Mother’s Day

Prison mom

Cali Farmer, 4, hugs her mother Netta Farmer at California Institute for Women state prison in Chino, California May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere, but especially to mothers living in poverty, trying to choose between food and rent, and to mothers in shelters, seeking safety for themselves and their children.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers behind bars, cut off from their families and children, to the mothers of inmates, living with the stigma and fall-out of their children’s crimes, and to the mothers of victims of crime, too often left with wounds but no voices.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers coping with mental illness, sickness and disability, and those raising children in hospitals and treatment centres.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers of missing women, of children on the street, of the lost and the wounded.

The brave, the broken and the battered mothers, the strong, the sick and the scared ones, may we all find strength and love today.

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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.


Impact of Bill C-10 on Aboriginal Peoples

The Senate Committee debating Bill C-10, the omnibus crime bill, heard today how this legislation will negatively impact Aboriginal Peoples.

Shawn Atleo

Shawn Atleo, AFN National Cheif (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press).

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo  spoke via video conference from his community on the west coast of the Vancouver Island. He made it clear that the AFN is very concerned about the direction Bill C-10 is headed in and that this legislation will not make Aboriginal communities safer. Unfortunately his testimony was cut short due to technical problems, so AFN senior strategist, Roger Jones provided further details and fielded the Senators’ questions.

Jones told the Committee that the AFN searched high and low for elements within Bill C-10 that would improve the situation for Aboriginal Peoples – and couldn’t find anything.

He said the Omnibus Bill will compound the existing over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, such as through mandatory minimum sentences (mms) for drug offences and the removal of judicial discretionwith regard to such things as the Gladue principles.

References to the Gladue decision were frequent throughout AFN panel discussion. Gladue principles, based on a 1999 Supreme Court interpretation of Section 718.2 of the Criminal Code, provide that reasonable alternatives to imprisonment should be sought and particular attention should be given to the circumstances of Aboriginal offenders.

Senator Mobina Jaffer suggested that the Senate could recommend an exemption clause in Bill C-10 so as to preserve Gladue principles.

Senator Fraser questioned how often these principles are applied. (Not often enough, Jones replied.) Senator Lang challenged Jones as to why MMS for such reprehensible crimes as child sexual exploitation should have exceptions for Aboriginal offenders. Jones replied that nature of the crime should never negate the need to look at the offender’s circumstances.

In contrast to the AFN’s detailed concerns with the Omnibus Bill, University of British Colombia Law Professor, Benjamin Perrin, presented the Senate Committee with his strong support of “all” aspects of the bill, suggesting it balances criminal law by enhancing the accountability of offenders and increasing the rights of victims.

He argued that more people charged with cultivating marijuana should be imprisoned and that 89% of marijuana production comes from organized crime groups and the majority of what is produced is destined for the United States, fueling serious border problems. This argument relies on the assumptions of supply suppression and drug probation which have actually made drugs more available and cheaper, and have undermined the public health system.

Indeed, all criminal justice legislation relies on certain assumptions – such as incarceration as a tool of deterrence and segregation as punishment – but as the AFN repeatedly pointed out today, these assumptions and their outcomes have resulted in a sustained failure to address the systemic roots of crime or how the justice system continues to fail First Nations Peoples.

Final Parliamentary vote for Crime Bill

Leadnow.ca encouraged Canadians to not let our government rubber stamp Bill C-10.

On Monday, the Omnibus Crime Bill will go through third reading in the House of Commons. Once a Bill has been read three times, it’s sent to Senate for consideration. After being passed by the Senate, it will be presented to the Governor General for Royal Assent and becomes law.

Experts and advocates for both victims and offenders have all lined up in recent months to express their concerns to this costly bill that will see more people sent to prison for longer periods. Some provincial governments, Quebec in particular, have stated their opposition to this legislation that will see their correction costs balloon.

In light of widespread opposition, and piles of evidence showing its wrong-headedness, Conservatives have shut down debate on the Crime Bill – repeatedly using their majority to put limits on the length and depth of debate.

Given that they have majority in the House of Commons, it is unlikely that this Bill won’t sail through third reading and move on to the Senate. While those advocating for more humane, effective responses to crime will soon turn their efforts to addressing Senators (those unelected officials who, as far as I can tell, have absolutely no accountability to the public), it is not too late for one last public outcry of opposition to our Members of Parliament.

Today I called my local MP’s office to ask if he would be voting in opposition to the Bill. I already knew he would, but perhaps he would still find my phone call encouraging. I then called Rob Nicholson’s office – the Minister of Justice who tabled this Bill – to say, ‘for what it’s worth, I am against this Bill.’ The secretary politely thanked me and that was the end of our conversation. I also wrote to many of my contacts, encouraging them to make calls as well.

Despite my discouragement over the likely outcome of this bill, I have been encouraged by the groups who have publicly expressed their opposition. These include: Canadian Bar AssociationJohn Howard SocietyElizabeth Fry society,Assembly of First NationsNative Women’s AssociationLeadnowHarm Reduction NetworkCanadian Civil Liberties AssociationChurch Council on Justice and Corrections and United Church of Canada.

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.

‘Tough on crime’ is tough on common sense

MALCOLM MAYES/ARTIZANS.COM

During this election campaign period, the Conservatives keep drumming out ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric that flies in the face of research, reports and basic common sense.

Crime rates have steadily declined over the last 20 years and yet so many candidates in this election keep emphasizing how they are going to fight crime and get tough on criminals.

Even if crime was they kind of large-scale problem they would like us to believe, certainly it would make sense to implement practices that have been proven to actually lower crime rates. But no, our government seems intent on building more prisons and filling them with more people – even though incarceration is not as effective in lowering crime rates and recidivism compared with prevention, treatment, and community-led programs.

Corrections Canada currently spends just over $2,200,000,000 a year on prisons. And now there are plans to build 2,700 additional prison beds at a cost of $2,100,000,000 ($800,000 per bed). This makes no sense and Canadians should be outraged.

Be even more outraged when you look more closely at who exactly we are spending these billions of dollars on to warehouse in prisons. In provincial jails, close to 60% of the people in prison have not even been convicted – they are awaiting trial and may be found innocent or guilty of a crime not deserving jail. We keep clogging up the system with more people and paying $100,000 to $200,000 a year to keep them in jail while they wait. So much for due process or innocent until proven guilty.

Kim Pate of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies points out that over 80% of women in prison are incarcerated for poverty-related offences. Additionally, 82% of women who are federally sentenced in Canada have experienced physical or sexual abuse, 75% have less than a junior high school education, 34% are Indigenous, and the majority live with mental health issues.

It would be wonderful if during this election campaign Canadians challenged their local candidates and party leaders to present strategies for actually fixing our justice system.

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