'They have a lot to teach us': Inmates call for Canadian justice reform in journal

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At 28 weeks pregnant, Stephanie Deschene was put in leg shackles and handcuffs as she was transferred between Canadian prisons. The day after she gave birth to her son last January, she said prison staff were directed to shackle and cuff her again.

“How was I supposed to breastfeed, hold, and cuddle my son safely? Their lack of compassion baffles me,” Deschene wrote in a recently published journal which gives Canadian inmates a voice in conversations around justice reform.

Deschene’s story is one of more than 50 included in the new double edition of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons exploring the changes to the criminal justice and penal system in Canada over the last decade from the point of view of those behind bars.

The journal, put out by the University of Ottawa Press, is most likely the only peer-reviewed prisoner-author journal in the world, said co-managing editor Kevin Walby.

Walby, who is also an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, said when it comes to criminalization and incarceration in Canada, it’s important to talk to experts about what’s going on — and in many cases that is the people who are currently or formerly incarcerated.

“Prisoners know a lot about criminalization, know a lot about imprisonment, they have experiences. They have knowledge that needs to be shared with the general public and criminal justice policy makers if we want to try to understand harm and conflict in our societies better, and deal with it more effectively and more justly in the future,” Walby said.

It’s an important time for prisoner voices to be heard because there is a “glimmer of hope” that the federal and provincial governments are paying attention — Justice Canada is doing a review of the penal system and a study about the treatment of federal prisoners is happening in the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights — Walby said.

‘Toxic for all concerned’

William Beaulieu, an inmate at Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba, watched as the culture of incarceration changed drastically after 2006, when Vic Toews became the justice minister under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In the journal, Beaulieu wrote about how, from behind bars, Toews appeared to “dislike all the federal prisoners.” He said that opinion rippled through the Canadian public and into the prisons themselves. 

Life Line, a program for prisoners sentenced to life, was dismantled and parole preparation and parole supervision in the community were underused, setting people up for “isolation or failure,” he wrote.

“The current abusive policies left over from the previous government are hindering the rehabilitation process, creating an unhealthy penitentiary environment, which makes it toxic for all concerned to do time or work there,” Beaulieu said.

Access to parole, food services, mental health services and even dental care were some of the themes that ran through the testimonials, said journal editor and University of Ottawa criminology student Jarrod Shook, and it came from all different groups of prisoners in all different security levels across the country.

“What we saw was that people weren’t just saying one thing in one institution in one region of the country — the issues that we saw were repeated almost universally across all regions of the country,” he said.

The idea for the special edition came from a project Shook was working on looking at the impacts of criminal justice reforms, including the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences, restrictions on the court’s discretion to utilize alternatives to incarceration, sweeping changes to the pardon system and a ramp-up of institutional security efforts in Correctional Service Canada during Harper’s “tough on crime” era, he said.

Along with the co-editor Bridget McInnis, Shook wrote to all prisoner committees in every institution across the country.

Soon, nuanced and detailed letters started to come in one after another from people behind bars, he said.

‘Take the words of prisoners quite seriously’

Each submission was reviewed by the editors, board members and other criminal justice experts to make sure the claims were verifiable, substantiated and cited actual policies.

While each account was unique, they all spoke about universal issues across the country, Shook said. 

Over the past decade there has been a year-on-year increase in Indigenous people and black people in penitentiaries, an increase in the use of force by corrections staff and reduced services, according to annual Correctional Investigator of Canada reports. Work opportunities inside prisons are few and menial, the latest report said, and there’s a lack of appropriate alternatives to manage serious mental illness.

Howard Sapers hallway

The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, published through the University of Ottawa Press, is making sure prisoner voices are included in conversations of justice reform. (photo courtesy of Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada)

They are issues he is very aware of. Shook himself is a federal parolee.

“All of us on the outside, depending on our circumstances, are one or two decisions away or an accident from being behind bars ourselves,” he said.

“We need to take the words of prisoners quite seriously, just as though we would take anybody’s voice seriously.”

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s mandate letter included directives to review the changes in Canada’s criminal justice system and sentencing reforms over the past decade, with outcomes to include increased use of restorative justice and reducing the number of Indigenous inmates.

Shook said inmates’ experiences are invaluable in looking at the future of corrections in Canada.

“They have a lot to teach us about punishment, about the realities of incarceration because they’ve experienced it firsthand. So they know what works versus what doesn’t,” he said.

‘A turning point’

An anonymous prisoner from Drumheller Institution in Alberta writes in the journal that he has lived on the earth for more than a half-century, and has spent more than two decades behind bars.

“In my time in the federal penitentiary system, I have seen so many changes and most of them not for the good,” the inmate writes.

It’s not just the inmate that is impacted by policy changes, the prisoner wrote, it’s the family on the outside.

“We need better support for mothers and family that find themselves suddenly alone when we are incarcerated so that they do not have only welfare to get by,” he said.

The journal will help academics, policy makers and others across the country realize that no one should be beyond hope and no one is disposable, said Justin Piché, co-managing editor of the journal and associate professor criminology at the University of Ottawa.

Particularly when it comes to what happens behind bars — good and bad — the voices included in the journal are the experts, he said.

“Every single moment is a turning point where we could be doing something different in terms of how we conceptualize and how we respond to the things we call crimes in society,” he said.

“We could make important decisions that shape all of our lives and this is just the time to do it.”


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