How we created a Canadian prison crisis

Posted on October 4, 2015 in Child & Family Delivery System – Opinion/Commentary – The Harper Shift: A decade of ‘tough on crime’ policies has left our prisons in chaos and our international reputation as a just nation in tatters.
Oct 04 2015.   By: Catherine Latimer

The Harper Shift is a month-long look at how Canada has changed over a decade of Conservative government – and at what kind of country we want to become. Here Catherine Latimer looks at the dubious legacy of Stephen Harper’s ‘tough-on-crime’ policies.

Yesterday’s flawed “tough on crime” policies are today’s prison crisis. Prisons in most parts of Canada are experiencing overcrowding, violence, insufficient rehabilitative programs, a lack of graduated, supportive reintegration programs for prisoners returning to communities, and inadequate mental and physical medical attention for an increasingly older and needier prison population. Our prisons are no longer able to provide the tools and incentives to reform prisoners and return them to a life free of crime in the way that they have done in the past.

Advocates of “tough on crime” approaches are convinced that crimes should be punished by harsh penalties and tough prison regimes rather than solely by penalties proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

This obsession with punishment eclipses any interest in reforming those incarcerated for their own sake and for community safety. While “tough on crime” policies have a superficial, popular appeal, they erode principles of justice, fail to help those who have committed crimes to change their ways, and have been repeatedly proven not to deter others from committing crimes. In many cases, those who have been imprisoned under harsh conditions are released back into our communities facing serious barriers to their successful reintegration but now with worse mental and physical illnesses and more anger than when they entered prison. As a result, increasing numbers are returning to prison for violent offences within five years of completing their sentences.

Over the past decade, the federal correctional system in Canada faced massive infrastructure changes, shifting populations, and new legislative requirements with reductions in resources. Paradoxically, there has been a 17 per cent increase in the federal prison population over the last 10 years despite year-over-year reductions in crime rates.

Double-bunking, a risky practice of housing two prisoners in a cell designed for one, has now become an established practice despite being contrary to the UN minimum rules on the treatment of prisoners. A series of policy changes have cut inmate pay, increased costs of prisoners’ phone calls, limited work and compassionate releases, made visits from family more difficult, toughened access to parole, cut effective programs like the prison farms, and generally led to a reduction in constructive activity behind bars.

The failure to meet the essential mental and physical health needs of prisoners is of particular concern. Confining prisoners in isolation, a common practice for those suffering from mental illnesses, has caused a deterioration of prisoners’ mental health as well as too many suicides.

Representatives from a broad political spectrum in the United States have recognized the waste of lives and money of the mass incarceration policies during its previous “tough on crime” era, and former president Bill Clinton has openly regretted the role he played in this. Significant penal reforms are now underway.

Predictably, Canada’s corrections system has been affected. In two separate reports, the auditor general criticized plans for managing prison population growth and the Correctional Services’ ability to prepare prisoners for release. Many lawsuits have sought damages for negligence in the prison authorities’ treatment of prisoners, and some have even alleged Charter violations in the mistreatment of prisoners.

In July 2015, the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations called upon Canada to reduce prison crowding, limit solitary confinement, and improve access to treatment for mentally ill prisoners. Traditionally a leader in promoting international human rights compliance, Canada’s prison policies have now made it the object of international criticism.

There are effective and humane ways for Canadian governments to fulfil their justice and corrections responsibilities without additional costs.

Crowded prisons are expensive and do not contribute to longer-term community safety objectives. Respecting the presumption of innocence and providing more pretrial or bail alternatives for the majority of provincial prisoners awaiting trial would greatly reduce the burden in provincial institutions. So, too, would allowing judicial discretion to impose other than mandatory minimum penalties if those penalties would be disproportionately harsh in the circumstances.

Prison should not become the default institution for housing the mentally ill, who fare quite poorly in the current incarceration regimes.

Our supported reintegration system through parole was effective in reducing reoffending but most are no longer released through this expensive and now dysfunctional mechanism. It needs to be overhauled.

Innovative approaches, such as work or study programs forming a bridge between the prison population and the society they will enter, have shown great promise.

Our prisons are now in crisis but if we surmount “tough on crime” approaches and focus on just, effective and humane responses, Canada can once again be a world leader in corrections.

Catherine Latimer is a former director general in the justice department and a Broadbent Institute fellow.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, October 4th, 2015 at 1:34 pm and is filed under Child & Family Delivery System. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

One Response to “How we created a Canadian prison crisis”

  1. I agree with this article and think that the Canadian government is working backwards when it comes to the”war on crime” and the failing prison systems in Canada. It would benefit society if the Canadian government would invest more money into understanding the underlying reasons of why people commit crimes in order to develop successful preventative and rehabilitation programs. Most people don’t wake up with a thought or plan to commit a crime, but instead; issues of poverty, mental health, addictions, trauma, and abuse may all be contributing factors to their justice system involvement. As a replacement for the development of tough on crime approaches, why is the Canadian government and society not treating crime as a symptom of a bigger issue that needs desperately to be addressed? An understanding, change in policy and allocation of funding to the appropriate services would go a long way with starting to solve the prison system crisis that Canada currently finds itself in.


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