Chapter 8: The Strengths of Canadian Corrections

The corrections agenda in the United States

When we look at what is happening in other places, the experience in the United States is one that we as Canadians should fight strongly to avoid. Two good articles discuss the seriousness of the problem. One is Eric Schlosser's "The Prison-Industrial Complex" in the Atlantic Monthly for December 1998, with a good overview of how the security industry is driving the corrections agenda in the United States. The costs involved are prohibitive, and are putting a stranglehold on many of the states. The other is Loïc Wacquant's "L'emprisonnement des 'classes dangereuses' aux états-Unis" in the July 1998 issue of Le Monde diplomatique, a French publication, about who winds up in prison. The American system is hugely discriminatory, particularly to ethnic communities, Blacks and Hispanics. Young men are spending more and more time in prison. The problem with that, of course, is that they are bringing the prison culture and a criminal lifestyle back to their own communities. When people are pulled out of society for any length of time, it disrupts family life and is intertwined with the huge drug problem.

In the United States, prisons are becoming the new Viet Nam. As the two articles have noted, prisons and security in the U.S. are becoming the new military-industrial complex. Money is being dumped into prison construction and other security systems. It's a megabillion-dollar business, and it's a runaway train — totally out of control. I am on the Board of Directors of the Western Corrections Association, and I have a fair amount of contact with my U.S. colleagues. In places like California, which at one time had an excellent correctional system, the costs of the new system are draining the state's budget. California is now spending more on the operation of prisons than on education. There's really something wrong with that picture. The future is not particularly good for the public, based on the three-strikes-and-you-are-out policy of the American criminal justice system. The crime rate is extremely high when you do this, the costs escalate and the public is not protected. I would hate to see us as Canadians get involved in a similar situation.

The Canadian crossroads

In Canada, we have largely avoided that so far, for two reasons. First, we have the legislative mandate to do the job right. We are fortunate in that the Corrections and Conditional Release Act under which we operate is very progressive. It allows for the operation of a corrections system that is more focussed on reducing and dealing with crime through rehabilitation and other kinds of initiatives than our counterparts are. The Act is a comparative benefit, but the public is not familiar with it and confuses our system with the American system. They interpret a lot of what happens in Canada in an American context. That's a media-related issue.

Second, there is both the increasing demand for punishment, as opposed to anything else, and more concern for the victims. We have done a poor job with victims. How do we satisfy victims so that they feel that the system is addressing their concerns, while we, at the same time, address the criminal behaviour of offenders through good and progressive programming? It's a real dilemma for us right now. The concern I have is that in our efforts to find an acceptable way of dealing with victims and other public groups that are demanding more satisfactory punishment, we will abandon the current course that we have been on for the past 30 years. The program has been directed toward trying to address and work with the criminal to reduce his level of risk in a way that will promote public safety. We are at a crossroads now. It is clear that we must figure out much better ways of communication with the public, so that it can have a better understanding.

In some cases, you will never satisfy everybody. After the recent execution of a Canadian in Texas, the family of the criminal's victim was interviewed and asked if it was satisfied with what had taken place, now that the man had been put do death. The family's response; no, it wasn't good enough. He died an easy death through lethal injection, whereas the family member died a very brutal and violent death. It really hadn't been fair. At some point you wonder how you will satisfy everybody in making sure that there is proper compensation. This is one of the things we need to address, and my major concern in talking about corrections is that we somehow figure out a way to continue to do the right thing.

It takes great political courage by Canada's Solicitor General to defend what we do. It's a job he will come to hate, because there will be criticism in the House of Commons when incidents happen. He always has to stand up there and defend the situation; I can appreciate the fact that it's not the happiest thing he or she would like to do, but it goes with the territory. In fact, a number of our Solicitors General have had the courage to take the right position to try to defend the system, while at the same time correcting things that have gone wrong. I am not suggesting that they cover up, or that we should ignore failure. The courageous part is that we don't change our legislation or our procedures willy-nilly just because of a particular incident. It's a great temptation to shut things down and order this or that stopped. It should only be done if such is the most appropriate and prudent way to solve the issue. Shutting down activities is not always the most prudent thing to do.

It's a serious political issue, and as a senior bureaucrat, I know that our job is to protect the Minister from that kind of criticism. Most of us take it seriously. I know personally that I have contributed to a number of situations where the Minister has had to defend our activity in the House. Generally speaking, I've been defended well. But we are at a time in our history when the politics of meanness and retribution are always going to be on the attack because it serves political interests. It is difficult to maintain a good defensive posture while doing what's right, and not always to be led entirely by inquiry and public opinion. It's a fragile thing. It can change very quickly one way or the other; if we start creating a policy based on public opinion on any particular day, we could find ourselves in trouble.

That has been the magic of our Corrections and Conditional Release Act. It has served us very effectively over a long period of time, and it still holds today just as much as it did when it was first put together. With a few amendments over the years, it still serves us well as Canadians. I think it's a model for the world. The world looks to us and sees the good things that we do. Canadians typically look at themselves and say, "Aren't we the cesspool of the world?" I've never understood why we are so self-deprecating all the time. I guess it's part of the nature of being Canadian.

International comparisons

I don't think we have anything to be ashamed of internationally when it comes to how we handle and manage prisoners. I have met and hosted a number of official groups from countries all over the world, including the Chief Justice of the People's Republic of China, and similar groups from Israel, Thailand, Hong Kong and several European countries. Their comments are inevitably that "you people are so fortunate: you have a very, very good set of laws and policies, and you've got a good management structure. You have all the things that we envy and would like to replicate." Yet as Canadians, we sit back and pound on ourselves, wanting something better.

We're certainly more cost effective — not per capita, but overall — because we don't incarcerate as many as some other countries do. Our total costs for incarceration are low. Our cost per offender is relatively high, because if you spend the money on a per-case basis and you are successful, you reduce the long-term costs and prison growth. We have been able to avoid the tremendous prison growth of the United States, which is costly and which isn't stopping crime at all. I think the United States is looking at other options, but what they are doing now is prohibitively costly. We can't afford it. To replicate it would bankrupt us. And it would be bad, anyway, because our crime rates would probably go up and we wouldn't have succeeded in anything. In the U.S., we know that offenders are bringing criminal values back into the community, rather than the other way round. We deliberately chose to avoid that situation.

European countries have similar costs to ours. Some are encountering problems that were well-managed for years, but are suddenly facing difficulty because of immigration issues. Countries like the Netherlands — which always prided itself on having the most cost-effective and liberal corrections system in the world — is now having some difficulties because of the huge number of immigrants who have come into the country in the past few years. Now, they are facing all of the problems arising from multiculturalism, poverty and other issues to which Canadians have had some exposure over the years.

In Canada, we have a number of Asian illegal aliens in prison. I doubt whether they are over-represented in the prison population; per capita, they are fairly consistent with what any other ethnic group would represent. In Western Canada, that may not entirely be true because of a high Asian population and some of the criminal activity they control. I doubt that 25 per cent of our prison population are Asian, but they are over-represented in drug trafficking. Yet it's not just Asians; it's people from South and Central America as well. There are pockets of offenders that come and go, like the Hondurans, but it could be somebody else the next day. They are not big-time organizations, but rather whoever is convenient and can be recruited into crime.

Canadian programming and research

My personal interests have always centred on working with good programming. In Canada, all our programming is cognitive-based. Our treatment initiatives are consistently linked together, and based on the same principles, philosophy and science. They are designed to correct criminal thinking and to readjust criminal thinking errors. For example, our treatments for sex offenders, for sexual abuse and for violent offenders are all based on cognitive — that is, thinking — skills. This is a major advantage for Canadian corrections. It is not just a bunch of wing-nut programs, or the flavour of the month, or something that simply sounds like a good thing to do.

We look much more at the science of what works and what doesn't work. Canada is far ahead of the pack in its research — another of our advantages. When we developed the cognitive-based approach, it relied on research defining successes and failures over the past years: readjusting criminal thinking and improving moral reasoning. It became the foundation for all our programming.

We can even make the argument that our Aboriginal programming is cognitive-based because it has to do with moral reasoning and thinking within a particular culture or value system. Nevertheless, it is still based on good thinking, consistently applied across Canada. I know that someone is delivering a cognitive skills program to an offender in Nova Scotia, and when I get the offender here, I know basically what he has been through. I can have confidence that the program has been carried out consistently, another clear advantage of our Correctional Service. The fact that our coaches are trained similarly from one end of the country to the other helps in our evaluating an assessment of an offender's potential risk in the future.

A further issue is consistency in our risk-assessment tools. There will always be differences in human skills, but the instruments and tests are the same. Our risk-assessment centres are based on these principles. At Ferndale Institution, I think that we are a bit ahead of other institutions in implementing some techniques, but we all use the same technology. One final area I believe in strongly. We should not be building any more large prisons in Canada. If we do anything more, we should expand our minimum-security capacity. We are not anywhere near holding the number of inmates that we could probably deal with. Yet we must not allow minimum-security institutions to get too big, because that defeats their purpose. Right now, Ferndale has 140 offenders, and with four more houses at eight inmates per house, potentially the population could go to 172. I would say that's the limit. At Elbow Lake we shrunk the population when we decided to take mainly Aboriginal offenders. It now has about 70 offenders, although the capacity is 100. There are a very few non-Natives, but they are there because they chose to participate in that kind of programming, and their numbers are diminishing.

In the Pacific Region, our population in medium-security facilities — Matsqui, Mission and Mountain — has dropped quite dramatically, and we will soon have excess beds available. We are not overcrowded at all. The reason is straightforward. We are paying more attention to getting people ready for release on time and moving into minimum security. We are moving in the right direction, but we can do better than that. If we moved our people in minimum security a little more quickly, the average stay — except for the long-term lifers — would probably be three or four months. Although our capacity is 140 inmates, in one year we may well process in the neighbourhood of 300 to 400 inmates. If you compare the incident and escape rates with the total number of inmates we actually work with, it's very minimal. We usually get publicity over escapes, but the last escape didn't even make it to the local newspaper.

It is going to take some courage to continue on track with the minimum-security agenda. Yet we have to keep pushing it, because that is what is going to keep Canada safer. We have demonstrated that it can happen. We have the right people, the right training, and the right programming. We have the capacity for community service, and the capacity to be very well managed. The pieces are all in place to do it.