Mothers behind the bars of Canadian prisons

In the last decade, the number of women being incarcerated in Canada is growing at a disturbingly high rate. Between 2003 and 2013, the female federal inmate population increased by more than 60%. For Aboriginal women, the incarceration rate has increased by over 87%.

The harsh government policies which are imprisoning so many women not only impacts those serving time behind bars. Their families suffer too since the majority of incarcerated women in Canada are mothers. Not only that, they are often the sole custodial parents and primary caregivers of their children. They were likely to have been living with their children prior to being incarcerated. Imagine the upheaval caused by the separation. What happens to the children? What happens to the mothers?

Sometimes there is something sensational that happens that draws public attention to the fact that we are incarcerating mothers. For example, in 2012, a young mother gave birth to her son alone in a jail cell of the Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre, while guards and nurses allegedly ignored her cries of pain.

But for the most part, we are ignorant about the majority of those who are incarcerated, and especially of the children they leave behind. If we knew more, would we still accept the regressive policies that will only see more women, more mothers, locked up?

If you are interested in knowing more, a recent book, Incarcerated Mothers: Oppression and Resistance, brings together several essays examining the experience of incarcerated mothers, both in Canada in abroad. Authors show that despite lip-service to mothers’ rights to have contact with their children while in custody, the lived experience is quite different.

You can also view a short video called Bonding Through Bars.

If you have any comments about mothers behind bars, please leave them below.

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Letter to Prime Minister Harper re: Ashley Smith Inquest

A second coroner’s inquest is currently underway regarding the death of Ashley Smith, a 19-year old prisoner who choked herself to death in 2007 while prison guards watched. The facts which are coming to light during this inquest are deeply disturbing. This young woman with recognized mental-health problems was repeatedly assaulted and restrained through force and drugs. She spent the last year of her life in prolonged segregation and was transferred 17 times among nine institutions in five provinces. Her story is tragic. But unfortunately, it is not an isolated case.

Below is a letter based upon one drafted by Ottawa’s Criminalization and Punishment Education Project. I encourage anyone concerned about how individuals with mental health are mistreated within the Canadian criminal justice system to copy and adapt this letter and send it to the Prime Minister.

 

23 January 2012

The Right Honourable Stephen Harper, P.C.,
Office of the Prime Minister
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa ON K1A 0A2

Dear Prime Minister:

I am deeply concerned with our current criminal justice practices that penalize vulnerable people who, with the proper resources, would be better served in our communities. Where the death of Ashley Smith is a tragedy, it is unfortunately not an isolated incident. As Prime Minister of Canada, you are in the unique position with the combined authority and responsibility to act on behalf of and protect the people of this great country – today, I urge you take that step.

As I am sure you are aware, in his Annual Report to Mr Vic Toews, Minister of Public Safety, the Correctional Investigator of Canada estimates that one in 10 men and nearly one in three women in federal prisons have mental health concerns. According to a recent CBC news report, the Ottawa police respond to more than 4,000 calls involving the Mental Health Act each year, and they estimate that there are about 20 times more calls a year with a mental health component. The policing and subsequent criminalization of those with mental health concerns is an ongoing and increasing reality that will not be resolved by a crime control agenda.

Prisons are not treatment centres, nor are prison staff mental health professionals. Prison staff are trained to enforce prison policy, not to recognize mental health concerns in prisoner conduct. In prisons, mental health concerns are repeatedly viewed through a lens of security and risk, rather than treated as a health related issue. The result is that far too many prisoners, like Ashley, are responded to in punitive ways that only escalate health problems rather than resolve them. Punitive responses to mental illness directly interfere with and undermine the goal of correctional facilities to rehabilitate and reintegrate individuals serving custodial sentences.

I am writing to request that you take that first step to protect our most vulnerable so that people are treated for their health concerns in appropriately resourced settings and not in ‘corrective’ institutions where security takes precedence over all other concerns.

Under Section 29 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act:

The Commissioner may authorize the transfer of a person who is sentenced, transferred or committed to a penitentiary to
(a) another penitentiary in accordance with the regulations made under paragraph 96(d), subject to section 28; or
(b) a provincial correctional facility or hospital in accordance with an agreement entered into under paragraph 16(1)(a) and any applicable regulations.

The protocol for the transfer of persons to appropriate facilities designed to address mental illness is designed to ensure that men and women with mental health concerns are receiving the right kind of care. Through your direction and leadership, the Correctional Service of Canada will be in a better position to utilize Section 29 and fulfill their mandate to ensure the safe rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals serving federal sentences.

Today, you have the authority and acumen to do what is right and just. I urge that you not let the practice of jailing our most vulnerable people in Canada continue. I urge that you use your leadership to protect others like Ashley Smith and to uphold the dignity and rights of everyone, so that I can live in a country where I am proud to be Canadian.

Sincerely,
Anita Grace

cc. Randall Garrison
Public Safety Critic

Elizabeth May
Leader of the Green Party of Canada

Tom Mulcair
Leader of the Official Opposition and New Democratic Party of Canada

Daniel Paillé
Leader of the Bloc Québecois

Bob Rae
Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada

Francis Scarpaleggia
Public Safety Critic

The Honourable Vic Toews
Minister of Public Safety

Youth Justice Programs Lose Funding

When the government says that it is continuing to fund youth justice programs, you might think that’s a good thing.

Except in this case, with this government, ‘continuing to fund’ actually means slashing funding by 20% – a little detail that was omitted from Justice Minister Rob Nicholson’s June 27th news release. Titled ‘Government of Canada announces continued support to youth justice services’, it sounds like a good news story.

It’s not.

The federal government is cutting $35.6 million used to supervise and rehabilitate young offenders. The annual fund of $177.3  has suddenly dropped to $141.7. This move has stunned provincial ministers, social workers and especially those working with youth in conflict with the law.

And while the government is touting the savings made from this cut, reducing rehabilitation efforts doesn’t actually make much financial sense. As Beth Alkenbrack, a youth counsellor in Thunder Bay working to keep at-risk youth out of jails, told the Toronto Star, “It costs less than $10,000 a year to service a youth with me, and if they’re in a youth justice custody facility, it’s going to cost a minimum of $150,000 a year.”

When taken in conjunction with the recently enacted Omnibus Crime Bill, things are looking very grim for youth justice in Canada. Bill C-10 has meant more young people are being sentenced to jail for less severe crimes and for longer times.

Article 40 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child obligates states to use alternatives to jails as much as possible, with detention as a last resort, and to give priority to rehabilitation, reintegration, and correction. Already Bill C-10 violates the Convention. This recent announcement adds to the shameful disregard of the rights of youth, of effective responses to crime, and of basic common sense.

Costs for inmates increase

Canadian inmates will have to pay more for room and board, despite losing the opportunity to receive ‘incentive pay’ in prison job skills programs.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced on Wednesday that Canadian inmates will pay more for room and board, will be charged for the use of telephones, and will not have the same access to purchasing goods.

Rick Osborne, a former inmate who spent 25 years in 13 prisons, likened the changes to slavery. “When you have a guy where he’s working all week and doesn’t have any disposable income at the end, that’s called slavery,” he told CBC news. He added that this will limit the amount of money inmates can send back to their families while increasing opportunities for the black market within prisons.

Toews argues that changes will increase offender accountability and save taxpayers more than $10 million per year.

“The accountability for wrongdoing is the sentence that’s imposed by the courts,” said Catherine Latimer, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada, to the Globe and Mail. “It concerns me that the minister thinks he should be adding to the measure.”

Inmates who work in the corrections job skills program – CORCAN – receive a salary ranging from 50 cents – $2.30 per hour. These low wages will be further reduced as a ‘cost-saving measure’. The opportunity to work over-time to meet production quotas (incentive pay) will be eliminated.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), told the Globe and Mail that taking away more pay will be especially difficult for female prisoners, 80% of whom are mothers. “They’re mostly sole support for their children before they go to prison, a lot of them,” she said. “Any extra money they do make … they send out to their children in the form of gifts or to provide support for them.”

Reducing the ability of inmates to contribute to and maintain ties with their families will make reintegration more difficult as strong family ties can greatly ease inmates integration back into their communities.

These and other recent trends are indicative of correctional policies that focus almost exclusively on punishment, while losing site of rehabilitation and reintegration. Is the idea that prisoners must suffer for their crimes, even more so then they already are? Should not our correctional facilities strive toward enabling inmates to overcome their past and build a productive future? Yet unfortunately, we are seeing a parade of policies which treat inmates as sub-citizens, undeserving of basic human and constitutional rights.

Double-bunking part of prison expansion plan

prison bunksExpansion plans for a federal prison in Kingston, Ontario show provisions are being made for double-bunking  – a practice condemned by many as being dangerous and inhumane.

On CBC’s Power and Politics, host Evan Solomon questioned MPs about the development plans for the Collins Bay institution, which show that standard cells will be built with provision for a “future upper bed.”

Candice Hoeppner, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Public Safety, said the government does not have plans to make double-bunking permanent, but that preparation for them is “just good planning”.

NDP Justice Critic Jack Harris countered that, “prudent planning would be to avoid the kinds of prisons policies that they’ve got now, which is going to lead to more violence, people with less rehabilitation after being in prison and coming out being more dangerous offenders than when they went in.”

Double-bunking, putting two inmates in one cell, is already practiced in Canadian prisons. Corrections Canada reports that 13% of inmates are currently double-bunked – and this figure could rise as high as 30% as the tougher sentencing provisions of the omnibus crime bill come into effect.

In 2010, Jeremy Phillips, 33, an inmate at the Mountain Institution in the Fraser Valley, was killed by his cellmate Michael Wayne McGray, a man serving six concurrent life sentences for murders.

Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, has  condemned double-bunking for increasing violence between inmates, threatening the safety of guards and increasing the spread of infectious diseases.

In his Annual Report 2009-10, Sapers gave an example of case in which double-bunking resulted in violence: “A maximum security inmate is released from administrative segregation to a double-occupancy cell, despite a psychological assessment on file that noted it would be preferable if he was accommodated in a single cell because of previous psychiatric history. The inmate assaults his cellmate and is transferred to the Special Handling Unit.”

Sapers also reported that bed capacity in the five treatment centres only met 50% of identified need. “Exemptions are even being requested to “double up” in segregation cells where two inmates must share space designed for one for up to 23 hours a day.”

“Given high rates of mental illness, drug addiction, violence and criminal gang membership,” Sapers reports, “it is difficult to see how double-bunking can be viewed as a correctionally appropriate or sustainable solution to crowding pressures in either the short or medium terms.”

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) used to require approval by the Commissioner prior to increasing the number of double occupancy cells. However, in Augst 2010, CSC released a policy bulletin announcing the suspension of this policy. This decision was made despite acknowledgement that “single accommodation is the most desirable and appropriate method of housing offenders [and that] double bunking (one cell designed for one inmate occupied by two) is inappropriate as a permanent accommodation measure within the context of good corrections.”

Responding to double-bunking

Vic Toews

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

When questioned about the practice of double-bunking by CBC’s Evan Solomon in August, 2010, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said that double-bunking is “not something that is inappropriate or illegal or unconstitutional or violates international standards”.  Toews went on to say that “many countries use double-bunking and quite frankly I think in many cases it’s appropriate”.

However, Justin Piché points out the practice of double-bunking contravenes the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Section 9. (1) of this international standard states that “Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy by night a cell or room by himself. If for special reasons, such as temporary overcrowding, it becomes necessary for the central administration to make an exception to this rule, it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room”.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers has also stated: “Double Bunking is an unsafe, ineffective means by which to address population management, and will inevitably prove problematic for correctional officers, correctional staff, offenders, CSC and, finally, the general public.”

Additionally, the Canadian Criminal Justice Association argues that the practice of double-bunking  threatens the safety of inmates and staff and, ultimately, the public.


Victory for Insite

Insite – Vancouver’s supervised injection site

Today the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that Vancouver’s Insite clinic can stay open and that Ottawa has to back off.

In a ruling based on evidence and research showing that Insite saves lives and promotes rehabilitation, the Court declared that Ottawa’s attempt to shut down the site undermined the protection of health and public safety and violated the Charter of Rights.

Insite supporters celebrated the win. “This is the triumph of science over ideology,”said their lead lawyer, Joe Arvay.

Insite opened in September, 2003 as a safe, sanitary, medically-supervised place where addicts can inject drugs. In this downtown Vancouver location, people “inject drugs and connect to health care services – from primary care to treat disease and infection, to addiction counselling and treatment, to housing and community supports.” It is funded by the BC Ministry of Health and is North America’s first legal supervised injection site.

The Court stated that Insite was “launched as an experiment. The experiment has proven successful. Insite has saved lives and improved health. And it did those things without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime in the surrounding area.”

In fact, the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS reports that since Insite opened, there’s been a 30% increase in the number of addicts who enter detox and the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority says there have been more than a million safe injections at the site with more than 1,400 overdoses but not a single death.

Prime Minister Harper has said that he is disappointed in the ruling, but that Ottawa will comply. This will likely fan the flames of Tory contempt for judicial powers though. It is also unlikely to change the Conservative approach which rejects that addition is an illness best treated by doctors instead of police and prison guards.

I predict that in the years to come the courts will be hearing more cases in which citizens groups challenge tough-on-crime legislation as reducing public safety and violating Charter Rights – especially given that legislation before us now is based on ideology, not evidence.

But today I’m grateful that we have a Supreme Court with the authority and wisdom to protect human rights from political ideology.

Prisoners’ Justice Day

BarbedwireAugust 10th is Prisoners’ Justice Day, an annual day of memorial, vigil and protest when prisoners and supporters remember the men and women who have died inside prisons. On this day, thousands of inmates around the world refuse to work or eat in a show of solidarity with the brothers and sisters who have died behind bars.

In the decade between 1998 and 2008, 532 inmates died in federal custody in Canada from a range of known causes including natural death, suicide, accident and homicide. Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers argues that Canada’s federal prisons are more crowded and more tense, which contributes to an increase in violence and death behind bars. For example, from 2009-10 to 2010-11, both inmate injuries and self-harm rose by more than 60%.

Prisoners’ Justice Day is historically a day in which prisoners and their supporters draw attention to prisoner maltreatment and lobby for positive change. The day began to commemorate the death of Eddie Nalon who bled to death from suicide in the segregation unit of Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in Bath, Ontario on August 10, 1974. He was serving a life sentence at the time and had spent the previous two months in “the hole”. An inquest into his death found that the call buttons in his and other solitary cells had been deactivated by guards.

On the first anniversary of Eddie’s death, August 10, 1975, prisoners at Millhaven refused to work, went on a one-day hunger strike, and held a memorial service even though they faced the punishment of solitary confinement.

On May 21, 1976, Robert (Bobby) Landers, a prison rights activist, also died in solitary confinement at Millhaven. Despite his repeated requests for medical aid due to a heart condition, Landers was left unattended in solitary confinement. An inquest into his death determined that he died from a heart attack.

On August 10, 1976, prisoners in Millhaven again went on a hunger strike – this time to commemorate both Eddie Nalon and Bobby Landers and to protest the lack of implementation of recommendations following the inquests into Eddie’s death, as well as the practice of solitary confinement. Low-key peaceful protests have been since held annually in prisons across Canada.

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