Federal prisoners still wait for meaningful reform after two years of 'sunny ways'

Shot of a cell block "range" at Millhaven Prison. Photo: The Government of Canada — The Correctional Investigator of Canada

"Justice is absent behind these walls, which is evidenced from the lack of dignity and privacy afforded to us, our defective internal grievance system, the overuse of segregation, involuntary transfers based on allegations, and institutional charges."

-Rachel Fayter and Sherry Payne

There's a lot of talk in Ottawa about penal reform. Justice Canada is conducting a review of "criminal justice," mandated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights is studying the treatment of federal prisoners. Meanwhile, the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) continues to make headlines for malpractice. We've heard from public servants like Nubia Vanegas, who've talked about the toxic work environment within CSC institutions and from correctional investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger, whose office continues to paint a bleak picture of life inside federal penitentiaries.

The words of Rachel Fayter and Sherry Payne quoted above, written from inside the walls at Grande Valley Institution, say a lot about the current state of our federal penitentiaries after a decade of sustained attacks against the criminalized under the previous Conservative government and two years of Liberal "sunny ways". They, along with dozens of other incarcerated writers who contributed to the latest issue of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP), identify several areas for change to the laws, policies, and practices of the Canadian penal system to improve life and work inside federal penitentiaries, while enhancing public safety.

First and foremost, JPP contributors call for legislative reforms such as the restoration of accelerated parole review for first-time federal prisoners and reductions in the number of mandatory minimums. They also seek expanded access to community-provided mental health services with an emphasis on counselling and preventative care, as well as community-provided health and dental care services to prevent conditions that place them at unnecessary risk of injury, disease, or death. As well, JPP contributors want improvements to their health, while expanding training and work opportunities for prisoners by eliminating the centralized "cook-chill" food regime, restoring prison farms, and re-opening on-site kitchens in all CSC institutions.

Federal prisoners wish to promote safe reintegration through increased access to community-provided educational and vocational training opportunities that will better position them to obtain employment post-release, along with more gradual release opportunities. They also recommend measures to maintain contact with support networks in the community while incarcerated and to accrue a modest amount of funds to re-establish themselves in Canadian society post-release by (a) eliminating additional room and board fees, (b) increasing prisoner pay beyond levels established in the 1980s to fairly compensate them for their work, (c) restoring Old Age Security payments for seniors behind bars, and (d) ending the centralized purchasing catalogue monopoly.

With the treatment of captives having deteriorated further during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's tenure, prisoners call for more training and accountability measures for CSC institutional staff to ensure they fulfill their obligations to respect the human rights of the incarcerated, while assisting captives with the completion of their correctional plan objectives prior to their parole eligibility dates to facilitate their timely, safe reintegration. JPP contributors also recommend restrictions to the ability of Parole Board Canada members to impose release conditions that aren't linked to prisoners' offences and often set individuals up for non-criminal breaches that return them to federal penitentiaries at a considerable cost to taxpayers. Finally, in working toward transforming their lives, JPP contributors seek a new pardon system that supports former prisoners with opportunities to redeem themselves, as well as obtain timely, reasonable access to employment, housing, and other necessities of life.

We call upon the federal government to enact these reasonable calls for change, while diminishing this country's reliance on incarceration and working towards justice that heals wounds, instead of creating new ones. 

Jarrod Shook, Bridget McInnis, Justin Piché, and Kevin Walby edited Volume 26, Number 1&2 of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (www.jpp.org), a "Dialogue on Canada's Federal Penitentiary System and the Need for Change."

Photo: The Government of Canada -- The Correctional Investigator of Canada

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