Leaving prison……MORE

……WHERE TO GO?  WHAT TO DO?

“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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……

….WHERE TO GO?  WHAT TO DO?

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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. 

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“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…

…BEHIND THE WALLS.

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.

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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



Prison security. How much? Too much?

“Security is a top priority for CSC. It involves a constant focus on the safety of the public.  It also means making sure that staff and inmates have a safe and secure place to work and live.”  Correctional Service of Canada web site.

Every Correctional Service of Canada employee is part of the agency’s security substructure. Security means insurance, it means preservation, it’s surveillance, a guarantee, and a shield.  As CSC claims, keeping inmates, staff, and visitors safe is key.  Impenetrable institutional perimeters are a fundamental necessity.  Institutions also have staff dedicated to overseeing security, following prescribed policies which we assume match practice.  And, by design or practice, security has an overriding authority in institutional operations.  But, there are at least two problematic issues that can be counterproductive and in conflict with CSC’s Mission Statement.

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Contraband includes everything that is unauthorized by CSC policy or is illegal.  Considerable resources are available to prevent what is prohibited from getting into prisons, but the process is constantly challenged by opportunistic smuggling innovations.  Drone drops onto prison properties are a novel example. 

Anything that is illegal plus material that promotes or encourages criminality, or advocates gang activities, or endorses hate, and all drugs of course are confiscated.  Same for cell phones, and a range of items that could facilitate the introduction of what is restricted.  This we should expect.  But barred also are newspaper clippings, photocopies, internet sourced information, books, non-subscription magazines, “any material with a purchase value,” tobacco and marijuana, plus there’s an accommodation for institutional management to include anything it may judge as concerning.

The tobacco ban is unwarranted and unreasonable.  Most inmates are smokers, and taking tobacco away from a smoker does not make for a non-smoker.  It makes for a smoker without tobacco.  Granted, a solution that allows smoking on prison property while accommodating the concerns of non-smokers is illusive, but the policy as it is helps drive a parasitic underground economy in need of innovative solutions. This along with other prohibitions that are seen as arbitrary and punitive portray keepers as oppressors and does a disservice to rehabilitation objectives.

Drugs are clearly a serious problem.  There’s a higher percentage of incarcerated men and women with substance abuse and addition issues than in the community.  Some inmates may become initiates into the prison drug culture simply out of boredom and escapism.  Drug prices are exorbitant, profits attract outside criminal interests, violence is endemic, and drug rehabilitative remedies and programming is underfunded.  Security in prisons, just like police in the community, know the perils of the drug trade, and is in a position to consult with corporate management on best practices to reduce demand and make recommendations for progressive harm reduction strategies.  However, security is unlikely to see that as part of the job description.

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Inmate movement includes the numerous reasons prisoners have to leave their ranges.  There are jobs and visits and programs (presently suspended due to COVID), recreational and exercise periods, medical appointments, meal calls, and meetings with staff.  The sway of security personnel in institutions permits the cancellation or temporary suspension of any or all movement.  Imagine the inmate who has a toothache, has suffered for weeks waiting for the dentist (more the rule than the exception) and has his appointment cancelled for a security priority somewhere in the institution, and may have to wait for days or weeks to be rescheduled.  Security seems to operate under the presumption that there are no inmate priorities.  Not conducive to encouraging rehabilitative “correctional plan” goals, is it.

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Security in a prison environment is of paramount importance, yes, but it can also whip up a disrespect for the society to which we expect offenders to return as law-abiding and contributing citizens.

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Postscript:  From May 9, CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly’s reminder about the revision to the Media Relations Directive was mailed to her office on May 6: –

Anne Kelly, Commissioner,
Correctional Service of Canada,
Ottawa, Ontario

Re:       Commissioner’s Directive 022 – Media Relations

Dear Commissioner Kelly:

Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger makes several recommendations in his Annual Reports each year to which Correctional Service of Canada responds.

On page 18 of his 2019-2020 Annual Report, Dr. Zinger cites an investigation into Commissioner’s Directive 022-Media Relations.  This might have led to another recommendation save that, “the Service agreed to review CD-022 and address the concerns noted above.”

Further, “the Commissioner committed that the revised policy on media relations will acknowledge inmates right to freedom of expression, in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  It will also reaffirm that media interviews may proceed so long as they do not jeopardize the safety and security of the institution, other inmates, or any person.”

It has been at least a year since you undertook this review.  While there is much demanding your attention, this project is relatively minor on the one hand, but the changes will also eliminate any suspicion that the Service is trying to prevent inmate contact with the media on the other.

I look forward to reading the new directive in the near future.

Should guards know what is in inmate health records?  That and more next time……

“Inmates have no rights!”

Again, the Senate of Canada’s appraisal of our federal prison industry:-

“The security features inherent to federal correctional facilities are designed to keep people in as much as they are to keep people out.  As a result, the management of the federally-sentenced population is largely conducted away from public scrutiny.  Invisible to the general population, federally-sentenced persons are often forgotten.”

While the focus remains almost entirely on Correctional Service of Canada, provincial institutions present the same challenges.  From sea to sea to sea, there isn’t much to choose from among the provincial and territorial jails.  Correctional Service of Canada, as head honcho of the collegiate collection of carceral coolers, has a national profile, and is the repository of men and women incarcerated for longer sentences, giving us a model vantage point to scrutinize how we treat the people who violate our laws.

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“Inmates have no rights!”  So says a seasoned, long serving federally-sentenced man who is one of many low-profile prison activists throughout the industry.  No matter what the law decrees, or what decisions come down from the Courts, no matter the policies Correctional Service of Canada lays out for its employees, or the pronouncements of its management and spin doctors on the efficacy of its operations, in the trenches inmates know that none of it carries any weight against the immunity every CSC staffer claims for whatever actions or behaviours arise from the performance of their duties.

Correctional Service of Canada makes every effort to throw a blanket over day-to-day life within its institutions.  This is the entry point for reformation.  Accountability and transparency have no meaning when self-administered by bodies that do not, for one, even know what its guards are doing.  The deaths of Soleiman Faqiri in an Ontario jail and Matthew Hines in a Nova Scotia federal prison example the extremes of the lack of responsibility to which the perpetrators of crimes in custody are held when wearing a uniform, and the absence of transparency in the overseers of penal institutions.  Notice too, in an industry where protecting one’s butt is an occupational priority, how CSC and the provincial agencies protest what critics have to say.

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One first step to letting in the light on the CSC prison environment as inmates and guards and other staff members interact every day is to rewrite Commissioner’s Directive 022 which governs media relations.  According to the CSC website, its purpose is “to provide guidance on media relations activities, including media interviews, to staff and to offenders under the jurisdiction of the Correctional Service of Canada.”

What?  Why are “offenders” included in a media relations directive as they are?

It’s good policy and wise business practice to dictate the relationship between Correctional Service of Canada, its management and its employees with the media.  Of necessity, CSC must speak with one voice, just as every corporation, business, and government bureau does, no matter how twisted the message.  But, there is no legal basis for CSC “to muzzle, deny or justify restricting citizen access to the media, including those deprived of liberty,” as Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger wrote in his 2019-2020 Annual Report.

Further from that same report, “….we found that some of the policy criteria set out in Commissioner’s Directive 022 – Media Relations to be unreasonable, irrelevant or not founded in law.  In unreasonably denying or delaying an inmate’s access to the media, the Service may be in violation of recognized democratic principles and constitutionally guaranteed rights.  An incarcerated person does not forfeit the right to freedom of expression and the wider public has a right to be informed of what goes on behind prison walls.”  The report does accept that there are reasonable security and operational restrictions that need to be considered when connecting inmates and the media, but they must be “grounded in law rather than how CSC thinks an inmate might behave or say to the media.”

Correctional Investigator Zinger wrote that the Service agreed to review CD-022, given the issues he raised.  “The Commissioner committed that the revised policy on media relations will acknowledge inmates’ right to freedom of expression. in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  It will also reaffirm that media interviews may proceed so long as they do not jeopardize the safety and security of the institution, other inmates, or any person.”  There’s potentially negative subjectivity there but the end result will tell.

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It’s been about a year since the Commissioner agreed to this undertaking, and while it can be argued that a revision of the media policy is the relatively simple matter of an executive decision, this is ‘government.’  No doubt Commissioner Kelly asked that a committee be struck to study changes, given six months to submit recommendations, followed by an analysis of the ramifications of a rewrite, and ending with the release of an amended C-022 in due course.

CSC National Headquarters may need some prodding and a reminder.  That is in order.  A year should be a sufficient allowance for this work. 

As we wait, an examination of some Security functions needs a look.  Next.

Correctional Service of Canada exists……

……TO DELIVER EMPLOYMENT AND BENEFITS TO 18,000 PLUS FEDERAL CIVIL SERVANTS.

HOW COULD ANYONE THINK OTHERWISE? 

Consider this:
Thousands of men and women, dozens of organizations and groups, many of note like the John Howard Society, Elizabeth Fry Society, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Correctional Investigator of Canada, and a particularly important entity we know as the Supreme Court of Canada, have laboured for decades to persuade, cajole, convince, and even force Correctional Service of Canada’s compliance with it’s Mission Statement on the one hand, and to proactively adopt and initiate progressive correctional practices on the other.

Yes, there’s progress, recalling Margaret Mead’s:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  But progress in our prisons is slow, limited, sometimes moving under protest, and often confronted by clever sabotage.  There’s this sense that CSC pays lip service to what it sees as unwelcome interference while devising circumventions behind closed doors.  It gives no inkling that the prison industry is being dragged screaming and howling into a future where it sees no benefit to its viability.  That should be concerning.  It is howling and screaming, but we don’t see that.  This is an agency that has become practiced at keeping prying eyes out, and accountability and transparency at bay.

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Why?  What’s going on?

 Canada established this office as a correctional portal for people who come into conflict with the law, and assessed as meriting confinement, and subject to programming and guidance to permit a safe return to society.  It’s purposely named the Correctional Service of Canada, functions under federal legislation that is complemented by dozens of Commissioner’s Directives to define, flesh out, and detail policy and practice.  Further, there’s even limited allowances for institutional management to fine tune for local conditions.

The terrain is landscaped to meet the challenges for which Correctional Service of Canada is purposed.  Billions goes into operations.  CSC has the resources to aggressively lead in the field and be ahead of its critics.  No doubt, there are some earnest efforts to mimic a correcting system, and personnel who take their work seriously.  Despite this, where is the commitment to stay attuned to best practices, to meet the needs of the incarcerated, and prioritize positive outcomes?  All the while, how much is spent on legal fees to defend claims against CSC?  How much is spent to settle actions?  How much is spent on spin doctors to convince the public that CSC is doing what it is intended to do?  The groups and associations and courts and women and men who argue the delinquency of the system have good cause.

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“When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”  Adapt this Mark Twain quote to our premise here that Correctional Service of Canada exists to deliver employment and benefits to 18,000 plus federal civil servants, then “the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”  How could it be otherwise?

What’s next?  Simply put, another round is what’s next, followed by another round, followed by……..  There are objectives worth the pursuit.  No, this is a cause demanding the pursuit.  As one cycle follows another, there are always new people, new groups, new forces ready to take up the torch from flagging veterans.

And so, we begin.  We are always beginning.

 

(Note:  Correctional Service of Canada is only one small piece of government.  Just how much smoke and mirrors might there be elsewhere in Ottawa?)

Part II: How do prisoners get a life……

…….WHEN THE PRISON INDUSTRY SAYS NO.

“Canada does have promising programs in its federal prisons, and Walls to Bridges is a great example,” noted the March 28 entry.  Yet, its availability is extremely limited and restricted to few inmates, and as the Correctional Investigator points out: “The Walls to Bridges program is funded entirely by the university/college offering the course and only requires CSC to provide classroom space and screen community students coming into the institution.”

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Two points:  Prison programming with few exceptions is suspended during COVID which leaves men and women with too much time on their hands during the best of times as it is with even less to do.  As well, this will report on the latest viewpoints and findings of Dr. Ivan Zinger and his Office of the Correctional Investigator.

But first, referencing the Correctional Service of Canada website, we read:  “CORCAN is a key rehabilitation program of the Correctional Service of Canada.  It contributes to safe communities by providing offenders with employment and employability skills training while incarcerated in federal penitentiaries, and for brief periods of time, after they are released in the community.”

Now, turning to the latest available correctional investigator annual report:  “…many prison shops visited for this investigation require offenders to work on obsolete machines no longer used in the community.  Few CORCAN-run industries provide training or teach skills that are job relevant or meet labour market demands.  The Service has continued to maintain obsolete infrastructure and technological platforms for such an extended period of time that these problems now appear insoluble.  Federal corrections maintain environments that are information-depriving, often using security concerns as a basis for maintaining the status quo.  There appears to be little motivation to improve, evidenced by the lack of progress over the last two decades.”

Further:  “It is equally difficult to obtain a job-ready or marketable vocational skills, even for those working in COCAN.  While we saw some CORCAN shops that were indeed providing workers with relevant, sought-after skills, it was also evident that too many workers were toiling day after day gaining very few skills that would assist them in obtaining a job.”  Some CSC staffers discussed how every CORCAN job taught dependability, working with others, problem-solving and conflict resolution, “many also confided that prison industries effectively fill an individual’s time rather than provide a useable skillset.”

The elimination of incentive pay by a previous federal government (changes that also reduced inmate pay from a base that hasn’t changed since about 1980) “made it difficult to recruit workers in CORCAN industries.  Few wanted to work all day in CORCAN jobs that were physically demanding, provided limited skills and were paid the same amount that a range cleaner makes, a position that requires far less investment in time or motivation.”

“Research and experience tell us that prison education and vocational training offer an important opportunity to intervene in the lives of individuals and a chance to provide them with the skills and knowledge required to succeed in today’s economy.  The reality is that the vast majority of individuals who are incarcerated will eventually be released back into the community; therefore, it is in the best interest of not only those who are incarcerated, but to all Canadians, that they be offered the basic tools in order to eventually contribute to the Canadian workforce and economy in law-abiding ways.”

The Correctional Investigator’s latest annual report cited ten of the recommendations it’s made for learning and vocational training behind bars to Correctional Service of Canada over the last ten years.  They range from computer and internet access to teaching computer skills, to meaningful work opportunities, to modernizing CORCAN, to action plans on relevant jobs, to studies on inmate work, to how to meet the needs of vulnerable populations.

What’s been going on at Correctional Service of Canada all these years?  A studied observation next time.

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.

 

Inmates. How would you rate?

“WE DON’T BELIEVE THAT CORRECTIONAL SERVICE CANADA WILL CHANGE ITS BEHAVIOUR UNLESS IT’S COMPELLED.”

So said Vancouver-based civil-rights lawyer Jason Gratl, who filed a proposed class-action against the government in Federal Court on Monday, January 11, claiming systemic bias in Correctional Service of Canada’s security classifications. 

The lawsuit argues that living assignments, access to programs, parole opportunities are negatively impacting thousands of inmates through prejudiced and outdated risk tools.  The Senate of Canada’s study of prison inmates’ human rights also noted the Custody Rating Scale, CSC’s first key assessment of inmates, was designed in the late 80s, where the sample of individuals to develop the ratings was predominantly composed of white males.

According to the Globe and Mail in early January of this year, watchdogs and academics pressed concerns long ago about this most important risk tool’s fairness towards women.  The prison agency is overseen by Public Safety Canada, and it investigated the charges, issuing a report in September of 2004.  The Globe noted the report “found serious flaws” with the rating scale and “recommended the agency (CSC) design a new one.  Sixteen years on, the tool remains unchanged.”

Globe and Mail investigations show prison assessment mechanisms are not only biased against Indigenous women and women in general but for Indigenous and Black men they have “far-reaching consequences for an inmate’s experience in prison.”  To quote further from the paper, “Black men were about 24 per cent more likely than white men to receive the worst possible security scores at admission.  Indigenous men, meanwhile, were roughly 30 per cent more likely than white men to receive the worst reintegration potential score at any point during their sentence.”

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So, what is this ‘rating system’ about?  Brevity when detailing bureaucratic procedures is challenging, and more likely than not they are intended to be enigmatic, but an attempt here is in order.

A person ordered into a federal prison will have a preliminary assessment interview with a Correctional Service of Canada parole officer.  The result sticks with the inmate for the duration, will inform all further assessments and every decision, from where a sentence is served, access to programming, future meetings with staff, the use of restricted confinement, visiting privileges, odds of parole…every aspect of prison life.

The Custody Rating Scale, the first key assessment, measures what kind of security risk an inmate poses inside a prison.  It’s a 12 multiple-choice question evaluation focused on an offender’s history, it’s filled out by a parole officer, and the ‘score’ sets an inmate’s security level at minimum, medium or maximum.  Scores can be overridden if an officer believes it’s too high or too low.  Since treatment, programs, privileges, and jobs vary with institutions and with security levels, an inmate’s security ranking is their single most important score.  Levels can change with time, but the initial assessment is decisive.

A second key assessment is the Reintegration Potential Score, important near the end of a sentence, is used by the Parole Board of Canada to estimate an inmate’s preparedness for parole and what risks to public safety release presents.  Outcomes are based partially on two math-based actuarial risk assessments, such as the Custody Rating Scale for one, but two other assessments rely on the judgement of officers administering the tests which allows potential biases to interfere with impartiality.

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Much of this is impersonal and methodical, perhaps justified in a decision-making process.  But, between that preliminary assessment at the beginning of a sentence and an evaluation for a potentially successful reintegration near the end should come a plethora of multi-faceted opportunities for inmates to work towards a life most have never known.  That is fodder aplenty for upcoming postings.

In the meantime, the House of Commons public safety committee recently committed to a study into bias in prison risk assessments.  All the while, Correctional Service of Canada spokespersons say the agency “regularly conducts research to ensure they’re (risk assessment tools) still reliable.”  How is that possible?

“We want to see the system change,”
lawyer Jason Gratl told the Globe and Mail during his January interview.  Mr. Gratl has been focused on that for some time, and will no doubt live with Jobian patience.

How ‘bout housing?  How ‘bout education and jobs?  How ‘bout…..more to come.