Chapter 1: Three Eras in Recent Canadian Corrections

I have had the chance to work in an era when dramatic change has occurred generally in Canadian society, in the criminal justice system, and especially in corrections. There has been a profound shift in the way the criminal justice system has evolved: we have gone from an impersonal, inhumane and brutal system to one that is criticized for being too soft and too humanitarian. Whether that is true or not is a subject for discussion; the point is not that the shift happened, but what brought about those changes, whether they are effective, and whether we are going in the right direction.

It was my hope that at some time I could sit down and do a little more analysis and research just for people who are working in this field in the future - to pass on part of the corporate memory of the Canadian Penitentiary Service, officially renamed the Correctional Service of Canada in 1986. During my 26 years in corrections, the volume of research in forensic and criminal justice issues has been prolific, but it has been so specialized and compartmentalized that it is difficult to integrate, and to figure out what it all means. We have to step back and ask how it fits together.

I am not an historian, but I wish I had the energy and time to search out what happened in the 1960s in the Public Service of Canada that changed how we delivered programs and how we carried out the mandate of the public service. It seemed to be a time when there was much more emphasis on professionalizing the public service, and on moving away from the quasi-military model that was typical of the public service until then. In corrections it was probably more striking, because the Canadian Penitentiary Service was an organization that was historically impersonal, fairly brutish and antiquated. It did not really reflect the kind of public service that we would now expect: it was a quasi-military organization. The employees by and large were ex-military, particularly men who had come back from either of the Great Wars. Their experience had much to do with how the Service was organized and how it functioned.

With inmates you are dealing with the lowest of the low in society, I suppose, and that was the way staff dealt with them in the early years. Inmates didn't get there by accident. I'm not one of those people who forget about the terrible harm they have committed, and their victims. Guards suffered a bit. They were tough. They were not well paid, and not well respected. There was a hierarchy, and a code of silence by which guards covered for each other. I don't think that there was much interest in the concept of corrections.

It was punitive, and although there were little bits and pieces of what we would consider programming, certainly it didn't have any real emphasis in the work. I have the last strap that was ever used at the British Columbia Penitentiary (it is now in the B.C. Pen archives). I had the job of project manager for closing the place down, and I talked to many people who were victims of the strap and other harsh treatment. What people forget is that it didn't reduce the rate of crime particularly. It was an era of riots and hostage-takings — a riot a week somewhere in the system was not unusual. Very strange behaviour was the norm.

The innovation era: 1966-1974

With the professionalization of the public service in the early 1960s, the Penitentiary Service hired a group of individuals whose job it was to change the face of corrections. It's important to recognize who these people were. In British Columbia it was Selwyn Roxborough-Smith, who took on B.C. Corrections in 1962 and developed one of the most well-organized provincial correctional services in Canada in that era. It was ahead of its time. Federally, the most significant person was probably Commissioner Allan MacLeod. He was a pivotal person who had more impact on the future of where corrections went than anybody, although I don't think at the time anybody recognized that.

Commissioner MacLeod was moving into an era that was not going to receive new corrections ideas easily, so he hired a number of people who were very well educated, such as Edgar Epp, John Braithwaite, John Maloney, Jim Murphy and Art Trono. These men who came in the early 1960s had an incredible job in front of them — to turn the Penitentiary Service into a proper public service — and they were incredible people. They had a very hard time because they were dealing with a brutish system. They were trying to bring about change in a paramilitary, hostile, undisciplined system and trying to introduce a whole new set of values. Their backgrounds were generally in the social sciences, and the system had absolutely no respect for that. They had to be particularly tough because they were trying to change an organization that was resistant to change. They had to use whatever skill and knowledge and every bit of diplomatic ability that they had.

Art Trono was one of the leaders in this era — my good friend and former boss. I was speaking to him the other day about his experiences, and he said: "You know, there were some things so awful you shut your eyes to it, and you went on with what you could do, and if you did too much you wouldn't have the opportunity to do anything." It took wisdom for these people to figure out exactly how they were going to do this. I think the way they did it was by gradually hiring the next wave of professionals and administrators to come in and bring about change. That was probably their most significant impact: that they were able to surround themselves with other people who had some skill and ability.

By 1966, change was starting to happen. I consider this an era of change, because that's when the first new institutions were built in Canada, looking considerably different from the old fortresses that had existed until then — new places like Drumheller in Alberta, Matsqui Institution in B.C., Springhill in Nova Scotia, Warkworth in Ontario, and some in Quebec. Somewhat smaller than the previous institutions, they were designed to be able to do correctional programming, given the knowledge of that time, and actually to change how we ordered ourselves. I know by today's standards it was probably not a huge move, but they were significant at the time.

Matsqui Institution was even more significant because it was designed initially as a heroin treatment centre. For the first time it was recognized that we needed to develop a way to deal with addiction as a health-care issue, as opposed to a criminal issue. The program was set up, and eventually it was considered to be flawed. It didn't have the kind of success that many dreamed that it might have, and it folded. Our initial thought that we would be able to develop some magic solution to addiction evaporated. Basically we are no farther ahead today on that score that we were in those days. We're still essentially dealing with a medical-social problem as a criminal problem. It's only in the recent past that law enforcement and policy makers began taking a serious look at whether this is the most appropriate way of dealing with a tricky social problem. When it comes to the consequences of all the criminal behaviour that lies around it, one wonders if there are not better ways of managing it. At least there was some idea that there was a better way, and although it failed it probably gave us some indication of what would work and what wouldn't.

I call the late 1960s and early 1970s the innovation era, and it ran until about 1974. What was unique about it is that there were many new programs introduced, and there was a guru, I'm sure, for every ten people out there who had a better idea of how to deal with behaviour. There was a plethora of programming ideas: sensitivity training, T-groups and all the different things that came out of the '60s. Essentially there was a huge variety of programming going on in that 1966 to 1974 era. It was unfocussed, it wasn't based on any particular model, and it was random. Whoever had the best idea this week got the best air time. It made for interesting times.

For a young professional at the time, it was very interesting. I recall people like David Berner (who is now a journalist) with a group called X-Kalay, one of the models that came out of that era in an attempt to deal with cured addicts, and to try different techniques, some with greater or lesser success. Generally there was no corrections theory. There were many theories about criminal behaviour, but there was no comprehensive strategy for how we dealt with criminal behaviour in particular. There was a great deal of research and ideas, but no particular order to it all.

Experimentation with release programs and the temporary absence programs in those days was very active. We had many men released into the community for a variety of reasons. Some were probably imprudent, and resulted in spectacular incidents in which crimes were committed by offenders while serving their sentences. Tolerance for that is short, so the initiative was slowed down and almost eliminated. Although substantial innovation happened, it didn't really take hold and develop into some kind of comprehensive model until much later.

Policy by inquiry: 1975-1988

The next era emerged in the mid-1970s. It was brought about by the difficulties experienced in prisons at that time: hostage-takings, riots, and all kinds of civil disobedience. The media took a strong position that prisons were ineffective, and that prisoners' rights were being violated. Lobby groups formed around issues related to offender rights, and human rights seemed to be the buzzword of the day. The emphasis had shifted to looking at the system as not being particularly conducive to good corrections. The experience of B.C. Penitentiary with hostage-takings was typical across Canada and certainly across North America. It generated all kinds of diverse responses. On the one hand we were trying to liberalize our policies so that human-rights and prisoner-rights violations were less obvious. On the other hand we were responding with the development of much more sophisticated response teams and security techniques.

In 1977 a Parliamentary subcommittee that looked into prisons tabled its report, known as the MacGuigan Report. It was one of a series of subcommittees that looked into corrections from time to time, but this one seemed to be pivotal. It took a critical view of corrections, particularly how we were organized and how we were not fulfilling the mandate that was expected by the Canadian public. It was very damning in some ways.

That began an era which I call policy by inquiry. What we find is that we have become so inquiry-driven that every flaw is now subject to some kind of inquiry, whether it is internal or external. It usually generates some highly specific and focussed direction for how the Service can improve. Although the specific issues may be relevant and require attention, what often happens is that it gets so single-focussed that it ignores or complicates other things. You never really get a comprehensive approach to the business. You spend all your time chasing down and trying to account for the flaws of one inquiry, and you miss the boat on a number of things.

It is a trend that has continued until very recently. I hope that with different ways of doing business it will slow down, and that we don't have to develop correctional policy by inquiry. We should do it on a more rational basis. But it is pronounced, and it's part of the whole public mindset. It doesn't matter how tough or what position the Commissioner of the day takes; you are going to have to accept that the public demands accountability that it never demanded before. Even in our internal organization the avenues of inquiry are prolific. We inquire on everything, including things that don't seem relevant — but if we think it could possibly have some relevance and is subject to public criticism, we inquire. After every escape, every bit of bad behaviour or every little disturbance that would normally be considered routine practice, we have to have an inquiry, internally or otherwise. It's not that you don't want to know what went wrong, because you do want to learn from your mistakes. It's just the amount of energy it consumes. Fortunately Jim Vantour — who was responsible for all our inquiries and investigations in Ottawa — was a fairly reasonable and competent individual, and he gave some direction that would minimize the downside of this sort of practice. He is a very well respected criminologist in his own right — an academic — and he took the lead for us on the internal inquiry side. But it was, and is, a challenge, and it opened up a whole different way of doing business. The public now expects an inquiry into everything. When an offender dies, even a natural death, we have a coroner's inquest because we cannot allow for any possibility that there was anything improper in the care of the offender. That is one of the legacies.

The other legacy of that era is a much more organizational shift. The emphasis became "what does this organization look like, and how can we restructure it?" In our Service it was particularly marked with the appointment of Don Yeomans as the Commissioner in 1978. His background was that of a business executive and accountant; he was strongly organizational and management-oriented. Although his knowledge of corrections was limited, I developed a fair amount of respect for his work. It took a little while for him to develop an appreciation for this work (as it would anyone), but he did try to professionalize the organization and make it look more like a modern organization. Don Yeomans did a lot of work to restructure the organization to make us much more accountable, better managed and fiscally responsible. He developed different models for how we structured ourselves, and we went through a number of models. It was our first attempt to bring security in line with the other correctional practices. At that time we were still operating two parallel systems. We had the security side of the business, and we had the separate corrections side, which was designed to try to promote change and do programming. They never got along well, and there were huge problems. A little earlier we had attempted to introduce the living unit model, developed in California. It was a way of trying to integrate correctional operations with the security side. It was implemented in varying degrees across Canada; some places took it on full force and others never got to it at all. It was a bit of dog's breakfast: theoretically it made sense, but in actual practice it didn't work as well as it should have (although it worked in some institutions like Springhill in the Maritimes). As part of his work Don Yeomans shifted into what we now call unit management, which is the current organizational model used across Canada. Even that has gone through a variety of changes, and it's been a long, slow process getting it fully operational. We're pretty well there now: we generally operate within the unit model.

The current era of professionalization: 1988-today

The era we have now moved into I would call that of professionalization, in which the organization has become much more professional and organized around corporate models. It begins with the initial appointment of Ole Ingstrup as Commissioner in 1988. He had a vision of a much more organized, professional organization based on a clear set of values and principles, and of policies realigned so that they are consistent with our values. After four years as Commissioner, he served for about four years in other government appointments, then returned in 1996. He is an extremely demanding Commissioner, with very high performance expectations. He suffers fools very poorly, and is not a person you can manipulate or sway to drop his agenda.

He has brought an era where research is valued, and where corporate structures are tools that are designed to be effective, as opposed to something slavishly followed. His view of policy is quite different. He got rid of huge chunks of obsolete policy from years ago, redefined our whole policy, refined it and made it much more simple. He brought that kind of businesslike approach to the Service, as did others (I'm focussing on the Commissioner because he is the head of the organization). His emphasis on human rights is extremely strong. It's almost an obsession with him: not just the treatment of offenders but also the treatment of staff, and how we treat each other.

Most important for him is the emphasis on the rule of law. He is absolutely committed to the principle that the organization has to behave lawfully. He is of the opinion that if the law is foolish and can't be followed, we should do something about changing the law. But we can't just arbitrarily decide what laws and what rules we will or will not follow. That has been a source of difficulty for the organization, because organizations don't often follow the law as closely as they ought to. It has even affected the rights of prisoners and our responsibility for dealing with cases on a timely basis. There are rules in the legislation that define when offenders need to be reviewed for parole, yet historically there has been a lot of sloppiness about not encouraging inmates to seek release in a timely way, as required by law. It's a simple thing like that, or about ensuring appropriate access to health-care services and the right to complain. We have an offender grievance system that many of us find to be a pain, but it is still the law. We must ensure offenders access to that system if they feel something has gone wrong.

It's difficult, because you will always find offenders who abuse that — people who for sheer entertainment value will launch a hundred grievances a day, just to occupy your time, and jailhouse lawyers and people who will pick on frivolous causes and paper you to death, as they say. That's where the challenge is: how do you deal with those? It's not the occasional complaint from an inmate that causes you distress; it's when the abuses show up, yet the law requires us to behave in a particular way. We do make provisions for this now.

We have never experienced the abuse of the legal system that the Americans have. In part it's because we've paid more attention to the human-rights issues, and in part because we have had internal grievance processes in place, whereas many of our American contemporaries did not. They were never able to deal with a lot of the complaints. Much of what we would deal with internally, they would have end up in the federal courts. Texas has probably had more court challenges than any place, so you have the federal courts almost deciding the policy of the Texas Department of Corrections.

We have avoided some of the pitfalls — we do have our share of lawsuits, but in comparison they are relatively small and usually the exceptional cases.

As well as the emphasis on the rule of law, a further shift we are currently experiencing is a much more scientific approach to our programming. We now look very seriously at what the research has to tell us about what works and what doesn't. We have been systematic in implementing programs.

The other shift is in architecture: looking at different models of how we physically house prisoners. It has always bothered me to walk down these long ranges of cellblocks in our traditional prisons in Canada and North America generally, and to see the sterility, human waste and lack of activity. I'm sure the major topic of conversation of these guys is how they are going to score their next drugs or plan their next crime. Architecture is an important issue; it's not frivolous. We keep messing around with some obsolete models, but fortunately we got into structuring our minimum-security prisons across the country with architecture that is much more conducive to promoting change in people, teaching them how to live independently at much less cost than we would in a traditional prison. It was an idea that our current Commissioner started in 1988. William Head on Vancouver Island was the first of the facilities to go to an independent-living model, which was quite different from the old cellblock traditions that were part of our correctional history. Subsequently, all the minimum-security institutions in Canada have nearly completed their development. It has clearly shown itself to be a superior model for doing everything from promoting security to teaching people how to live independently. It also gives much lower cost housing options, and saves the taxpayer money in the process.

I hope that future development of this model centres on the medium-security institutions. I don't see a huge future for prison construction in the next 10 to 15 years, nor much of an increase in prison population. I am absolutely convinced that we can accommodate many more in minimum security than we have in the past. If there is any expansion, it will be there, and perhaps in refurbishing some of our older institutions. It clearly works at William Head.

We will still need the hard prison. We still have in our system some very dangerous, uncontrolled and behaviourally disordered individuals who are not easily managed and represent a real risk to the community, a risk to escape and a risk for violence wherever they happen to be. Fortunately that group is fairly small — about 20 per cent of our population. Out of our population in this Pacific Region of 1,700, we have about 130 in maximum security at Kent Institution. Others who could fall into that category are a number of individuals at the Regional Psychiatric Centre: mentally disordered patients and those with severe personality and character disorders. They would represent considerable risk if they were anywhere close to the community. The remainder fall somewhere in the middle.