Families of Alberta prison inmates meet with correctional investigator in Edmonton
'You can't solve these problems in the dark,' says Canada's correctional investigator
Deborah Watson wanted to check on her oldest son, who was coming out of surgery.
But when she called Bowden Institution, where her son is an inmate, Watson says staff told her they could neither confirm nor deny that he was there. She says they cited privacy rules.
"I got really upset," she says.
Watson had visited her 33-year-old son at Bowden days earlier, she told staff on the phone. She knew he was there. She just wanted to check on him.
Again, she says, nobody would give her any information.
On Saturday, for the first time, Watson shared her story. She joined a support group in Edmonton to hear their stories and talk about her life as the mother of an inmate.
"It was the first time I could speak to someone who knew what I was feeling," she says. "I just wanted to come and feel the support and that you could freely talk in a room and cry and feel all your emotions."
Watson joined more than 20 other men and women in the basement of a library. Some hadn't seen their loved ones in weeks — others hadn't been allowed to touch them in months, or even years.
They formed a closed circle of bodies, swaddled in jackets and sweaters, soft denim and yoga pants. Their arms and legs crossed protectively.
One man stands out.
Howard Sapers, Canada's correctional investigator, adjusts the collar of his blue suit. He bends over a notebook and the scratching of his pen mixes with quiet sobs in the room.
"This is my work," he tells the group. "But it's your life and I respect that.
"There is nothing pleasant about being in prison. They are harsh environments expressly designed to disallow human contact."
Last month, Sapers released a report criticizing how Canada's correctional service communicates with the families of inmates who die in custody.
He's meeting with inmates' families across Canada to hear more of their stories. Sapers says it's crucial to his work as a prison watchdog.
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"I learn from every one of these discussions," he says. "I heard for the first time about some personal experiences that people had that really refocused my own efforts and my own energies.
"This is supposed to be a human process and what we heard a little bit about was some of the lack of humanity in how people do their work, and we just can't allow that to happen."
Better communication with families
Sapers is calling for better communication between federal prisons and the families of inmates. He says there is not enough information for people with a loved one behind bars.
Families often don't have experience with the criminal justice system. This inexperience, Sapers says, makes them "naive and very frightened" of its processes.
I've been working around corrections for most of my adult life and if you don't believe in the potential for positive change, both in individuals and in the system, you couldn't do this work.- Howard Sapers
In more than a decade as Canada's correctional investigator, Sapers says he's witnessed gradual changes in the country's prison system.
"I always feel that it moves too slowly but it's far from stagnant," he says. "There's a lot of positive change. We also have some recovery work to do. There was a lot of change that I wouldn't call positive over the last decade."
Sapers says he wants to continue talking to Canadians about their experiences inside and outside of prison walls.
"You can't solve these problems in the dark," he says. "Yes it's frustrating and yes it's challenging, but you have to be an optimist.
"I've been working around corrections for most of my adult life and if you don't believe in the potential for positive change, both in individuals and in the system, you couldn't do this work."