Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

August 10, 2009

Rethinking the “Get Tough on Crime” Policy: A Tip for Tories, by Dave Bennett, canadian dimension blog, August 7th, 2009

Warkworth, August 6, 2009: “The Warkworth Institution remains in lock down following a July 21 riot by more than 200 of the medium-security prison’s 579 inmates.

“The riot began when the inmates refused to return to their cells and broke into the prison’s health-care centre and plundered its supply of narcotics, which include methadone and painkillers. Inmates also trashed a courtyard and set several items on fire. By the time the riot had ended one inmate was dead of a drug overdose and 13 others were injured.

“Assistant warden, management services, Ann Anderson said this week the institution remains in lock down as staff continue their cell-by-cell search of the prison’s five living units.

“We’re getting near the end, but we’re not quite there yet,” Anderson said Tuesday. “It will probably be another week in order to ensure we are doing it as safely as possible, and we’ll remain locked down until that is complete.” — Belleville Intelligencer

The riot at Warkworth federal penitentiary that began around 9 PM of Tuesday July 21, 2009 got very little attention in the mainstream media. A couple of local Belleville newspapers and Mix 97 Radio caught the story first. The Canadian Press followed that story, which was picked up by the Ottawa Sun and The Toronto Star. ( ran one CP story, “Inmate Found Dead” attributed to News Staff.)

Feminist lawyer Nicole Summer talks about “the social invisibility of prisons. The general public neither knows nor cares about the plight of the incarcerated, and thus cannot demand that its government properly protect prisoners’ bodily integrity and rights.”

Thanks to this attitude, prisoners have, as a group, experienced years of neglect. The problem can be measured in taxpayer dollars, billions of them. And the problem can be measured in the pain and suffering of communities, of families, and of individuals.

Crime is a problem with no easy solutions. Given the human bent for procrastination and denial, the responsibility for fixing our justice system and our prisons must fall on all citizens, not just the politicians.

Given its scope, the situation demands that we seek radical solutions, not mere patches. Is our government up to it? Are Canadian citizens up to it?

Over the past eight years I have had a small window on the prison system. My wife and I have been volunteers at Warkworth Penitentiary. We now count many convicted criminals as our friends. They, of course, have their own take on how the system works, and we tend to look at it from their perspective. Yet at the same time we’ve come to appreciate some of the system’s good points.
What’s Good about Canadian Federal Prisons?

Over the years, as part of the Canadian Justice System, the agency has provided a wide range of services. In the process it has created a huge bureaucracy in which the number of staff [14,500] exceeds the number of prisoners. [13,500].

There has been a conscious effort, however, to balance the prisons’ need for security and for creating an environment which can prepare prisoners for eventual return to society. Some examples:

Watchdog agencies such as those of the Correctional Investigator (ombudsman) and Citizens’ Advisory Committees. There is also a multi-culturally oriented chaplain service.

Federal Prisoners in Canada have a grievance process which they can exercise. They can even sue the government [Crown], as a prisoner friend of mine did, successfully.

Among the staff, many CSC caseworkers truly care about their charges, and their efforts are appreciated by some inmates (if ignored by others).

Federal Prisoners are permitted — sometimes encouraged — to participate in positive group activity formed according to common interest (seniors, hobbycraft, self-improvement, AA etc.), or cultural lines (Native Brotherhood, Italian, Celtic, Chinese, Buddhist, Christian, Pagan etc.) There is also a Prisoners Association.

CSC has achieved international stature for its research programs and reports, for its leadership in restorative justice reforms. “At the core of these new reforms” says Patricia Kachuk, writing in a Simon Fraser website, “is repairing the harm done to victims and the community…in contradiction to the current retributive criminal justice approach….focused on public vengeance, deterrence, and punishment through an adversarial process.”

Enter Stephen Harper and his Tory government. Deliberately playing the fear card, they like to focus blame on the criminal element in society with their “tough on crime” policy, instead of aggressively seeking solutions.

It is a simplistic way of deflecting complex issues such as social neglect, the lack of education, or the gap between rich and poor which afflict a dysfunctional criminal justice system.

Our Tory government acknowledges this in the standard manner, assembling — as Toryspin puts it — “an independent panel…as part of the government’s commitment to protecting Canadian families and communities.”

Harper’s carefully chosen panel is mandated to provide the Minister of Public Safety with advice on, among other things, “The availability and effectiveness of rehabilitation programming and support mechanisms in institutions and in the community post release, including the impact on recidivism.”

This is the task of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), which “contributes to public safety by actively encouraging and assisting offenders to become law-abiding citizens, while exercising reasonable, safe, secure and humane control.” The problem, as I see it, is that exercising control now trumps preparing prisoners to become law-abiding citizens.
The Roadmap

The panel’s report is titled A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety , and it runs to 255 pages.

The panel has faced a daunting challenge and has produced a thought-provoking and comprehensive report, although I disagree with some of its conclusions. Some key topics:


Assessment on admission to prison after sentencing (Review of CSC previous work)

Statistical Analysis of recidivism (Review of CSC previous work)

The changing size and demography of prison populations (New)

Requirements for rehabilitation (Review of CSC previous work)

Construction of new American-style super-secure, super-sized jails across the country. (New)

Most of the panel’s focus is on rehabilitation and recidivism, as mandated. It is beyond the scope of this article to parse the components, but you can read the entire document here.

Problems with Rehabilitation

As early as 1996, the Auditor General’s Report concluded “that there are systemic weaknesses in the Service’s management of its reintegration activities and clear indications that senior management is not providing the attention these activities need.”

The CSC’s task of rehabilitation has been eclipsed by a well-placed concern over recidivism — an admission of defeat. Over 40 per cent of convicted felons are back in our federal prisons within two years, where they will each cost the taxpayer over $90,000 a year to lock up again.

Rehabilitation may be defined as an inmate’s return to a community as a responsible citizen (not just his/her release from prison). But as my inmate friend Reggie observed, there is no measure of ‘successful’ rehabilitation such as a released prisoner’s holding a job for a year. He proposed that some reward — if only recognition for the rehab agency — be tied to ‘success’ if it takes place.

There are many components in the inmates ‘successful’ return to the community: employability, social responsibility and community support.

Last year CBC Radio’s The Current presented a comprehensive program on Federal prisons. Annamaria Tremonti interviewed Corrections Investigator Howard Sapir (the prison ombudsman). She asked about the mandatory programs required for reintegration. “How easy is it to get high school or trade programs?”

“Increasingly difficult,” Howard Sapir replied, “There are waiting lists across the country, gaps in staffing, a lack of assessment… Only about a third of the programs that are started are completed… We’re seeing inmates increasingly waive or postpone parole hearings because they’re not getting access to programs [they need to qualify].”

Later Tremonti talked to [the then] Minister Stockwell Day. He was frequently evasive, harping on the need for public safety and raising the spectre of violent sexual offenders. He assured Tremonti that training programs would be in place “for developing skills: working in an apprenticeship program, working toward a journeyman certificate.” But Tremonti was relentless. “What about the prisoner we just heard from? He was just three months short of getting his certification and they pulled the program!” The minister changed the subject and talked about years of neglect by the previous government.

From the start of our regular visits as volunteers, we heard prisoners complaining of what seemed to be a deliberate CSC assault on education and training. Teachers were being dropped. Under CSC administration, Warkworth once had certificated apprenticeship level programs in auto body repair. Vocational programs such as hairdressing, chef training were closed down.
Education for Reintegration

Two major obstacles to reintegration are lack of education and lack of work experience.

CSC observes that 65 per cent of inmates have a lower than grade 8 level, and that 82 per cent of inmates test lower than Grade 10; but they claim that budget constraints prevent them from hiring enough teachers. Yet CSC has refused to implement a number of readily available options, including the prisoners’ in-cell use of their own computers.

In 2003 the Correctional Investigator reported to parliament: “The Service decided to prohibit the [further] purchase of computers by inmates. Given the impact of this decision on the offender population we have contacted the Service to initiate a review of this policy change and the alternatives available.”

CSC’s response: “It has been determined that inmate-owned computers represent an overall security threat for CSC… CSC plans to organize a multiparty facilitated discussion [on] appropriate use of computers by inmates under the amended policy.”

(It should be clearly stated that inmates never, at any time, had access to the internet; and they were allowed to buy only authorized software.) Many inmates had their computers confiscated. Computers purchased earlier were dated, often needing repair. Some inmates claimed that they were returned from repair with malicious damage.

To give CSC credit, a committee of stakeholders was formed which included Prof. Michael Jackson, author of Justice Behind the Walls, the definitive work on Canada’s prisons, Graham Stewart, then head of the John Howard Society, Peter Hennessy, the author and educator. CSC staff and two well-informed prisoners were also included.

Peter Hennessy wrote to the Honourable Anne McLellan , Minister of Public Safety at the time with A Proposal To Improve Computer Accessibility For Federal Prison Inmates. The letter said, in part:

“In the past, Correctional Services Canada has permitted inmates to purchase computers with their own earnings. This was sound policy, given the benefits of computers in preparing documents for classroom assignments, parole hearings and other legal matters as well as for corresponding with family and friends. Most important, computer literacy is, increasingly, a requisite job skill…. While we are mindful of CSC’s direction to maintain a “secure operation,” it is hard to imagine the validity of an argument for security of the prison and society that outweighs the value of electronic connection with the civilian world to which all inmates will return at some future date. A deliberate policy of isolating prisoners, many for several years, from the nearly limitless variety and quantity of on-line information will be seriously counterproductive. Solutions are possible, given the technical resources available to CSC. It is a matter of imagination and will.”

The CSC-sanctioned committee produced a report on computers for inmates which seemed to satisfy all the stakeholders; and the advance copy caused elation among my friends at Warkworth. But at that point a new Conservative government assumed control. Computers continued to be seized and nothing more was heard or seen of the report.
Work Experience for Reintegration

The Roadmap looked at jobs: “A current snapshot of the employment needs of the federal prison population taken at intake assessment identified that more than 70% of offenders at admission had unstable work histories; more than 70% had not completed high school and more than 60% had no trade or skill knowledge.”

The best preparation for reintegration comes from actual job experience. Here is where the prison-based job — whether it is in the library or the laundry or the Corcan factory — can be valuable.

According to its Annual Report, Corcan (a contraction of Correction and Canada) “has the mandate of…providing employment training and experience and employability skills to offenders [and it] helps offenders find employment and successfully reintegrate into the community… Corcan also provides opportunities to observe offenders in a ‘real-world’ work environment and to assess how well other programs, like anger management and substance abuse, are working.”

Corcan’s products or services are sold primarily to federal government departments, and the enterprise has evolved into a multi-million dollar business. At various locations, selected inmates can get a ‘real-world job’ in agribusiness, construction, manufacturing or textile production. In return they get wages of about $5 a day (as long as there are no lockdowns). CSC deducts part of this for room and board in some cases. One friend calculates that, in his case after deductions, the wage amounts to $3.75 a day. This goes into a trust fund. No payments are made to funds for Unemployment Insurance or Canada Pension Plan. (This was among the grievances raised at a recent peaceful strike by Warkworth prisoners.)
Planning for Success

Apart from a few overworked CSC Parole Officers and a few CSC-supported Halfway Houses any framework of community support is a hit-or-miss affair. [”Not in MY back yard!”] Across Canada there are a number of supporting agencies such as the John Howard Society, the Elizabeth Fry Society and some faith-based groups, and these are mostly in the larger cities.

It would seem obvious that planning for successful rehabilitation should start soon after the assessment process in prison and the assignment of an appropriate level of security. In my view, this would include maintaining links with family, establishing community support, educational planning and creating job experience. To a certain extent CSC performs some of these tasks; but by their own admission they are failing.
Why the System Fails

In a 1971 attempt to analyze the effect of prisons, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo created the Stanford Prison Experiment in which 24 college students were randomly assigned the roles of prison guards and prisoners at a makeshift jail on campus. The experiment was scheduled to run for two weeks.

The Wikipedia account says that “one-third of the guards were judged to have exhibited ‘genuine’ sadistic tendencies, while many prisoners were emotionally traumatized and two had to be removed from the experiment early.” The experiment had to be canceled after just six days.

We can link this to Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s description of the “us and them” mentality and the origins of violence: “When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence.”

Joyce Arthur, a Vancouver writer and blogger puts it more cynical terms: “The business of prisons is to turn human beings into emotionally crippled, institution-dependent, and dangerous people who are even more likely to commit crimes after serving time than if they hadn’t gone to jail in the first place. That’s what prisons do, they can’t help it…. Even at their best, prisons are unnatural and dehumanizing. When your basic freedoms are taken away, by which I mean the ability to control your own life and make your own decisions, you lose your independence, privacy, dignity, self-esteem, incentive, and hope.”
Fixing the System. What’s to Be Done?

There are many possibilities. I suggested at the outset of this article that the situation called for boldness. Radical solutions, not mere patches. We need an attitudinal change in society and the way we think about the criminal justice system. The best proposal I have come across, and it is radical, is from Joyce Arthur, cited above:

“Existing prisons should be run like cooperatives. Prisoners should have a say in the process and should eventually be given the means to run the prison system itself, with most prison staff acting the part of consultants, counselors, and mediators instead of authority figures (a few security staff would still be required, of course). Facilities should provide a reasonable standard of physical care, and provide for the inmates’ need for safety, privacy, dignity, autonomy, incentive, education, and counseling.” The Problem with Prisons (and the Solution)

That proposal meshes well with mine, which is to change the agency responsible for rehabilitation. I believe that the agency assigned to this task (i.e. Corrections Services Canada) is the wrong one: This is an agency of Public Safety Canada, which is primarily responsible for ‘law and order’ - i.e. putting felons in prison, but which has failed to focus on the rehabilitative role. That is because the focus is necessarily too diffused. In its own words: “[Public Safety] works with five agencies united in a single portfolio… dealing with national security, emergency management, law enforcement, corrections, crime prevention and borders.” CSC’s role should be reduced to that of the “few security staff” mentioned by Joyce Arthur.

 I propose that the rehabilitation of prisoners should be assigned to the agency responsible for human resources: Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC). Originally its website reported:

 “HRSDC’s mission is …to improve Canadians’ quality of life…By focusing on education and training for society in which all can use their talents, skills and resources to participate in learning, work and their community.”

I find it interesting that — today under the Tories — the specific reference to ‘education and training’ been dropped. Instead, the wording has been amended to “HRSDC’s mission is to build a stronger and more competitive Canada, to support Canadians in making choices that help them live productive and rewarding lives, and to improve Canadians’ quality of life.” This is compatible with the version cited above, but it’s not the same.

Changing agencies responsible for rehabilitating prisoners will not be easy, given the considerable difference in cultures involved, and how well entrenched the present CSC bureaucracy is. Among the Beneficiary Stakeholders there are many winners among what many call ‘the prison-industrial complex.’ There are the usual suspects:


Politicians at all levels of government who play or amplify the fear card; police and security-related agencies and the unions whose members serve them.

Definitely among the Winners are members of the thriving Security Industry: Manufacturers of burglar alarms, the Rent-a-Cop agencies, the developers of Gated Communities.

Finally there are private CSC-sanctioned businesses such as Corcan whose thriving multi-million dollar businesses are based on cheap prison labour.

But few people would include the municipalities in which the prisons are located. For example, Osprey’s Community Press reports:

“Locally, Brighton receives $602,000 in grants in lieu of taxes from Warkworth [prison] while Northumberland County receives $168,500. Trent Hills receives at least $15,000 a month for municipally treated water piped to Warkworth Institution. The prison invests $32 million into the community through employees’ salaries and the purchase of goods and services.”

Costs to taxpayers

Ultimately the costs to taxpayers can be measured in billions of dollars.

According to the Toronto Star, [July 20, 2008] Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day has said the tougher sentences will cost an extra $240 million over five years, adding 300 to 400 inmates in federal prisons and 3,600 more in provincial jails. But the minister may have underestimated. “Anthony Doob, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, told a legislative committee the changes would put a further 1,000 offenders in prison each year and cost an extra $80 million annually.”

The Star points out that there are conflicting reports on what the latest changes will cost. They range from federal estimates of $240 million over five years to $80 million annually for the extra prisoners alone.

Neither estimate accounts for the still more prisoners and costs to be incurred once the drug bill, with its long list of mandatory minimum sentences, becomes law.

Nor do they include the cost of new prisons. The government has already approved building two more prisons, one medium security and one maximum security, at an unspecified cost. .. massive prison compounds… at an estimated $750 million each. [emphasis added]

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