Commentary  Canada Has a Prison Problem, Too

On the Dire Conditions of Saskatchewan’s Prisons

content warning: violence, police brutality

In the shadow of the United States’ massive incarceration rate (more than 700 people per 100,000), it is easy to ignore the actual state of the Canadian prison systems and the people within them. The news always reports on the worst of the worst – the kidnappers, murderers, and rapists – but the statistics seem to indicate it is increasingly easy to be incarcerated, especially for certain groups of people. Currently, about 422 people per 100,000 adults are jailed in Canada, and another 79 per 100,000 are supervised. A disproportionate number of these inmates are Indigenous. Although Indigenous individuals make up about four per cent of Canada’s adult population, they represent 27 per cent of those imprisoned by the federal government and 28 per cent in the provincial systems. In Saskatchewan, where the Indigenous population is about 15 per cent, Indigenous peoples represent 76 per cent of admissions to prison custody.

I grew more dismayed when I discovered that remanded inmates, those arrested and awaiting trial, were overrepresented in Canadian prisons, by a ratio of 1.5:1 compared to the general prison population. Although most in remand spend less than thirty days in prison, they suffer immensely, even if they are not convicted. Many lose their jobs, housing, or have their children put in alternate care. This is all before they are proven guilty.

In the shadow of the United States’ massive incarceration rate (more than 700 people per 100,000), it is easy to ignore the actual state of the Canadian prison systems and the people within them.

I reached out to a three-time remanded ex-inmate of the Regina Provincial Correctional Centre (RPCC) to get an inside perspective on what remand is really like. The person I interviewed over the phone is a non-Indigenous man and wanted to remain anonymous. According to him, going to jail was an arduous experience. He explained that his safety was a constant problem, and that he had to quickly learn the “jailhouse etiquette.” He felt there was a pressure to “roll with a gang” to avoid the fights that break out almost daily, sometimes over food, old beefs, or as a type of intimidation for more vulnerable, smaller, or newer inmates.

He was able to give more insight on why inmates had previously protested with a hunger strike. He admitted to wondering how larger men than him survived since, “by the time [he was] done eating all three [of his trays of food, his] stomach [was] growling, start[ed] to hurt and [he] felt weak.” When I asked him if it was possible that the amount of food given to the inmates caused tension between them, he recounted seeing people not eat all day because of other inmates stealing their trays. Guards allegedly do nothing to step in or prevent inmates from stealing others’ resources. He told me he witnessed “officers watch inmates give other inmates their phone calls, which is not allowed in jail. [He saw] officers watch inmates walk up to someone and make them give them their tray,” and said guards mostly sit on their phones until there is a fight.

Although most in remand spend less than thirty days in prison, they suffer immensely, even if they are not convicted.

Startling evidence substantiates some of our source’s claims of abuse and mistreatment. Just this year, an incident report form from the RPCC was leaked to CTV News. The form had been renamed and edited into a “Hurt Feelings Report” that mocked and belittled actual complaints of injuries and incidents from inmates. Ignoring inmates’ concerns and turning them into jokes within the prison’s administration not only dehumanizes the inmates, but also testifies to the way prisons view prisoners. In March of this year, at the same correctional facility, several of the prisoners went on a hunger strike. They protested revoked juice privileges, changes in mail policy causing delays in accessing contributions from family/ friends, and revoked access to hair clippers. This is a trend in North America, where increasingly more people are protesting conditions in their prisons. Ed Pilkington of The Guardian wrote in August 2018 of the spread from the United States of inmates striking against forced and underpaid labour, a startling number of unexplained inmate deaths, inhumane living conditions, and many other injustices.

The province of Saskatchewan itself has ignored the recommendations from several representatives that have called for the improvement of living conditions in their prisons. In 2017, the Saskatchewan public advisor of violations of rights received 3,298 complaints, including reports of excessive force and unauthorized use of a WRAP, a swaddle-like restraint device. However, these reports were unable to be substantiated by the prison due to ineffective security camera systems, which record over existing footage at regular intervals.

I can only speculate on the number of injustices that occur, which inmates are unable to report.

With the current data from Statistics Canada, I can only speculate on the number of injustices that occur, which inmates are unable to report. Canadian prisons’ inability to self-monitor, such as recording over old footage and ignoring suggestions of experts in the field, leave little empirical data of the actual nature of incidents within prison making it impossible to hold the facilities accountable. The government of Saskatchewan’s explanation for these problems to date, including food concerns and camera systems, has been boiled down to budgetary restrictions. However, it is convenient for the government to fail to acknowledge the fact that rehabilitation and alternate sentencing could be among the cheapest and most ethical solutions to the prison problem.

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