It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones. – Nelson Mandela
This month in Reasonable Doubt, we are writing about common misconceptions with the justice system. I’ve decided to write about the misconception that prison in Canada is too hospitable and prisoners have too many comforts.
I toured Wilkinson Road prison on Vancouver Island when I was in law school. Beforehand, I thought that I had a decent idea of what the prison would be like but it turned out to be an eye-opening experience. It’s stuck with me ever since.
Our guide was one of the program directors at the prison. Before we started the tour, she explained to us that the prison was divided into two key groups: the general population and protective custody. Protective custody is for people who are at risk of being hurt by people in the general population, such as child molesters and informants.
The two populations do not mix. In fact, my law school professor explained to us that some prisoners in the general population feel obligated as a matter of an ethical code to attack or kill anyone they meet from protective custody.
As we were starting the tour, our guide asked what we wanted to see as a part of the tour. I asked if we could see the solitary confinement cells. She told me that was the one thing that she was not allowed to show us as a part of the tour.
The walkways to get to the cells were narrow and felt cramped. Everything is concrete or metal. Our guide seemed like she was always on the alert or on edge like something dangerous could happen at any moment, even though we were taking roundabout routes to avoid prisoners.
One of our first stops was to see a general cellblock. The area had multiple cells in it with multiple prisoners in each cell. While our tour guide explained how the cellblock operates, one of the prisoners started rambling disjointed sentences non-stop, sometimes parroting our guide’s sentences.
Most of us stood uneasy, listening. One of my classmates asked the question that was on everyone’s minds: what was wrong with the rambling prisoner and why was he in prison instead of a mental health institution?
It turns out that the prisoner was schizophrenic and serving time for drawing graffiti on buildings around Victoria. While in prison, he would often stay up for days at a time rambling nonsensical sentences if he was not taking his medication. Unlike in a mental health institution, staff are not allowed to force him to take his medication.
We all stood in silence, shocked about what we were hearing. Our guide asked rhetorically, “Where else would he go? A mental institution? The institutions and hospitals are full.”
It turns out that mental health problems are common in prison. The annual report from the Office of the Correctional Investigator, a body that oversees federal prisons, notes that over 62 percent of inmates entering federal institutions are flagged for mental health concerns. The 2011-2012 annual report explains:
…many mentally disordered inmates do not manage well in a prison environment. Some manifest symptoms of their illness through disruptive behaviour, aggression, violence, self-mutilation, suicidal ideation, withdrawal, refusal or inability to follow prison orders or rules [which]...are regularly met by a range of inappropriate responses including disciplinary sanctions, transfer to higher security institutions and separation from general population. This state of affairs is especially prevalent in the maximum security and multi-level institutions where it is not uncommon for more than half of the offender population to be receiving institutional mental health services and/or presenting some degree of mental health dysfunction.
As we were finishing the tour and on our way to the front of the prison, our guide stopped for a moment and looked around to see if any other guards were watching. “Ah, what the hell, follow me and we’ll take a look at the seg cells,” she said.
The segregation cells were small—very small. My estimate is that the cells were approximately 1.5 metres wide and three metres long. The walls were concrete and the only window was a small rectangle on the door. The inmates inside looked lifeless. For an idea of what a segregation cell looks like, you can watch this video.
Each segregation cell had two roll-up mats that were used as mattresses. Why were there two mats in each cell? Because the prison is so overcrowded that even prisoners in segregation were being double bunked.
Overcrowding is a massive problem in Canadian prisons. It leads to a whole host of problems. Again from the 2011-2012 annual report:
Experience here in Canada and elsewhere shows that as prisons get more crowded, they often become more tense, volatile and violent places. Simply put, as this year's report documents, inmate, staff and ultimately, public safety is compromised by prison crowding.
I spoke with Tim Veresh, the executive director of the John Howard Society, about prison conditions in Canada. He told me that overcrowding in prisons causes many problems:
Think about what it feels like to go shopping during Christmas season. Most people come home from the mall irritable from the crowds. Now imagine what it feels like to be in a crowded prison where mental health problems and violence are relatively common and you can’t leave.
While on our tour at Wilkinson, a friend asked our guide if prisoners get in a lot of fights. She told us that they rarely learn of fights, but it is common for people to be injured from “slipping in the shower”, too afraid or proud to snitch on whoever hurt them.
Veresh tells me that gangs are becoming more and more common in Canada, especially in the Prairie provinces. If people are not involved in gangs going into prison, they might be by the time they leave. Many prisoners join gangs for protection.
Prisons in Canada are underfunded. Veresh tells me that B.C. Corrections funding has not risen since 2003 despite the prison population quadrupling. This means that “non-essential” services are cut back in order to keep basic safety services like staffing intact. Unfortunately, without proper funding, prisons become a matter of population control rather than rehabilitation.
Veresh says that many people do not understand that prison is the punishment—it’s not the place that people go to be punished.