Penitentiaries in Canada

The Early Years

The penitentiary was first introduced by the Philadelphia Quakers in 1789 as a more humane alternative to the harsh punishments of the time. The Quakers believed that a sentence of imprisonment, served under conditions of isolation, with opportunities for work and religious contemplation, would render the offender "penitent" and reformed. In New York, the penitentiary sentence was adopted out of a belief that work and training would lead to a reduction in the crime rate. The idea of sentencing offenders to long terms of imprisonment spread next to England as an alternative to exiling offenders to the colonies.

Imprisonment as we know it in Canada today dates back to the building of the Kingston Penitentiary in 1835. For more than 30 years, Kingston Penitentiary was operated as a provincial jail until the passage of the British North America Act (1867) established federal and provincial responsibilities for justice.

With passage of the first Penitentiary Act (1868), Kingston and two other pre-Confederation prisons in St. John, New Brunswick and Halifax, Nova Scotia were brought under federal jurisdiction, creating a federal penitentiary system "for the establishment, maintenance and management of penitentiaries for offenders sentenced to two years or more."

Construction of federal institutions started in 1873 with St. Vincent de Paul (re-named to Laval Institution and closed in 1989). Three more institutions followed: Manitoba Penitentiary (now Stony Mountain Institution) opened in 1877, British Columbia Penitentiary a year later, and Dorchester Penitentiary (New Brunswick) in 1880. All were maximum-security institutions, administered by a strict regime—productive labour during the day, solitary confinement during leisure time. A rule of silence was enforced at all times. Parole did not exist, although inmates could have three days a month remitted from their sentence for good conduct.

Toward Rehabilitation

In the Depression years of the 1930s, a rash of inmate strikes and riots focussed attention on penal philosophy and management style and lead to the formation of the Archambault Royal Commission of Inquiry. With its emphasis on crime prevention and the rehabilitation of offenders, the Commission’s 1938 report was a landmark in Canadian corrections and much of its philosophy remains influential today.

Among the Commission’s recommendations was the complete revision of penitentiary regulations to provide "strict but humane discipline and the reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners." In many ways, the Archambault report reflected a society that had become less concerned with retribution and more with rehabilitation. But the priorities of a nation at war superceded penal reform, and few of the Archambault report’s recommendations were implemented.

Growth, Development, and Reform

Following World War II, rising prison populations, overcrowding, and prison disturbances spurred the creation in 1953 of the Fauteaux Committee for another investigation into the correctional system.

The Fauteaux Committee envisaged a new type of prison that would not merely be a facility for custody, but also a place of "worthwhile and creative activity" with programs focussing on the attempt to change the basic behaviour, attitudes and patterns of inmates. The nature of prisons had to change in order to make these programs work and to provide opportunities for vocational training, pre-release and after-care programs. Most importantly, prisons needed more and better-trained professional staff in such fields as social work, psychology, psychiatry, criminology and law.

The recommendations of the Fauteaux Committee initiated a new era of legislative and institutional reform and expansion. During this time:

  • The National Parole Board was established as an independent body to exercise authority over the parole of inmates.
  • The Penitentiary Act was amended (1961) to establish new procedures for the operation of penitentiaries and other reforms.
  • A plan (1963) to construct 10 new penitentiaries across Canada that reflected the Fauteaux Committee’s vision for Canada’s prisons was implemented.

A New Approach

In 1976, continuing deficiencies in the correctional system were manifested in a series of disturbances that lead to a new approach in the management of Canadian correction institutions. The new approach was based on the belief that many of the abuses in the system would not take place if proper public accountability existed and public involvement in correctional policy development was sought. Consequently, access to penitentiaries by outside groups was expanded and citizens’ advisory committees were established.

A renewed focus on inmate treatment established inmate training programs that fulfilled provincial standards for certification, and work programs with adequate payment and incentives. For the first time, inmate labour was viewed as viable competition on the open market, and the creation of CORCAN allowed inmates to make products that were sold outside prisons. Equally significant was the establishment of a code of regulations based on the rule of law to govern both inmates and staff. Inmates’ rights were protected through mechanisms such as grievance committees, independent chairpersons and inmates’ committees.