Canada’s Prison Watchdog Is Being Fired After Raising the Alarm on Race Problems, Solitary Confinement, and Violence in Jails

Howard Sapers is being shown the door after a long reign investigating abuses in Canadian prisons.

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May 5 2015, 5:31pm

A Daily VICE production

The man responsible for watching over Canada's prison system—one he says is rife with race and violence problems—is quietly being fired by the federal government.

At some point over the next few months, Howard Sapers will vacate his post as Canada's Correctional Investigator. The government is keeping him on the job just until they can find a replacement.

"It's a pretty clear message that the government would like to see me replaced," Sapers told VICE.

Sapers leaves a long legacy. He and his office documented systemic racism against black inmates, panned the correctional system's handling of inmate deaths, slammed management's treatment of suicides that occur inside Canadian prisons, and found use of excessive force by prison tactical teams.

Sapers has been on the job for over 11 years, spanning three prime ministers. His criticisms of each government, both the current Harper Conservatives and the Liberals under Paul Martin and Jean Chretien, earned him the reputation of being a thorn in the side of any political party in power.

But Prime Minister Stephen Harper, responsible for Canada's aggressive tough-on-crime agenda, is taking a harsher stance against Sapers. He decided last month that this year would be Sapers' last as the watchdog for Canada's federal penitentiaries, which houses over 15,000 people.

Despite openly lobbying to be renewed, Sapers will only be sticking around long enough for the government to find a more preferable replacement.

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney's office rejects the idea that they're out in search of a "more suitable" candidate, only saying that they're hoping to find a "suitable replacement." His office wouldn't, when asked, comment on exactly why Sapers was being replaced. Talking points provided by the minister's office simply repeat that they thank him for his service, and note that he is being replaced.

In a sit-down interview with VICE, Sapers says he's not happy about his imminent dismissal.

"There's lots of work to do. And I certainly don't feel finished," said Sapers, rattling off the problems facing Canadian prisons.

"We're seeing growth in the inmate population. We're seeing people stay longer before their first release. We're seeing more people being held in higher security levels, being placed in segregation. We're seeing more people coming into prisons with pre-existing health issues, particularly mental health issues," he told VICE in his soon-to-be vacated downtown Ottawa office.

One of his main files is investigating the over-representation and treatment of racial minorities in prisons.

Some 40 percent of Canada's prison population is non-white. That trend has seen an explosion in the number of black, aboriginal and Asian prisoners.

And while Canada's prison system is supposed to maintain a policy of racial integration, Sapers found that prison policies "disproportionately incarcerates black inmates in specific institutions in the Ontario and Quebec regions."

On top of that, Sapers' investigations show that guards often stereotype black inmates as gang members. "Behaviours, actions or spoken communication of all black inmates appear to be assessed through a 'gang lens,'" Sapers wrote in a special report on the treatment of black prisoners.

The use of force by prison guards is disproportionately applied to black and aboriginal inmates, he found, while non-white prisoners are more likely to be put in solitary confinement.

Add in the fact that the prison population is at an all-time high, and that prisons aren't equipped to handle it—"some of these cells are as small as a bathroom in a typical condominium, about 5 meters square," Sapers says—and friction between the inmates is bound to occur.

That's one thing he's investigated thoroughly. Inmate self-harm and guard brutality have been the focus of several of his reports.

One motivating factor in inmate suicides has been solitary confinement—or, as the government calls it, "segregation." The suicide rate in federal prisons is roughly ten inmates a year, which is seven times higher than the general population. Of those, more than one-fifth of the inmates take their own lives while in "segregation."

There is a review process for inmates kept in solitary confinement but, as Sapers points out, it's not terribly effective.

"What we're seeing is that, because it's often the same people who made the original decision to place someone in segregation are the same people who are doing the review, that the review doesn't result in a removal from segregation. So people spend a long time in segregation," he says.

That system has led to the case of one unnamed inmate being held in solitary confinement for 17 years. That prisoner is being held in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day. They get one hour of exercise.

"Being kept in a cage for 23 hours does nothing for your mental well-being," Sapers says.

While some trends are improving—Sapers says those who run Canada's prisons are beginning to respond to some of the criticism about the treatment of inmates—things might soon get much worse.

Harper's tenure as prime minister has seen a serious re-focusing towards law and order issues. A slew of new laws have ramped up prison time for drug possession, gun crimes, and other serious offences.

At the same time, Harper has tightened up rules that released prisoners early.

One, the " faint hope clause," allowed murderers a chance for release after 15 years. That's been axed. Another made it harder for prisoners with mental health issues to get parole or release. More recently, Harper introduced changes that would, as he phrased it, make sure that "life means life." The changes will remove the possibility of parole for some of Canada's worst murderers.

Harper is also cutting a rule whereby offenders who did not qualify for parole were released early.

The result of all of this is a much larger, and much older prison population. Sapers says, as the prison population gets older and their chances of release dwindle, Canada needs to start contemplating the idea of "geriatric prisons." The costs and logistics of dealing with elderly inmates promises to be a serious headache.

Currently, Canada's incarceration rate is lower than it was in the mid-1990s—when the crime rate began to plummet—but it has been on the upswing since Harper's election in 2006.

The rate of Canadians in federal prison has jumped eight percent in the last five years.

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*An earlier version of this story quoted Blaney's spokesperson as saying that the government was looking for a "more suitable" replacement for Sapers. In fact, the government is yet undecided as to whether they want a more or less suitable replacement.