On “A Flawed Compass” Guiding the Future
of the Canadian Federal Penitentiary System
By Justin Piché
* Appeared on Rittenhouse's Just Blog September 29, 2009
In April 2007, Stockwell Day – then Minister of Public Safety – commissioned an ‘independent’ review of the federal penitentiary system. Chaired by Rob Sampson (former Conservative Minister of Correctional Services, Province of Ontario, 1999-2002), the panel also included Serge Gascon (former Deputy Chief of the Montreal Police Service), Ian Glen (former Chair of the National Parole Board), Chief Clarence Louie (Chief of the Osoyoos Indian Band) and Sharon Rosenfeldt (Founder of Victims of Violence).
In the span equivalent to ten five-day working weeks at a cost of $1,200 per diem for Sampson and $1,000 per diem for the other panellists billed to the Canadian tax payer, the group compiled their findings and concocted recommendations based on penitentiary, parole office and halfway house tours, as well as submissions by and meetings with CSC staff, NGO’s, volunteers and other stakeholders. In October 2007, the Report of the Correctional Service of Canada Review Panel: A Roadmap Strengthening Public Safety (see http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/csc-scc/cscrpreport-eng.pdf) was released.
Report highlights included recommendations to refocus the Correctional and Conditional Release Act (CCRA, 1992) to place public safety as the primary objective of the federal penitentiary system, to replace statutory release with ‘earned parole’, to increase drug interdiction efforts within institution walls, and to consider building large multi-security level regional complexes to ‘replace’ outmoded penal infrastructure.
Following the release of the report, CSC quickly assembled a ‘Transformation Team’ in January 2008 (see http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/organi/trnsform-eng.shtml) to implement the recommendations of Review Panel over a two-year period with a budgeted cost of $122 million.
This past summer, the Conservatives also embraced the panel’s findings wholeheartedly by tabling legislation to amend the CCRA (see http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/media/nr/2009/nr20090616-1-eng.aspx), as well as a slew of other bills designed to ‘get tough’ on those with whom the law is in conflict (see http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/news-nouv/nr-cp/2009/doc_32399.html)
Until last Thursday, there had yet to be a comprehensive and robust critique of Review Panel’s report. As I sat in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa across from the Parliament of Canada, I listened as Michael Jackson (UBC Law Professor) and Graham Stewart (Former Executive Director of the John Howard Society) launch into a much needed rebuke of the document guiding CSC’s ‘transformation’ based on their study entitled A Flawed Compass: A Human Rights Analysis of the Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety (see http://www.justicebehindthewalls.net/resources/news/flawed_Compass.pdf).
As the title of their report suggests, Jackson and Stewart’s meticulous study is aimed at deconstructing the Review Panel’s clearly partisan attempt to hijack the future direction Canadian federal imprisonment. Of primary concern to the authors is that fact that “Nowhere in its analysis does the Roadmap, not even for a paragraph, reflect on the concept of human rights, or indeed use the words, when discussing the future of the most coercive arm of the state”, said
In keeping with the punitive times,
“It tramples on human rights and human dignity – strike one”.
“It will threaten public safety by making conditions in prisons more dangerous and undermine the pathways to prisoners’ reintegration – strike two”.
“It will place enormous financial burdens on taxpayers in lengthening and deepening the level of imprisonment, the disastrous path the
“And lest there be any doubt of its abject failure as an exercise in principled and effective corrections, there is a fourth strike - it will intensify what the Supreme Court has characterized as the already “staggering injustice” of the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the prisons of Canada”.
In his portion of the address, Stewart noted a fifth strike against the so-called Roadmap: “the near total absence of evidence to support its conclusions and recommendations”.
Another critique of the Review Panel’s report came from Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (http://www.elizabethfry.ca/caefs_e.htm). At the press conference, she noted that the lack of provisions outlined in the Roadmap dealing with mental health issues was not only insensitive given its release some twelve days after the death of Ashley Smith (see http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/rpt/oth-aut/oth-aut20080620-eng.aspx), but also indicative of what is being allowed to take place in federal prisons today and what will be tolerated in the future.
In an interview with CTV Newsnet, current Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan responded directly to this charge noting that the fact that so many individuals with mental health issues end-up in federal penitentiaries is a direct result of provincial-territorial funding cuts in the sector and that steps were being taken by CSC to address this service shortfall. His willingness to acknowledge that CSC is in the business of incarcerating the mentally ill and will continue to be in the future is indicative of his government’s use of penal policy as a panacea to a range of health and social problems.
Also at present at the press conference was Member of Parliament (Vancouver Kingsway) and NDP Public Safety Critic, Don Davies (see http://dondavies.ndp.ca/home), who reminded reporters that attempts to ‘tackle crime’ through longer and harsher sentences elsewhere has been a proven failure: “If getting tough on prisons – locking people up longer and more harshly – resulted in a safer society, then United States would be safest country probably on earth. The fact is that it isn’t”.
Stewart concluded, “What we have is a plan for corrections grounded in no foundation in the lessons of history, understanding of the law, evidence of effectiveness or respect for human dignity. The Roadmap, produced in a political context that is trying to separate the public from the facts, is the product of mean-spirited, manipulative and dangerous spin-doctoring – masquerading as public policy”.