We’re denying prisoners the right to learn



We’re denying prisoners the right to learn



We’re denying prisoners the right to learn


Two observant and opinionated convicts serving time in Ontario's “Kingston complex’’—Kingston Penitentiary, Collin’s Bay and Joyceville prisons— recently submitted a 30,000 word brief to the Parliamentary Committee on Penitentiaries, reporting their experiences and observations of what’s wrong with several aspects of prison lift, and recommending reforms. The following is a condensation of their comments on the prison school system and reading-matter restrictions.

“THERE SHALL BE at each Institution an appropriate program of inmate activities designed, as far as practicable, to prepare inmates, upon discharge, to assume their responsibilities as citizens and to conform to the requirements of the law. The Commissioner shall, so far as practicable, make available to each inmate who is capable of benefiting therefrom, academic or vocational training ...”

This well-meaning order was added to the federal Penitentiary Service regulations by order-in-council in 1962. Unfortunately, the authorities seem to have made full use of the escape clause "so far as practicable,” and what is available to the inmates in the way of educational or vocational facilities is inadequate, antiquated and understaffed.

If there is any single area in which the prison officials are open to indictment. it is in regard to the educational facilities.^ We estimate that no more than $50 per year per inmate (including teacher salaries) is spent on academic education. The figure is far more likely to be $20 or less.

Every dollar spent educating Canadians—and prisoners are still Canadians—results in increased efficiency and productivity, assisting the nation as a whole. The benefits to the individual. in terms of better living conditions for his family and better educational opportunities for his children, are equally important. By denying inmates a real opportunity to achieve a better standard of living through better education, we are perpetuating

the problem. Not only are they more likely to return to crime, but their children are being denied equal opportunities and are being cast in the same mold. We are. in effect, visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children.

The classroom instruction program of the institutions in the Kingston complex includes only the elementary subjects (reading, writing and arithmetic—not history) and only to the grade-eight level.

Inmates are taught only during the daytime working hours, and those who do attend school do so for one or two half days per week. The only exception was made for some young inmates (under 21) to attend school full time, but we understand that this has now been discontinued.

In teaching the elementary subjects, Ontario Department of Education texts are used. These texts were designed for nineto 13-year-old minds, and the inmates in the classes range from 16 to 60, with the majority in their early 20s. On September 16. 1966, one of the authors attended the school building in K.P. There were approximately 26 inmates working in three

separate classrooms, unattended and unsupervised. The only teacher in the building was assigned to locking and unlocking the barred grill for persons to enter or leave.

Correspondence courses are allowed for men wishing to take high-schoolor university-level subjects. The Ontario Department of Education and DVA provide both courses and texts free of charge to men in institutions up to grade-13 level. Queen's University is the major source of correspondence courses at the university level. Queen’s does not supply texts.

It is the general practice to have the inmate purchase his own school books, unless available from the prison library. If the inmate is insistent and has no funds, he may be given the hooks. But so stringent is the book budget that there is even provision in the Inmate Pay Regulations for a man to spend money from his prison earnings (the 10 to 20 cents per day he saves) for educational courses. To buy a six-dollar textbook, a man would work eight weeks or more. Very little tutorial help is available in high-school grades and none at

university level. (How' simple and relatively inexpensive it would he to have closed-circuit TV from nearby Queen’s University.)

From time to time, but with no set program, special classes are held in such subjects as art, music appreciation, typing and public speaking. Unfortunately. they are usually taught by a “cultural officer” who is rarely qualified in even one of the subjects. Enrollment is usually good, but as the class progresses inmates drop out. This, the prison officials say, shows lack of sincerity. The inmates say that they know' the instruction is substandard and many know more about the topic than the officer.

Inmates attending school during the day lose out on the better jobs in the workshops because the men in charge hesitate to promote them when they are going to be absent part-time. Raises in pay are also denied to men going to school because of their absence from the shops. (The directives specifically prohibit a man from being denied his upgrading because of school attendance, but in practice men are denied raises because they attend school. )

In K.P. the actual process of attending school is an aggravating procedure. In the morning the inmate must report to his place of work first, and then sit idly until an officer arrives to escort him to the school (a building he passes on his way to work). The inmate arrives at school between 9.15 and 9.30 and leaves at II a.m. This constitutes a half day of school. The afternoon class is from 2 to 3.15 p.m., allowing for pickup and the exercise program. The escort officer often fails to pick a man up at his shop and the period is missed. School is often canceled due to absence of teachers or other personnel.

High-school correspondence courses arc easily available, but inmates seeking to take university-level courses face several obstacles. One inmate in K.P., a narcotics addict, was refused permission to apply for a psychology course from Queen's University and psychology textbooks were removed from his cell. The reason given was that experience had shown that some inmates who read psychology books had gained an insight into their real character, could not cope with their true selves and had attempted suicide. Because he persisted, the inmate had the books returned but he was not allowed to enroll in the course.

One of the authors asked the authorities to make inquiries about a course in computer programming, after reading about a successful course given by IBM in an American prison. A senior official, after considerable discussion, ventured the opinion that perhaps it would be dangerous for an inmate to have knowledge of computer programming, since he might use that knowledge to perpetrate some type of swindle. (A correspondence course was eventually obtained, without charge, from the University of Minnesota which was willing to invest in a Canadian, knowing he was in a penitentiary, when our own government was not.)

An inmate who had been transferred to K.P. after escaping from the

Burwash Industrial Farm was refused courses and texts for two second-yearuniversity subjects: chemistry anil

physics. The physics book was refused on the ground that the man might “make an apparatus which would endanger the security of the institution,” and the chemistry book on the ground that he might make an explosive.

Of course, knowledge can be used in a criminal manner. But if this line of thinking were to be followed to its logical conclusion we would deny all knowledge to prison inmates. To teach auto mechanics is to make car thieves. Penmanship leads to forgery. Bookkeeping to embezzlement. As the prison psychiatrist said. "II we start denying knowledge on these grounds, we will have to lock them all in cells and turn off the electricity. Electricity can be very dangerous.”

Education is the key to a more secure financial future for the inmate who intends to go straight. The present attitude of the prison authorities— and this carries through every phase of inmate self-improvement—is that inmates should not aspire to a higher educational or technical level than that enjoyed by the authorities themselves. If an inmate aspires to a higher position in life than an officer, he is told that he is completely unrealistic and must scale his ideas down.

Teach what they need

Our recommendations really amount to no more than fulfilling the spirit of the Penitentiary Service Regulations: a special adult-education course in place of the regular school curriculum up to the senior-matriculation level. There is, of course, a need to teach the illiterates in our prisons, but grown men find little interest in “Mary. John and Peter” elementary texts. Recognizing the impossibility of a regular school curriculum being put in effect, we should have professional educators design courses to meet the inmates’ needs at specificlevels, to impart a maximum amount of practical knowledge.

Where possible, educational programs should be geared to the requirements of the institution’s vocational-training or industrial program— assuming that those programs will also be updated. Languages, particularly French, should also be taught.

Most classes should be held in the evening, on the men’s own time. This would do away with the administration complaint that the inmates only go to school to escape work, and would also make the program available to inmates who want to work in the shops. (And most inmates do prefer to work, provided the work is interesting and useful.)

Even the inadequate facilities in the prisons in the Kingston complex are not used to best advantage. Classrooms are used as TV rooms in the evenings. Collin’s Bay has three classrooms in the same building as the evening recreation rooms, but they are not used in any way during the evening hours. Joyceville Institution, w hich allows inmates greater freedom of movement during the evening, makes partial use of schoolrooms for some evening classes.

Since 1961, the evening hours

(roughly 7 to 10.30 p.m.) have been available for recreation—limited to card playing, TV; and a few men, fewer than 10 percent, engage in sports. While this may be a tolerable way to waste your evenings for a few weeks or months, it should be remembered that men are confined in our penitentiaries for years. (After the sit-down strike in K.P. in 1966, a senior Penitentiary Service Official was quoted in the press as blaming the strike on “too much recreation” over a long holiday weekend. If he had said "too much recreation time" he would have come closer to the problem.

A great many men, perhaps even the majority, would welcome the opportunity to use their recreation time for education. Only those who have completely given up the idea of returning to society are content to waste year after year of their lives watching TV and playing cards.

Teachers and instructors should be civilians and not uniformed officers. Inmates are much more likely to accept instruction from civilians, even though the majority of the officers employed in the educational programs at present are thought of as “good guys" by the inmates. There is also a special incentive for an inmate to make a good showing in front of an outsider, particularly if the outsider is a woman. Of course, it would he necessary to pay a reasonable “honorarium.” but this would not lead to a much greater expenditure. We now spend teachers’ salaries for men who are often employed at guard duties or who waste half their working day waiting for pupils to be brought to class. They are teaching less than four hours a day.

Motivation of the inmate toward improving his educational level must begin in the Reception Centre. A small group of men in any prison still feel that going to school amounts to co-operating with the authorities, thus violating the “inmate's code.” But the swing in inmate heroes is to the brainier rather than the brawnier.

Nevertheless, many men still do not attend courses, possibly in fear that they will be shown up as slow learners, and they fear to show their ignorance to people with whom they must live for years. For this reason, motivation of the inmate must be started as soon as he enters the Reception unit. Nothing in the way of formal education is required at this point. Art classes, a short course in the care and operation of movie projectors, a few musical instruments with someone to teach a little music—anything that would tend to stimulate the mind at this crucial time. In this way you will break down some of the inmate’s automatic defenses.

After transfer to a main institution, this attitude must be maintained by a system of rewards. The man must know that his achievements are being noted (at present, all reports on inmates are kept secret, including pay gradings and earned remission assessments). For a number of men. the prospect of parole is incentive enough to study hard. Others, particularly those with long records, feel that parole is not likely and they require more immediate rewards — better living quarters, higher pay or more

privileges. Whatever the inmate’s motive, society gains if he is involved in educational courses.

Special courses designed to fill the inmate’s “knowledge gaps” should be provided. A man who comes to prison for the first time at 50 has considerable living experience and set social skills. For younger inmates — and our penitentiary population is younger every year — five years' confinement means five years when he is not learning the everyday skills required to

cope with modern society.

Recognizing this void, the Protestant chaplain at K.P., the Rev. John Nickels, instituted a cultural program in his revamped “Chapel at the Top of the Stairs.” A book club was started (pointing up the inadequacies of the prison library) and also a “chapel of discussion” which featured talks by outsiders (including women). These programs were attended by more inmates than there was room for. The padre also arranged for art classes.

music, and even a French class. All were held in the chapel on the men’s free time. The padre had the chapel brightened up, removed the guards during services, and invited guests— including members of parliament—to give the sermon. Attendance at chapel went up and there were no incidents to mar this program. Unfortunately, it’s a one-man effort, and one cannot see it continuing if the padre leaves.

While many of the men now emcontinued on page 53

ployed as trade instructors in our prisons may be competent tradesmen, most are not qualified to teach. The short courses given them by the Penitentiary Service is more concerned with the handling of inmates than with the methods of imparting knowledge.

Private industry should be involved in determining the curricula and. if possible, in the instruction. The willingness of private industry to enter into prison programs was demonstrated by IBM in the United States. IBM personnel conducted a course in computer programming, provided both equipment and instructors. They were able to place the graduates in private industry after their release. It was not a bad deal for IBM. They had a supply of students fully subsidized by the government as to living expenses, the students had ample time to devote to their studies—and IBM was later able to offer trained technicians to purchasers of their equipment.

Similar corporations in Canada might be enticed into helping with such training programs. Section 27 of the Penitentiary Act may well have envisioned something like this as it called for an Advisory Committee on Penitentiary Industry, with members drawn from private industry. In Canada we are also fortunate in having a number of Crown corporations and government agencies w'hose aid could be enlisted. F.vcn with the present restricted trades-training courses there is not enough work to employ all the men who have taken courses. In addition. there is a very definite program in K.P. to dissuade long-term inmates from taking courses or entering into self-improvement programs during the first part of their sentences. Possibly this accounts for the fact that K.P. has no trades-training courses or program.

To illustrate, take the case of Matthew Kerry Smith, Toronto's “Beatle Bandit.” Smith committed suicide within six months of entering K.P. with a life sentence, commuted from hanging. At the inquest, a senior prison official stated that Smith had asked for a change of work from the canvas department (sewing mailbags) to the institutional power house. The alleged reas m for refusing the request was that if Smith were given this job he would he eligible within a year to write F r his fourth-class stationary engineer's 'ertificate and would thus have nothin” to look forward to for the balance of his sentence. (Present policy is that an inmate, no matter how much experience or knowledge he has, cannot progress beyond the fourth-class level. Only in exceptional cases is this policy stretched.)

We are not implying that the prison authorities are responsible for Smith's suicide simply because they did not grant him a change of work. But wouldn’t it have been better, from everyone's point of view, if Smith had been allowed to start in as an engineer early in his sentence and progress through the successive classes of engineering until he attained a first-class certificate, provided he had the desire and ability to do so? If we are ever to make useful citizens of our longterm inmates, we must abandon the policies that actually encourage inmates to go into a fogged mental

state, and exchange it for one that keeps them interested and active throughout their sentence. Reading material permitted to inmates is closely related to education. The regulations state, among other things, that no reading material shall be permitted in any institution if it is calculated “to affect adversely the good order and administration of the institution.” It might surprise the committee to learn that Hansard is considered to be so “calculated” and one of the authors

was refused permission to order Hansard until he threatened to seek a court order to get it.

The actual practice has been that there is an “approved list” of books and magazines, varying from institution to institution. Men's magazines, including True and Argosy, are not allowed in K.P. Playboy, of course, is considered outrageous. While no one would contend that these magazines are in any way essential to a well-rounded knowledge of the world,

the policy has led to some very ridiculous rulings. Pierre Berton's The Comfortable Pew would be banned under the regulations. An inmate in Collin's Bay was refused permission to have Machiavelli's The Prince. Truman Capote's recent bestseller. In Cold Blood, w’as considered improper reading material. There is very little chance, of course, that the censors have read these books. Decisions are completely arbitrary.

continued on page 56

Another practice that leads to much dissatisfaction is that of ordering books from only one selected source. In K.P.’s case it has heen Mahood’s Drug Store in Kingston. If a book is unavailable there, it is unavailable to the inmate—unless he persists in demanding it. Subscriptions to magazines and newspapers must be made through the selected store, not by relatives sending money to the publisher. Inmates arc thus unable to take advantage of the special price reductions often offered by publishers.

Trying to order any book, periodical or pamphlet not on the approved list leads to controversy and innumerable interviews. Copies of the Canada Election Act and the Penitentiary Act were refused to one of the authors although both were finally obtained— the first through subterfuge and the latter with the permission of the commissioner of penitentiaries. Law books (an increasing interest in the law has arisen in our prisons) are not available from the drugstore, and purchasing them is incredibly difficult. In one case, it took more than five months, and then the wrong book was bought.

Many books that are recognized literature on special technical subjects are also not allowed. Texts on printing are forbidden, although the institution has a print shop. Electronics texts and catalogues are forbidden except for a few inmates who are taking correspondence courses at their own expense.

The prison libraries are not de-

signed to meet the interests and needs of the inmates. Many of the books are old and of no interest to anyone. It seems that the persons responsible are more interested in getting the greatest number of books for the money spent than in the contents of the books or their appeal to the inmates. The best hooks bear the stamp “Discarded by the Toronto Public Library.” This library has been very generous, and prisoners appreciate it. The most restricted library in the Kingston Complex is Collin's Bay. As many books are locked up in a back room as are in circulation.

In some institutions pocket books are banned, simply because they are pocket books and with no regard to the title or content. Men have lost remission for possessing a pocket book, even though another federal institution less than five miles away allows them.

We recommend that an inmate group be responsible for the selection of library books, in conjunction with the appointed officers. At the Beaver Creek Correctional Camp an inmate has been in charge of the library since the beginning because the small staff would not allow for an officer-librarian. While this library is small, the choice of books has been excellent. We suggest that responsible inmates are far more interested in the condition of the prison libraries than are the officers. A glance at the commissioner’s report for any year will show that the major concern of the library supervisors has been the number of books on the shelves, not the amount of reading done by the inmates. ★