Dangerous, racist and falling apart. By nearly every metric, the nation’s penal system is not just failing, it’s making things worse.
photo above: Medium security range at Stony Mountain Institution in Stony Mountain, Manitoba (Correctional Services Canada/Flickr)
WN: The article highlighted does not sugar-coat the reality: Canadian prisons (and for that matter most around the world) are indeed “Houses of hate.”
Senator Kim Pate as mentioned in the article has been a leading voice for prison reform in Canada. There have been many before her: women such as Agnes MacPhail almost a century ago; more recently Claire Culhane1 and Ruth Morris, another intrepid abolitionist. (There is more about the latter two in the paper mentioned below.)
But meaningful “reform” beyond mere window-dressing, like a desert mirage, seems simply never to arrive . . . Anywhere!
What rather is needed is prison abolition, as I delineate in this paper: Restorative Justice: Peacemaking Not Warmaking; Transformative Justice: Penal Abolitionism Not Prison Reform, written for The Kenarchy Journal, an exciting venture launched in 2019, highlighting a “politics of love,” and:
Promoting overall wellbeing by
- Instating women
- Prioritising children
- Advocating for the poor
- Welcoming strangers
- Reintegrating humanity and the environment
- Restoring justice to prisoners
- Healing the sick
The paper above is due for inclusion this year in the spring edition.
On prison abolition I write in part (highlighting theological aspects):
In light of this brief consideration of the unmitigated failure of prison, Lee Griffith, adduced above begins his study, The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition with:
The gospel is profoundly scandalous, and until we hear at least a whisper of its scandal, we risk not hearing any part of it.
Doubtless part of the scandal is Christian believers must be significantly at odds with centuries-long Western Criminal Justice convention.2
But I shall move on to his understanding of New Testament prison and justice. In biblical “principalities and powers” language, prison is ever associated with the power of death. He writes:
As such, the problem is not that prisons have failed to forestall violent criminality and violent rampages; the problem is that prisons are identical in spirit to the violence and murder that they pretend to combat . . . Whenever we cage people, we are in reality fuelling and participating in the same spirit we claim to renounce.3
So when Peter was miraculously delivered from prison in the Book of Acts (the holiest jailbreak ever!), this is at once enacted parable of “freedom to the captives,” and descriptive of what the Spirit of God wants for all prisoners: their deliverance from the power of death—concomitantly the abolition of prisons. And as Karl Barth noted, the first true Christian community was composed entirely of prisoners—the three criminals on the crosses at Golgotha.6
It should in this light never be lost that Jesus himself indeed was “numbered with the transgressors.”7 Or, as theologian Mark Lewis Taylor puts it, Jesus was “the executed God.”8 Taylor also quotes the searing words of long-time Black (formerly) death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal (who sadly, after 40 years inside, has just been diagnosed with COVID):
Isn’t it odd that Christendom—that huge body of humankind that claims spiritual descent from the Jewish carpenter of Nazareth—claims to pray to and adore a being who was prisoner of Roman power, an inmate of the empire’s death row? That the one it considers the personification of the Creator of the Universe was tortured, humiliated, beaten, and crucified on a barren scrap of land on the imperial periphery, at Golgotha, the place of the skull? That the majority of its adherents strenuously support the state’s execution of thousands of imprisoned citizens? That the overwhelming majority of its judges, prosecutors, and lawyers—those who condemn, prosecute, and sell out the condemned—claim to be followers of the fettered, spat-upon, naked God?9
In this light, it must never be forgotten that Jesus was executed by the best criminal justice system of the day (Roman—in the name of good government), and by the singular monotheistic faith of the day (Judaism—in the name of good religion).
In short: prison does not need reform. It needs abolition! Abolition of the very essence of its core, its spirit, its raison d’être.
At another point, I write:Famed psychiatrist Karl Menninger in 1966 wrote The Crime of Punishment,10 a book that has stood the test of time—claiming punishment in the United States is hugely disproportionately meted out by white élites to the poor (lower classes and minorities); and is greater annually in commission of crimes against prisoners than the sum total of crimes committed by all criminals in prison. Hence “the crime of punishment.”
Or in Jeffrey Reiman’s telling book title: The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice.11
Already alluded to, Nils Christie authored Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags Western Style?12, which looked at the American system. When first published in 1994, there was a question mark after the last word: Style. In subsequent editions, the question mark was removed. . . The industrialization of punishment had arrived—indeed exploded! And Christie, like Karl Menninger in The Crime of Punishment, insisted that the true and present danger in Western society were not the criminals in their confines or at large, rather, the crime control industry itself, that in so many ways holds entire societies hostage behind prison walls of fear and neglect, imitators indeed of the very darkest urges of our collective human condition.
The United States has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 1975, the combined state and federal prison population of the United States was 300,000 men and women. By 2006, in three decades, it had arisen to 2.3 million, and has remained so more or less since. In other words, as social critic Ivan Illich also warned, the Western state, supremely modelled in the United States, had become in turn a state modelled after the notorious Russian gulag, in which we are all imprisoned.13
The third edition of Christie’s book was published before September 11, 2001. His forewarnings have been so much more profoundly the case ever since.
Both publications are exciting, insightful and disturbing reads!
Finally, a book published on “transitional justice” in 2011 surely applies to the atrocity that is the prison system: Judging State-Sponsored Violence, Imagining Political Change. Of it, we read:
How should state-sponsored atrocities be judged and remembered? This controversial question animates contemporary debates on transitional justice and reconciliation. This book reconsiders the legacies of two institutions that transformed the theory and practice of transitional justice. Whereas the Nuremberg Trials exemplify the promise of legalism and international criminal justice, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission promoted restorative justice and truth commissions. Bronwyn Leebaw argues that the two frameworks share a common problem: Both rely on criminal justice strategies to investigate experiences of individual victims and perpetrators, which undermines their critical role as responses to systematic atrocities. Drawing on the work of influential transitional justice institutions and thinkers such as Judith Shklar, Hannah Arendt, José Zalaquett, and Desmond Tutu, Leebaw offers a new approach to thinking about the critical role of transitional justice – one that emphasizes the importance of political judgment and investigations that examine complicity in, and resistance to, systematic atrocities.
In light of the book, you may also wish to click on my “War, Police and Prisons: Cross-Examining State-Sanctioned Violence,” also in Justice That Transforms: Volume Three.
Further, I participated in the Lumen Christi Institute‘s webinar seen below. It was part of a series presented by The Catholic Criminal Justice Reform Network (CCJRN). The discussion featured Andrew Skotnicki’s recent book you you see pictured below. It is a riveting challenge to the entire criminal justice system, in particular in its use of the brutal gulag that universally needs abolition, as discussed above. Dr. Skotnicki14 is impassioned! A delight to “meet” him. There are other fine webinars in the series, all free to view and/or register for.
There was also today, March 5, a webinar I missed: Roots of Injustice: The Structural Sources of America’s Penal State–A continuing education event featuring David Garland. It is part of Seattle University’s Continuing Education and Professional Training. All videos may be viewed by clicking on the above, or image to the left.
In fact, by nearly every metric, found in a veritable mountain of reports from Correctional Services Canada and its watchdog, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, our penal system is badly broken.
- Our prison system is dangerous: There were five murders in Canadian prisons last year, making the homicide rate in our prisons 20 times higher than Toronto. In a year, correctional officers deployed force more than 2,000 times. More than 60 per cent of prison staff were subject to physical violence. The Correctional Investigator reports “there is no overall strategy that specifically and intentionally aims to prevent sexual violence in Canadian federal penitentiaries.”
- Our prison system is racist. There are more than 12,500 inmates in our federal system: Nearly one-third of them are Indigenous, eight per cent are black. Upwards of three-quarters of the prison population in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are Indigenous. Black and Indigenous inmates are both twice as likely to be subject to use of force, more likely to be classified for maximum security, more likely to be involuntarily put into solitary confinement, and less likely to be paroled.
- Our prison system is falling apart. Many prisons ought to be condemned and torn down. Four are more than a century old, and another two are nearly that old. The infrastructure is crumbling and the technology running the prisons is antiquated.
- Our prison system is warehousing people struggling with their mental health. It is estimated that at least 10 per cent of inmates meet the criteria for fetal alcohol syndrome, 80 per cent have substance abuse issues when incarcerated, while some 45 per cent have antisocial personality disorders.
- Our prison system is eye-wateringly expensive. Correctional Services Canada (CSC), with its $2.6 billion budget, is the 15th largest department or agency by spending — it is larger than the CBC and Department of Justice combined. Ranked by the number of staff, it is the sixth largest department. It costs CSC $110,000 per year to house each inmate, with about three-quarters of that number going to employee costs.
- Our prison system isn’t even working. All available evidence shows that our prisons are doing little to reduce crime, and may even be increasing it. More than 40 per cent of all inmates released are returned to custody within two years, usually on parole violations. About a quarter of all those released from prison are convicted of a new offence within those two years, although most charges are non-violent.
This is just federal prisons. There are another 39,000 Canadians sitting in provincial jails, most awaiting trial.
Over the past year, Maclean’s has spoken to dozens of current and former inmates, consulted a host of correctional officers, support staff and lawyers, and consulted thousands of pages of Access to Information documents. It all reveals a racist and discriminatory system that is in crisis. We, as a country, are warehousing our social ills, while offering little in the way of self-improvement, rehabilitation or redemption.
It proves exactly what Michael Ignatieff told us a decade ago: Our prisons make things worse. The only people who still believe this system works are our feckless politicians.
Zilla Jones, a Winnipeg-based criminal lawyer, has represented several inmates at Stony Mountain. “It’s freezing in the winter and unbearably hot in the summer,” she told Maclean’s. It’s so bad, she has to keep her coat and gloves on while she meets with her clients, and she still shivers. It’s “not comfortable in terms of human habitation” she says. (A newer wing of the prison was completed in 2014, and is better suited for human habitation.)
“It’s a pretty crappy building but it’s what happens inside that’s worse,” says Jones. “They can fix up the building all they want, but it’s not going to change the culture that’s inside.”
Jones provides “a prime example of life at Stony” — a client who was arrested on a breaking and entering charge. “I begged the judge not to send him to Stony Mountain,” Jones says. Her client was just 18 years old. She told the court: “Give him a provincial sentence, so at least he wouldn’t get influenced by the gangs.”
Her pleas were ignored, and the teenager was sent to Stony Mountain. Not long after, he was recruited by a gang to attack a fellow inmate—one who had been identified, by a guard, as a sex offender. The teen was convicted of a new charge, meaning his stay at the notorious prison was extended.
“I don’t know why we would send anybody there,” Jones says. “What are we doing? Warehousing people in a violent place so we can feel like justice is done.”
One corrections officer who works in the prairie region, who was not authorized to speak on the record, explained that the “unbelievably dated” infrastructure can put corrections officers’ lives at risk, too. The archaic technology that runs their system can cause delays in opening doors or accessing the right monitors, “which makes our jobs a lot more dangerous.”
While prisons no longer chain inmates standing up, solitary confinement cells do not look tremendously different than “the hole” that Campbell saw. Canada still locks inmates in tiny, windowless cells for 22 hours a day, or longer, for months or years on end. That meets a United Nations definition of torture, a definition which Canada has endorsed. Nevertheless, Ottawa defended the practise, insisting on branding it “administrative segregation.” The courts took dimly to that euphemism, calling it what it truly is: Solitary confinement, and unconstitutional.
Two years after the first court ordered that Ottawa must stop the practise, in June 2019, the Trudeau government finally adopted legislation to replace them. They rebranded the new isolation cells as “structured intervention units.”
…Respected criminologist Anthony Doob was initially tapped by the Trudeau government to study the supposed elimination of solitary confinement in favour of new “structured intervention units.” He was thwarted for more than a year, before media attention pushed the government to hand over the data. His most recent report, from February, shows just how bad things are: “We estimate that 28.4 per cent of the SIU stays qualified as ‘solitary confinement,’” he writes. “And an additional 9.9 per cent of stays fall under the definition of ‘torture or other other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.’”
Our prison system is dangerous. . . racist. . . falling apart. . . warehousing people struggling with their mental health. . . eye-wateringly expensive. . . isn’t even working.
The law requires inmates get four hours outside their cell per day. That isn’t happening. The courts have said anything less than two hours is cruel and unusual punishment. It has continued anyway.
Correctional Services Canada has rejected the findings, alleging Doob got the data wrong.
The year-long saga of the data lends credence to the idea that the reforms were just, as the B.C. Civil Liberties Association put it, “window dressing.” Senator Kim Pate, who has spent nearly four decades advocating for real prison reform, had warned from the outset that the supposed reforms would actively “make things much worse.”
Blair told Maclean’s those measures were “necessary” given the pandemic and that they “were not intended in any way to to violate anybody’s rights.”
Some prisons are even worse. A lawsuit filed by inmates in the “special handling unit” at the prison in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, Que., allege that they are kept in solitary confinement for upwards of 22 hours a day. The unit, which is designed to handle dangerous sexual offenders, encourages inmates to undergo chemical castration. While it is not supposed to be required, one inmate said in an affidavit that “I believe I will never be transferred from the SHU unless I take this treatment.” CSC insists inmates in that unit “have the same rights and conditions of confinement as other inmates, except for those that must be limited due to security requirements.”
While CSC Commissioner Anne Kelly declined to be interviewed for this story, Maclean’s asked her about the state of solitary confinement in Canada’s prisons during an unrelated press conference. “We do not have solitary confinement any longer,” she said, insisting that the structured intervention units had been successfully implemented, aside from “some hiccups early on.”
Pressed on the data from Doob, which clearly shows that CSC is practising the definition of solitary confinement, Kelly put the onus on the inmates. “In some cases the inmates actually do not want to come out of their cells, despite the repeated attempts that we make for them to avail themselves of the opportunity,” she said.
An internal review concluded that the riot was caused, in large part, because the state of the food at the prison. Kitchen staff had warned the warden that funding cuts meant they couldn’t adequately feed the inmate population.
It’s a widespread problem. The Correctional Investigator found that more than one-in-five meals served in federal prisons failed to meet basic Canada Food Guide requirements, CSC failed to respect prisoners’ dietary restrictions, the meals are sometimes prepared in unhygienic conditions, and that a significant amount of food was being wasted.
Internal spreadsheets tracking the nutritional value show that, if a prisoner were to eat every morsel of food on their plate, they would get about 2,600 calories a day — Health Canada recommends active adult males actually need about 2,900 calories. The meals also wildly exceed Health Canada guidelines for both fat and sodium intake. (Correctional Services wrote in an email statement that they follow a “comprehensive set of nutrient reference values for healthy populations” in designing the meals.)
These problems can be traced back to an attempt to centralize food production. In 2014, to save money, CSC changed to a “cook-chill” model, where food was prepared at regional hubs, frozen, and shipped to the prisons, where it would be reheated.
“People thinking that we get good food in here? Oh my god, that’s—” says Norman Larue, a prisoner at the Pacific Institution. “Ouf.”
Larue works in the kitchen. As he explained to Maclean’s, there was suddenly a lot less work to do after cook-chill came along. “Today, it was a mac and cheese for lunch,” he says. “About two days ago in the kitchen, I cooked and prepared, on site, the actual macaroni noodles, and that’s it. Everything else comes in a bag.” Larue says that the amount of food served to prisoners is “barely enough to keep a guy alive.” A corrections officer told Maclean’s that “any massive riotous situation we face in the next five years is going to be because of the food.”
The cook-chill model has meant CSC spends about $2,300 per inmate, per year on food. About $5 a day.
Blair dismissed the idea that something is structurally wrong, but said “there may be individuals, because of their level of physical activity or other health considerations, that have unique requirements” and some “may desire more.”
I asked Blair: Could you stay healthy on a diet worth $5 a day?
Blair demurred. “I can’t do a calculation based on the dollars and cents in question.”
A Globe and Mail investigation from October found Black and Indigenous inmates are significantly more likely to be rated as a security threat, despite the data showing them less likely to reoffend than white offenders.Paul Gallagher, an Indigenous inmate also incarcerated on drug trafficking charges, was upgraded from minimum to a medium-security facility because CSC was looking to open an Indigenous-oriented wing and “they needed the numbers.” He filed a grievance and won, yet he still hasn’t been moved.
. . . any massive riotous situation we face in the next five years is going to be because of the food.–correctional officer
Grievances, one of the only ways in which inmates can seek redress, are supposed to be answered within four months. In reality, CSC admits, they take up to three years to be resolved. Inmates can, technically, petition the courts over their treatment, but that is rarely effective: When one inmate filed a habeas corpus application to a provincial court over the conditions in his prison, the court dismissed the case, ordered him to pay the Attorney General’s costs, and banned him from making any other application with the court.
Prisons constantly struggle to handle the number of inmates with severe mental health issues. “We’re law enforcement officers, we’re not psychologists,” the officer says. There are mental health workers who visit the prison, they aren’t around on evenings and weekends. “We do take a little bit of training on these kinds of topics. But I mean, it’s like a day of training, you know?”
The Correctional Investigator has consistently found mental health support lacking, actually finding that officers in one women’s prison punished inmates who self-harmed. Problems are particularly acute for transgender inmates, some of whom are still being housed in prisons that do not match their gender identity, and who are often placed in isolation, ostensibly for their own safety.
Sentenced time is supposed to be “productive,” yet that’s rarely the case. There are schooling programs, but they are largely one-size-fits-all—a former inmate, with a university degree, recalled having to sit through the equivalent of Grade 8.
There are Indigenous-focused programs, but access is spotty. Inmates have some access to computers, but are cut off from the internet. CSC directives still refer to “floppy diskettes.” The jobs available are generally menial light labour, and provide little in the way of marketable skills. Work is often necessary, however, as inmates are required to pay for food to supplement their diet, and are charged by the minute by the phone system. The most an inmate can earn is $6.90 per day, although the prison deducts “room and board” costs from their salary.
But when even that inadequate programming goes away, like they did during the COVID-19 shutdown, “it was just violent,” the corrections officer reported. “It was a nightmare, there was overdoses and suicide attempts and stabbings every couple of days.”
The closer you look at Canada’s prisons, the more the absurdity of the practise becomes obvious.
It is unavoidable that some inmates need to be locked up: About 800 inmates are currently designated as ‘dangerous offenders,’ meaning they can’t be released. About a quarter of the federal prison population is serving life or indeterminate sentences.
Yet more than 30 per cent of that population is incarcerated on non-violent offences, mostly drug and property crimes. Critics have wondered for years: Why do they need to be in the violent confines of federal prison, counting down days at the expense of the Canadian government?
Less than 40 per cent of applications for full parole are granted. For those offenders who are granted release, there’s often no place to go: In 2018, the Auditor General found that halfway houses and community programs for released offenders were generally full: Some inmates who were cleared to be released have continued to sit in prison because there is not enough space in those houses.A 1987 report from the Canadian Sentencing Commission laid out the problem at hand succinctly and blunt. Canada’s over-incarceration problem, it read, “cannot be eliminated by tinkering with the current system or exhorting decision-makers to improve what they are doing.”
Prisons do not reduce crime, they increase it.
When he took power five years ago, Justin Trudeau promised more restorative justice, to reduce the over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples, and to end the practise of solitary confinement for good. He has taken a knee with Black Lives Matter protesters, and has vowed to heed the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, In his government’s September throne speech, he promised, again, “to address the systemic inequities in all phases of the criminal justice system.”Yet what does he have to show for it? His government has lengthened the maximum prison time for many sentences. As of January 2019, government lawyers were defending against 173 separate constitutional challenges to mandatory minimum sentences. Lawsuits are targeting his government’s handling of COVID-19 in prisons, the exploitative nature of prison labour and Quebec’s Special Handling Unit. There is still no cap on the number of days someone can be placed in solitary confinement. The over-representation of Indigenous and Black people in prisons is getting worse, not better.
The closer you look at Canada’s prisons, the more the absurdity of the practise becomes obvious.
A February report from the Correctional Investigator found scant evidence that the federal government depopulated prisons in the past year, but did find that the overall prison population declined, due to a drop in crime, court delays, and judges looking for alternatives to incarceration amid a pandemic. Even then, Indigenous peoples benefited least. Zinger found that “the non-Indigenous inmate population declined at twice the rate of the Indigenous inmate population.”
Even still, the decline in population led Zinger to recommend that Ottawa should consider “closing a number of prisons and reallocate staff and resources to better support safe, timely and healthy community reintegration.” The Trudeau government has made no indication that it intends to follow that advice.
“We promised significant criminal justice and prison reform and we haven’t seen that reform come to fruition in a real way,” Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a Liberal Member of Parliament, told Maclean’s.
Canada’s prisons are antiquated, inhumane, violent, and expensive. They don’t even work. Two decades ago, researchers from the University of New Brunswick did a meta-analysis of 50 studies on incarceration, spanning a half-century. They could not find “any evidence that prison sentences reduce recidivism” and that “prisons should not be used with the expectation of reducing criminal behaviour.” They revisited the study two years later, looking at 100,000 inmates. They found the same result: Prisons do not reduce crime, they increase it.
Please click on: Prisons: Houses of Hate
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- intrepid prison abolitionist, author of three books that tell a progression story (in photo from right to left):
- Griffith, Lee. The Fall of the Prison: Biblical Reflections on Prison Abolition. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1999, 1.
- Griffith, Fall, 106.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.
Because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favourable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)
- Griffith, Fall, 107.
- Griffith, Fall, 118.
- Isaiah 45:12.
- Taylor, Mark Lewis, The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America, Fortress Press, 2nd edition, 2015.
- Taylor, Executed, ix. My book review may be found here: https://waynenorthey.com/book-review/the-executed-god/; last accessed January 11, 2021.
- Menninger, Karl. The Crime of Punishment, New York: Penguin, 1966/1977.
- Reiman, Jeffrey. The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, New York: Routledge, 2016.
- Crime Control as Industry: Towards GULAGS, Western Style, London: Routledge, 1995.
- In a brilliant work by a friend, David Cayley, The Expanding Prison: The Crisis in Crime and Punishment and the Search for Alternatives, there is a section devoted to Ivan Illich’s understanding of prisons as characteristic of religious ceremonies. Imprisonment is thus, in Illich’s words,
A huge ritual which creates a scapegoat, which we can drive out into the desert, believing that by loading onto that scapegoat all that we experience we’ll get rid of it . . . Prisons are the place in which we can face horror too terrible for us to recognize that we are ourselves immersed in it . . ., 83.
Cayley’s entire book is a profound indictment of the “prison industrial complex” and pointer to how else crime might be addressed. It also brings Illich and René Girard together somewhat in their understanding of criminals as societal scapegoats. See also: Rempel, Life at the End of Us Versus Them, that does the same more generically in a full monograph discussing both thinkers. Nils Christie whom Cayley counted as a good friend, is also discussed at length.
- Andrew Skotnicki is professor in theological and criminological ethics at Manhattan College in New York City. He received an undergraduate degree in History from Marquette University, an MA in Ecclesiastical History from the Washington Theological Union, and a Ph.D. in Religion and Society from the Graduate Theological Union. He has published numerous essays on the theological and ethical implications of criminal justice as well as four books, the latest of which Conversion and the Rehabilitation of the Penal System: A Theological Rereading of Criminal Justice (Oxford, 2019) was the recipient of the 2019 Aldersgate Prize. His latest volume, The Prophets Are All Crazy: Injustice, Insight, Insanity, Incarceration is under review for Bristol University Press. He has spent many years working in the jails and prisons of America, including nine years as a chaplain at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. For the past nine years, he has taught an accredited college course in the jails of New York City. Over 70 of the confined students who have completed the course have received tuition free classes at Manhattan College.