The aspects of offender management that we have just seen were intended to give us an understanding of the administrative process surrounding the life of an incarcerated inmate, from intake to release. But what happens on a typical day inside a correctional institution?
In the movies and on television, we have all seen images of inmates locked up in cells they almost never leave. Sometimes, that is the only idea we have about life in a correctional institution. This does happen—in what is called segregation—but it is a rather limited practice. Certain inmates who are considered too dangerous or who have committed serious offences during their detention may be placed in segregation, from which they emerge only to take a shower and spend one or two hours outside. There are also inmates who ask to be put in segregation because they fear for their life after contracting a debt or doing something that has created tension within a group of inmates.
For most inmates, life instead tends to follow a set schedule that dictates the times for meals and for participation in various programs and activities. But, as one may imagine, the security level of the penitentiary will have a major impact on the everyday life of the inmates there. Therefore, it is important to know the characteristics that define the various institutions and their impact on inmate routine.
Maximum-security institutions are obviously the most restrictive. The buildings are surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, since they house individuals who pose the greatest risk of escape and hence the greatest danger to society. But this high risk level also affects the staff and other inmates: in maximum-security institutions, correctional officers are armed, and officers are posted in towers or other strategic surveillance locations.
In these penitentiaries, the schedules are stricter: the times for participation in the various activities of the day must be strictly adhered to; meal times are sometimes established for the different sectors of the institution, since there are risks of conflict between certain inmate groups if they cross paths.
In medium-security institutions, while the site is fenced as well, the rules are less restrictive. Officers are not armed, although weapons are available—under lock and key—in specific locations. Daily life is much like that in maximum-security penitentiaries: inmates participate in programs, work or study. They receive a maximum allowance of $6.90 a day for their participation in these activities. Of course, this allowance is not paid in cash, but rather as credit that the inmate can use to buy a soft drink, a pack of gum or a bag of chips. Some penitentiaries are even equipped with kitchenettes where inmates who want to can prepare their own meals, for which they use their allowance money to buy ingredients ordered from a fairly comprehensive list. In this way, inmates learn to be more responsible, to manage their finances, to meet their personal needs and to save in anticipation of their release.
Finally, the minimum-security institutions play a very important role in the process for returning offenders to the community. These penitentiaries are often like little villages where inmates live in living units (houses) in groups of seven or eight. There is no barbed wire and there are no armed officers, since the inmates in these institutions present a very low risk: they have committed non-violent crimes, or they have reached the end of their sentence and have every interest in behaving well, or else they could well return to an institution with a higher security level.
hese minimum-security institutions offer inmates great freedom of movement: some even leave each morning to work outside and come back at the end of the day; they work for charitable organizations or participate in programs like CORCAN. In minimum-security institutions, inmates enjoy considerable freedom in their daily lives. They can fraternize in less restrictive fashion, organize their schedule according to the activities they are required to participate in, and often are responsible for their own meals. This is a good way to create a sense of responsibility and prepare them for life in the community.
Lastly, there is one feature that is common to all institutions: private family visits. When inmates meet certain criteria, they can have access to special units in the compound of a correctional facility where they can spend time with their family. Most of these units contain two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. Private family visits are permitted once every two months, and can last up to 72 hours. They are designed to maintain inmates’ ties with their family and the community, facilitate their reintegration and mitigate the negative effects of incarceration on relationships with family members.
In short, inmate life is not always like what we see on the big screen. We must not lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal of CSC is to provide inmates with the emotional and practical tools they need to return to the community and become full law-abiding citizens.