CANADA SPECIAL REPORT

Secrets behind the walls

Canada’s correctional service faces a crisis

KEVIN MARRON April 15 1996
CANADA SPECIAL REPORT

Secrets behind the walls

Canada’s correctional service faces a crisis

KEVIN MARRON April 15 1996

Secrets behind the walls

CANADA SPECIAL REPORT

ESSAY

KEVIN MARRON

Shortly before the release of the report that precipitated his resignation last week as commissioner of the correctional service, John Edwards delivered what would be his last message to the 10,500 employees of Canada’s beleaguered prison system. Writing in the prison staff publication Let’s Talk, Edwards complained that the service was making too many mistakes. A career public servant who maintained that Canada’s prison service was one of the best in the world, Edwards expressed frustration over the fact that employees had trouble following rules and directives. His comments anticipated Justice Louise Arbour’s damning indictment of a prison culture that she found failing at all levels to respect the spirit and letter of the law. Edwards recognized, as did Arbour, that the shocking events at the

Kevin Marron, 48, has written widely on justice issues. His latest book, The Slammer: The Crisis in Canada’s Prison System, has just been published by Doubleday Canada Ltd.

Prison for Women in Kingston, Ont., were symptoms of a far wider problem. As he told employees in his newsletter article: “It would be comforting to think that these errors were limited to matters arising in the Prison for Women during 1994 but, based on three years of reading investigations, audits and other reports, I am convinced this is not so.”

What Edwards described as errors may be seen by others as injustices. But it is widely acknowledged on both sides of the prison walls that there is a crisis in Canada’s correctional system, brought to a head by overcrowding, understaffing and the escalating tensions of a violent prison environment. At its root lies a set of conflicting attitudes and mixed messages that exist both inside and outside a service that is expected, at the same time, to punish and rehabilitate while treating prisoners fairly and keeping them under control.

The commissioner’s frankness about the system’s mistakes was uncharacteristic of an organization that is often accused of

Canada’s correctional service faces a crisis

seeking to escape public scrutiny by hiding £ its abuses behind prison walls. The culture 3 of secrecy is so embedded in the prison 1 system that Edwards himself tried to prog tect his staff by opposing the release of the 5 riot squad videotape last year, even though | he subsequently admitted that he knew 5 what it showed was very wrong. And that was despite the fact that Edwards and other senior staff had been ostensibly striving to make the prison service more open and accountable, less punitive and more respectful of human rights. “The public still see us as a parochial, semimilitary bunch of thugs. And on a bad day, we’re everything you think we are,” senior correctional service administrator Tom Epp explained in an interview a few months after the Prison for Women riot and strip search.

Shocking though the incidents depicted on the videotape were, critics of the prison system see them as part of a pattern of abuse and injustice that prison staff usually cover up more successfully. As Kim Pate,

executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, puts it: “The uniqueness was that the tape was released, not what happened.” Pate says that women are strip-searched on a regular basis without due cause, albeit by female guards, at the new Edmonton women’s prison, where tensions have contributed to one suicide, two attempted suicides, numerous slashings and two assaults on staff in the few months that it has been open.

In men’s prisons, staff routinely use Mace and physical force to restrain inmates, conduct strip searches and remove prisoners from their cells. Rules and regulations govern the circumstances in which such actions may be taken and the way in which they are carried out. But Edwards pointed out in his newsletter column that staff sometimes ignore rules because they see them as unrealistic, believe that they can be applied in a flexible manner, or perhaps do not understand them properly be cause of inadequate training.

Prison guards, exposed to violence and abuse on a daily basis, often express cynicism about the ideals of justice and rehabilitation. They are also concerned about their own safety. Ken Veley, national vice president of the Union of Solicitor General Employees and a guard at the notoriously violent Millhaven Penitentiary near Kingston, has doubts about the practical application of Arbour’s recommendations regarding the rights of prisoners. For example, Veley asks, “Can you help me de vise a way to safely approach a violent inmate, whom you’ve just Maced and shackled, and give him a phone without him cracking you on the head or throwing piss in your face?” And while he concedes that there are ways of solving many simple problems, Veley maintains that Arbour was “out of touch with reality” in proposing that no prisoner be held in segregation for more than 60 days in any one year. Explaining that prisoners are placed in segregation because they might harm other inmates, Veley says that “we have people who are bad for years, not just for 60 days.”

Prisoners can file complaints and they have the right to a hearing in what inmates widely regard, perhaps unfairly, as a “kangaroo court” within the prison. But it is always their word against that of the guards. Prisoners’ appeals against disciplinary decisions seldom find their way through the Correctional Service bureaucracy until long after the punishment that the prisoner is appealing against has been in-

flicted. The 1993 death of Kingston Penitentiary prisoner Robert Gentles, suffocated while being sprayed with Mace and forcibly | removed from his cell, was unique | in Canadian penal history in that « it resulted in criminal charges being laid against prison guards.

But that prosecution was subsequently abandoned because pathologists disagreed on how he suffocated.

Michael Jackson, a professor of law at the University of British Columbia who has been studying the use of segregation in Canadian prisons for many years, says that “the problem is not that there are brutal wardens or malevolent ogres of guards, but that they have a perspective in which respect for human rights is not the centrepiece of their activity.” As a result, Jackson explains, prisoners suffer from “the accumulated abuses of the daily practice of injustice,” while “the sentence is administered in a way that doesn’t respect the very laws that the prisoners were convicted of violating.” The correctional sys| tern gives prisoners the s contradictory message I that they have legal o rights but they cannot expect them to be en-

forced. Meanwhile, guards receive mixed messages from an administration that expects employees to follow a myriad of rules and regulations, but covers up for them when they fail to comply with the law.

Guards, administrators and even many prisoners agree, however, that their problems cannot be viewed in isolation. Public attitudes mirror the conflict in the prison system between punitive attitudes and the ideals of justice or rehabilitation. Members of the public respond with outrage to abusive treatment, but many are also incensed by stories about prisoners enjoying relatively comfortable conditions or concerns that dangerous offenders might be released. Public opinion, law enforcement practices and government policies all result in escalating prison populations without any corresponding increase in resources.

In his newsletter column, Edwards questioned whether the correctional service was setting unrealistic standards for its employees. He promised to discuss his concerns with union members and administrative staff. The release of the Arbour commission report has ensured that discussion of what should be expected of the prison system and how it should be managed will no longer be confined behind prison walls. □