The pictures* offer graphic evidence of institutional cruelty – wire cages not much larger than a phone booth, that hold troubled prisoners in Ontario jails. The pens are not that different from the upright coffins into which men were stuffed for punishment in the Kingston Penitentiary a century and a half ago.
Corrections Canada, the agency that overseees Canada’s federal penitentiaries, recently discontinued use of such devices. It is struggling to slowly move into the twenty-first century, although its insistence on continued use of segregation is at conflict with government directives to put more emphasis on rehabilitation and less on punishment.
If any further evidence of correctional failure in Canada were needed, one might point to the two lawsuits in which the federal government is continuing to defend the use of segregation of youthful prisoners (18-21) and those with mental disorders. We have seen people die – and be murdered – in Canada’s jails. We continue to warehouse young Indigenous men in the penal system. They make up 27 per cent of the inmate population, while representing less than five per cent of the total population.
These latest disclosures will come as no surprise to Robert Clark, a retired deputy warden of Kingston Penitentiary and author of a memoir, Down Inside: Thirty Years in Canada’s Prison Service. He spoke at the recent Kingston Writersfest.
Clark set out as a young recruit in the Canadian penitentiary service, determined to bring some humanity to the jails to which he was assigned. He found a system that “almost sanctions the mistreatment of prisoners.”
One of the biggest problems, Cark soon discovered, is the “blue wall” that prison staff erect to hide that mistreatment, to cover up and gloss over official wrong doing.
Based on his own experience, Clark supports estimates that up to forty per cent of the inmates of Canadian jails suffer from mental problems and/or cognitive impairments, He ended his career as deputy warden in charge of the Regional Treatment Centre, a jail within a jail at Kingston Penitentiary. It housed prisoners with identified mental problems.
How these prisoners are being treated, following the closure of the Kingston Pen, is anybody’s guess.
Clark has harsh comments about the “tough on crime” policies of the Harper regime, not all of which have yet been reversed by the Trudeau government. He stresses the importance of recognizing the harm done to victims of crime, and speaks eloquently of the pain victims have shared with him. But Clark insists that harsh treatment of offenders who eventually have to be released is counter-productive to the public interest.
“I was personally offended by what I considered an abrupt and wrong turn in correctional philosophy,” Clark writes of the Harper edicts. “ I concluded I could no longer work for CSC (Correctional services Canada.”)
Robert Clark’s Down Inside truly takes readers inside the Canadian prison system. He describes innumerable cases where the system has failed prisoners as well as the public.
Suicides committed while in segregation have been much in the news in recent years. Clark describes a case he was asked to investigate where a prisoner at the Kingston Pen had killed himself while in a segregation cell. The man had cut his wrists with a smuggled razor blade after covering the small window that allowed guards to look into his cell.
“Even though solitary staff knew prisoners were prohibited from covering their cell windows, they allowed the practice,” Clark says. “The window remained covered for hours.” Nobody bothered to check the prisoner. When guards finally entered his cell after a lapse of many hours, they found him “lying face down in a large pool of blood, a note from his parole officer clutched in his hand.” It had told him of the death of his sister.
While Clark identifies shortcomings within Canada’s prison system, he has little to say (because his book is largely a personal memoir) about failures of the justice system that put most of the prisoners behind bars in the first place.
More Canadians than ever are in jail now, due largely to the Harper government’s laws setting mandatory minimum sentences for such offences as drug trafficking and some sex crimes. In all such cases judges are prohibited from considering alternatives to prison, such as probation, conditional sentences, or the use of restorative justice methods (where the accused is brought together with the victim and both discuss how harm done by the offender can be repaired).
In a postscript to my novel, An Act of Injustice, I argue that many non-violent offenders now in jail (mainly in provincial prisoners) need not be there. Imprisonment does little to prevent further crime, but incarceration costs taxpayers a lot of money that could be better directed toward rehabilitative treatment.
*Published in The Globe and Mail of October 11, 2017