Commentary  A distorted vision of justice


Three weeks ago, a man charged with a drug-related offence was given a reduced sentence by Quebec Judge Isabelle Rheault. The justification used by the judge was not related to the facts of the case, nor the prisoner’s behaviour. Instead, she argued, the conditions at the inmate’s detention center – Bordeaux Prison in northwest Montreal – were so bad that time spent there should be considered as more punishing than the norm. Rheault cited an infestation of “rats and vermin,” the prevalence of gangs, and a high rate of drug consumption in her reasoning. Stephane Lemaire, head of the union of correctional officers in Quebec, commented that, due to the conditions in the jail, “at Bordeaux, we can’t [rehabilitate].”

The idea that prisons should primarily serve as rehabilitation centres is a liberal idea that dates to the nineteenth century. While Canada’s prison system has never fully succeeded in this goal, the very concept of rehabilitation is increasingly ignored, while already appalling conditions in prisons are worsening. The Safe Streets and Communities Act (Bill C-10), passed by Parliament last March, is a deliberate effort to move Canada’s justice system toward the more punitive model long used in the United States. Some of the most detrimental stipulations in the bill are the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences, tougher penalties for drug-related penalties, serious limitations on government-issued criminal pardons, and longer sentences for young offenders. Canada’s prison population has reached an all-time high, and has seen huge growth in the prairie provinces and among Aboriginal peoples, who are already overrepresented among inmates by a ratio of nearly seven to one.

Judge Rheault’s decision was one of the more recent in a series of events that demonstrate just how quickly the Canadian prison system is deteriorating. Conditions in Canadian prisons are undeniably overcrowded. While Bill C-10 promises to increase the prison population, the federal government is actually closing two of its penitentiaries, while adding additional beds to cells in certain prisons. This measure, called “double-bunking,” is often cited by prison guards in association with prisoner-on-prisoner violence. Addressing the risk double-bunking poses to prison guards and inmates, a spokesman representing the Union of Canadian Correctional Service Officers referred to the practice as “extremely dangerous.”

When passed, Bill C-10 was derided not only by provincial governments, but by a group of conservative legislators from Texas, led by Jerry Madden, the head of the state’s House Committee on Corrections. Madden argued against Bill C-10 because he believes that longer sentences will lead to a higher prisoner population, something that hasn’t helped his state deal with the problem of crime.

Unfortunately, this year has also seen a serious reduction in some of the creative solutions that were previously offered to prisoners. Across Canada, all non-Christian prison chaplains are being laid off, ending faith services for religious minorities. The LifeLine program, one of Corrections Canada’s only methods of rehabilitating with long-term offenders, was cut despite the fact that its success has spawned an imitation in the United States. Other rehabilitation programs, including an award-winning one in Ottawa that reintegrates inmates into communities, are also facing cuts. While the government makes the argument of fiscal necessity, eliminating programs that prevent re-offence and promote employment among ex-offenders may prove more socially and economically damaging over the long term.

The odd spectacle of Canada adopting a discredited punitive system, while Americans look north for solutions to their massive and untenable prison population, makes sense in light of the Conservative government’s populist bent. Canadians have expressed support for the government’s ‘tough on crime’ approach, despite the fact that crime is at an historic low. While most social scientists, the Canadian Bar Association, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, and the nation’s largest provinces oppose Bill C-10, the legislation is deliberately designed to make voters feel more safe, no matter the reality of its effect. Unfortunately, aside from demonstrating a callous disregard for the well-being of incarcerated citizens, the bill promises to exacerbate rather than prevent crime.

Canada is sliding deeper into a system that fulfills a vengeful, inhumane, and ultimately detrimental vision of justice. Rather than focusing on punitive measures, we should direct our energies to rehabilitation and healing. Beyond the prison system, if crime is to be honestly dealt with, then root social issues must be addressed. This can only be done by embracing individuals as people worthy of change, not objects to be cast into abusive and static institutions.