Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Inmate complaints on the rise over access to religious services

There's been an increase in the number of complaints inmates are filing with the Canadian Human Rights Commission about their ability to access religious and spiritual services inside prisons.

Inmates concerned about delivery of spiritual services, accommodation of spiritual practices

An inmate at Ontario's Millhaven Institute.
Inmates are filing complaints about everything from the delivery of spiritual practices in prison to their ability to have their religious diet accommodated. (Senate of Canada/Supplied)

In prison, one of the only freedoms inmates have is to practise their religion — but in some cases, even that's getting harder to do. 

There's been an increase in the number of prisoners filing complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission about religious accommodation.

Inmates are concerned about the delivery of spiritual services, the accommodation of spiritual practices and the observance of holy days, said Ivan Zinger, Canada's correctional investigator, the country's prison watchdog. 

Religious leaders also say there aren't enough chaplains in prisons to meet the spiritual needs of inmates.

Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, prisons are required to meet a prisoner's religious needs.

Correctional investigator Ivan Zinger says most times the correctional service is responsive to the religious needs of inmates. (Alan Dean Photography)

"Spiritual life is important to every human being," said Zinger. 

"In a prison setting, I think it can be also for some offenders a very key part of their rehabilitation. They can certainly gain strength and insight from practising their religion and I think that is all positive." 

In 2015-2016, inmates filed 49 complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission — up from 39 complaints the year before. 

Over the last three years, the Office of the Correctional Investigator also received about 40 complaints a year concerning religious accommodation.

Underreporting of problems

The number of complaints across the board seems low to Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

"Inmates may fear to report these kinds of things out of a fear of reprisals or retaliation. That's certainly a concern of ours.… I think it would probably be fair to say there is an issue of underreporting as well within the prison system."   

Ihsaan Gardee is executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims. (CBC)

Gardee said the council has fielded numerous complaints from Muslims in prison who feel they're not able to fully practise their religion. He didn't have an estimate of how many complaints the organization receives each year.

There are many problems inside Canada's correctional service, according to Gardee, including inadequate services for religious minority inmates, a lack of cultural sensitivity training for staff and a complaints process fraught with challenges when it comes to issues of rights violations.

The council is trying to work with Correctional Service Canada to fix those problems.

In an email, the correctional service said more complaints could be coming in partly because of inmates' "fluid and personalized" spirituality. It can be hard for correctional workers to know exactly how to accommodate someone's personalized spiritual beliefs because they aren't always supported by an established faith community.

Correctional Service Canada said sometime it's hard for correctional workers to know how to accommodate an inmate's personalized spiritual beliefs because they aren't always supported by an established faith community. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

In order to have their religious needs recognized, some inmates submit a complaint or grievance to Corrections or the Human Rights Commission, said the correctional service. 

Correctional Service Canada said it does all it can to meet prisoners' spiritual needs, often having one or more full-time chaplains available in a prison. The prison system also provides video conferencing and chaplain phone services when necessary. 

Zinger said often the correctional service succeeds at meeting the religious needs of prisoners, but sometimes it falls short.

Religious diets

Prisons located in small towns or rural areas often don't have the resources to provide multicultural religious services, said Zinger.

That means getting religious leaders like a Muslim imam in small communities can be difficult. It can also be hard to get religious foods to remote areas, but Zinger said those issues are usually resolved fairly quickly.

One issue that isn't going away is the overall quality of prison food. The food is now prepared off-site in large vats, then cooked, chilled and frozen, brought to prisons and reheated. 

An example of a regular meal under the Correctional Service of Canada's national menu. (Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator)

Complaints have skyrocketed since the new cook-chill method of preparing food was introduced in 2014.

Complaints related to religious diets, such as halal or kosher foods, have increased in recent years. Zinger's office received 28 of those complaints in 2016-2017, compared with only 17 in 2014-15. 

Inmates' complaints centre on institutions not serving appropriate food and not being approved for a religious diet at all.

Halal foods are prepared in a specific way to make them edible under Islamic law. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Zinger's even heard concerns from corrections workers and chaplains that some prisoners may be converting to religions with special diets so they can avoid the regular prison food. 

"Can you prevent any sort of fraudulent conversion? I don't know. I suspect not," said Zinger. 

Chaplain burnout

Still, chaplains are brought in to try and make sure any conversion is done for the appropriate spiritual reasons. That's just one more job that falls to prison chaplains, many of whom are having trouble keeping up with the needs of inmates. 

Imam Yasin Dwyer knows about that demand first-hand. He was a Muslim chaplain in federal prisons in Ontario for 11 years. He left the correctional service in 2014, but still keeps in contact with imams who go into prisons. He said Muslim chaplains are run off their feet.

Imam Yasin Dwyer worked as a Muslim chaplain in federal prisons for 11 years. (Asim Sheikh)

"There really is a struggle trying to respond to the need of Muslim offenders who are incarcerated," said Dwyer. 

Documents obtained under freedom of information legislation back that up.

Back in 2015, current Ontario Muslim chaplain Abdullah El-Asmar wrote in an email: "All my days are spent in prison. There is a lot of work to be done, and more is being added all the time. You see what I mean when I say I need help?"

Another chaplain responded by email, telling El-Asmar that he needed to take care of himself and that "working this hard for a protracted period of time is a sure recipe for burnout!" 

El-Asmar then said things should soon get better because the correctional service was looking at hiring another part-time Muslim chaplain. 

Dwyer doesn't think that's enough. He would like to see a Muslim chaplain in every federal prison where there is a Muslim population. 

A pair of low beds with thin mattresses can be seen behind bars in two neighbouring jail cells.
The correctional service said it does ongoing evaluations to make sure offenders have access to spiritual services. (Correctional Service Canada/Flickr)

"I think that would actually go a long way in solving a lot of the deficits that the Correctional Service of Canada is experiencing in providing religious and spiritual care to Muslim offenders." 

Such a change would help inmates with their rehabilitation and keep them from becoming radicalized, said Dwyer.

The correctional service wouldn't say if it would add more chaplains to meet demand. However, the service said it does ongoing evaluations to make sure offenders have access to spiritual services.

Indigenous elders needed

Those changes are possible, according to Chris Brooks, a Wolastoqi elder from St. Mary's First Nation in New Brunswick. Brooks said it's taken a while, but prisons are now more accepting of Indigenous spirituality. 

Chris Brooks is a former correctional officer and is now an elder who helps inmates reintegrate into society. (CBC)

Brooks worked at the medium-security Springhill Institution in Nova Scotia and then got a job analyzing offender-related data. He's since retired and now helps Indigenous inmates as they make their way out of prison and into the community. 

Brooks said prisons allow some religious rituals to be done inside institutions, but more elders are needed to help guide offenders on their spiritual journey. 

"The elders can get pretty busy. Sometimes they can get moved around," said Brooks.

He believes there needs to be some sort of succession plan in place as elders age.

Prisons allow some Indigenous religious rituals to be done inside institutions, says elder Chris Brooks. (Correction Service Canada/Flicker)

He said it would also help if more people from Indigenous communities spent time visiting inmates to help strengthen their connection to the community, so when they get out they feel connected and supported in an area.

Chaplains of all faiths have always been underappreciated, according to Kate Johnson, a former chaplain at the Joyceville minimum-security prison in Ontario. 

"At any point in history, chaplaincy has been an underrated resource and people don't fully grasp what that kind of relationship means to the successful reintegration of offenders. I just hope that the Canadian public would learn about what chaplains do so that they understand that we're actually part of public safety."


David Burke


David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.