Inside Canada’s prisons

Val Ross June 6 1983

Inside Canada’s prisons

Val Ross June 6 1983

Inside Canada’s prisons


Val Ross

Dorchester maximum security penitentiary was designed in an era during which convicts shuffled along in shackles. For 104 years it has loomed over the rolling countryside of northeastern New Brunswick. One-metrethick stone walls shut off its 470 inmates from the green hills of freedom. Inside, the prisoners hone their rage by fashioning “shivs” (knives) out of steel spoons to use on guards or each other and to ward off random attacks by in-

mate glue sniffers. In the past two years Dorchester has been relatively calm: only two suicides and 20 assaults, including five stabbings.

Dorchester’s horrors fit the Canadian public’s nightmare image of prisons. But on the face of it, Canada’s most modern prisons are more “humane.” The country’s 12 minimum security prisons often have no walls, and guards dress in civilian clothes. Even Millhaven, 33 km west of Kingston, Ont., and one of the Correctional Service of Canada’s (CSC) 15 maximum security prisons, appears innocuous from the out-

side. Instead of Dorchester’s smell of mould and urine, Millhaven carries the sharp scent of fresh paint; instead of vertical bars that clang shut, its grilled barricades, painted peach and turquoise, slide smoothly into place with an electronic hum. And instead of high walls, it restrains its 440 inmates with a double chain-link fence surveyed by guards in towers. Nearby, there is even a trailer—the family visiting centre— where a man plays catch with his two children and a woman barbecues hamburgers. It could be suburbia, except for the additional fence that shuts them in.

Modernity, however, has had little effect on the $1.5-billion federal prison system, which houses 11,300 inmates at a cost of $700 million a year. Since they opened in 1970, Millhaven and its Quebec twin, Archambault, at Ste. Anne des Plaines outside Montreal, have had a far more violent history than even Dorchester. Three guards and two inmates died in last summer’s riot at Archambault, the bloodiest in the Canadian penitentiary system’s 114-year history. Millhaven’s eighth murder victim was found stabbed in his cell on Christmas Day, 1982. And the tension among Canada’s 11,300 federal and 9,500 provincial prisoners seems to be reaching a crescendo. Svend Robinson, NDP critic of the solicitor general’s department, warns that there is “a crisis—something is going to explode.”

Pastel colors and family visits cannot change the immutable fact: prison is prison. And the human soul recoils in a silent scream against all that prison

means: the schedule of relentless repetition; the lack of privacy; the tension; and, above all, containment in cells, or “drums,” no larger than a bathroom in the average high-rise. “The anger is like being suffocated but never quite dying,” writes inmate #1310 in the current issue of Tightwire, the inmate publication at the Kingston Prison for Women. “Even if my hell ceases, it doesn’t— because I’m forced to witness another inmate’s hell, or worse, a friend’s. It’s never-ending.” Sometimes prisoners make home brew from fermented ketchup or orange juice to kill the grim consciousness of their lives; sometimes they drink Windex. Some, for shock value, in suicidal gestures or out of sheer boredom, carve chunks out of their arms with shivs or even serrated plastic knives; there were 51 such incidents of self-mutilation in Canadian federal prisons in the first three months of this year. Two weeks ago an emergency response team had to be called to the Prison for Women from nearby Kingston Penitentiary to quell a 2 Vi?-hour fight that had broken out among several inmates drunk on home brew—a typical Saturday night.

Explosive: Life in the “maxes” is far grimmer than in Canada’s minimum security institutions.TorontoMaple Leafs hockey club owner Harold Ballard once boasted that the seven-month sentence for tax evasion that he served in 1972 at Bath minimum, adjacent to Millhaven, was “better than a holiday at the Ritz.” But the minimums and mediums also share the thwarted passion, booze, drugs, homosexuality and frustration of the more explosive maximums. Last year five inmates ran away from Saskatchewan Farm Institution, the largest of Canada’s five minimum security prison farms, near Prince Albert, Sask., despite its reputation for relative inmate freedom and administrative liberalism. Réné Rousseau, director of Leclerc medium, north of Montreal, blames drugs for many of the problems among his 540 inmates. “We break two or three networks of ‘gaffe’

[wrongdoing] a week,” sighs Rousseau. “If it were not for the drugs, we would not have all these people to be carried out in ambulances, badly beaten.”

Prison life was never

pretty. It was not meant to be. It was designed to deter people from crime by exploiting their fear of being put inside. Many prisoners are violent and they fear each other. At Kingston Pen, Clifford Olson, the Coquitlam, B.C., construction worker who killed 11 young people in 1981, has to be protected, even from the other child murderers. And in the past two years the prison world’s normal cycle of violence, despair, futility and rage has been accelerated by new external forces. The most controversial was Bill S-32, presented to the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs by Solicitor General Robert Kaplan on May 19. The proposed bill would amend the terms of “mandatory supervision”—the set of conditions under which a prisoner automatically serves the last third of his or her sentence under supervision outside the institution to “depressurize”—much like a diver gradually coming up for air. (Parole, on the other hand, can result in release before two-thirds of a sentence is served but it is not automatic and must be applied for.) Now, S-32 would make reimprisonment the punishment for any infringement of mandatory supervision. As well, it would legalize the practice of “gating”—or rearresting a prisoner legally due for automatic release under mandatory supervision because the authorities deem him to be potentially dangerous.

By tightening one possibility of early release, S-32 will bottleneck—and further antagonize—a prison population already growing more violent. As well, when Parliament substituted the minimum 25year “life” sentence before parole for the death penalty in 1976, it guaranteed that the longterm violent population would swell like a vein below a tourniquet— from 26 in 1976 to a projected 2,000 in 1999. The “lifers” have little to lose by hostage-taking and murder; two men with 25-year sentences led last year’s riot at Archambault.

Another potentially explosive development has been overcrowding. A national trend among Canadian judges toward handing down longer sentences caused the prison population to jump by an unanticipated 10 per cent between 1981 and 1982, and it is still rising. The re-


suit is double-bunking, the practice of confining two inmates in a cell designed for one, or, as one official cynically termed it, “two scorpions in a bottle.” Because of overcrowding there are 100 more men than last year jostling each other in the narrow corridors, shoving, pushing and quarrelling over use of the tiny gym. Inmate Reg Striker, a convicted thief, fears that a violent outbreak will take place before his scheduled release in two months. “If this place doesn’t ‘go’ by then,” he says, “I’ll be surprised. I just hope I hit the streets Fingerprinting at B.C. ’s Mission penitentiary (above left); guard’s keys: never-ending before it happens.”

The 1983 toll of violence is already grim: 10 suicides; an Archambault guard, Serge Delorme, stabbed to death; Serge Robidoux, an inmate at Quebec’s maximum security prison, Laval, who was thought to be a stool pigeon, strangled with shoelaces by his fellow inmates; $2.5 million worth of damage from the riot two months ago at the Prince George, B.C., provincial prison. But, tragically, there is no agreement on how the pressure can be relieved. The majority of Canadians seem determined that the violence must be contained by tightening the lid and loading up the contents of the prison pressure cooker—although it costs between $32,000 and $65,000 to house one prisoner for a year.

Kicked: The fact is, citizens are alarmed by murders committed by infamous alumni of the Canadian penal system—like Clifford Olson—despite the fact that it is impossible for penal authorities to predict who will be “dangerous” and despite the fact that only 6.3 per cent of those on mandatory supervision are reimprisoned. In March 175,000 Dorchester cell (above); gunrack (below left); Laval handcuffs: ‘true meaning of hate’ Canadians presented Parliament with a

petition calling for even tougher sentences. The petition was organized by a Streetsville, Ont., businessman, Leslie Crisp, whose daughter’s fiancé was kicked to death outside a local bar.

At the other end of the spectrum of public opinion are calls for radical change to reduce the pressure level, to reform a prison system that, charges Michael Jackson, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, is in danger of becoming a punitive “Gulag.” And last week the Canadian Friends Service Committee (the Quakers)—the same group that 200 years ago proposed replacing lynch-mob justice with the present penitentiary system—hosted, at the University of Toronto, the first international conference on the theme of total abolition of the prison system.

In the face of the impending explosion behind bars and the rising clamor outside, Ottawa steers a careful course. Solicitor General Robert Kaplan told

Maclean’s that he faces two simple challenges: how to maintain programs while providing public security in a more cost-efficient way; and how to devise different ways of punishing people in order to reduce the number behind bars.

Currently, 116 out of every 100,000 Canadians are behind bars—the Western world’s sixth-highest rate of imprisonment. Meanwhile, the justice department, the solicitor general’s office (which oversees federal prisons through the Corrections Service of Canada and the National Parole Board) and the Law Reform Commission are developing proposals for reforms in sentencing that should stem the jail-bound tide in the courts. The primary device being considered is restitution, a system under which offenders who are not dangerous would be forced to pay back, or work off, the damage inflicted on their

victims as an alternative to imprisonment. The new guidelines are due to be presented to Parliament this fall. But for the rest, official policy appears “ad hoc,” in the words of Progressive Conservative Caucus Chairman Benno Friesen. On April 27 Kaplan called for earlier parole of nonviolent offenders to ease prison overcrowding. But then, 23 days later, the intent of Bill S-32 was the opposite: any infringement of mandatory supervision, including drinking or consorting with proscribed people, would be punishable by automatic reimprisonment.

Alarmed: The uncertain policies are responses to the country’s fear of crime and doubts about the positive effect of rehabilitation programs in prison. The uncertainty is based on statistics. In liberal Scandinavia, no less than in punitive Canada, recidivism—return-tocrime—rates rarely fall below 50 per

cent. As a result, the Corrections Service of Canada is moving away from the very qualities that earned it a laudable reputation with the American Correctional Association.

Misinformation means that the Canadian public is increasingly alarmed by U.S. crime statistics, and television has set the punishing pace. According to a 1979 study by the director of the centre of criminology at the University of Toronto, Anthony Doob, a majority of Canadians believe that half of all crime is violent. In fact, despite individual horror stories, Statistics Canada reports in its 1981 publication of crime statistics that only seven per cent of crime was violent (including homicide, sexual offences and assaults) in the past few years. In fact, because the 18to 30year-old age group (the one most likely to commit crime) continues to shrink, the CSC’s own strategic planning com-


mittee projects a slight decrease in total crime. A 1983 Gallup poll also found that more than 50 per cent of Canadians believe that the prison system is too lax. in fact, the number of paroles granted has decreased by 50 per cent in the past decade. And the suicide rate in Canadian prisons is seven times the national average. But politicians appear unwilling to contradict the public’s voracious preoccupation with crime and punishment. On last month’s election trail, the then NDP leader in British Columbia, David Barrett, declared, “Our prisons should not be first-class hotels.”

Fully aware that crime rates are relatively static, Kaplan nevertheless told Maclean’s, “My first job is to reassure the public.” As a result, although Ottawa’s corrections budget was slashed this winter by $14.4 million, a construction program costing more than $100 million—it will add as many as 600 maximum security beds to four penitentiaries -by 1986 —continues. Declares

UBC’s Jackson: “We are emphasizing the worst and eliminating the best.” Nowhere are the priorities clearer than in Kaplan’s decision last December to cancel free postsecondary education for inmates—a $l-million program under which 232 prisoners were working on

university courses. Reflecting on criticism during the past five months, Kaplan told Maclean’s last week that he will keep the current program in place—but only until he can replace it with one that will be paid for by inmates who will take out student loans. If anything supplies hope of rehabilitation, it is education. U.S. and Canadian studies both report that recidivism rates among inmates enrolled in postsecondary education is a miraculously low 15 per cent. And when the penitentiary service suffered its most costly riot ever ($5 million in damages) at Matsqui, B.C., in 1981, inmates armed with baseball bats guarded the prison school and library.

Currently, rehabilitation programs are symbolized by well-equipped workshops whose underemployed inmates are forbidden to compete with the private sector. “We only have an hour of work a day,” an inmate at Quebec’s medium security Leclerc, told Maclean’s. “The rest of the time we spend talking, smoking, goofing off. We’re locked up in the shop instead of the cells, that’s all.” The shops cost far more to operate than the $3,000 per inmate for a university education.

Dangerous: The demise of rehabilitation can be seen in other areas as well. There are only 26 fulland part-time psychiatrists in the entire system and

only one in the Atlantic region. Even the administration admits that this is inadequate; Mac Perry, the CSC’s health care analyst, estimates that as many as 25 per cent of inmates could benefit from psychiatric counselling if they could get it. As well, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs are minimal. Wayne Eaton is an an inmate imprisoned at Bath “because I became violent when I drank.” He pleads: “All they have for me is Alcoholics Anonymous on Monday nights. I need help.” But he will not get it. He is due to be released on day parole this week.

The clearest indication of the government’s tougher direction is the $35-mil-

lion construction of 240 ultramaximum security special handling units (SHUs) for the system’s most dangerous prisoners at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Archambault and in Renous, N.B. Construction of the new four-metre-by-lM»m cells is well under way. They will be equipped with steel beds and toilets and waist-high windows through which inmates will receive their trays of food. Currently, 160 dangerous convicts live in the two special units already in operation at Laval and Millhaven. Critics charge that the cost of servicing and guarding them around the clock can be as high as $90,000 per inmate. The units are not only the most costly form of


imprisonment, they are the most punitive. As one inmate puts it, “If the SHU fits, it wears you.” For the first two to six weeks after a “fish” (new inmate) arrives, he is kept in his SHU cell for 23 hours a day. Even at the end of his minimum two-year “bit,” his movements and communication are rigidly circumscribed. “What bothers me about SHUs,” says Gordon MacFarlane, Ontario’s executive director of the Ottawa-based John Howard Society (a prisoner support group), “is that there is no rehabilitation whatsoever. And most of these guys will get out, eventually.” Ominously, an open letter last January from the Laval SHU inmates to the CBC and CTV asserted, “This program is causing us to learn and to feel the true meaning of hate.”

Violated: The mood is ugly in Canada’s prisons and it is going to get worse: even small cutbacks have massive psychological effects in the circumscribed world inside. Two of the reforms brought in during the liberal 1970s— inmates’ committees and the correctional investigator, or ombudsman— were intended to improve communications between prisoners and administration. But now they may simply add to inmates’ cynicism and frustration. Last winter Leclerc’s committee resigned en masse to protest the transfer of its leader, Robert Collin, to Laval maximum. Collin’s offence: his committee challenged double-bunking in the Federal Court of Canada. Worse, Collin complained to the authorities that 680 kg of meat was disappearing from the prison kitchens each month—because, the inmates presumed, the staff was stealing. Instead of investigating the charges, the authorities removed their accuser. He took them to Federal Court again to challenge his involuntary transfer as an infringement of his rights. Earlier this spring Collin won an $18,136 award after the court ruled that the inmate’s constitutional rights had been violated under the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Authorities now believe that prisoners will, for the first time, have tobe given reasons for transfers —and a chance to reply—before any move. Alarmed by the precedent, Kaplan is appealing.

The 1982 report of the correction investigator, already a month overdue, could help clarify controversies like the Collin case, but inmate hopes are not high. The 1981-82 Report of the Correctional Investigator noted that fewer than one in three complaints were resolved or assisted. Nor can the correctional investigator resolve the issue of involuntary transfers—one of the most frequent inmate complaints. Shaun Shannon was an inmate at the over-

crowded Kent “max” in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. On the eve of his transfer he wrote to his wife to lament his move from an overcrowded prison to an empty cell 5,000 km away at Dorchester, N.B.: “I’m not a piece of baggage. I told them that they were destroying my family, the only thing that matters to me. This has got to be the bottom of the pit. I’m really hurting tonight.” That evening Shannon killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates.

There will be more Shaun Shannons, there will be more Archambaults. According to the 1982 report of the correction service’s strategic planning committee, sentencing reforms that send only the most violent to jail and the 25year sentences will bottleneck more and more incorrigible offenders inside the corrections system. The committee concluded that “an increase in the inmate suicide-homicide rate may result.” In the light of such a prediction, prison abolitionists argue that the system should end. Hans Mohr, a professor at Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto who served on the Law Reform Commission of Canada, is an abolitionist who submits: “People say prisons should exist to protect them from the Clifford Olsons. But Olson is not typical of prison inmates; surely he is sick and belongs in a psychiatric hospital. And if prisons are not for Olson, who are they for?” Even if the system now in place remains, the John Howard Society’s MacFarlane insists that it should shift from a policy of warehousing criminals to one that emphasizes any program, such as postsecondary education, which at least offers hope of rehabilitation. The views of reformers, however, are clearly not in fashion.

Bloody: As it is, the public is twice victimized by crime—first by the offence and then by having to bear the ever-increasing cost necessary to support ever-increasing numbers of angry offenders inside the time bomb of Canada’s prisons. But honest citizens want prisons, because they want to hope that terrible things will not happen to their children or to their property. “There can never be that reassurance,” argues Osgoode’s Mohr. But the Corrections Service of Canada, in an increasingly thankless role, must try to provide it. Clark Macdonald, moderator of the United Church of Canada, who visited Archambault and Laval during the aftermath of last year’s bloody riots, has spoken to prisoners and guards on what can be done to prevent more bloodshed. He is not optimistic. “In a sense,” he says, “the system imprisons them all.”

Benoit Aubin

Jackie Carlos

Michael Clugston

Malcolm, Gray

Gordon Legge

Christopher Mosey