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No One Seems to Care About Prison Reform in Canada

Canada's prison problems include the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people, the mistreatment of mentally-ill inmates, cuts to rehabilitation programs, overcrowding, and double-bunking.

by Sheena Goodyear
Oct 1 2015, 7:50pm

Ashley Smith, image via coroner's inquest.

Troubled teenager Ashley Smith choked herself to death in 2007 with pieces of a bedsheet in a prison segregation cell, while her guards — ordered not to intervene so long as she was still breathing — watched and videotaped.

A coroner's jury deemed the 19-year-old's death a homicide. Originally locked away for minor offenses, the girl was moved from institution to institution, spending a total of two full years in solitary confinement leading up to her grisly death.

A year later, Canada's Conservative-led government rejected the jury's key recommendation that indefinite solitary confinement — a practice so destructive to the human psyche that almost half of prison suicides happen there — be banned.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Canada's prison problems.

There's the over-incarceration of Aboriginal people, the mistreatment of mentally-ill inmates, cuts to rehabilitation programs, overcrowding, and double-bunking, to name a few.

But in an election dominated by the economy and the middle class, the opposition parties rarely, if ever, seize on these issues.

Only the ruling Conservatives have made corrections a major tenant of their platform, promising to reintroduce and pass tough-on-crime legislation.

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Catherine Latimer, executive director of Canada's John Howard Society, a prison reform advocacy group, says this hesitancy to speak out can be traced back to a series of 1988 attack ads accusing then-U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis of being soft on crime.

The ads, which helped propel George Bush to victory, highlighted the case of Willie Horton, a murder convict who raped a Maryland woman and stabbed her companion while on weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison.

"Ever after that, aspiring politicians felt that they needed to be tough on crime. Otherwise, the rhetoric that's generated around election campaigns really sinks their candidacy," Latimer said.

It isn't fear of being labeled soft on crime that's kept the Liberals from actively campaigning on the issue, says Wayne Easter, the party's justice critic and an incumbent candidate in PEI.

Related: This Lawsuit Claims Canada Has Been Abusing Mentally Ill Prisoners

"In an election campaign, you end up discussing the issues that most relate to people on an everyday basis, so that would be things like the economy, like health care, like jobs and job security," he said.

Still, he says the Liberals haven't shied away from the topic of prison reform when asked.

Just last week, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told Global News he would consider repealing some mandatory minimum sentencing laws — a statement that quickly drew a sharp rebuke from Conservatives.

The Liberals and the Greens were the only federal parties to respond to VICE News' inquiries about their corrections policies.

Easter said a Liberal government would shift Canada's correctional system to one based on rehabilitation rather than punishment by investing in prison education and addictions programs.

Easter didn't offer a specific policy on solitary confinement, saying only that it's "not the way to rehabilitation" and efforts should be made to "cut back on" its use.

Ashley Smith/inquest handout

The Green Party e-mailed VICE News a link to a backgrounder on its criminal justice policy, which calls for the creation of a Law Reform Commission to study justice reform.

In response to a questionnaire from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAES), an advocacy group for female inmates, the Green Party called Canada's use of solitary "reckless, harmful, and out of control."

In the past, the NDP have called for a focus on rehabilitation and spoken against solitary confinement of mentally ill inmates.

The Conservatives, meantime, promise to reintroduce their 'life means life' legislation, which would ensure people convicted "of the most heinous murders," or high treason, are not paroled after 25 years. The party is also seeking harsher penalties for impaired drivers, and new mandatory minimum sentences, in addition to boosting funding for centers that work with children who witness crimes.

Almost 37,000 adults are behind bars on any given day in Canada, a rate of roughly 140 per 100,000. The US, by comparison, houses more than 2 million in jail, or more than 700 per 100,000 people.

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Some may argue that criminals get what they deserve, but Kim Pate, executive director of the CAES, says Canadians have the wrong idea about who's behind bars.

"When most people think of who poses a greater risk to them when they're walking down the street or out at night, they tend not to think of poor, indigenous women who have experienced long histories of violence, including, but not exclusively, residential schools," she said.

"They don't tend to think of people with mental health issues, women with mental health issues, or the homeless. They don't think of the people who are increasingly the ones most likely to be in prison."

Coralee Smith, mother of Ashley Smith, pleads for justice in the death of her daughter. Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press

She says it should alarm Canadians that tax dollars are spent locking up the sick and the poor when it could instead be used to fund mental health and educational programs that would benefit everyone.

"We need to be looking at non-carceral approaches for those groups," she said. "It's vital, now more than ever."

It's not just prisoners' rights and civil liberties groups that are fighting to put prison reform on the election agenda. Since last year, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers has been actively campaigning against the Conservatives.

Partly, they're upset about anti-union measures, but they're also taking a stance against overcrowding and cuts to rehabilitative programs in prisons. It's not just a matter of prisoners' rights; according to union president Jason Godin, it's about public safety.

Related: Another Young Woman Has Died Suddenly Behind Bars — This Time in Canada

"When Harper runs around saying safer communities, safer streets — I don't know if you can put this in your story, maybe you better not — but that's pure bullshit."

Even with mandatory minimums, almost 80% of inmates are eventually released back into the community, Godin says.

"I think the average Canadian, they get bombarded with media stuff and they look at these horrific crimes and they say, 'Oh yeah, you gotta get tough on the offender, and this is the only way to go,'" he says.

"And it's kind of funny, you know, when you actually explain the reality of what's going to happen in 10 to 15 years — when a guy walks into a prison and he receives no programming, we don't get him off drugs and alcohol, he comes out just like he did when he went in — that seems to resonate with people."

Follow Sheena Goodyear on Twitter: @sheenagoodyear

Image via Wikimedia user Broadhead