Politics

New prisons boss gets to-do list: better programs, better food, email access

Correctional Service Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly to reform system with focus on rehabilitation

September 06, 2018

New Correctional Service Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly has been given a mandate letter from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, directing her to make reforms to improve outcomes for inmates. (Shutterstock)
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Canada's new prisons' boss has been tasked with improving outcomes for Indigenous, LGBT and other inmates, while improving the quality of food and email access behind bars.

For the first time, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has made public the mandate letter for the new commissioner of Correctional Service Canada, Anne Kelly — and her marching orders mark a sharp departure from the CSC's direction under the previous Conservative government.

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The letter instructs Kelly to address the needs of different groups of offenders, including black Canadians, women, young adults and seniors.

"It is important that services, interventions, assessment tools and correctional approaches be tailored to address the full diversity of CSC's population, and that this diversity be reflected in CSC's staff and management," it reads.

Along with ensuring inmates have access to the programs and treatments they need to return to society, the letter tasks Kelly with ensuring employees have a workplace free of bullying, harassment and sexual violence. It also states that crime victims are to be treated with compassion and respect.

Noting that family and community ties are both vital to successful reintegration, Goodale is asking the new commissioner to safely minimize institutional barriers to prison visits and communication with the outside — and to explore options for giving inmates supervised use of email.

"By providing ways of maintaining contact with the outside world, offenders' friends and family can, in a sense, also be partners in effective preparation for release," Goodale wrote.

Prisoner advocates have said Canada is lagging behind some other countries by denying prisoners access to email, the internet and in-cell tablets.

Culturally appropriate Indigenous programs

The four-page letter asks Kelly to ensure Indigenous offenders find real, culturally appropriate opportunities to turn their lives around, and to increase the number of community-run healing lodges and community-supervised releases.

Indigenous people make up a disproportionately high percentage of inmates in Canada. As of last year, Indigenous offenders represented 23 per cent of the total CSC custody population, up from 17 per cent a decade earlier; Indigenous Canadians make up less than 5 per cent of the total population.

In the mandate letter, Goodale asks for a review of CSC's governance structure to ensure the needs of Indigenous offenders are considered in system decisions.

Goodale also directs the commissioner to ensure that prison meals are adequate in quality and quantity. That directive comes in the wake of reports that small portions and low-quality food are driving heightened tensions and a black market economy behind bars.

Other directives in Kelly's mandate letter include:

A release from Goodale's office says the mandate letter is in keeping with the government's vision for the prison system and its belief "that the safety of the public is best protected by effective rehabilitation and safe reintegration of people serving a federal sentence."

Federal Correctional Investigator Ivan Zinger said the mandate marks a dramatic shift away from the direction set by the previous Harper government.

"We are moving from an approach that was dogmatic and based on rhetoric rather than proven and effective correctional practice," he said.

Zinger said the new direction appears to recognize that better outcomes come from strong rehabilitation and ensuring the needs of offenders are met in terms of schooling, vocational programs and substance abuse programs.

The mandate letter promises the necessary policy changes and funding to follow through on the reforms. Zinger himself called for fundamental reforms that reallocate resources, such as housing mental health patients in psychiatric facilities rather than prisons.

Tracking progress

Catherine Latimer of the John Howard Society of Canada said that, instead of focusing programming on particular groups, the government should be targeting the needs of individual prisoners, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. She also said there must be a regime in place to track whether the reforms are working.

"I think the real challenge will be to get information and to establish measurements to ensure that progress is being made against the mandate letter," she said.

Heidi Illingworth, executive director of the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, called the new commissioner's mandate great news ... for federal offenders.

She said giving them access to email could be "risky," especially in cases involving partner violence or criminal harassment.

"How closely can they actually be monitored? Seems to me this could get out of control very quickly," she said. "While the minister is keen to make big changes at CSC, crime victims seem to be an afterthought."

Illingworth said regional victim advisory committees rarely meet anymore and noted the federal victims' ombudsman's position has remained vacant for nearly a year.

Conservative Public Safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus said the letter raises questions about the Liberals' priorities.

"This is yet another example of the Liberals putting criminals ahead of victims. Instead of appointing a victims' ombudsman to make sure that victims have the support they need, the Liberals have chosen to prioritize access to better email service and arts programs for criminals," he said in a statement.

In a media statement, Kelly said the mandate letter will help her prioritize commitments. She said she will publicly report on progress.

"Ensuring offenders have opportunities to turn their lives around and return to the community as law-abiding citizens remains the cornerstone of CSC's mission," she said. "Creating and maintaining a safe, healthy and respectful workplace for our employees, offenders, and visitors alike is at the top of my agenda."

Thousands of prisoners across the U.S. have joined strike action since Aug. 21, refusing to work and going on hunger strikes over poor working and living conditions.

Some Canadian inmates, including those at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Dartmouth, N.S. — a provincial facility also known as Burnside jail — have joined that strike action. 

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