Canada

Crisis? What crisis?

JULIANNE LABRECHE August 22 1977
Canada

Crisis? What crisis?

JULIANNE LABRECHE August 22 1977

Crisis? What crisis?

Canada

OTTAWA

Dear Mr. MacGuigan:

I herd about some report you have drawen up to keep the trouble down in the prison. I would like to receive a copy of the report. I here from a few cons that the report is very good. If people get off there ass, like the

Such was the stuff of dozens of letters from prisoners that poured into Mark MacGuigan’s office this summer following release of his candid and controversial report on federal penitentiaries. For seven hectic months, the Windsor-Walkerville Liberal was chairman of a subcommittee of 13 MPS from all sides of the House that interviewed more than 2,000 inmates and staff, held 72 formal hearings, toured jails and heard whispered comments from informants fearful of reprisal. The result: a hard-hitting report insisting “a crisis exists in the Canadian penitentiary system. It can be met only by the immediate implementation of large-scale reforms.” The parliamentary report was lapped up as quickly as the latest thrjller by inmates and guards alike. MacGuigan prophesied at his late May press conference, having just handed over his findings to Solicitor General Francis Fox, whose job it was to approve or reject the 65 recommendations: “If the recommendations aren’t followed, there will be chaos on a greater scale than we now have it and violence on a greater scale than we have seen it.”

But Fox, who is well respected by his colleagues though regarded by some as excessively ambitious, is a slow mover. He seems content not to rock the boat by pressing too ardently for the long overdue radical changes. In an interview he warned Canadians against being “overly optimistic” in their expectations for their prison system. And in his statement to the Commons early this month, giving his initial response to the subcommittee’s report, he said he needs more time to study its major

recommendations, including what could be the most significant—taking the penitentiaries out of the civil service altogether. Fox rejected a proposed five-man policy board for long-range planning and a suggestion that the subcommittee oversee the introduction of reforms. But he did give his blessing, at least in part, to 53 of the 65 recommendations, including appointment of independent chairmen for prisoner disciplinary hearings; construction of special prisons for inmates needing protective custody, such as child molesters, and of 24

new, small-scale prisons over the next five years; and new kitchens at Millhaven and Archambault penitentiaries, where food is trucked in and served cold.

Fox is said to be proud of giving his backing to even that much of the report, since just a hint of reform invites head-on conflict with the massive bureaucracy of 9,500 penitentiary staffers. But according to Erik Nielsen, a Tory member of the subcommittee, “the really imaginative reforms have not been endorsed.” And the prisoners themselves gave their verdict a few days after Fox’s Commons statement: a 24-hour hunger strike erupted in six maximum security prisons across the country in protest against the slow pace of reforms. At the British Columbia Penitentiary, inmates staged a daylong work stoppage. They were the first large-scale prisoner protests since the MacGuigan subcommittee had embarked on its investigation of appalling conditions within the system.

The brute strength of the subcommittee report lay in its unanimity; in fact the only issue the MPS had not agreed on before publication was a title. But Fox’s response split the subcommittee wide open, with some MPS toeing their party line. Even MacGuigan, so eloquent last May about the importance of all the recommendations, was moved to comment that the Solicitor General’s response “is good for a first reaction. I especially like the tone. It’s very positive.” Lamented NDP member Stuart Leggatt: “I think the unanimity of the committee is going to start breaking down at this point.”

And that’s not what one Laval Penitentiary inmate was hoping for when he wrote to the 13 MPS, voicing the desperation and anger inside prisons: “Let’s pray that your work is not in vain.”

commissioner for all prison and Mr. Francis Fox, there would not be any problem. signed, a federal penitentiary inmate

JULIANNE LABRECHE