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The Canadian carceral state: What is to be done? Ask prisoners!

Human Rights

My name is Jarrod Shook. I am a writer, student, poet, activist, and, for the last twelve years, a number: 892083E. I suppose there isn’t anything exceptional about being a number; somewhere along the way we’re all reduced to digits, but my particular numbers signal that I am under the authority and supervision of the Canadian carceral state.

I have served time in several prisons in Canada at various security levels, from the notorious, maximum-security Millhaven prison, to Collins Bay’s medium-security “Gladiator School,” to the minimum-security prison formerly known as Frontenac. I’ve worn orange prison jumpsuits, handcuffs, and shackles, as well as the invisible chains of conditional release on parole. I’ve been locked up, locked down, strip-searched, analyzed, categorized, and criminalized. I’ve been the child visitor to my father, who also served time in prison, and, as an adult, I’ve been the visitee. I paid my last respects to my father under armed escort; I visited him for the last time in a hospital, on his death bed, on a “compassionate” temporary absence from the prison. The prison is omnipresent in my life; it’s become my expertise.

For me, the “panopticon” is not an abstract philosophical concept, but a concrete figure, extending its gaze farther into my interior world than I would care to discuss.

I also have a student number, along with an undergraduate degree in sociology from Laurentian University. Universities are one of the finer institutions that I have served time in. I am six courses shy of a second degree in criminology from the University of Ottawa, where, for the past two years, I have been a research assistant with the Carceral Cultures Research Initiative, and Dialogue Editor for the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP). I was supposed to begin a master’s degree in criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg this January, and had been awarded an external scholarship to pursue graduate study. Given a recent return to prison for a breach of my parole conditions, however, I have had to withdraw my acceptance to the University of Winnipeg, along with my award, deferred along with other dreams on the road to redemption.

In my proposed research project, “Living Behind the Fence and Beyond: An Auto-Ethnographic Examination of a Virtual Tour of Canada’s Federal Penitentiaries,” I had planned to draw upon my experiences of federal imprisonment, which I’ve documented in a voluminous, qualitative field diary I kept while incarcerated, in order to explore the gulf between representations of punishment and my own experiences of life in penal institutions.

Public Perceptions of Prisons

The public is rarely informed of the realities of prison. To borrow a concept from the critical criminologist Michelle Brown, we live in a culture of punishment, a milieu where public understandings of how punishment impacts the lives of the punished is more often than not consumed through cultural representations that are sensational and stereotypically mediated, making penal spectators out of the public and a spectacle out of the punished.

The daily news, and reality shows like 60 Days In and season six of Prison Break, do little to convey the actual pains of imprisonment, and less to foster an understanding of who the punished are. The dramatization of suffering is on display; empathy is not. Few spectators, if any, will complement their viewing pleasure with scholarly literature that grapples with what penal scholar Ben Crewe calls the “depth,” “weight,” and “tightness” of that experience. Fewer still will seek the opinion of the real experts: the prisoners themselves.

The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, a prisoner-written and academically oriented, peer-reviewed journal published by the University of Ottawa Press, is an example of knowledge produced by prisoners, which is combined with academic arguments to nourish public discourse about the current state of carceral institutions. Open up any one of the twenty seven volumes published over the past thirty years, and it will become clear that, when it comes to prison, prisoners know what they are talking about. They are multidimensional, with unique life trajectories — feeling human beings with families, friends, and talents, all subject to the same human condition as everyone else.

Yet the solutions and resources, both material and symbolic, within reach to solve their human problems are often scarce. Generally, the roots of these problems lie in the structures of our socio-political system, in the classism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, homophobia, and gender oppression that weigh people down, preventing social mobility and limiting opportunities for leading healthy, happy, and productive lives. The prison proper is but one cage inside another.

I find it curious how prison issues tend to capture the imagination of the broader public in an almost cyclical fashion, yet fade from view so quickly. Like an accident on the road, where passers-by stop and stare before driving away, the public often fails to recognize that these objects in the mirror are much closer than they appear. Such attention-grabbing moments are typically triggered by sporadic media interest in the periodic crises that unfold behind the wall in between long bouts of being frozen in time. The temperature rises a few notches, and the prison is exposed for the violent social institution that it is: A young woman with serious mental health issues ties a piece of cloth around her neck, while correctional officers videotape the act and watch her die. A young man begs for his life, as he is repeatedly beaten and pepper-sprayed before being killed. Conditions of confinement reach such levels of inhumanity that prisoners riot, and the use of force to subdue them leads to loss of life and large-scale destruction of prison infrastructure. Guards are accused by their own colleagues of waterboarding, sexual assault, intimidation, and bullying of every imaginable kind, reminding the public, once again, of how toxic the environment is for everyone who has the ill-fated experience of crossing that divide between us and them.

Every so often, issues of criminal (in)justice find their way into mainstream political discourse, and things do change — for better or for worse. Change is typically brought about by mainstream political actors, who seek to swing the pendulum left or right on the political spectrum based upon their ideological persuasions, and, more directly, as knee-jerk responses to the type of periodic crises described above. We should not ignore the power of social movements and grassroots activism to effect change. Groups like Idle No More, No One Is Illegal, End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), and those that organize Prisoners’ Justice Day try to tear down the bricks of ignorance and demolish the superstructure through direct action. Such work can be hazardous, but walls remain that have yet to come down.

Prison policy shifts in Canada

Jarrod Shook (centre) at protest against expansionof the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, April 27, 2018. Photo by Jenny C. Hlad.

Of course, we may acknowledge that corporal punishment has been abolished — on paper at least — and, with it, the death penalty. And Indigenous prisoners have far greater access to spiritual practices and resources now than they have at any other time in correctional history. Further, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the recourse to law it has provided, has been a useful tool for dismantling some of the more abusive elements of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s law-and-order agenda. And we can also point to the ways in which the legislation governing the federal correctional system, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) and the Corrections and Conditional Release Regulations (CCRR), have enshrined in law a modicum of humanity and a standard of decency with respect to the conditions of confinement. The establishment of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) is also significant, as are the changes that have been brought about to respond to the unique needs of women in prison.

For each of these progressive changes to the system, however, I can easily summon an example of an injustice that will illustrate how outmoded and inherently corrupt the institution of prison is, despite the reforms that have been implemented over the 183 years since Kingston Penitentiary opened its doors. The abolition of corporal punishment didn’t stop Matthew Hines from being beaten and pepper-sprayed as he begged correctional officers for his life, nor did the abolition of the death penalty prevent Ashley Smith from being videotaped as she took her own life after running the gauntlet of the psy-carceral system. Moreover, Indigenous programs and the permission to smudge and hold traditional medicines does little to erase the legacy of colonialism and the evolution of Canadian prisons into the new residential schools. Likewise, the Charter is only supreme when those who dare to defend their humanity have the resources and wherewithal to fight lengthy, expensive, and complicated legal battles. Even the CCRA and the OCI haven’t been able to prevent women — especially Indigenous women, the fastest-growing prison population — from being ignored in their pleas to access mental health resources or being denied the dignity of appropriate access to basic hygiene items like sanitary pads, as confirmed by a recent fact-finding trip to the Joliette women’s prison by senators on a special committee investigating human rights in Canadian prisons. To cite Foucault, “prison ‘reform’ is virtually contemporary with the prison itself; it constitutes, as it were, its programme.”

For those interested in the profusion of reports, investigations, and special inquiries that have documented such injustices and, to a degree, tempered the inherent violence and egregious abuses of prisons in Canada for almost two centuries, a good place to start is the report A Flawed Compass: A Human Rights Analysis of the Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety, by UBC professor Michael Jackson and former John Howard Society of Canada executive director Graham Stewart. In addition to providing some important historical perspective, this report sheds light on more recent changes to Canada’s federal correctional system.

I recommend this report because, in order for us to understand Canadian prisons at present, it is necessary to grasp the ideological machinations that shaped them under the Harper government. It also provides good background for efforts to push for non-reformist reforms, which may result in immediate improvements in the living and working conditions of those currently incarcerated. Such radical reforms have the revolutionary potential to place more power in the hands of prisoners and challenge penal hegemony, as we work toward the longer-term goal of overturning the very idea of prisons as a reasonable response to the complex of social harms that we so often call “crime.”

A Flawed Compass was produced as a challenge to the 2007 Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety, a special report of the Correctional Service of Canada Review Panel, which was chaired by Mike Harris-era private-prisons advocate Rob Sampson. The Sampson report promoted a neoconservative campaign to overhaul the federal correctional system, including 109 reactionary recommendations to the federal government, all of which were enthusiastically endorsed by the Harper government. While not all of these recommendations found their way into the Harper policy playbook (e.g., the elimination of statutory release), many of them became staples of the “Tough-on-Crime Agenda.”

The recommendations relevant to this discussion include: eliminating the Accelerated Parole Review, which provided access to parole at the one-sixth point in an inmate’s sentence for non-violent firsttime prisoners; sweeping changes to the criteria and eligibility periods for obtaining a pardon (now known as “record suspension”); eliminating onlocation culinary work and introducing “cook-chill” technology (resulting in reduced portions and lower food quality); and introducing a food-and-accommodation tax that would see prisoners’ already-meagre wages of mere pennies per hour slashed by thirty percent to cover the costs of their punishment and telephone access (this was accompanied by the elimination of incentive payments, paid at a rate of $2.50 per hour, for productive labour performed by prisoners at CORCAN industries).

As I have noted, every so often the abuses of the criminal justice system find their way into public view and seem to hang there for a brief period before other issues again come to dominate the public conversation. But to promote a truly radical restructuring of our country’s relationship to prisons, we can’t wait around for a spontaneous wave of conscious resistance to the idea that prison is the best response to complex social conflicts. So how do we generate broader acceptance for radical ideas about prison reform? One starting point is a broader social movement with and for prisoners, which will work toward a radical rethinking of justice — a justice that heals wounds instead of creating new ones.

There are also certain policy changes that do have a chance at being seen as viable by a wider public in the short term. Like Trojan horses, these changes have the capacity to accomplish a twofold task of introducing immediate improvements into the lives of prisoners, and therefore putting more power in their hands, while at the same time offering opportunities to expose prison injustices, thereby chipping away at received ideas about the prison system.

Trudeau government initiatives

Upon being elected in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a mandate letter to his minister of justice and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, requesting a review of criminal justice laws, policies, and practices implemented by the Harper government between 2006 and 2015. To the Trudeau government’s credit, the government actually undertook a Canada-wide consultation in 2018 and released What We Heard: Transforming Canada’s Criminal Justice System. But hold the applause. The findings were not revealing, and only confirmed what prisoners and other experts have been saying for years: prisons punish the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society, and current approaches only exacerbate the problem. Measures to break the cycle of crime, or the violence that is bound up within the prison system, are not on the agenda. And even the Liberals’ most meaningful attempt at transformative justice, in Bill C-75, now before the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, has been criticized by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association as having the “right goals” but the “wrong tools.”

Still, with the recent Senate appointment of Kim Pate, former executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, and the work she and her colleagues on their Senate Committee on Human Rights in Prison are currently doing, as well as the recent appointment of Anne Kelly as commissioner of corrections to replace Don Head (who had spearheaded Harper’s agenda), the prospect for change is real.

We know that politicians can almost always profit politically by being “tough on crime,” while appearing soft on crime is a recipe for political suicide. This partly explains the government’s preference for optics over substance when it comes to policy change. The recent transfer of Terri-Lynne McClintic to an Indigenous Healing Lodge is one example of how criminal justice issues can be politicized by opponents and the potential for public outrage to undermine certain aims, like working toward ending Indigenous mass incarceration.

Yet despite a rejection of efforts to effect progressive change by politicians and a certain segment of the public, we should not assume that the generalpublic imagination cannot be won over. The public may be ignorant of the realities of prison, but there appears to be a degree of desire to know what happens to those who find themselves in the clutches of the system. Fed with stereotypes and misinformation, this appetite distorts public understanding of who the punished really are. It is my impression — both in my work with the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons and from what I have been able, in prison, to gather in following the recent Senate Committee on Human Rights as they travel across the country on a fact-finding mission — that the first-hand personal narratives and expert opinions of prisoners, both current and former, may offer compelling accounts that can bridge the gap between public understanding and the lived realities of imprisonment.

Let prisoners speak

What is to be done? This is the burning question for any social movement. In the words of my friend, mentor, and colleague Justin Piché, “a social movement for prisoners without prisoners is not a social movement at all.” Which is to say that the best place to begin is by asking prisoners what they themselves see as the issues in most serious need of redress, and by supporting them in their attempts to get the message out and have their voices heard. Not all prisoners draw the connection between their concrete, first-hand experiences in prison and the more abstract, socio-political structures that have shaped their lives. Nor do many express a politically conscious objection to the idea of prison. Nevertheless, the knowledge holders, subjugated as they are — often disqualified and located low down on the hierarchy of who can know and what can be known — are the resistance.

With this in mind, I will close by offering up ten “non-reformist reforms,” which current prisoners who participated in the JPP’s “Dialogue on Canada’s Federal Penitentiary System and the Need for Change” identified as being most pressing (see JPP, vol. 26, nos. 1–2, and vol. 27, no. 1). I qualify these reforms as “non-reformist” in keeping with prison abolitionist and scholar Thomas Mathiesen, who argued that short-term reforms of the prison system ought to be of the “negative” kind insofar as they negate the basic structure of the prison, rather than improve the system so that it can operate in a more legitimate fashion.

It should not be forgotten that behind each of these recommendations is a voice, many voices, too many voices: someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, friend, and, most importantly, a human being who simply wants to rise above the shitty circumstance of prison and live a more meaningful, happy, healthy, and productive life.

  1. Enact legislative reforms, including restoring Accelerated Parole Review for first-time federal prisoners convicted of a non-violent offence, and reducing the number of mandatory minimums that restrict judges’ ability to take into account the circumstances related to an individual’s criminalized acts and to consider alternatives to incarceration at sentencing.
  2. Expand access to community-provided mental health services, with an emphasis on counselling and preventative care, to address psychological needs that existed prior to incarceration (where applicable) and to mitigate the pains of imprisonment.
  3. Expand access to community-provided health and dental-care services, with a focus on preventing conditions that become more costly to address once they arise and that place prisoners at unnecessary risk of injury, disease, or death.
  4. Improve the health of the incarcerated, reduce tension inside penitentiaries, and expand training and work opportunities for prisoners by eliminating the centralized “cook-chill” food regime, while restoring prison farms and reopening on-site kitchens in all CSC institutions.
  5. Promote safe reintegration by allowing prisoners to maintain contact with community support networks (e.g., families, community volunteers) while incarcerated and to accumulate a modest amount of funds to reestablish themselves in the community post-release by: a) eliminating additional roomand- board fees; (b increasing prisoner pay beyond levels established in the 1980s to compensate them fairly for their work; (c) restoring Old Age Security payments for seniors behind bars; and d) ending the centralized purchasing catalogue monopoly, while reinstating institutional purchasing officers who can assist captives with buying local, less-costly, and higher-quality goods.
  6. Increase access to community-provided educational and vocational training opportunities to better position federal prisoners for obtaining employment post-release, which is basic to their safe reintegration into society.
  7. Increase training for CSC institutional staff, as well as measures to promote greater accountability to ensure that staff are fulfilling their obligations to respect prisoners’ human rights while assisting them in fulfilling their correctional plan objectives prior to their parole eligibility dates in order to facilitate their timely, safe reintegration, improving public safety outcomes, and reducing incarceration costs.
  8. Expand gradual release opportunities (e.g., escorted and unescorted temporary absences for work, schooling, and vocational training, physical and mental health care, family events, religious observance, and other pro-social activities that contribute to prisoner wellbeing) and ensure adequate CSC staffing and resources to promote the safe and timely reintegration of the imprisoned.
  9. Restrict the ability of Parole Board of Canada members to impose release conditions that are not clearly linked to a prisoner’s offence(s) and that thereby often set up parolees for trivial, non-criminal breaches that return them to federal penitentiaries at a considerable cost to taxpayers.
  10. Establish a new pardon system that supports former prisoners with opportunities to redeem themselves and obtain timely, reasonable access to employment, housing, and other necessities on an equal footing with their fellow citizens.

Jarrod Shook is an academic, writer, poet, and social justice activist based in Ottawa. Jarrod holds a BA in Sociology from Laurentian University and is currently working towards completion of a second degree in criminology at the University of Ottawa. He is dialogue editor for the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons.

This article appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Canadian Dimension (An Unjust Justice System).


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