Senate committee study of inmates’ jail experiences finding problems across Canada
After touring jails in Eastern Canada, two things stood out for Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard: Hidden punishments in jail clashes with human rights, and inmate stories of abuse are credible.
“Your rights don’t stop when you enter a prison,” Bernard, chairperson of the Senate committee that has been investigating prison conditions, said in an interview March 2.
“The violation of human rights should not take place. The fact that you are in prison — that is the punishment.”
In an interim report to the Senate recently — the final version is due in June — Bernard wrote that the Correctional Service of Canada “struggles to fulfill its mandate and provide correctional services in a manner that is consistent with its human rights obligations.”
Titled "The Most Basic Human Right is to Be Treated as a Human" the report states that older and disabled prisoners are particularly hard hit.
“(Senior prisoners) had to walk long distances between buildings, in record time, under threat of punishment if they were late,” Bernard wrote. “They had to stand outside in the cold for an hour every morning to pick up their life-saving medication.”
Inmates then returned to cells that were often “dark, stuffy, and cold in the winter.”
“I have found the prisoners we talked with across the country to be genuine in their expressions of concern. We never met any prisoner who did not take responsibility for being there. We never had a prisoner say, ‘I shouldn’t be here; I didn’t do what they said I did’.” ~ Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard
The report also outlines the condition of some of the cells, stating, “some empty cells were unclean, with human feces, blood and mold clearly visible.”
Dissent among committee the three Conservative senators on the committee disagreed with the report, saying it contained “unsubstantiated allegations,” and “an absence of any sense of offender accountability.”
“While it is entirely legitimate for the committee to concern itself with the fair treatment of offenders, the primary and overriding reason that offenders are incarcerated is because they have been justly convicted of serious criminal offences in a court of law,” the three dissenters — Sens. Salma Ataullahjan, Thanh Hai Ngo, and Donald Neil Plett — said Feb. 28 in a news release.
“The report provides no substantive opportunities for the Correctional Service of Canada, correctional officers, or their union representatives to respond to (...) single anonymous sources.”
But, Bernard believes the prisoners who talked to the committee “were credible … because we heard the same or very similar concerns in each region," she said.
“I have found the prisoners we talked with across the country to be genuine in their expressions of concern. We never met any prisoner who did not take responsibility for being there. We never had a prisoner say, ‘I shouldn’t be here; I didn’t do what they said I did’.”
Federal prisons have a grievance system, but ironically, that was also the subject of prisoner complaints, because of lengthy delays and retaliation by guards who “often worsen (the inmate’s) situation,” Bernard wrote.
Bernard noted that prisoner support organizations decried “the lack of judicial oversight (...) especially as it relates to administrative segregation (solitary confinement ...) as there is no accountability for correctional decision-makers.”
Ivan Zinger, a federal correctional investigator, told the committee Feb. 28 that 400 inmates are currently locked in isolation. Under existing law, the time limit for solitary confinement - deemed to be a "last resort" used when all other options have been exhausted - is 15 days, but that is often exceeded.
In his presentation to the Senate committee, Zinger praised the Correctional Service of Canada, saying it has “reduced by half the number of segregated inmates in the last four years. The average length of time in segregation has also been reduced significantly, and now stands at about 22 days.”
In his presentation, Zinger said this reduction can be attributed to "discretion." Prison staff has relied on solitary confinement as a “population management tool,” Zinger told the committee. “Only sustained corporate focus, brought on by litigation and growing public concern for this practice, domestically and internationally, has brought Corrections into compliance with the law.”
He told the committee that the benefits are clear: “More time out of cells, providing more intervention and services, adequate access to mental health services, allowing meaningful contact for segregated prisoners — all can be done right now."
Zinger spoke to the committee about prisoners who had been in jail for decades with no ongoing effort to rehabilitate or parole them, including one who had spent eight years in a prison infirmary.
“In simple terms, they are being warehoused, a practice that no longer, in our opinion, has a place in a responsive or humane correctional system.”
If a prisoner is not already mentally ill, they could be by the time they return to a regular prison routine following segregation, Bernard said.
“We haven’t seen a positive effect of someone being in segregation,” she said. “Some people, I don’t know if they ever recover.”
Bernard’s interim report dealt with fact-finding at jails in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario.
The committee has also toured prisons in Western Canada, for a total of 29 institutions. She said the committee plans to address crime prevention through rehabilitation, which was suggested by prisoners.
Other recommendations will include reducing gender and race-based discrimination in jails, improving access to job training and, if a budget is approved, looking at successful models from other countries.
- Canada must tackle racism in federal prisons, Senate committee hears
- Interim Report for Study on the Human Rights of Federally-Sentenced Persons: The Most Basic Human Right is to be Treated as a Human Being (1 February 2017 – 26 March 2018)
- Photo Essay: Inside Canada's East Coast Prisons