Canada's prison visitation system 'high-tech, low-touch,' says correctional investigator

Inmate grievances about family visits to federal prisons are increasing, according to Canada's correctional investigator.

'Family contact is a very, very important part of the safe and timely return to communities'

A woman visits an inmate through a video call. (Alberta Public Security/Screenshot)

Every time her two-year-old son draws a picture for his dad, Nevadaa L'Hirondelle sends it to Bowden Institution in Innisfail where he is in prison.

Every time, she gets it back in the mail.

Prison staff told her the wax from the crayons can be used to get drugs past guards, so the envelopes are returned, she said.

L'Hirondelle, who lives in Red Deer, hides each rejected picture in a drawer so her son won't find them. There are several colouring books worth of drawings crammed into that drawer by now, she said.

Raising a child without her common-law husband has been challenging. The visitation and communication policies of federal prisons, she added, isn't making it any easier.

"I'm always tired," she said.
Nevadaa L'Hirondelle says she can't send her son's drawings to his father in prison because the wax in crayons can be used to smuggle drugs. (Supplied/Nevadaa L'Hirondelle)

High-tech, low-touch

In 2015, complaints about visits and leisure accounted for the second-highest number of internal grievances filed by inmates against the Correctional Service of Canada.

Grievances about private family visits are increasing, said Canada's correctional investigator Howard Sapers.

Sapers said inmates are unhappy with technology that is meant to ease their communication with loved ones.

Complaints involving phone calls and correspondence make up 75 per cent of the grievances filed by inmates about visits and leisure. Most often, they cite a lack of privacy when making personal phone calls.

In Alberta, visitation centres that don't house a single inmate are designed exclusively for video calls, allowing families to virtually visit their loved one in a corrections facility.

"Ultimately it reinforces the very high-tech, low-touch nature of corrections," Sapers said. "Families are very often in crisis when somebody's in jail or somebody's sentenced to prison, and it's very hard to deal with the emotions that are in play through a video chat."

Canada's correctional investigator Howard Sapers says there is no difference between how security guards treat children and adults. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

In-person visits aren't stress-free for families either, Sapers added.

There is no difference between how security guards treat children and adults. Both are subjected to the same searches by drug-sniffing dogs, pat-downs and scanners.

"Often young children are frightened by those experiences but [there is]no apparent effort to mitigate the discomfort or anxiety about that," Sapers said.

Federal prisons have "strict policies concerning contraband and unauthorized activities," according to a statement from the Correctional Service of Canada. These apply to visitors, staff and inmates.

L'Hirondelle said she doesn't know how to explain that to her toddler. She tells him "Daddy's in time-out because he did something bad."

Often young children are frightened by those experiences but [there is] no apparent effort to mitigate the discomfort or anxiety about that.- Howard Sapers

He was sentenced to two years in prison for aggravated assault less than a month after his son was born.

"It's kind of scary for him," L'Hirondelle said about taking her son through security.

"They don't make it easy when they have to go through all the processes, which I know is their job and they're not doing it on purpose to pick on anyone, it's just hard on him."

'It breaks my heart'

Once past security, she said it doesn't get any easier.

Since her husband committed a violent crime, their visits are 'closed' — they happen through a transparent barrier with a connecting phone line.

"It breaks my heart," L'Hirondelle said. "My son doesn't get it because when he goes there, he sees his dad but he can't touch him and he goes, 'What did I do wrong?' "

'My son doesn't get it because when he goes there, he sees his dad but he can't touch him and he goes, 'What did I do wrong?' - Nevadaa L'Hirondelle

Toys aren't allowed in the visitation area so L'Hirondelle spends most of the visit distracted by her toddler.

When it's time to go, she said her son gets upset.

"He doesn't get it," she said. "He's just wondering why they're holding his dad. Every time he tries and he says, 'Come on Dad,' and I have to tell him Dad's not done time out yet."

L'Hirondelle's husband won't be able to go home until February at the earliest, if he maintains good behaviour. L'Hirondelle keeps a countdown on her fridge — less than 200 days to go.

Nevadaa L'Hirondelle keeps a board on her fridge count down the days until her husband is released from prison. (Supplied/Nevadaa L'Hirondelle)

In the meantime, she worries about the impact her husband's absence will have on their son.

"I'm worried that he's not going to be close with his dad," she said. "It bugs his dad and every night he apologizes to him."

Families in crisis

Separation can cause anxiety and trauma in any family, said Mark Cherrington, a youth worker in Edmonton. He has more than 25 years of experience working with the families of inmates.

"Families whose loved ones are in jail are in crisis and that crisis can last for months, years, decades," Cherrington said. "It can echo for life, particularly when you're dealing with young children."

Cherrington said it's easy for children to become detached from their inmate parents.

"You're missing those first steps, you're missing the first day of school, they're missing their mother's birthday, their father's birthday," he said.

Mark Cherrington has worked with at-risk youth in Edmonton for 25 years (CBC)

"Christmas is just a big hollow date on a calendar and it really doesn't have a lot of meaning because the people that you love, or the person that you love the most, is separated."

Cherrington said he hopes for a greater balance between security and family contact.

Meanwhile, Sapers said he wants to see improvements to the technology used to connect inmates and their families.

Family contact is a very, very important part of the safe and timely return to communities.- Howard Sapers

As Canada's correctional investigator, he's also calling for systemic change to the way families of inmates are treated by Canada's prison system.

"That includes making sure that people are treated with respect and dignity, and that family members are in fact encouraged to participate and to assist in the reintegration of their loved ones back into communities," he said.

"Return to communities is a very difficult time. Family contact is a very, very important part of the safe and timely return to communities."

Sapers outlined his concerns about the relationship between prisons and the families of inmates in his annual report, which was published in August.

Sapers said he plans to table the report in Parliament during the fall session.