On Friday, the Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews released the 2009-2010 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada (OCI). With the minority Conservative Government of Canada heavily invested in their punishment agenda since their arrival in office, it comes as no surprise that the Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers noted that many of our federal penitentiaries are bursting at the seams.
Key findings outlined in the OCI report include a 50% increase in the use of double bunking in the past five years, a shortage in available programming for prisoners, higher levels of violent incidents and staff usage of force, and crumbling infrastructure due to the age and number of prisoners in the federal penitentiary system.
While I will comment further on the findings of the OCI report and the official response from the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) at a later date (read here), the initial response from the Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews on CBC's Power & Politcs with Evan Solomon (view minutes 3:20 to 12:25) suggests that the recent findings and recommendations of Howard Sapers and his office are not being taken all that seriously by the Feds.
When questioned by Solomon about the fact that the Correctional Investigator has stated that double bunking - a primary way the government is planning to accommodate prisoners going forward - is not appropriate, Toews turned to one of his most practiced talking points: “The practice of double bunking in certain facilities is appropriate, and can be done safely and it is legal... I will take the advice of the head of the correctional service who makes those operational decisions”.
What is dishonest about this statement is that Minister Toews has been receiving advice from senior CSC officials that double bunking puts the safety of prisoners and staff at risk as noted in a February 2010 briefing note I obtained (read 8 August 2010 post). But the truth has no place when the federal government is defending its penal policies that have put CSC officials in the position of having to make the best of a bad situation.
As Solomon pressed Toews about the OCI’s position regarding the negative impact that overcrowding has had on the ability of CSC to provide programming for prisoners to help them reintegrate into society, the Minister responded:
"...let’s not get confused about the chicken and the egg – which one comes first. Many of the individuals who are now in our prisons are very dangerous... I confer regularly with the head of corrections.... to make sure that our guards are safe, and then, that these individuals are treated appropriately... I would much rather have dangerous individuals in our prison system than outside in our streets. The government makes no apologies for that".
Apparently, Toews is so concerned with defending his problematic and crisis-inducing ‘public safety’ policies that he doesn’t read the memos and the reports that have sounded the alarm. What he fails to realize is that if this keeps up, our prisons will explode and he will need to apologize in one form or another, perhaps at a Royal Commission that would examine the probable riots and violence that may plague our prisons in the years ahead.
Following his interview with the Minister of Public Safety, Solomon discussed the contents of the OCI report and its implications with Howard Sapers (view minutes 13:42 to 21:02).
Noting again that “double bunking specifically has gone up 50% in five years, and in the short term and medium term the plan is for it to go up even further”, Sapers emphasized that while Minister Toews may say the practice is safe, “[c]orrections officers will tell you that it's not safe. Inmates will tell you it’s not safe. My investigators tell me it’s not safe”.
As Solomon continued the discussion of this issue stating that Toews says that the practice is legal, Sapers responded: “...well, I guess there’s a difference between legal and safe”. Later in the interview the Correctional Investigator of Canada listed specific problems associated with overcrowded prisons:
"...you see more tension. You see more violence. You see more hesitation on the part of staff to intervene. It’s just not good correctional practice which is why the international standard is single-cell accommodation... Currently, what we are seeing is more institutional violence. We’re seeing less up-take in terms of correctional programming and we’re seeing more offenders spending more time in prison before release without the benefit of correctional intervention".
After Sapers remarks on a federal penitentiary system in crisis, Solomon concluded the interview by asking him if we are “moving away from good correctional practice or closer?”
Sapers response: “Evan, that’s really the underlying theme in my report, that we’re moving away from it. We’re moving away from the things we have learned about what constitutes good correctional practice”.
What is troubling about the report released on Friday and the political fall-out is that in this age of ‘truthiness’ what we have learned seems to be inconsequential to the minority Conservative Government of Canada who will invariably blame the Liberals for the current crisis in our penitentiaries despite the fact that they are the ones who have precipitated it in their five years in office.
It is time that the government that “rode into on the horse of accountability”, to use the words of NDP MP Pat Martin, take responsibility for their actions and seek treatment for their addiction to incarceration that is causing irreparable harm to the fabric of Canadian society.
In my view, a punishment moratorium that would see a shift of resources towards initiatives that will actually prevent victimization at a lesser cost such as justice reinvestment (read 7 November 2010 post) be seriously considered. After almost two centuries of the proven failure of imprisonment, it is high time that we abandon the carceral experiment.
Related media coverage:
- CTV News
- Globe and Mail
- Postmedia News
- Sun Media
- Toronto Star