For their part, CSC responded today with the release of a progress report regarding the recommendations made in the OCI's first report on the death of Ashley Smith (read here). While CSC claims to have made progress on this issue, particularly in the area of mental health treatment for prisoners, Sapers noted today during his press conference that 130 prisoners have died in federal prisons since Smith's death in 2007, many resulting from self-harm. Progress indeed.
The explanation? According to Sapers, the crux of the problem is that the federal penitentiary system remains unequipped to deal with the health, mental health and programming needs of prisoners. There also continues to be inadequate communication between security and clinical staff, poor response times to medical emergencies, and inadequate monitoring of suicide pre-indicators.
Following the press conference, Sapers was asked whether the influx of new prisoners into CSC facilities would have an impact on deaths in custody, to which he replied (watch video or read here):
We could see thousands of new admissions to federal penitentiaries over the next five years and I can tell you right now that the Service does not have the capacity to deal with that. They don't have the space, they don't have the people, they don't have the programs. Where they are already challenged to meet their responsibilities, to meet their mandate of safe and appropriate correctional programming - those challenges would only be made worse.
Later in the day, Sapers appeared on CBC's Power & Politics to discuss the findings of his office's report and its ramifications. Guest host Kathleen Petty asked the Correctional Investigator how the federal prison population boom will have an impact on CSC's ability to reduce deaths in custody (view here). Sapers responded:
My concern is that the correctional service is already under duress, it is already very challenged to live up to its mandate. It has a dual mandate: safe custody and eventual return. And of course, we hope as taxpayers, as Canadians, that the return, happens in a way the people have a chance to reintegrate - that they're no longer going to be caught up in conflict with the law. So that dual mandate has to be met. My concern is that if we continue to burden the correctional service with more and more numbers, more and more admissions, and we don't give the service, the resources, the space, the people, the dollars they need, they're not going to be able to live up to that mandate.
Following the interview with Sapers, Petty was joined by Conservative MP James Rajotte, Liberal Public Safety Critic Mark Holland and New Democrat Public Safety Critic Don Davies to discuss whether the government's legislative agenda, which included Bill C-25 (2009), is contributing to deaths in custody in our penitentiaries (watch here - minutes 13:15 to 23:50). While Davies and Holland argued that the latest OCI report signalled that an increase in the federal prison population would place the safety of prisoners further at risk and by connection our communities where they will eventually be released, Rajotte sketched-out his party's definition of justice:
If we look at the 2-for-1, obviously we feel that justice ought to be proportionate. Someone who commits a serious crime and is convicted should earn time off - they shouldn't in fact just be eligible for it. Like the young lady who was tragically killed on Boxing Day a few years ago, in fact the fact that the people convicted of killing her got 2-for-1 without earning it. We think it was an injustice that needed to be rectified, which is why we addressed the 2-for-1 sentence issue.
Unaddressed in this portion of his commentary was whether the death of Ashley Smith - who was sent to prison for the theft of a CD and throwing a crab apple at a postman - or others like her was a just and proportionate outcome, and whether more crowded prisons would lead to more of this brand of 'justice'. Rajotte then turned his attention to the OCI's report stating:
... we welcome his report, we obviously will give it some very serious consideration. I think it should be pointed out though that we've in fact allocated more monies in terms of addressing the mental issue issue both in society at large through creating the Mental Health Commission and also in allocating in the 2008 budget an additional $16 plus million to address mental health inside correctional facilities themselves.
While he later stated that the additional $16 million was spent in 2009-2010 to enhance CSC's ability to meet its mental health obligations, assuming these figures are correct, it would mean that the increased investment represented a minuscule percentage of CSC's $2.267 billion budget for that fiscal year. It would also mean that an investment meant to signal that mental health is a major strategic priority of the organization and our current government was a mere $1 million more than the $15 million dollar investment made yesterday to expand Fenbrook Institution in Gravenhurst located in Industry Minister Tony Clement's riding (read here).
As the Power & Politics MP panel continued, Petty asked whether a better funded and resourced system would perhaps be in a position to allow CSC to meet their obligations. In response, Davies noted that the agency lacked the mental health and health staff, as well as social workers to do the job. Noting this "epidemic problem", he concluded that prisoners will not get the assistance they may need prior to being released into society and that "it doesn't take someone familiar with the system to know that if you inject thousands of more people into that system that we are going to have a deepening of the problem that is currently there".
Following these comments, Holland added "that the government is not investing in these areas at the same time that it is rapidly expanding the prison population". He also noted that while this is happening, the government has made multi-million dollar cuts to prevention and victim's services, programs that if adequately funded would lead to a reduction in 'crime'. Holland also noted:
...we have to remember that there have been 130 deaths since Ashley Smith died and the Correctional Investigator talks about 9 very similar to Ashley. Ashley was a teenage girl... whose crime was to steal a CD and throw an apple at a postman, and she died in prison after 11 months of segregation. Clearly, there is something fundamentally wrong and for the government to do anything other than say look we should have done exactly what Mr. Sapers said years ago is unacceptable and particularly when the consequences are so great. Not just for people like Ashley and their families, but because when these people come out and they're not treated and they're not better, they mean that our communities are more dangerous, they mean higher rates of re-offending and the costs are stratospheric - they're going to crush us.
Rajotte then had a chance to respond and close the panel, where he remarked:
With respect to justice in general, I mean we did allocate as a government additional funding for resources, for facilities and personnel. And in fact, I seem to recall the opposition parties questioning and criticizing that. So I'm not sure - they're sort of approaching it from to ends. I mean obviously there may be more resources needed but our government is in fact doing that and I think the fundamental of the justice system can't be well we have too many people in prison and therefore we ought to look at ways to relax that. You have to look at it in the sense of is it proportionate, is in fact the punishment proportionate to the crime committed. And that has to be the fundamental basis of any justice system.
While Rajotte seems to have missed the overall point of his colleagues interventions and critiques, his comments do point to the minority Conservative Government of Canada's concerns for proportionality in sentencing which they seem to think they are best positioned to decide, not experts in the field. Further, it points to a willingness to ignore the harms of imprisonment itself which often results in the death of prisoners which certainly also raises questions about what exactly the Conservatives mean by 'proportionality'.
Reflecting on the chain of events that set this series of OCI reports in motion earlier in the day, Sapers noted that Ashley Smith was sent to prison for minor 'crimes'. Unfortunately, she died under the 'care' of the so-called benevolent sledgehammer of the state with others suffering the same fate. "The men and women we are talking about have been convicted of a crime. They've been sentenced to prison, they haven't been sentenced to death", Sapers remarked (read here). With more prisoners on the way, it may be that cases where prison and death sentences become one in the same will define the future of Canadian 'corrections'.