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As we all got to read this week, the Harper government canceled all non-Christian chaplain positions in federal penitentiaries. Having been involved in the Federal system by bringing meditation to inmates in medium security penitentiaries, I am extremely saddened by this move by Harper and his goons and their continuous crusade to cut all social programs that help those in greatest need. I have seen first hand the benefits bringing meditation and other religious perspectives in penitentiaries, helping inmates make peace with their troubled past and their long healing process that they face. I have been trying to get back in federal penitentiaries since Harper has been elected with a majority government and keep being met with obstacle after obstacle with cut after cut in programs to insure that inmates are denied basic human rights in terms of faith, something that Harper might believe is still respected if they have access to Christian guidance (but tell me how a Buddhist is to get guidance in meditation from someone who believes that the inmate will be going to hell seeing as how he doesn’t follow the teaching of HIS lord and saviour?). Before I continue, I think that it is best that I take a few minutes to explain the Canadian penitentiary system, its history more specifically.

The penitentiary was first introduced by the Philadelphia Quakers in 1789 as a more humane alternative to the harsh punishments of the time. The Quakers believed that a sentence of imprisonment, served under conditions of isolation, with opportunities for work and religious contemplation, would render the offender “penitent” and reformed. In New York, the penitentiary sentence was adopted out of a belief that work and training would lead to a reduction in the crime rate. The idea of sentencing offenders to long terms of imprisonment spread next to England as an alternative to exiling offenders to the colonies. Imprisonment as we know it in Canada today dates back to the building of the Kingston Penitentiary in 1835. For more than 30 years, Kingston Penitentiary was operated as a provincial jail until the passage of the British North America Act (1867) established federal and provincial responsibilities for justice.

With passage of the first Penitentiary Act (1868), Kingston and two other pre-Confederation prisons in St. John, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia were brought under federal jurisdiction, creating a federal penitentiary system “for the establishment, maintenance and management of penitentiaries for offenders sentenced to two years or more.” Construction of federal institutions started in 1873 with St. Vincent de Paul (now Laval Institution). Three more institutions followed: Manitoba Penitentiary (now Stony Mountain Institution) opened in 1877, British Columbia Penitentiary a year later, and Dorchester Penitentiary (New Brunswick) in 1880. All were maximum-security institutions, administered by a strict regime—productive labour during the day, solitary confinement during leisure time. A rule of silence was enforced at all times. Parole did not exist, although inmates could have three days a month remitted from their sentence for good conduct.

In the Depression years of the 1930s, a rash of inmate strikes and riots focussed attention on penal philosophy and management style and lead to the formation of the Archambault Royal Commission of Inquiry. With its emphasis on crime prevention and the rehabilitation of offenders, the Commission’s 1928 report was  a landmark in Canadian corrections and much of its philosophy remains influential today. Among the Commission’s recommendations was the complete revision of penitentiary regulations to provide “strict but humane discipline and the reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners.” In many ways, the Archambault report reflected a society that had become less concerned with retribution and more with rehabilitation. But the priorities of a nation at war superseded penal reform, and few of the Archambault report’s recommendations were implemented.

Following World War II, rising prison populations, overcrowding, and prison disturbances spurred the creation in 1953 of the Fauteaux Committee for another investigation into the correctional system. The Fauteaux Committee envisaged a new type of prison that would not merely be a facility for custody, but also a place of “worthwhile and creative activity” with programs focussing on the attempt to change the basic behaviour, attitudes and patterns of inmates. The nature of prisons had to change in order to make these programs work and to provide opportunities for vocational training, pre-release and after-care programs. Most importantly, prisons needed more and better-trained professional staff in such fields as social work, psychology, psychiatry, criminology and law.

The recommendations of the Fauteaux Committee initiated a new era of legislative and institutional reform and expansion. During this time:

  • The National Parole Board was established as an independent body to exercise authority over the parole of inmates.
  • The Penitentiary Act was amended (1961) to establish new procedures for the operation of penitentiaries and other reforms.
  • A plan (1963) to construct 10 new penitentiaries across Canada that reflected the Fauteaux Committee’s vision for Canada’s prisons was implemented.

In 1976, continuing deficiencies in the correctional system were manifested in a series of disturbances that lead to a new approach in the management of Canadian correction institutions. The new approach was based on the belief that many of the abuses in the system would not take place if proper public accountability existed and public involvement in correctional policy development was sought. Consequently, access to penitentiaries by outside groups was expanded and citizens’ advisory committees were established.

This brief history is brought to us by Corrections Canada, which obviously makes us believe that inmates are treated well and that they only have the inmates health and well-being in mind. I must disagree with this perception, I have seen inmates be denied help and treated with less than humane techniques. One of the most blatant inhumane techniques that I must speak out against is the isolation treatment that is still status quo in all Canadian penitentiaries, as a form of rehabilitation and which takes no consideration of the actual damage that it does to the people who are victims to this “treatment”.

Here are some quick facts about Solitary Confinement, it exists in many penitentiaries under different names: isolation, control units, supermax prisons, the hole, SHUs, administrative segregation, maximum security or permanent lockdown. Inmates can be placed in these units for many reasons; as punishment, while they are under investigation, as a mechanism for behavior modification, when suspected of gang involvement, as retribution for political activism or to fill expensive, empty beds, to name but a few. Although conditions vary from penitentiary to penitentiary and other institutions, systematic policies and conditions of control and oppression used in isolation and segregation include:

  • confinement behind a solid steel door for 23 hours a day
  • limited contact with other human beings
  • infrequent phone calls and rare non-contact family visits
  • extremely limited access to rehabilitative or educational programming
  • grossly inadequate medical and mental health treatment
  • restricted reading material and personal property
  • physical torture such as hog-tying, restraint chairs, and forced cell extraction
  • mental torture such as sensory deprivation, permanent bright lighting, extreme temperatures, and forced insomnia
  • sexual intimidation and violence

Beginning in the early 1970s, prison and jail administrators at the federal level have relied increasingly on isolation and segregation to control men, women and youth in their custody. In 1985 there were a handful of control units across the United States (could not find stats for Canada in regards to this, but it should be similar with population taken into consideration). Today an estimated 44 states have supermax facilities confining more than 30,000 people. Prisoners are often confined for months or even years, with some spending more than 25 years in segregated prison settings. As with the overall prison population, people of color are disproportionately represented in isolation units.

Increasingly isolation units house the mentally ill who struggle to conform to prison rules. An independent investigation from 2006 reported that as many as 64% of prisoners in SHUs were mentally ill, a much higher percentage than is reported by states for their general prison populations. Contrary to the perception that control units house “the worst of the worst’, it is often the most vulnerable prisoners, not the most violent who end up in extended isolation. The AFSC Healing Justice staff worked with 60 Minutes on the production of The Death of Timothy Souders, a riveting testimony. Numerous studies have documented the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners giving them the name; Special Housing Unit Syndrome or SHU Syndrome. Some of the many SHU Syndrome symptoms include:

  • visual and auditory hallucinations
  • hypersensitivity to noise and touch
  • insomnia and paranoia
  • uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear
  • distortions of time and perception
  • increased risk of suicide
  • PTSD

If one is not mentally ill when entering an isolation unit, by the time they are released their mental health has been severely compromised. Many prisoners are released directly to the streets after spending years in isolation. Because of this, long-term solitary confinement goes beyond a problem of prison conditions, to pose a formidable public safety and community health problem.

Prison isolation fits the definition of torture as stated in several international human rights treaties, and thus constitutes a violation of human rights law. For example, the U.N. Convention Against Torture defines torture as any state-sanctioned act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for information, punishment, intimidation, or for a reason based on discrimination. For all these reasons – for the safety of our communities, to respect our responsibility to follow international human rights law, to take a stand against torture wherever it occurs, and for the sake of our common humanity – prison isolation and segregation must end.

Just like Segregation is a violation of human rights I believe that this last cut is yet another attack towards inmate rehabilitation and helping to assure that they will be able to integrate into society when they have finished their sentence. The contracts were cut after Toews suspended plans to hire a Wiccan prison chaplain in B.C. and ordered a review of the entire program last month. “Upon reviewing the program, it was determined that changes were necessary so that this program supports the freedom of religion of inmates while respecting taxpayers’ dollars,” said Bergen.

But Liberal justice and human rights critic Irwin Cotler responded that “requiring inmates of other faiths to turn to Christian chaplains for religious guidance is clearly discriminatory.” “The Minister of Public Safety says that he is ‘not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status’ – but by providing funding for Christian chaplains only, he is doing precisely that,” said Cotler. In question period NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar questioned how much money the government was saving by cutting 100 part-time positions. “This is not a costly program. The minister has no justification for cutting it,” said Dewar. The total cost of the chaplain program, including full-time and part-time positions, is about $6.4 million a year. The part-time contracts represent approximately $1.3 million of that total, the Public Safety Ministry said on Friday morning.

Outside of parliament the cuts also spark strong reactions from religious leaders. David Koschitzky, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said access to appropriate religious counselling in prison was key to many inmates’ rehabilitation. “It is no stretch to say that chaplains are at the forefront of the rehabilitation process, and work every day to ensure that inmates awaiting release have the tools they need to avoid re-offending,” said Koschitzky. “While this is a matter of protecting freedom of religion, there is also an important aspect of public safety at stake in this decision.” Sikh and Muslim leaders have also called the program’s cancellation discriminatory.

I find that Canada needs to review its whole penitentiary system and its programs for rehabilitation, we should be leading the way in more  humane and efficient way to assure that people first of all are not placed in penitentiaries, by creating a more equal and just society; and also assuring that inmates are just stored in federal penitentiaries like unwanted furniture for a selected period of time. Let us not forget that there is also a huge homelessness crisis happening all over the world, in Montreal alone there are about 30 000 homeless people for a city population of about 1.8 million (don’t try to tell me that we don’t have to do anything about this), which makes certain people turn towards a life a crime when they are simply desperate and out of ideas… I will talk about the homelessness crisis next time… But for now. talk to your MPs or even Stephen Harper if he is willing to listen, we need to take care of your citizens and assure that they have the best chance to redeem themselves and become a productive member of society again… Lets show the world that we can be a society that is compassionate and open-minded, who are we to judge what spiritual guidance one needs?

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