For the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada (read 2009-2010 report) what is needed is more access to specialized programming for affected federal prisoners by taking steps to hire and retain mental health professionals as well as other staff who are equipped to deal with them, eliminating the prolonged use of segregation for at risk prisoners in favour access to specialized therapeutic units, and permanent funding to support the care and prevention of self-harm for these individuals.
At the provincial-territorial level, the response has been to build new facilities to better address the needs of what is dubbed a changing prisoner population composed of a greater number of individuals addicted to drugs and with mental illnesses than in previous years. Some have also called for the creation of "safe jails" (read 14 February article by CBC News) and it is this proposal I want to focus on.
The first time I really became familiar with the "safe jails" concept was during a 11 March 2011 presentation by Calgary Police Chief Rick Hanson at the John Howard Society of Canada National Staff Conference. During his presentation, Chief Hanson described a number of initiatives being undertaken by his police force to help divert individuals with mental illness, drug addictions, or both, who come into conflict with the law away from Alberta's overcrowded remand centres, including pairing officers with social workers to help individuals coping with these issues that they come into contact with. He also talked about a push for mental health and drug treatment courts.
Following this, Chief Hanson spoke at length about the "safe jail" he hoped would be established at a closed prison in Kananaskis. The re-opened and retrofitted facility would provide "secure treatment" for prisoners and those who would refuse assistance, be disruptive or pose a threat to institutional security would be given the alternative to serve the rest of their time in a remand centre or prison.
Notwithstanding the human rights issues that could be raised concerning this form of 'voluntary' treatment, I was struck by the "secure treatment" concept. I was struck by it because I had seen it - or something very similar to it - many times before in various reports written as part of the Royal Commissions, task forces and reviews of the federal penitentiary system that have been commissioned in the past half century. Almost all of these reports make the following observation: the fact that security always takes precedence over treatment makes prisons inconducive to rehabilitation.
Although this universal carceral is acknowledged, most reports go on to recommend that more resources be diverted towards treatment, a path that perpetuates the use of simple carceral 'solutions' to address complex issues that inevitability brings us to the same place - more reviews regarding the failure of imprisonment that triggers another cycle of 'reform' that looks awfully like the ones that preceded it.
During the Q&A at with Chief Hanson, I praised him for his acknowledgement of the challenges faced by criminalized populations, but also pointed to Canada's history of "secure treatment" and asked him why he thought that the outcome of this project would be any different. I also asked what would be done in cases where prisoners coming down from drugs or attempting to cope with mental illness at a "safe jail" would "freak out" and disturb the good order of the institution. He responded that prisoners in this facility would have the choice of following their treatment or being sent to a remand centre or prison. "A prison for every problem", I sarcastically quipped under my breath as I sat back down knowing full well that if the "safe jail" experiment is allowed to fly we will once again legitimate the criminalization and infliction of pain via imprisonment for these marginalized individuals.
Building newer, bigger and/or specialized prisons should not construed with taking action. If the best solution we can come up with to the complex issues many of our neighbours, friends, family members and fellow human beings face - whether it be drug addiction, mental illness, the lingering impact of colonization and assimilation, seeking refuge from political violence at home - is a prison, as far as I'm concerned we've found no solution at all. In kicking the ball further down the field for future generations of Canadians to deal with, the path we're on is not one towards building safe communities - it is a road to community disintegration where issues are left unresolved.
What are the alternatives? At this point, I'm not sure as I'm still thinking about how to address the shortcomings in our health and mental health systems that aren't meeting the needs of an increasing number of Canadians. Perhaps, proponents of incarceration need to spend a little more time thinking about these gaps in what's left of Canada's social safety net before wasting our tax dollars on another expensive prison experiment that is destined to fail.