Corrections in Canada

As we share our work in the community, we often encounter a lack of understanding of how the correctional system in Canada works.

To clear up one misconception, it’s important to recognize that those who are sent to prison in Canada are sent as punishment and not for punishment. In speaking with folks in the community, we often get the sense that they believe prisons should be unpleasant places, where criminals experience deprivation and discomfort (such as bad food and hard beds) as retribution for the wrongs they have done. Inmates certainly should not be enjoying the good things that ‘free’ people enjoy, like cable TV or computer games…

As it is currently conceived, however, this is not how our correctional system works. When a person in Canada receives a sentence, their ‘punishment’ is the restriction of their mobility rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Aside from this, an inmate can exercise all the rights of a Canadian citizen, no matter how egregious their crime. Our highest legal framework envisions incarceration as a mobility-restricted version of life in the broader community.

In actuality, prisons are indeed places of deprivation and hardship, but not because these conditions are themselves the punishments. Correctional facilities (like hospitals) are institutional residences that inevitably restrict options normally be available in the community. They are unpleasant places because they are full of people who have harmed their neighbors, and continue to do so, even while incarcerated. The deprivation and unpleasantness of prisons are not conceived as their purpose, but the by-products of other factors.

The second point to keep in mind about the Canadian correctional system is that people in Canada are sent to prison for rehabilitation and reintegration. A common attitude we have seen in the community can be summed up as, “Lock ’em up and throw away the key.” Many in our society were outraged that someone like Paul Barnardo—who sadistically tortured, raped, and killed two young girls—could be transferred from a maximum to a medium institution. According to this view, Barnardo should simply “rot behind bars.”

Once again, however, this is not how our system is conceived. I have heard it said among those who lead the shaping the policy of the Correctional Service Canada (CSC) that “rehabilitation begins at intake.” In principle, as soon as someone enters CSC care and custody, work is to begin on the process of restoring them back to the community. Like it or not, we in Canada restrict the mobility rights of our criminals not merely to confine them, but so that we can intervene and help effect transformative changes in them. These changes could and should eventually lead to their return to society as good neighbors and citizens.

The process of rehabilitation is gradual. In the federal system. a person often begins their sentence at maximum level of security. This is a highly restricted environment, where inmates are locked in their cells for the majority of a 24-hour period. After two years, offenders may transfer to a medium, where they continue their sentence under moderate restrictions. Offenders serve the bulk of their sentence at this level, taking programs, learning job skills, and engaging with Chaplains, Elders, and recovery groups.

Finally, an offender transfers to a minimum level of security, where there are no physical barriers, and inmates move throughout the institution for the majority of the day. Offenders at minimums often participate in temporary absences from the institution to visit family, or attend groups and gatherings that are important to their wellbeing. This is the final step in the correctional process before offender return to the community.

As an aside, this “cascading” correctional process is the same for all offenders, even those who receive life sentences. The only difference between those who receive fixed sentences, and those who are “lifers” is that at some point, the offender with a fixed sentence reaches their “warrant expiry date,” and they are released from the custody of the correctional system. A lifer never reaches warrant expiry. Yet even lifers may still be released on parole, and continue to serve their sentence in the community under the supervision of their parole officer. A life sentence does not mean a life “behind bars.”

In reality, many offenders are released on parole while still at a medium or even a maximum level of security, because the Parole Board of Canada (an independent tribunal) believes that they are ready to return to society. An offender may reach their court-mandated “warrant expiry date,” and have to be released by law, whether they are deemed ready or not. Many offenders simply wait out their sentence without making any progress, only to return to their old ways. For others, the programs of the correctional system are not effective in addressing their unique needs. Perhaps most troubling of all, incarceration can also become a “school of crime,” working against the very process for which the system was designed.

Canada’s correctional system certainly requires reform. However, if we expect that ‘reform’ means harsher punishments than restriction of offenders’ mobility rights, we are going to be disappointed and frustrated. “Locking ’em up and throwing away the key” is simply not an option in Canada. As long as we continue to hold to the Charter, our society will always take a rights-based approach and strive to maintain the most freedoms for offenders while they are in custody. In the case of Paul Barnardo (and other cases like his), this may be a hard pill to swallow, but swallowing it is a litmus test as to whether or not we truly believe that everyone’s rights and freedoms are, as the Charter states, “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

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