Huge audiences watch The Hunt on CNN with John Walsh, the successor to America’s Most Wanted, his previous show which ran for 24 years. Viewers avidly consume hits of the docudrama series Forensic Files, which has been on the air since 1996. The struggle it presents between the good guys and the very, very bad guys has been seen in 142 countries and has spawned popular series such as CSI, which itself ran for 15 years, from 2000 to 2015. The series Cops follows police officers on the beat in pursuit of felons and has also enjoyed strong audiences since 1989.
These shows — and a robust, true-crime book industry that has taken off since the days of Truman Capote’s classic account of the massacre of the Clutter family, In Cold Blood — have become the whole story of crime and punishment for a lot of people with no direct experience of the justice system. But what happens once the arrests are made and the sentences are handed down? What does a modern corrections system really look like? It varies from country to country, but life on the inside is much more complex than the comic-book version offered up by pop culture.
Since being named minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in November 2015, Ralph Goodale has been on a steep learning curve. He told a leadership symposium of the Correctional Service of Canada earlier in 2016 that he was “struck by the complexity of what it means to ‘actively encourage and assist offenders to become law-abiding citizens, while exercising reasonable, safe, secure and human control’ — as stated in the CSC’s mission.”
The minister’s right: It is a daunting task. CSC is responsible for 23,000 offenders across the country in the federal system, both behind bars and on parole — all of them adult offenders sentenced to two years or more for their crimes. Over 7,700 federal offenders are in the community on parole or statutory release. Statutory release refers to conditional release under supervision after the offender serves two-thirds of a sentence. If a prisoner remains in custody for his full sentence, he is unsupervised upon release — an outcome that puts the public at risk and leaves the offender on his own, often facing many of the same pressures that took him to prison in the first place.
According to CSC’s 2015 statistical report, day parole enjoyed a success rate in 2014-2015 of 90.9 per cent, compared to 60 per cent for statutory release. Parole is an attractive alternative to incarceration for the corrections system for a range of reasons, including cost. Taxpayers spend an average of $35,000 a year to maintain an offender on the outside, compared to an average of $115,000 to house that same offender in a federal institution (approximately $305 a day for men, $602 a day for women, though the rate varies). So the cost of maintaining a federal offender in the community is about 70 per cent less than in a federal prison.
Public safety (including for offenders and guards) versus rehabilitation is the central tension in any correctional system. PTSD levels are high for guards, higher even than for first responders like firemen and police. So what does a good correctional system owe its custodial staff, the people who must deal with the most dangerous and violent individuals in society every day? And what does it owe inmates?
Mere incarceration is not enough, given that almost every inmate will get out of prison one day and be someone’s next door neighbour. Juggling multiple mandates has become a very expensive proposition for the people who both protect the public from convicted criminals and prepare the inmate for his eventual release. It pays to remember that even would-be presidential assassins like John Hinckley eventually get out.
In 2014/2015, adult correctional services cost Canadian taxpayers $4.6 billion. A little over half of that — 52 per cent — was for the federal system, which is responsible for more serious offenders. It costs less to keep a person in the provincial/territorial system — $199 a day, compared to $305 in the federal system. The provinces and territories are responsible for adults serving less than two years, those serving community sentences, and those on remand awaiting trial or sentencing.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to corrections, given the wide range of offences that bring people with diverse ethnic backgrounds to prison. Twenty per cent of federal offenders are serving sentences for homicide, 14 per cent are sex offenders, 25 per cent are in for robbery, and 20 per cent for drug offences. Of the roughly 15,000 inmates behind bars, 23 per cent are serving life sentences, while the other 77 per cent have a fixed-term sentence with a warrant expiry date.
Three per cent of the people in the federal prison population are designated as dangerous offenders, most of those — 85 per cent — because of sexual assaults. Yet the application of the designation can be quixotic. Paul Bernardo, the sadistic killer of schoolgirls Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, was declared a dangerous offender — but Col. Russell Williams was not, despite a guilty verdict on two counts of first-degree murder and convictions on 88 other charges in 2010. Bernardo already has applied for day parole in the Toronto area, dangerous offender status and all.
There is a paradox hiding in the huge costs associated with corrections in Canada. Crime is actually declining, and so too is the rate at which adult offenders are being supervised by the correctional system. According to police statistics, the reported crime rate has decreased in Canada by about 35 per cent since 1998, though there are notable exceptions to this trend. The crime rate for drug offences, for example, has increased by more than 24 per cent during the same period.
Despite the decreasing crime rate, Canada’s incarceration rate is relatively high compared to most western European countries. According to the 2015 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview, Canada has about 106 inmates per 100,000 population — less than Scotland, at 144, but more than France at 100. This country is 141st out of 222 countries that report on their incarceration rate. The highest incarceration rate in the world belongs to the United States — 698 per 100,000 in 2015. (This represents a slight decrease from 2013 when there were 716 prisoners per 100,000 behind bars in the U.S., amounting to 2.2 million adults, or one-quarter of the planet’s inmates.)
Even though relatively few crimes result in a warrant of committal to federal prison, the cost of running the federal corrections system has exploded. In 2013-14 expenditures on federal corrections totalled $2.81 billion, an increase of about 70 per cent over 2004-2005.
CSC has over 17,000 employees, including 7,770 correctional officers, 2,500 parole and program officers, 720 nurses and 270 psychologists. It manages 44 institutions with varying levels of security. Eleven are “clustered” institutions — two with maximum/medium and minimum-security levels, and nine with medium and minimum-security level units. There are 92 parole offices and over 200 community residential facilities. All six federal institutions for women have multi-level security.
Parole boards play an important role in both protecting the public and rehabilitating inmates. They are also highly controversial. Should they reflect the political stripe of the government that appointed them or make decisions on a case-by-case basis? Do parole officers have too many cases to do their job properly? What represents the right balance between the rights of victims and those of prisoners?
Before the Harper government took office, the system’s focus was on the prisoner. Harper’s government ended early release and cut spending on rehabilitation. It doubled the waiting period before an ex-inmate could apply for a pardon, from five to ten years.
During Harper’s tenure, the pendulum swung in favour of the rights of the victims of crime — but in doing so has the system made a serious miscalculation? Should more resources be spent on the person who is going back on the street and into the general population? Is it beneficial for society to have an inmate cut loose after warrant expiry, without help finding a place to live and a job, not to mention help coping with the technological revolution that might have happened to the workplace while he was inside?
And is the system doing enough to protect vulnerable prisoners — a burning question given the recent suicides of Christopher Roy at Matsqui Institution and Terry Barker at Grand Valley Institution for Women? According to CSC data, inmate-on-inmate assaults have increased by 93 per cent in federal prisons over the last decade.
There are other systemic flashpoints. Indigenous people make up only 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population but they represent over 25 per cent of federal inmates. There are just under 15,000 inmates across the country, and 3,723 of them are aboriginal. In the Prairie provinces the numerical anomaly is even greater: A stunning 48 per cent of federal inmates there are aboriginal.
According to Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers, this problem has gotten worse over time. Thirty years ago, just 10 per cent of the prison population was aboriginal. “It was identified year after year as a major concern, as a human rights concern,” Sapers said. So the increase had been dramatic. Between 2005 and 2015 the Indigenous inmate population grew by 50 per cent.
What is happening? Studies have argued that poverty, the effects of colonialism and the generational impact of the residential school system have pushed many aboriginal people into conflict with the law. “A history of disadvantage follows Indigenous people into prison and often defines their different outcomes and experiences there,” Sapers said. Aboriginals are more likely to be classified as maximum-security, do more time in segregation and spend more of their sentence behind bars rather than on parole.
The situation is even worse for Indigenous women, who make up nearly 37 per cent of women in federal prison. Senator Kim Pate is the former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which helps women and girls in prison; she predicts that in the next few years, 40 to 50 per cent of federal inmates could be women. Years of cuts to social services, health care and education have added to problems already faced by the aboriginal population. Which is why the call to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is so important. Cuts made to social programs by the Harper government, said Pate, ended up driving more Indigenous women to crime and, eventually, prison — a false economy which drove up the cost of corrections for taxpayers.
As the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) will no doubt show, violence comes out of the inexcusable nexus of racism and misogyny, and the scorpion’s tail of colonialism. The inquiry is being led by Judge Marion Buller, B.C.’s first female First Nations judge, and is expected to cost $53.8 million. Root causes that contribute to violence will be examined, as will policing and child welfare practices. The inquiry has the power of subpoena and can refer cases back to police or the attorney general for follow-up and monitoring.
Mental illness among federal inmates casts just as long a shadow across the correctional system as the disproportionate number of native inmates behind bars. It seems the system is incarcerating — rather than treating — an ever-increasing number of mentally ill offenders. CSC houses some of the largest concentrations of people with mental illnesses in the country. Thirteen per cent of men and 24 per cent of women offenders have very serious mental health problems. Learning disabilities are prevalent, as is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. More than half of all federal inmates — 55 per cent — never graduated high school.
Three out of four offenders arrive at a federal institution with a serious substance abuse problem, and prisons have a high rate of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hep C. Many inmates have a history of violence and arrive in their institutions hostile, impulsive and aggressive. Inmates often have gang affiliations that continue on the inside — that’s one in six men and one in seven women.
Goodale has said that the Trudeau government will be reviewing changes made to our criminal justice system over the past decade to assess their merit. “We need to make certain that they are actually increasing the safety of our communities,” he said, “that we are getting value for money and they are aligned with smart policy objectives.” Last April, citing the need to avoid another case like that of Ashley Smith — the young woman who strangled herself to death in October 2007 while under suicide watch at the Grand Valley Institution for Women — he told CSC executives he wants to see “more emphasis on restorative justice.”
The new minister will be revisiting changes made during the Harper years, such as the the closing of prison farms and programs like Circles of Support and Accountability. Funds for COSA, which helped sex offenders reintegrate, were cut under the Harper government. Goodale also said he would be reviewing the use of “segregation”, a tool a growing number of critics find inhumane, but which federal correctional officers insist must be retained if they are to fulfill their central mission of public safety. One compromise solution could be capping the number of days an inmate can be held in segregation.
Goodale has committed to positive change driven by evidence rather than ideology: “That commitment includes the Correctional Investigator, who was put in place to ask the hard questions and to shine a light on areas where we need to improve … It makes us better, stronger and more effective at what we do. And we are all in this together.”
That applies to families of inmates — a stakeholder group often overlooked in assessments of the correctional system. In July, 2016, the Correctional Investigator released a report critical of the way CSC communicates with families when a prisoner dies inside. (Compassion and transparency were significantly lacking when one family member arrived at the appointed time to view the body of his loved one. He was told the inmate had already been cremated. The ashes were later couriered to him without prior notice.)
There is also a serious issue with secretiveness inside the CSC. How open should a correctional system be about how it operates? In the past, the CSC has been notoriously opaque. Privacy considerations always present a challenge. Goodale has said information should be open by default, and that CSC will seek advice from Canada’s privacy commissioner. The minister promised to review the correctional investigator’s recommendations and respond appropriately.
The review that the Trudeau government has promised is long overdue and vitally important. Sapers was appointed federal Correctional Investigator in 2004 and reappointed for his fourth term by Goodale in 2016. (The Harper government had planned to replace Sapers, but the 2015 election was called before a new appointee was found.)
In January 2017, Sapers leaves his federal post to become an independent advisor to the Ontario government tasked with reviewing the segregation policies in provincial jails. His March 2016 annual report dramatically highlighted important challenges in the federal correctional system — the prevention of deaths in custody, improved treatment for mentally ill inmates and better outcomes for aboriginal offenders.
“I look forward to working with the Correctional Service of Canada in addressing these challenges and priorities, inclusive of implementing outstanding recommendations from the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, meeting the needs of Indigenous offenders, and introducing limits on the use of segregation to manage mentally disordered, suicidal and self-injurious offenders.”
Sapers received an honorary doctorate for his work from the University of Ottawa on June 19, 2016. In his speech he laid out what might yet prove to be the Trudeau Manifesto on how best to improve Canada’s corrections’ system:
“I have learned that while everyone is entitled to feel safe, they don’t have to be made to feel afraid first. I have learned that solutions don’t come from listening to only the loudest, angriest and most extreme voices. I have learned that there is a fine line between justice and vengeance and that informed, accountable governments and compassionate courts are the guardians of this line. And I have learned that principles matter most when circumstances are the most disturbing.”
Author: Michael Harris