Minimum security is much different in Canada than the U.S.
Last Updated March 6, 2008
Conrad Black holds hands with his wife, Barbara Amiel Black, seen through the window of an SUV as they leave their mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., on Monday morning. Conrad Black was headed for the prison where he will serve a sentence for fraud and obstruction of justice. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
It may look as if Conrad Black's 61/2 year jail sentence to be served in a minimum security prison in Florida is just a no-frills southern vacation. But a comparison of minimum security facilities in the United States and Canada shows that Black's stay at the low-security facility within the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida is going to be much tougher than if he were serving it in Canada.
If he can, Black would do better to trade the views of the palm trees and sunshine from his prison window for the grey skies and snowy scenery of Canada.
To start with, Canadian minimum security institutions do not feel much like a jail, according to Guy Campeau, a spokesman for Correctional Services of Canada.
"The facilities are not locked, but head counts are conducted several times a day," Campeau said. "Minimum security is the last step before the community. So, inmates placed in these institutions are deemed to be low risk for violence and escape."
Contrast that with minimum security in the United States.
"We're not a country club, that's for sure," assures Charles Ratledge, executive assistant at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex. "The facility is locked, and there are double-wire fences around the perimeter. There are no day passes. This is a secure facility."
Part of that more stringent approach south of the border may have to do with the fact that the U.S. has undergone something of a prisoner boom in recent years. According to a recent study by the Pew Centre in the U.S., about 2.3 million adults were held in U.S. prisons or jails at the start of 2008, which is more than any other country in the world, including China with its much bigger population.
It is also a prison population that skews young: One in 30 men between the age of 20 and 34 is behind bars; for black males, the figure is one in nine.
Another difference is that prisoners at Canadian minimum security facilities enjoy fairly relaxed living conditions compared to their American counterparts.
In Florida, Black will be sleeping in a dormitory with dozens of other prisoners, (the complex has several dormitories for approximately 2,000 prisoners). In Canada, prisoners are housed in a living unit with only a handful of other prisoners, and each has his or her own bedroom.
Each unit possesses a small living room with a TV (cable is paid by the inmates).
At meal time, while Black will eat with other inmates at tables with the chairs attached, Canadian inmates share a kitchen and are responsible for making their own meals.
However, it is unlikely those meals are gourmet. Prisoners are given $4.52 a day to spend on food, and they give this money to correctional officials along with a grocery list.
"They pay for their own food, manage a budget and prepare the food themselves," Campeau says. "It's part of the rehabilitation process. Most of them didn't have to manage a budget before they went into the institution."
As for wardrobe, Black will sport the same khaki shirt and pants as his fellow prisoners. Canadian prisoners are decked out in a more stylish outfit of jeans and a T-shirt. Neither institution allows shoelaces or belts (risk of suicide).
While facilities in both countries have similar recreational programs, Canadian prisons give inmates more freedom. They can attend programs or sometimes work in the community or at the institution doing activities such as farming or cabinet making.
Campeau says most inmates have less than a Grade 10 education when they enter so they can work to complete high school or even a university degree, although the latter must be paid for out of their own pocket.
In the U.S., Ratledge says, there are educational, religious, recreational and vocational programs in which inmates can participate. However, inmates are not allowed to work in the community.
Prisoners in both countries are not allowed access to the internet, but Canadian inmates can use computers. Not so in the U.S., so if Black has plans to pen another book, he'll be doing just that — penning it. Ratledge confirms there is "plenty of paper" available.
No conjugal visits
Black will be able to receive visits from his immediate family members and up to 10 friends but won't be allowed conjugal visits with his wife, Barbara Amiel. If he were serving time in Canada, he would have that opportunity, says Campeau.
"We have private family visit units where inmates can go with their spouses or companions, but it can't be the girlfriend of the month," he said. "It has to be someone who plays a significant role in the inmate's life."
The number of those types of visits a month depends on the number of inmates and units available, said Campeau.
There is also a difference between the two countries when it comes to having prison time reduced because of good behaviour.
If Black were doing his prison time in Canada, he could apply for day parole six months prior to his full parole eligibility date, for which he could apply after serving a third of his sentence.
Black would also be eligible to apply for accelerated parole review. As a first-time offender with no history of violence, the National Parole Board could review his file to see whether there was the likelihood of violence occurring. If not, Black could be released after serving one-sixth of his sentence.
Ratledge says prisoners in the U.S. can have their sentences reduced by 54 days a year for what is called "good conduct time," but they must serve at least 85 per cent of their sentence. In Black's case, that would be just over five years and three months.
Country clubs they're not
There are 20 minimum security facilities in Canada, in every region of the country, and even though conditions there are less harsh than in U.S. facilities, they are far from country club-like, as some have alleged, says Craig Jones, executive director of the John Howard Society, a prisoners' rights group.
"To the best of my knowledge, the only country clubish thing about any minimum security institution is the view from William Head [facility] in British Columbia looking out on the ocean," Jones said.
"The country club allegation arises because people have a vision of the 1800s in their minds, and they think that is what a penitentiary is supposed to be — torturous conditions, bread and water and breaking rocks all day."
Campeau agrees. "I don't see anyone lining up to go into our institutions. We take their freedom away. We decide when they eat and sleep. I've never seen a country club like this."
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