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Judicial CP - January 1996

Alberta Report/Western Report, 8 January 1996

Crime and no punishment

Reformers push for a hard-right revolution in Canada's soft-touch prisons

By Celeste McGovern

Jack Linklater, warden of the Edmonton institution, was not taking any chances last month. As boss of a maximum security penitentiary that houses some of Canada's most dangerous and heinous criminals, Mr. Linklater has an occupational aversion to unnecessary risk. However this time his fretting focused on politicians, not convicts. Three Reform Party members of parliament were scheduled to visit his prison. The chief jailer issued an earnest memo to his staff. "These gentlemen are known to be ardent critics of the CSC (Correctional Service of Canada)," he wrote of MPs Art Hanger, Randy White, and Myron Thompson. "I do not want inmates lying around doing nothing (not that this would happen anyway)," directed Mr. Linklater. Just to be sure that his prison inmates didn't look listless, he ordered the institution' s snow blowers tucked out of sight and the offenders put to work. "Push shovels are more appropriate. Buy them if we need them."

Warden Linklater's public relations endeavour backfired, however. His memo was leaked to the press and the public reaction was one of eye-rolling amusement. "It's not surprising," says Reform justice critic Hanger. "Everyone knows that our prison system is a joke."

If everyone doesn't know, they may find out. MP White has visited more than a dozen of Canada's 43 federal prisons, where inmates serve sentences of two years to life for crimes ranging from fraud to first-degree murder. The forays are key to a Reform campaign aimed at exposing to public view the cushy conditions and soothing methods of the jail system. Ordinary Canadians believe that prison has to do with punishment for crimes, says Mr. White. But the Correctional Service of Canada, a federal department that spends more than one billion tax dollars each year running prisons, is of an entirely different mind. It views the more than 14,000 offenders in its charge as incarcerated citizens, not convicted criminals. There is no room for punishment in the modern Canadian prison, which warehouses inmates in a style that many law-abiding Canadians would envy.

To date, Mr. White has compiled a list of 25 "absurdities" in the penal system -- a collection of rights, amenities and benefits that are available to prisoners of every stripe. They include:

  • Free room and board. It costs taxpayers an average $48,000 each year to house a criminal in a federal prison and up to $80,000 to keep a high-security prisoner like Paul Bernardo, convicted of murdering teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. But inmates, whether wealthy or not, don't pay a penny towards their costly keep.

  • Free time. "A criminal in the system can only be asked to work, not made to work," says Mr. White. "It's his right to 'just say no'.

  • Unemployment pay. When inmates don't work or can't because of a job shortage, they still get paid the "level one" $1.60 per day, for just "lying around" as Warden Linklater mentioned.

  • Paying programs. "Work" in the system, by which an inmate earns $5.25 to $6.90 per day, extends to self-improvement programs for prisoners. In 1994-95 the federal government spent $106 million on programs ranging from "substance abuse" and "living skills" to "anger management" and "leisure studies."

  • Price-reduced education. Inmates are paid for academic upgrading too. They can get student loans and study university courses cheaper than the average Canadian. Killer Karla Homolka, Bernardo's accomplice, is reportedly working towards a degree in social work from Kingston's Queen's University, assisted by Canadian taxpayers.

  • A wide range of recreational facilities. Golf courses are a common sight at prisons now. So are tennis and handball courts, shuffle-board and pool tables, video and pinball machines. At Edmonton Institution, inmates are issued ice skates for the hockey rink (after some violent incidents involving skate blades, the penitentiary purchased skates with anchored blades). Prison gymnasiums are equipped with state-of-the-art exercise machines, and free weights so inmates can pump up before they are turned out on the street again.

  • Conjugal visits. Every prison features at least one comfortably furnished "cottage" or "trailer home" where inmates can have "private family visits." Every two months, inmates can schedule up to 72 hours for sex.

  • Television. Taxpayers pay more than $1 million per year providing cable television in prisons. At Edmonton Institution, inmates do contribute some of their program pay for a satellite service that brings them all the regular programming plus a few perks including the Discovery Channel, the Arts and Entertainment Channel, CNN, TSN, MuchMusic and more.

  • Private property. Even when they are put in segregation or " the hole," inmates have the right to take along all the personal effects permitted in their regular "room" (the term "cell" is taboo) including, if they own them, personal computers, televisions, stereos, fish tanks, etc.

  • Personal appearance rights. Inmates can shave and shower if and when they like. Their clothes are provided free of charge by the prison if they wish, but they are permitted to dress more or less as they choose.

  • An elaborate system of rights and grievance outlets. Inmates are encouraged to know their rights and complain if they are not met. In 1993-94 federal prisoners launched 836 official grievances. It's a busy business. The incomplete figure for 1994-95 was 1,156.

  • Free legal aid. Victims of crime may have to pay for a lawyer if they want one. But inmates in prison have unlimited access to legal services and legal resources must be made available to them on request through the prison library. Serial child molester and murderer Clifford Olson has sued the federal government more than 30 times for everything from being refused the "right" to join the Book of the Month and Tape Clubs and for "cruel and unusual punishment" because he was allowed to exercise for an hour a day only. In a rare move, Olson was declared a "vexatious litigant" in 1994 but he was back in court, at the provincial level, last month protesting a prison transfer.

  • Old age security income. Inmates are entitled to collect old age security benefits while they do their time.

  • Free medical and dental care. Although pensioners and other people in the nonprison population have to pay toward their medical care, prescriptions and dental work, convicts don't.

  • GST rebates. Notwithstanding all the freebies they get in prison, some inmates are entitled to collect GST rebates.

  • Free condoms. Sex between inmates has always been outlawed for hygienic and safety reasons and it still is, but inmates are provided with condoms for "safe sex" in prison nonetheless.

  • Clean needles. Correctional officers estimate that up to 75% of inmates serving time are habitual drug users. While trying to counter drug use through other measures, however, the correctional system is pilot testing "Project Bleach," which issues a complimentary ounce of bleach to inmates wishing to sterilize their illegal drug equipment in jail.

Mr. White prophesies that simply finding out about all these privileges and grants for convicted criminals will stir ordinary Canadians into demanding change in the prison system. Until now, he adds, the correctional system has veiled itself in a cloak of secrecy and successfully deflected public criticism. Warden Linklater's snow-shovelling memo, the parliamentarian comments, is in itself relatively minor. Yet the manipulation aptly illustrates "a system unto itself that puts on an image to outsiders that is not there to insiders." However, the desire to cover up laxity is also evidence that the people in charge of the system know they have something to hide. Says Mr. White, "It's symbolic of a system that is trying to protect itself from a changing outside world."

Recent polls suggest he is right. A Maclean's/CBC poll published last week found that 51% of respondents believe that sentencing and punishment will be harsher on criminals by the year 2000. And a Reader's Digest poll published last August indicated that 59% of Canadians favour tougher sentences and harsher penalties for criminals rather than more programs.

Even if Canadians are beginning to bristle at the way prisons are managed, the system itself is so steeped in decades of liberal dogma that real change would have to be nothing short of revolutionary. Still, there is hope for reform. The criminal-coddling practices that progressively saturated this country's jails over the last half-century were themselves revolutionary in their time.

The 1938 report of the Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System of Canada, known as the Archambault Report, listed 88 recommendations for change in the penal system. No single item, however, was as significant as the document's overall shift in focus towards "rehabilitation" and away from punishment. "It is admitted by all the foremost students of penology that the retributive character of punishment should be completely eliminated" because, its authors thought, "the deterrent effect of punishment almost valueless."

The Archambault Commission is generally recognized as Canada's harbinger of prison reform in this century but it was not until after World War II that its recommendations were slowly put into practice. According to one retired prison guard, who declines to be named, corporal punishment was used (though infrequently) when he started working as a "screw" in 1960. While this man was on duty at the B.C. Penitentiary (now closed), a rapist received what was likely Canada's last court-ordered flogging with a cat-o'-nine-tails.

The cat, so-named for its splay of nine whips, sometimes lead-tipped, gave way to the "paddle" or "strap" -- a rubber-coated piece of heavy webbing with holes to prevent air from acting as a cushion between it and a prisoner's buttocks. The device was used chiefly to maintain discipline within the prison system. A recalcitrant offender first faced internal charges in a prison-run hearing; if found guilty of violating prison rules or disrespecting guards, he was taken to Keeper's Hall. There the inmate would be stripped, blindfolded (or given dark goggles to conceal the identity of the punishing guard), secured to a holding board, and fixed with a protective belt round his waist to protect his internal organs from stray blows. A physician was required to be on hand to stop the punishment if the lashing threatened to permanently injure the inmate. Often the full sentence of say, 10 strokes, was suspended by half and the remaining five could be forgiven if a prisoner was well-behaved. The effect was "model prisoners," according to the prison guard, whose practical experience contradicts academic sociological theories that punishment can't improve human behaviour.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the push for "prisoners' rights" intensified dramatically. Even the Archambault Report had recommended that corporal punishment be maintained for internal order. Nonetheless flogging was banned in 1967 and all corporal punishment formally ended five years later. In 1971, then-solicitor general Jean-Pierre Goyer, head of the correctional service, stated the penal system's new intentions openly. The notion of punishment in prison, already a shadow, vanished entirely from officialdom's correctional vocabulary. "We have decided to stress the rehabilitation of prisoners rather than the protection of the public," Mr. Goyer, a Liberal, told Parliament. A flood of psychologists and social workers lined up at prison gates for jobs -- and got them. Hard labour in jail was dumped in favour of job-generating therapy and "getting a program."

By 1976, as a National Film Board of Canada interviewer put it, "over and over, we hear that prison, at least ideally, should 'cure' or at least 'readapt' the criminal -- it should be more 'therapeutic' than 'punitive'." In the same documentary Raymond Boyer, a founding member of the Prisoners' Rights Office of the Human Rights Association of Quebec, said that, "The only right that a person sentenced to a prison term should lose is that of circulating freely in society. All other denials are repressive and punitive."

The penal system of the 1990s is Mr. Boyer's dream come true. A 147-page handout given to inmates upon arrival at Edmonton Institution includes a section entitled "Your rights." It reads: "It is important for you to know that as an offender, you keep the rights that you would have as a free citizen, except for those that are limited as a necessary result of your incarceration. Your loss of freedom in itself is the punishment for your offence."

"Prisons are not for punishment," explains Chuck Andrews, Edmonton Institution's chief of education and training, echoing a sentiment that is repeated like a mantra by correctional officials everywhere. "We don't whip people or chain them up against walls anymore. When individuals receive a term of incarceration, that is their punishment. By law, they have to be given everything they are entitled to on the street, except where it threatens security."

"The Correctional Service of Canada, with the support of communities, has the responsibility to create the environment that empowers federally sentenced women to make meaningful and responsible choices in order that they may live with dignity and respect," adds a government task force report on women in prisons. Beneath the CSC's desire to "empower" inmates is the belief common to policy-making bureaucrats that criminals are in jail simply because they are all victims themselves. "Most are from disadvantaged backgrounds -- 80% to 90% have been physically and/or sexually mistreated, and have a history of substance abuse, " reads the CSC pamphlet on women inmates. (Rarely mentioned are individuals with identical backgrounds who choose to obey the law.) Prisoners are empowered by giving them all the amenities they lacked in their disadvantaged pasts.

But if the old system was open to abuses by corrupt prison authorities, the new system is equally vulnerable to domination by hardened criminals. Jerry Lowe, a now-retired prison guard, arrived at the Bowden medium security institution in Alberta in 1971. The veteran of the Airborne Regiment recalls, "I was surprised to find the inmates were running the ship." The attitude of the staff even then was, "This is the inmate' s home for two years to life, we won't interfere unless we absolutely have to."

A CSC internal inquiry report released in October 1995 documents how inmates connected with the Mafia and Hell's Angels at Leclerc medium security prison in Quebec use their "influence, reputation, image and resources" to "impose their way of life through intimidation and violence." Besides running their money-laundering and drug-dealing businesses from behind bars, they've also acquired special menus including lobster dinners. Inmate control is a "phenomenon [that] exists in all the major penitentiaries in Canada," says the CSC report.

Nevertheless the prevailing "empowerment" philosophy is guiding the construction of new prisons and the renovation of old ones. "The future will see much more focus on construction of lower-security prison facilities," reads a government bulletin. "The Correctional Service of Canada is trying to better prepare offenders for reintegration into the community, in order ultimately to reduce the relative use of incarceration as a major intervention in corrections. Moving low-risk offenders more quickly into minimum-security facilities is the best means of achieving this objective."

A second means involves blurring distinctions between high-risk and low-risk offenders. By a process called "cascading," even inmates serving sentences for first degree murder slide into minimum security when correctional officials feel they are unlikely to reoffend (for instance, a wife murderer may be deemed unlikely to murder his wife again). As the anticipated offender population explosion occurs, (sex offenders have doubled in number since 1986), inmates will "cascade" to minimum status more quickly to save money.

William Head Institution, a new minimum security prison on Vancouver Island, is the CSC's "design model" for the jail of the future. To the casual observer, it's hard to distinguish from a typical townhouse complex. Inmate "housing units" are ordinary vinyl-sided residences arranged differently to establish a "village character." Each has five or six inmate "bedrooms," washrooms, a fully furnished living room, dining room, kitchen, and "mechanical room."

"Fortunately, the new trend has been to 'soften' correctional environments, " explains the CSC. The purpose of the new "residential environment" of jails is to "normalize" prisons and to "set the stage for positive interaction and improve well-being." In that spirit, the CSC has considered everything from "greater use of sound-deadening materials like carpet and acoustic tiles," comfortable furniture, soft lighting, wall-hangings ("inmates tend to prefer bright colours and murals"), "inmate privacy" and other atmospheric changes designed to make jail "much less noxious and stress-inducing." Unfortunately, one stress inducing factor which is heightened by the "softer" style prisons is the higher risk of crime. A CSC survey of prisoners found that they felt more danger of inmate-against-inmate attacks and sexual assaults in such "empowering" environments.

The Edmonton Institution for Women, which opened two months ago, is modelled on the William Head style. The $5.4 million fenceless facility for 14 inmates, features pastel living rooms, pink sewing rooms, extra rooms for resident children, and a beauty parlour. A similar facility opened in Truro, N.S. last year and three more are scheduled to open this year. It is important, notes one government research paper, that "senior managers in corrections must be able to anticipate major shifts in organizational philosophy to avoid designing facilities to achieve goals that are no longer relevant." Otherwise, it warns, "given the cost and lifespan of such facilities, we have to live with our errors for a long time."

The Reform Party trio who visited Edmonton Institution last month think that Canadians will have to live with The CSC's errors for a long time. Meanwhile they are determined to curb the damage toll. There is no evidence that the CSC's rehabilitative approach to criminals actually works, emphasizes MP White. The fact that 41.7% of inmates have been there before and nearly one-quarter have been incarcerated more than twice before, suggests it is a dismal failure. Given the cost of recycling criminal behaviour, it costs Canadians much more than $1 billion a year to keep up the penal charade. "The CSC is a system that is incapable of criticizing itself," says White. "It is time for a serious independent review of the system."

This February and March, Messrs. White, Hanger and Thompson will be visiting prisons and prison reviewers in Texas and Florida for advice. Soon after, they will release their party's recommendations for change in the Correctional Service of Canada. "It's the underlying philosophy of CSC that has to change. It is way out of step with what ordinary Canadians want and expect," says Mr. Hanger. Most average people know that for rehabilitation to work it must contain a measure of punishment, or there is nothing to motivate a criminal to change, he says. "Now, we need Canadians to stand up and demand that change."

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Copyright � Colin Farrell