcomes.  Symptoms deserving attention can balloon into chronic or serious conditions if response lags, and filling out a request for care is not a substitute for triage.  Mental/emotional disorders are a notable challenge for inmate/patients given the limited treatment resources, not discounting the curse of the stigma attached to psychological conditions. 

Perhaps the CCRA’s use of the words “essential” and “reasonable” in its health care mandate are too subjective.  Despite what CSC health care does deliver, there is still too much that inhibits “rehabilitation” and “successful reintegration.”


Money.  Inmate money.  Prison money.  We’ve been here before, more than once, and nothing has changed.  It’s odd how intelligent people, people with the smarts and connections to make it into the circle of Correctional Service of Canada management just don’t seem to get it.  Or, maybe they do…….

So, a committee in the federal service in 1980 sets up a “pay scale” for federal inmates based on the minimum wage at the time, reduced by allowances for room and board and other expenses.  It is intended to cover the costs of toiletries and food items from the canteen, it’s to help with telephone calls to family, it’s to encourage inmates to contribute to the support of loved ones at home.  It can also give prisoners some life experience at handling money, enhancing the rehabilitation process.

But then, the wheels fell off.  Not only has there been no increase over the years to account for inflationary pressures, but there are also additional reductions plus the elimination of financial incentives.  An inmate today is buying a bag of chips or a tube of toothpaste at 2021 prices using 1980 dollars.  And, there are fewer of those 1980 dollars in his account to boot.

What does that do?  It contributes to an underground economy that can be brutal and brutalizing.  The black market is always a part of prison culture, and the financial circumstances inmates sometimes find themselves are a temptation.  There are always opportunistic profiteers ready to pounce on the weak and the subordinate.  So now it is those loved ones who are putting money into that shadow economy.  How does that help anyone reach their correctional plan goals?   

It doesn’t and maybe that’s what management does get. 


“No, you don’t feed us!” 

So said a federal inmate in an exchange with a member of a prison disciplinary panel when asked why he participated in the institution’s black market.  Topping the short list in his answer was the food he could purchase from the canteen or the underground economy.

“But, we feed you,” said the officer in response.  No, the inmate insisted, what federal inmates have is a 2600 calorie daily diet which is recommended for a low activity male, aged 30 to 50.  Any man who wants to work out, play sports or apply for a physical labour job, will go hungry.

One example from the National Menu for a supper offers chicken stew, steamed potato, tossed salad with French dressing, banana, hot beverage, dairy beverage, whole wheat bread, margarine, white granulated sugar, black pepper.  This looks appetizing if it weren’t for the cook-chill process at central locations where the food is then shipped to prisons.  There can be substitutes if a menu item isn’t locally available and subjectivity can impact a meal.  We noted some time ago that a salad at Millhaven was a handful of lettuce with a package of dressing, while a few miles down the road at Collins Bay, that same salad is what we expect it to be.  Why the difference? 

All the same, that panel member suggested that inmates can supplement their diet with food purchased from the canteen.

Look back at the previous money section.  CSC staffers are at a loss to be able to make logical arguments to support policy, but then there often are no intelligent arguments to be made.

Who speaks for Correctional Service of Canada?  Who answers for Correctional Service of Canada?

Prison life…shrouded realities…


Here’s two:-

Confidentiality is the right of an individual to have personal, identifiable medical information kept private. Patient confidentiality means that personal and medical information given to a health care or insurance provider will not be disclosed to others unless the individual has given specific permission for such release.

Prison health care workers are subject to this obligation of course, but congregate living environments present unusual challenges.  How much privacy can be expected when an inmate patient needs to be segregated or made available for frequent treatment or placed in an infirmary?  Who has access to mental/emotional health assessments?  How are disclosure decisions made and whose input matters?  These are and should be dilemmas calling for assessments that include the best interests of the inmate. 

Of note however, is one unacceptable and intolerable practice that management seems unwilling to address.  When an inmate submits a form for health care attention it includes the reason for the application.  Unfortunately, this form is or can be subject to scrutiny by non-health care staff.  The major concern though arises when inmates are escorted to medical appointments by guards who may then refuse to give the inmate and health care worker privacy for “security reasons.”  This can lead to a sensitive medical complaint becoming fodder for gossip among guards who overhear privileged conversations.  When spread throughout an institution, an inmate in treatment for a very personal condition will be the butt of jokes and ridicule.

This must stop.  It only serves to further damage trust in society.


We don’t hear about sexual assaults in Canadian prisons.  For anyone who pays no attention to our prison industry, the subject doesn’t register.  Odd though, that in the American penal systems sexual violence and harassment is a common darker facet of life behind the walls.  Are we then to believe that incarcerated Canadians are ladies and gentlemen when it comes to matters of intimacy, that sex is not used as a weapon?

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger’s latest published Annual Report (2019-2020) devotes over 35 pages to a chapter he has titled, “A Culture of Silence:  National Investigation into Sexual Coercion and Violence in Federal Corrections.”  He notes that sexual coercion and violence in the community is one of the most under-reported of crimes and estimates suggest that perhaps only 5% of sexual assaults come to the attention of police.

“Prisons are largely closed to public view…..sexual violence in custodial settings….is even more susceptible to under-reporting…..incarcerated individuals face a myriad of disincentives for reporting experiences of sexual violence.  Many are afraid to report, fearing retaliation, retribution, or re-victimization by the perpetrators, be it other inmates or staff.  Furthermore, they face the risk of not being believed, being ridiculed, or even punished for reporting coerced sex.”

Sexual coercion and violence (SCV) have a public profile in the United States.  It’s not hidden away.  Canada does not have an equivalent to the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act, and we do not have any mandatory public reporting requirements.  Further, Correctional Service of Canada does not have a distinct Commissioner’s Directive instructing staff on how to respond to a reported or suspected sexual assault.  What information on the subject is referenced in CSC documentation makes Health Services primarily responsible for handling SCV incidents.

Could CSC Commissioner Kelly be persuaded to video a reading of their Mission Statement for posting on the agency’s web site?

If you don’t know what’s going on, you have a perfect excuse to do nothing.
Toronto Star reader, September, 2013