Correctional Service Canada offers virtual tour of federal prisons

Correctional Service Canada is being praised for transparency, but at the same time is under fire for producing a virtual tour of federal prisons that gives a "sanitized" view and glosses over overcrowded conditions and a lack of prison programming.

Critics slam distorted depiction as 'sanitized' and 'detached from reality'

Correctional Service Canada has launched an online virtual tour of a penitentiary. The clickable 360-degree photos show prison facilities, although the tour seems to be an amalgamation of more than one institution. (CSC)

An online virtual tour of federal penitentiaries, produced by Correctional Service Canada is being welcomed as an attempt at openness, but also criticized for offering a "sanitized" view of prisons that glosses over the crowded conditions and lack of programming.

Called Beyond The Fence: A Virtual Tour of a Canadian Penitentiary, the animated, narrated video is posted on CSC's website and can be watched on any mobile device.

CSC spokeswoman Véronique Rioux said the $80,000 project was meant to give Canadians a "unique opportunity" to see what it's like inside a federal institution.

After the Kingston Penitentiary was closed in 2013, about 20,000 people visited the facility as part of fundraising drive, showing significant public interest. Many victims' groups have also expressed interest in learning about incarceration.

Going behind the bars

"It is CSC's hope that every Canadian interested in seeing inside of a federal correctional institution will have the opportunity to do so," Rioux told CBC News. "Anyone visiting a family member or friend for the first time will have an idea of what to expect before they enter an institution."

Are you sure this wasn't filmed at Disney Land?- Mary Campbell, formerly with Public Safety Canada

The 360-degree panoramic tour showcases modern, immaculate cells and ranges, a chapel, health-care centre and skills training workshops at the Collins Bay and Bath institutions near Kingston, Ont. It allows viewers to navigate their way through the facilities — which include some modifications.

"Some areas of the virtual tour were altered to ensure there were no security or privacy breaches. For example, walls were whitened to remove sensitive information such as inmate names. Also, the maximum-security area at Collins Bay Institution was recently built and vacant at the time of video shooting," Rioux said.

Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers welcomed the initiative to give Canadians a "peek behind the curtain," and called it a step forward to being more open and transparent. But he said the images of a newly constructed unit are in contrast to the reality of most aging institutions.

Critics say images distort reality

"The majority of prison cells in Canada are 30 or more years old, so the tour pictures do not show a typical environment. It's a bit like a real estate ad showing pictures of a newly built guest room in a very old house in need of renovation," he said.

A view of a maximum security cell in Correctional Service Canada's online virtual tour of a penitentiary. (CSC)

Sapers also noted that while the corrections system is all about people, not a single person can be seen during the entire tour.

Justin Piché, assistant professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, called the production "beyond belief."

"It offers viewers a glimpse into what an ideal institution would look like while paving over many of the disturbing realities of incarceration today," he said.

"This sanitized portrayal shows us minimum, medium and maximum security cells — not one of which is double-bunked at a time when nearly 20 per cent of federal prisoners share a space the size of an average household washroom with another prisoner."

Piché believes the production distorts today's reality of longer waits for programs, cuts to chaplaincy services and the increase in use of force, self-harm and violence behind bars.

"Overall, this is an example of sanitization and the marketing of pain at its finest," he said.

Mary Campbell, former director general of Public Safety Canada's criminal justice directorate, said giving the public an open window inside is a good initiative, but called the tour "detached from reality."

"Are you sure this wasn't filmed at Disney Land?" she asked. "It would be tempting to film a real video, complete with all the screaming and noise of a real penitentiary … with some double-bunking, maybe some wait lists for psychologist and other treatment programs, maybe some green bologna for supper, how about a view of segregation with someone banging their head against cement?"