‘Dehumanizing, counterproductive, unlawful’ – Canada’s correctional system resists all attempts at reform

Posted on October 26, 2020 in Child & Family Delivery System

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OttawaCitizen.com – Opinion
Oct 26, 2020.   Farhat Rehman

I am the mother of a son who is nearing two decades of his life in prison.

It has been hard enough coming to terms with the criminal act and imprisonment of my only son after his struggles with recurring mental health challenges and adverse social environments during his most formative years. But I have also had to come to terms with a correctional system that, despite many calls for reform, remains steeped in an archaic cultural mindset, focusing on punishing prisoners instead of preparing them for a safer and healthier future. The resulting living conditions, long denounced by experts as dehumanizing, counterproductive and unlawful, are still allowed to continue.

For families like mine, prisoners are not nameless and faceless: They are our loved ones. We are terrified for them, and devastated by recent news that this won’t change any time soon: The Correctional Service of Canada has been stonewalling the very people the federal government appointed to address the problems: the Office of the Correctional Investigator and the advisory panel overseeing Structured Intervention Units (solitary confinement).

Many people, like my son, enter prison with a pre-existing mental illness. Most of us accept that our incarcerated family members need treatment. But incarceration is not supposed to include endless punishment and deprivation. It’s not supposed to put your life at risk. Therapeutic environments are needed which don’t exacerbate their conditions to the point of mental crisis. Yet that is exactly what our experience has been.

The punitive conditions of confinement are no better in the prison Regional Treatment Centres (RTCs). These are psychiatric “hospital” units embedded in a penal facility where such people are housed. In fact, the Correctional Investigator noted that in 2017,  $10 million was allocated to establish Therapeutic Ranges in maximum security prisons; he was however “… unclear what the new funding was actually used for” and believes as we do, that “… it is impossible to have therapeutic places in maximum-security prisons.”

In my quest to advocate for my son’s safe transfer to a therapeutic facility outside the criminal punishment system, I have tried to engage with the correctional staff of the RTC where he was housed. They insist that my son’s “behaviour” needs to improve, and he must be receptive to the anti-psychotic injections he receives. I cannot convince them that the behaviours they see as defiant are the prolonged effects of incarceration with very restrictive and harsh conditions for a man with vulnerable mental health. I would argue that even a perfectly healthy person would become depressed and uncooperative. But sadly, the correctional system is hard-wired to demand only the very best behaviour from my now aging son, consistently and continually despite year after year of imprisonment under maximum security conditions.

I admire my son’s courage and perseverance in improving himself intellectually and spiritually in spite of everything. He has faced health crises including a life-threatening episode when he was in ICU on life support. This came frighteningly close to my worst fear that my son might die in prison and become another statistic.

I remember the hope we felt in October of 2015. Tired of the Tough on Crime agenda of the previous Stephen Harper government, a decade that saw punitive and stringent laws put in place, I, like many other Canadians, looked to Justin Trudeau’s inspired choices of ministerial appointments and the mandate letters given to guide them.

But here we are six years later: The old policy trends continue, including those that were ruled unconstitutional by the courts. It seems our political leaders have become comfortable with the risk-averse policies they inherited.

Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger’s most recent report, points out many continually frustrating deficiencies: increased deaths in custody; troubling use of force at prison psychiatric hospitals; failure to meet legal nutritional standards. Deficiencies affecting Indigenous Peoples have been called out so often he might as well just copy and paste these findings from year to year.

Asking for humane conditions should not be a luxury but a basic necessity to survive as a human being.

I, and other MOMS, have no choice, really, but to stay resolute and continue to demand to be heard. The Correctional Service of Canada is not an entity that should be allowed to spend large amounts of resources yet be so unresponsive to oversight agencies.

Farhat Rehman is a founding member of Mothers Offering Mutual Support(www.momsottawa.com), a support group open to mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, and grandmothers with family members involved in the criminal justice system.


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