From rehabilitation to retribution: the shifting landscape of Canadian incarceration

Increasing use of force by corrections staff, higher rates of solitary confinement, and reduced services to help prisoners reintegrate into society leave inmates struggling
By Geraldine Malone - Published on November 15, 2016
a solitary confinement prison cell with a bed, toilet and shelves
An upcoming review of the criminal justice system will include an expected revision to the use of segregation in correctional institutions. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)



Alia Pierini stands in the parking lot of her local grocery store, thinking about the years she spent in a federal prison in British Columbia. Paralyzed by anxiety, she remembers the segregation — the technical term for solitary confinement — the run-ins with the a woman posing for a photoguards, and a specific type of punishment called “the wrap.”

“They tie your legs up and they handcuff you and strap your knees to your chest and they literally carried me out in front of the unit and told everybody, ‘This is what you get if you don’t shut up here,’” Pierini, now 31, says. “They had all of the unit locked up and left me there for hours sitting in this wrap.”

Pierini says she ended up in the wrap because she was jumping on her bed while bored in segregation. The incident left her angry and hopeless. Behind bars, she contemplated suicide for the first time in her life.

She believes prisons have become too focused on retribution rather than rehabilitation. Prisoners, she says, “need to be healed in there, not hurt worse.”

Coercion instead of resolution

Pierini’s experience is just one example drawn from a growing list of violent incidents involving inmates and correctional staff in Canada. According to the Correctional Investigator of Canada’s annual report, tabled in parliament two weeks ago, the use of force behind bars increased 22 per cent between 2014-15 and 2015-16.

News of this trend comes on the heels of widespread criticism of other incarceration practices, including the high reliance on solitary confinement, which has long been described by the United Nations as a form of torture. Before news broke last month of 24-year-old Adam Capay’s four-year segregation in an Ontario correctional facility, the federal and provincial governments both had recently committed to measures to curb its use.

The Correctional Investigator’s annual prison watchdog report highlights use-of-force issues in Canada’s federal corrections system, including disciplinary methods and the circumstances in which force is commonly used.

“Pepper spray has become the ‘go-to’ tool for inducing inmate compliance and managing security incidents in federal prisons,” Correctional Investigator of Canada Howard Sapers wrote in a release accompanying the report. “Reliance on coercive measures has largely displaced other less invasive methods of resolving tension and conflict behind bars.”

More than a third of all use-of-force incidents involved inmates with a mental health issue, according to the report. Pepper spray was also used in more than half of use-of-force incidents in which an offender was self-injuring.

An upcoming review of the criminal justice system by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould will include an examination of how inmates are treated, with changes expected to follow in the subsequent months. Revisions to rules around the use of force, segregation and conditional sentencing are expected, among others, but the government hasn't released any specifics yet.

Cracking down on women inmates

One area this year’s annual report didn’t cover, however, is the documented increase in use of force on incarcerated women specifically. Last year, the Correctional Investigator’s office found that from 2009 to 2015, incidents involving use of force on female inmates increased by 53.5 per cent. During the same period, the rate of fights and self-harm also increased.

Correctional Services Canada’s own data also indicates that since 2013 there have been over 660 use-of-force incidents in women’s prisons, which include incidents involving restraint equipment, physical handling, batons, use of a chemical or inflammatory agent and use or display of firearms. Across federal corrections in general, 1,443 use-of-force incidents took place in the last year alone — nearly three times higher than in 2012. Pepper spray was used in more than 60 per cent of the cases.

This rise in use-of-force incidents among female inmates coincides with a rise in the incarceration of women in general. In the past decade, the number of federally incarcerated women increased by more than 35 per cent, while the incarceration of Indigenous women in particular increased by 57 per cent. Close to 70 per cent of federally sentenced women have histories prior to incarceration of sexual abuse; 86 per cent have been physically abused, according to the 2015 Correctional Investigator’s report.

The increase in incarceration numbers doesn't account for the rise in use of force, the report notes: it's not just the raw number of use-of-force incidents that has gone up, but also the rate at which they are used. Moreover, there hasn't been an increase in threats to coincide with the use of force, according to Sapers.

Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, which works with and for women in the justice system, says Correctional Services Canada “sees all behaviour through the lens of criminality.” As a department, it has become used to force, making it less likely for other ways of responding to a situation to be considered, she says.

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Pate says the increase in force underscores “the fact that we need to be seeing very different approaches used” if we want people to be safe in prison and “integrate successfully when they get out.” Corrections needs to move towards peaceful resolutions when an inmate is in distress, she adds, and adopt a restraint-free environment: two of the recommendations in the coroner's report on the death of Ashley Smith, an Ontario teen who strangled herself to death while on suicide watch at the Grand Valley Institution for Women.

A vicious cycle

Between 2006 and 2015, the Conservative government tabled an unprecedented number of criminal justice initiatives. It changed corrections culture, and confinement conditions deteriorated, according to a study recently published in the Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice. During Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime tenure, prison crowding hit all-time highs and parole grant rates bottomed out, while the Safe Streets and Communities Act managed inmates based on the severity of their crimes rather than the level of risk they posed. (For instance, someone caught growing pot, who would pose little danger to other inmates, could be placed in a maximum security unit because of how the severity of his or her crime was assessed, while someone charged with domestic assault might be placed in a medium security unit because his or her crime is ranked as less severe, even though he or she has demonstrated a history of violence).

Pepper spray was also made standard issue for most correctional officers to carry on their belt in 2010. There's been an increase in its use, according to this year’s report, even though there hasn’t been an increase in threats that would justify that response.

Howard Sapers, the Canadian correctional investigatorA mother of two boys, Pierini says she realizes why she went to prison. She started getting into fights, committed acts of vandalism and engaged in what she describes as regular “small-town rebellion” as a teenager in Prince George, B.C. She dropped out of high school when she had her first son. Desperate for cash, she joined a local gang and was soon dealing crack cocaine and roughing up addicts for money.

In 2005, at age 20, Pierini was sentenced to five years for drug trafficking, extortion and aggravated assault. She was afraid and uncertain what about prison life was going to be like, so she acted tough by getting into a fight in the yard early on, when she was new to the system and “didn’t know what the hell she was doing” — which is how she landed herself in segregation. This incident kicked off a cycle for Pierini: she would come out of segregation angry, lash out because of the frustration, and as a result end up isolated again.

'I just hope … I can see some sort of change'

As Pate sees it, the upcoming justice minister's review must include a moratorium on the use of segregation for prisoners, specifically women. Many expert organizations agree, and think that moratorium should apply across the board. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, along with the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, launched a lawsuit in 2015 challenging solitary confinement in prisons across the country. British Columbia’s Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada have also filed a lawsuit saying the country’s solitary confinement practices amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.”  

Experts are also calling for a return of a variety of inmate support programs which disappeared following a $295-million cut to the Correctional Service Canada budget in 2012, including Indigenous healing programs, mental health training for officers, and addiction services. They’d also like to see sentencing reforms, specifically removing mandatory minimum (which would reduce the number of Canadians behind bars), and an increase in the use of conditional sentences (which keep non-violent offenders in their under strict conditions). Conditional sentences are linked to lower recidivism rates.

The Union of Canadian Correctional Officers is also concerned by the dramatic increase in use of force, according to national president Jason Godin. He said it is linked to a “changing offender profile,” with inmates who are younger and more likely to be gang-affiliated.

He said the review will show one clear problem: there’s no money for more officers, training or handling units.

“If they want success in corrections, that costs money.”

The average annual cost of incarcerating a man is $111,202. It's about twice as much for women, largely because they are incarcerated at much lower rates, so providing equitable programs, facilities and services costs more. 

It’s been a few years since Pierini, who was released in December 2008, had to worry about an altercation with guards landing her in segregation, but she says “the psychological effects of jail still screw” with her ability to interact with people. “Before prison I never even knew what anxiety was in my life, and now it’s like every day I still have some sort of anxiety.”

“I just hope that sometime in my life I can see some sort of change. [To] see these women get some sort of help, because that’s what they need at the end of the day.”

Geraldine Malone is a Munk Global Journalism Fellow who covers Indigenous communities and the penal system.

The documentary How to Prepare for Prison airs on TVO this Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 9 p.m. Beforehand at 8 p.m., The Agenda features a panel discussion on the state of Canada’s prison system. 

There will be several opportunities to watch How to Prepare for Prison:

  • Wednesday, Nov. 16 at 9 p.m. and again at 12 a.m.
  • Saturday, Nov. 19 at 9 p.m. and again at 1:30 a.m. 
  • Sunday, Nov. 20 at 11 p.m. 

The film will be available to stream online at starting Thursday, Nov. 17.