Our correctional system : CHRC states that we must do better

Speaking Notes 
Marie-Claude Landry
Chief Commissioner
Canadian Human Rights Commission

Presentation to the
Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights
On the Human Rights of Prisoners in Canada

Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Ottawa, Ontario


Good afternoon,

Thank you for inviting the Canadian Human Rights Commission to take part in your study into the human rights of prisoners.   Allow me to introduce Fiona Keith, a Senior Legal Advisor, Tabatha Tranquilla and Marcella Daye, both senior policy advisors on these issues.  

I’d like to begin my remarks with a quote from Nelson Mandela that has become deeply important to me as a human rights defender. 

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

I had long been aware of this quote, but only when I worked with inmates in Quebec, did I appreciate its full meaning.  Let me explain. 

From 2009 to 2015, I served as Senior Independent Chairperson of the Disciplinary Tribunal in Federal Prison Institutions for the Quebec region.  This experience, coupled with my role as Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, formed the basis for my appearance today. 

My experiences on-the-ground are a complement to what the Commission has concluded through its complaints :  Vulnerable groups are subjected to, in disproportionate numbers, unfair treatment during their incarceration. 

The Commission’s message today is simple: Canada is not doing enough to ensure fundamental human rights as it seeks to rehabilitate offenders.

 We are not doing enough to even meet, let alone exceed, our domestic and international human rights obligations.

We see this in the complaints we receive.  We see this in the over-representation of vulnerable groups within our prisons.  We see this in our work with CSC.

To be better, and to do better, we absolutely need to acknowledge, understand and address the vicious cycle of neglect and abuse that exists both outside our prisons, and within them.

As you no doubt have heard from other experts, conditions that exist outside of prison, in society at large, continue to have an acute impact within prison walls.  

We are talking about:

  • Systemic racism, discrimination and biases, 
  • historical abuse, 
  • profound poverty and food insecurity,
  • insufficient access to health care, and 
  • inadequate supports in mental health services.  

Our prisons serve as proof that too little is being done for the vulnerable groups that are most affected by our collective failure in addressing those issues.  

Indigenous peoples.  

Black persons.  

Those with severe mental health issues.  

These groups of vulnerable individuals not only represent the great majority of those who find themselves in our prisons, they also represent the great majority of those who suffer additional mistreatment and discrimination once “inside”.  

Allow me to list the factors that are too often a source of discrimination within our prisons:

  • an organizational culture that sees inmate support and services as privileges instead of rights;
  • lack of training and resources which mean that many vulnerable groups are at the mercy of individual experience and discretion;
  • inadequate facilities or policies that fail to consider the individual needs of inmates, whether it be related to disability, sex, religion, to name a few.  

Where you end up, who is responsible for overseeing your day, and where inmates find themselves on the spectrum of vulnerability... these factors all play a role in how an inmate will experience, and in some cases, survive, their incarceration.  

Why is this important?  

Because once inside, inmates interact on a daily basis with guards, most of who are not equipped with the training needed to deal with these complex issues.  And when people are not equipped, they turn to band-aid solutions, such as solitary confinement.  

Expediency in “managing” the problem or behaviour takes precedence over human rights, and in the process they are....

...denied appropriate medical services and supports.  

...denied their dignity.  

...denied their human rights.  

Take, for examples, Indigenous women in our prisons.

They are often victims of a toxic combination of racism, violence, sexual assault, and other forms of abuse. 

In addition, their difficult past means they are often suffering both physically and psychologically — a suffering that was often a contributing factor to their incarceration. 

Thus, once in prison, and lacking support, they live many challenges relating to their past that manifest themselves in behaviours that are difficult to manage.

And in response to these behaviours, correctional officers have access to nothing more than solitary confinement, despite the numerous studies that have confirmed its devastating impact.  

As a result, these Indigenous women, many of whom are victims of abuse and who may be living with depression, post-traumatic stress, etc. find themselves isolated and deprived of all human contact — perpetuating a destructive cycle that Correctional Services Canada seems incapable, and even unwilling, to stop.  

A cycle that often ends tragically, with some even leading to fatal consequences. 

Allow me to clarify :  the problem isn’t the law itself, which seeks, as its objective, public safety and rehabilitation.  

The problem is in its application.  When the law is applied without nuance—blindly—without distinction, the conditions are set for injustice.  

If we are seeking justice for all, and not only for some, we must question ourselves as to the use of solitary confinement, in all its forms, in the incarceration of our vulnerable inmate populations. 

These types of human rights abuses preoccupy the Commission, to the point that we have called on the Minister of Public Safety to impose a ban on the use of solitary for women.  Overwhelming research shows that its use actually re-traumatizes women, who, more often than not, have themselves been victims of abuse.  

In concert with this request, we have also called on the Government to ban its use of solitary confinement for all inmates suffering mental illness.  

Yes – a prison sentence deprives an inmate of their right to liberty, but it should not deprive an inmate of their basic human rights.  

Our request for these bans is in line with section 4(e) of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which states:  “offenders retain the rights and privileges of all members of society, except those rights and privileges that are necessarily removed or restricted as a consequence of the sentence.”

Our prisons are fragile environments that depend on a variety of actions and intentions, on the part of all involved, so that they can fulfill their important mandate of safety and rehabilitation. 

Mental illness.  Poverty.  Abuse.  Solitary.  Addiction.  Lack of training.  No supports.  Limited resources.

Is it any wonder that many of our prisons are such volatile environments, ready to explode?  

And so, Senators, you have heard statistics and updates regarding new policies, new programs and improved practices...

...You have heard about additional resources, leading to progress in our prisons.  

And while I can attest to the good intentions of many who work in the system, I can tell you, from experience, that there is a gulf between these intentions and our actions when it comes to reform.  

To have profound culture change, we need more than another report, guideline or recommendation that can be easily ignored.  We need leadership.  

Being a world leader in human rights means leading by example...

...And this leadership should lead us to ask the following questions:  

  • What happens when we are unable to address these issues and shortcomings within our prisons?  
  • What happens when solitary confinement is used as a crutch?  
  • And what happens when punishment is more important than rehabilitation?  

The answer should be evident:  we fail our inmates.  But we also fail ourselves, when we let this happen.  

Because to be the country that Nelson Mandela describes... 

...the one that is measured by how it treats its lowest, and not its highest, citizens... 

...we need to ensure that human rights are fully integrated into the correctional system’s mandate of safety and rehabilitation.   

Because, in the end, shouldn’t rehabilitation put an end to the cycle of abuse, and not perpetuate it, or even accelerate it?

I thank you for asking the Commission to appear before this Committee.  

We would be happy to respond to any questions you may have in relations to human rights and Canada’s prisons.  Should you need further information that requires additional research, we would be pleased to follow up and to return to the Committee again.

Thank you.

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