Welcome to my Crime and Justice blog! I am a 19 year old criminal justice student at the University of Winnipeg. I advocate for prisoners' rights, human rights, equality and criminal justice/prison system reforms.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Prisons Kill

By Justin Piché

To be presented at the Ottawa Public Library (Main Branch) - Auditorium
Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Hi folks,
Thank you for coming.

Today we have four speakers, including Kim Pate (Executive Director, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies), Susan Haines (Volunteer and Consultant), Michelle Mann (Lawyer and Consultant), and Guy Ritchie, an ex-prisoner. Each will focus their presentations on Prison Justice Day (PJD), deaths in custody and related prison justice issues. Excerpts from a piece written by Peter Collins, a federal prisoner, published in the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons will also be read. Following the presentations, we will open the floor for discussion.

Before we begin I would like to comment briefly on why we are here today.

Prison Justice Day (PJD) emerged as a prisoner-initiated day of non-violent strike action to commemorate the August 10, 1974 death of Eddie Nalon, who died alone in the segregation unit of Millhaven maximum-security penitentiary. It was first observed in 1975, and in 1976 the prisoners of Millhaven issued a communication “To All Prisoners and Concerned Peoples from across Canada”, calling for one-day hunger strikes in opposition to the use of solitary confinement and in support of prisoners’ rights, in memory of Eddie Nalon as well as Robert Landers, who also died alone in solitary confinement (see www.prisonjustice.ca).

In the last 35 years, individuals and groups on the outside have also used PJD as a day to bring attention to deaths in custody, as well as other prison justice issues such as facility overcrowding, mental health, the overrepresentation of Aboriginals in our penal institutions, and broader social justice issues in our communities.

This advocacy work continues today and will persist as long as there are prisons as promises to ‘reform’ these monuments to our collective failure to address the conflicts and harms in our communities that we call ‘crime’ either ring hallow or fail because you cannot transform the violence that is incarceration. Indeed, it is in the so-called softer and gentler Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener – one the facilities that replaced P4W – that prison staff failed to respond when Ashley Smith hung herself in solitary on October 19, 2007.

In letters obtained through Access to Information (ATI) sent by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to a number of concerned citizens on the issue of deaths in custody (see copy of original following the text), he made the following remarks:

Let me start by saying that every death in custody represents a tragedy. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is fully committed to implementing appropriate and effective measures to help prevent deaths in custody.

Following [redacted] death, CSC acted quickly to investigate, report on the circumstances surrounding the incident, identify weaknesses and take corrective action where necessary. This is a very complex matter that has reinforced the need for CSC to further strengthen its approaches to managing offenders, particularly those with serious behavioural and mental health concerns.

I feel it is important to mention that CSC did take corrective measures. An action plan has been developed to respond to recommendations of investigations into this incident, and CSC has already implemented a number of measures. If you would like additional details on the action taken, you may wish to consult CSC’s Web site at www.csc-scc.gc.ca. The action plan is updated on a quaterly basis.

Finally, it is important to note that CSC is working closely with the federal government’s recently established Mental Health Commission of Canada, which has been mandated to develop a national mental health strategy and share knowledge and best practices for the benefit of Canadians.

Based on the statement made by Minister Toews, one would assume that deaths in custody would be a thing of the past in our federal penitentiaries. However, in the years since death continues to be a central feature of incarceration with 25 occurring in 2007-2008, 65 in 2008-2009, and 40 in 2009-2010 according to figures compiled by the Office of the Correctional Investigator (see below). When looking at long-term trends, Howard Sapers has noted that one can expect between 50 and 60 deaths in Canadian federal penitentiaries in a ‘normal’ year.

Deaths in Custody:
CSC Facilities

Unknown causes (n=1)
"Natural" causes (n=16)
Homicide (n=1)
Suicide (n=4)
Overdose (n=3)

Unknown causes (n=5)
"Natural" causes (n=48)
Homicide (n=2)
Suicide (n=9)
Overdose (n=1)

Unknown causes (n=7)
"Natural" causes (n=24)
Homicide (n=1)
Suicide (n=8)
Overdose (n=0)

While a significant percentage of these deaths are attributed to “natural” causes, it should be noted that there are a number of studies that have shown that the process of incarceration is emotionally, psychologically and physically damaging, and thus, contributes to the on-set or the exacerbation of health conditions. In the case of CSC institutions, the OIC has noted that the organization lacks the resources to adequately monitor the health of prisoners which can contribute to “natural” deaths in custody.

With a system that is already overstretched, the Conservative Party of Canada has embarked upon a legislative path that aims to place more people in our prisons for longer periods of time with fewer chances of release into the community. One means of coping with the influx of new prisoners deployed by the Government of Canada has been to increase double-bunking – the practice of placing two prisoners in a single prison cell.

When critiqued for adopting this approach, Minister Toews has stated that there “is not something that is inappropriate or illegal or unconstitutional or violates international standards". He has also insisted that the practice is “ humane” (see 18 March 2010 post).

Although it may be legal to double-bunk prisoners, the use of this practice does contravene the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which states:

9. (1) 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 use of double-bunking is also at odds with CSC Commissioner's Directive 550 that states:

6. Single accommodation is the most desirable and correctionally appropriate method of housing offenders.

Despite the existence of these standards that are intended to guide federal prison accommodation approaches, Minister Toews has even gone as far as to say "It's not a big deal… It's an absolutely important aspect of facilities, it's constitutional, it's legal. Many western democracies do that. There's nothing inappropriate about that” (see 4 May 2010 article by Janice Tibbetts). And while Toews has repeatedly insisted that double-bunking is appropriate, advice from his own Senior Deputy Commissioner of CSC, Marc-Arthur Hyppolite, sent to him in a 16 February 2010 Briefing Note (see copy of original following the text) concluded:

For any double bunking, other than emergency management, institutional heads are required to have an exemption authorized, in advance, by the Commissioner. This exemption sets the maximum level to which an institution can normally be double bunked... It is important to note that the increased use of double bunking places significant stress on the staff and infrastructure of an institution. Further expansion of double bunking increases the risk to staff and offender safety in an institution.

There are a number of reasons why high ranking officials within CSC are concerned about overcrowding, and double-bunking specifically. We only have to look back to the 1970s and 1980s where penitentiaries across the country – KP, BCP, Archambault – were overcrowded and incompatible prisoners were placed on the same ranges or in the same cells, which contributed to riots erupting and violence to surge in these facilities.

Prisons kill. No matter how much we dehumanize and demonize those we criminalize and imprison, it does not change the fact that they are someone’s brother or sister, son or daughter, father or mother, who in the majority of cases will feel a great degree of loss when their loved one has died in prison.

The minority Conservative Government of Canada needs to abandon its punishment agenda, not only because it will not make our communities safer, not only because they will bankrupt my generation with prison mortgages we will be paying until we retire, but because it will likely result in more deaths in custody.

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