Show-Down or Blow-Up?

What’s Back of our Prison Riots?

D. M. LeBOURDAIS March 1 1933

Show-Down or Blow-Up?

What’s Back of our Prison Riots?

D. M. LeBOURDAIS March 1 1933

Show-Down or Blow-Up?


What’s Back of our Prison Riots?

THE prisons are seething volcanoes. They are now crammed to the roofs. And unless something is done and done speedily, the tops will blow off every one of them. I look for riot after riot. handing out longer and longer

“Judges are handing out longer and longer sentences, and prisons are filling up with prisoners made reckless by despair.

“In recent years prison populations have changed. Once the prisons and penitentiaries contained mostly those who might be called professional criminals; but now they are being filled more and more with gangsters, political prisoners and the like. The old type of criminal was an individualist. He worked largely alone. He rarely trusted anyone. And when he went to prison he crawled into his own shell. Rioting requires organizing; and the old-type criminal was not an organizer. But that is the new type’s long suit. Gangsters, bootleggers and communists find a prison a fruitful field for their organizing abilities, especially since the prisons now contain so many dare-devil youngsters.

"So you can understand why I am expecting to see. from one end of the country to the other, the tops blow off our prisons.”

The speaker was an outstanding American criminologist. He was speaking of the prisons in his own country, but he might easily have been referring to our prisons in Canada. In fact, since he spoke, riots have occurred in three of the largest of our penitentiaries. These riots have resulted in a number of improvements, but the essential nature of the institutions remains.

Prison treatment, at best, lags far behind that which is the due of even the lowest of human beings. There is little doubt that our system of dealing with crime is the most backward feature of our social order. Many criminologists are convinced that it must be scrapped, and replaced by a system more in keeping with modern scientific knowledge of human behavior.

On the other hand, there are the so-called “Practical” ¡persons who mostly favor a retention of the present system, but with certain minor changes and improvements.

While I believe a good case can be made for the former as against the latter view, I do not propose in this article to expound any scheme for a new penal system. But I do propose to show that, even according to standards set

our Canadian penitentiaries fall far short. The evidence I shall use can nearly all be found in the annual reports made to successive governments during the past dozen years by Brigadier-General W. St. Pierre Hughes, till recently Superintendent of Penitentiaries.

Inhuman Incarceration

CANADA located as has follows: six penitentiaries. Dorchester. East N.B.; to St. west, Vincent they are de Paul, Quebec; Kingston, Ontario; Stony Mountain, Manitoba; Prince Albert, Saskatchewan; and New Westminster, B.C. A seventh was for some years maintained in Alberta, but for some reason it was abandoned. Two others of newer type have recently been established; one at Collins Bay near Kingston, and the other near St. Vincent de Paul.

In 1920 there were 1.800 persons in Canadian penitentiaries; there are now over 4,000. The general population has increased since 1920. but not in anything like the same proportion.

In 1920 the net cost of our penitentiaries was roughly $1,000,000; in 1931 it was over $3,000.000.

A penitentiary is an awesome place. Usually of stone, surrounded by a high wall flanked by towers manned by armed guards, its whole atmosphere is forbidding. A central dome rises high above a sprawling mass of masonry. Long narrow wings run out from the hub of the dome like the spokes of a great wheel. These spokes contain the cells, packed together like the cells in a honeycomb. In each wing or cell block are two rows of cells, back to back, four tiers high. A concrete gallery, bounded by an iron rail, runs along the front of each tier.

The cells in a typical penitentiary are five feet by eight, and ten feet to the ceiling. All is of smth, painted cement. A hard bed which folds against the wall in the daytime, a chair, a table, a corner wash basin and a seatless toilet bowl comprise the furniture. On a shelf is a Bible and a library catalogue. Pasted on a board is a copy of the penitentiary regulations. In loops on another board are fastened a fork, a spoon, and another bifurcated sort of spoon, the only utensils allowed.

A nonmetallic comb is now allowed, hut this is one of the boons won by the recent riots. There is no mirror; there are no


Needless to say. these pigeonholes in

which men spend years of their lives art; draughty and subject to violent changes of temix-rature. Although solitary confinement is the lot of the prisoner at all times except when working or going to and from kitchen, chapel, work, etc., he has never a moment’s actual privacy. A narrow corridor runs between each double row of cells, and in the end wall of each cell is a peephole through which the prisoner is subject to secret surveillance at any or all times.

Pervading everything is the odor of close-packed humanity.

A typical prisoner in a Canadian penitentiary is white, male, average age, twenty-six, Canadian born, single, serving an average sentence of about six years, mainly for theft or other crimes against property; not very well educated, as a rule, but of average intelligence. In most cases he has taken a preliminary course or courses in some cases many of them at reformatories and other institutions of “correction.”

Of the 3,714 inmates of all Canadian penitentiaries on March 31, 1931. 3,499 were white: 2.328 were single; 2,441 were born in Canada; 484 were twenty years of age and under, and 2,194 under thirty-one years of age; 1,810 were Roman Catholics, the next largest denomination being the Anglican with 618. Only 138 were listed as non-Christian, of whom sixty-six were Hebrews and sixty-eight Buddhists. The remaining two were listed as “other non-Christian creeds,” which presumably means agnostics or atheists. Women prisoners are kept in a special prison at Kingston. Their number is not given in any of the reports, but in proportion to men very few women are in the penitentiary.

The Dreary Routine

THE INMATE rises at six-thirty a m., washes himself and makes his bed. When the signal is given at seven o’clock he marches to the serving room, receives his breakfast in a metal vessel, returns to his cell and eats it. Usually the f is ample. Having put in a forenoon at some sort of hard labor, he gs to his cell, fetches his dinner from the serving room, and eats it alone in his cell. The afternoon's work done, supper is secured and eaten in the same manner as the other two meals, after which he is locked in his cell till morning. Lights are out at nine o'clock and he may read till then; but till recently— another boon gained by the riots—the cell lighting was so poor that the prisoner could read only at the expense of considerable eyestrain. No newspapers are allowed in the penitentiary, but magazines and an extensive selection of libranbooks are provided. Classes for those who wish to attend are conducted in the three “R's” during part of the noon hour and two evening hours, five days a week, but the penitentiaries are not the educational agencies they might be under a different system.

Continued on page 51

Continued from page 13

During the day—till recently—the prisoner was forbidden to speak to a fellow inmate or a guard, unless his work absolutely required such speech. At all times he must conform to rules and regulations, often rendered more onerous by inconsiderate, brutal or vicious guards. He has few rights; his word is of no value if disputed by a guard; at the whim of a guard he may lose good-conduct time laboriously gained. He may suffer a reduction of tobacco or food ration; he may be handcuffed to the bars of his cell in a position that soon becomes torture; he may be thrown in the “hole,” a dungeon for supersolitary confinement ; or he may be flogged.

Ón Sundays all cells remain locked all day, except when the prisoners go to get their food and to attend chapel Till the recent riots brought a change, no exercise was allowed except half an hour’s walk in single file round the yard. Now half an hour to forty minutes with the medicine ball or other similar exercise is allowed. Holidays are days to be dreaded in the penitentiary for, like Sunday, they must be spent in solitary confinement. When Monday is a holiday, as frequently happens, the prisoners are locked in continuously— with the exceptions above mentioned— from four p.m. Saturday till Tuesday morning.

All penitentiaries are now seriously overcrowded. Prisoners are doubled up in many cells, and others put to sleep in cots outside.

In 1834 the Parliament of Upper Canada passed an act “for the maintenance and government of the Provincial Penitentiary opened near Kingston.” The following from the preamble is typical of the system largely followed ever since:

“Whereas if many offenders convicted of crimes were ordered to solitary imprisonment, accompanied by wellregulated labor and religious instruction. it might be the means, under Providence, not only of deterring others from the commission of like crimes but also of reforming the individual and inuring them to habits of industry, etc.”

Magistrates have not failed to do their share in carrying out those objects. As General Hughes testily declared in his 1927 report: “The halt, the lame, the blind, and often the imbecile, are sentenced to the penitentiaries at hard labor.”

Recommendations Ignored

EACH PENITENTIARY is equipped with shops. There is plenty of man power, but the amount of useful work available is limited. Year after year General Hughes’ reports complain of the policy that will not permit the convict to work at productive labor, thus making necessary so much morale-destroying rock breaking and other useless labor. In his very first report—for 1919—he wrote:

“The inmates of the penitentiaries are wards of the Dominion Government, and there is no valid reason why goods required for State use and State use only, should not be made, in so far as is possible, in the penitentiaries. The Government spends many thousands of dollars yearly for furniture, furnishing and equipment of all kinds, a small portion of which could be made in the penitentiaries. The revenue derived from this source would enable the institutions to pay each inmate on his discharge, or his family while in prison, a small wage.”

This recommendation General Hughes! related with monotonous regularity year after year, but nothing was ever done about it. In 1926, at the instance of Miss Agnes MacPhail, M.P., a resolution was adopted by the House of Corr.rrons recommending the payment of prisoners; but. although she and other members of the independent group in the House have repeatedly referred to the matter in the interval, no more attention has been paid to the wishes of Parliament than had been paid to the recommendations of General Hughes.

Another important recommendation that has been as consistently ignored is that j concerning parole. The duty of recommend-1 ing prisoners for parole rests with the Chief Parole Officer at Ottawa. In order to carry out his duties, he must visit each penitentiary at least once a year and interview hundreds of men. This is most unsatisfactory. It is impossible for any man to learn in such short contacts enough about each of the thousands of inmates to perform so ; important a service adequately. Neverthe[ less, in the fiscal year ended March 31, 1931. R. F. Harris, Acting Dominion Parole Officer, reported that 913 persons were released on parole, and of these only sixtysix. or 7.22 per cent, had failed in their obligation; which is indeed a very creditable showing, so far as it goes.

To extend this work and make it still more satisfactory, General Hughes, year after year, recommended the establishment of a parole board for each penitentiary, and the appointment for each of a parole oflicer —really a social worker—who would be intimately acquainted with the inmates, would keep in touch with them after release, and advise and assist them to secure work or otherwise become re-established in the community. This is now a matter of regular routine in most enlightened penitentiary ; systems, such, for instance, as that of New Jersey: but so far nothing of the kind has been tried in Canada.

Then there is the question of the segregation of youthful and first offenders from the older and more crime-hardened criminals. During almost the whole of his term as superintendent. General Hughes asked year after year for the establishment of special institutions for this type of offender. Eventually, in 1930, Hon. Ernest Lapointe, then Minister of Justice, made provision for the institutions at Collins Bay and near St. Vincent de Paul, already mentioned. The intention was to incorporate in these institutions some of the principles of modem penology. Solitary confinement, eating alone, silence, bars and bolts, high walls, were to be abolished.

Investigation Needed

CONSTRUCTION institution is being of the proceeded Coiiins with Bay i first. Prison labor is being used, prisoners having been transferred from Kingston for the purpose. These have been selected mostly with a view to their fitness for construction work, and are not necessarily those who will eventually occupy the institution. Among those chosen were the Toronto brokers. This, coupled with the designation “Preferred Class,” by which the institution was first officially described, has given rise to charges of favoritism.

I am not prepared to say that influence, political or otherwise, might not have been used in having some of these persons transferred to Collins Bay, but that is merely b the way. The widely held viewthat Collins Bay has been created to pamper or coddle prisoners is absurd. Sudi a view is but a remnant of the old. traditional belief that barbarity and inhumanity are necessary in the treatment of prisoners. Collins Bay is an attempt to remedy a few of these age-old barbarities. It is a pity that its prospects have thus been jeopardized. For even if it should finally attain to the original specifications. it will still be some distance behind the most approved ideas of penal administration.

Another recommendation of General Hughes which has not yet been acted upon is provision for the training of prison personnel. Handling human beings is a difficult task calling for exceptional qualities. But. as a rule, the men who are in charge of our penitentiaries, from the highest to the lowest, have received little or no training for their jobs. Salaries in most cases are too low to attract high-class men. It is also natural that such work should often appeal to those of assertive and overbearing dispositions. When such persons are ignorant in addition, the possibilities for mischief are infinite.

It is therefore not surprising that favoritism, partiality, hypocrisy, abuse of power, deceit, trickery, hate and fear, are rampant in the |)enitentiaries. The whole atmosphere is unhealthy from a mental standpoint. Instead of reforming, it can be said that in the vast majority of cases the inmate leaves the institution a worse citizen than when he entered. Hitherto our institutions have been designed to punish, but even such an unsentimental person as General Hughes admits over and over again that the function of a penitentiary should be to reform, and that reformation cannot be attained through punishment.

Since the recent riots there is a widespread feeling that the whole penitentiary system should be thoroughly investigated. I would go one step further and suggest a thorough examination of our whole penal system. It is to be expected that those responsible for a given system will defend it and resist any serious suggestion of change. For, after all, isn’t the suggestion that a change is necessary a reflection on their administration? Quite often we see men deny the need, when advocated from outside, of the very changes which they themselves have long been privately advocating.

As a direct result of the recent riots, a number of minor but long overdue reforms have been instituted, some of which have already been referred to. Others have to do with hair cropping, the issue of tobacco and cigarette papers, letters and visitors, and the infliction of corporal punishment. It is a sad commentary on the inertia of the official mind that a riot should be necessary to bring about such obvious reforms. If these are now admitted to be advisable, why were they not advisable years ago? Are others equally necessary only awaiting the stimulus of another riot? Who can tell?

The present state of public suspicion and unrest will not be allayed until a complete investigation of our penitentiaries has been undertaken by an independent commission of competent persons. This commission should, at the same time, examine methods in vogue elsewhere and recommend a penal system that will put Canada in line with the best modem practice in this vital feature of our social order.