How prison keeps families in the dark

Inmates’ relatives face emotional and financial hardships — and the Correctional Service of Canada isn’t doing enough to help them
By Carla Lucchetta - Published on November 18, 2016
private family visit housing on prison property enclosed by fence
A house for family prison visits, on the grounds of Collins Bay Institute in Kingston. (Lars Hagberg/CP)



In 2008, Elizabeth Leenheer’s brother was arrested in Edmonton on suspicion of murder, a crime for which he was later convicted. He was brought to a remand centre, then located in the north end of the city, where his cell overlooked the facility’s parking lot. He spent 49 days in that cell as his family took turns keeping vigil outside. They waved to him during the day, and at night flashed their car headlights to reassure him they were still there. Like many families affected by incarceration for the first time, they didn’t know what else to do.

“It’s a parallel journey for the family,” says Leenheer, who in 2013 founded Together Overcoming Darkness and Despair, an Edmonton support group for relatives of inmates. TODD offers group discussions, emotional support, and advice on dealing with the court system, but it can only do so much. After her brother’s arrest, Leenheer says, “The family was distraught. We were in crisis.”

It’s a crisis that affects many families of first-time prisoners, and it can become a continuous struggle: they must learn the complexities of the criminal justice system and face financial strains due to legal fees and lost time at work. They also have to deal with the stigma of being related to a criminal. “I love my brother,” Leenheer says, “and that love is twisted into something ugly, not socially acceptable — used against us.”

Connection to community, family, and friends is vital to helping inmates cope with prison, according to some experts. It’s also integral to rehabilitation and a successful life after incarceration. The Correctional Service of Canada has allowed private family visits since 1980, yet neither the CSC nor any other government agency offers a go-to portal for information on basics such as applying for visitation, security procedures, or even what the different tiers of prison security — minimum, medium, and maximum — mean. Moreover, families need understanding and the reassurance that they will get through whatever lies ahead. But while organizations such as the Canadian Families and Corrections Network, the Elizabeth Fry Society, and the John Howard Society provide links to relevant resources, the CSC’s website provides scant practical information, and even less emotional support.

In 2015 the Canadian Families and Corrections Network published “Forgotten Victims,” a study examining how families cope, psychologically and otherwise, with the imprisonment of a loved one. Lead author Stacey Hannem, a criminology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, interviewed 44 Canadians about their experiences and found that the lack of information provided by the CSC “exacerbates stress, draws on emotional and financial resources in the process of seeking help, and generally compounds what is already a difficult experience.” Hannem’s recommendations include the creation of a central government resource to provide families with information on the criminal justice system, as well as training for mental health professionals, social workers, and those working in the court system to help them understand the effects of crime and incarceration on families. As yet, none of them have been implemented.

an security scan at a prison, showing resultsMeanwhile, a lack of information about prison security protocols means first-time visitors rarely know how to prepare or what to expect. Even those familiar with the security procedures can be turned away for the slightest infraction — or, in many cases, no real infraction at all. The ion security scanners used in Canadian prisons are so sensitive to contraband that false positives are commonplace. If even the slightest trace of a drug is found — on cash, on a debit card, on the heel of a shoe — the unwitting visitor is sent away and forced to undergo a visitation review, while the incident is noted on the inmate’s record.

Leenher says the apparent arbitrariness of the security procedures is frustrating: “The only thing consistent about the correctional system is its inconsistency.”

Canadian writer Diane Schoemperlen, author of This is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison, and other Complications, is well acquainted with frustrating corrections protocols. She spent six years in a relationship with a convicted murderer and inmate at Frontenac and Bath prisons, near her home in Kingston. She visited him at least three times a week and spent some weekends on the grounds for private family visits. Over the course of the relationship, Schoemperlen spent hours cleaning her car, identification cards, and clothing in order to get past the sensitive ion scanner and avoid the drug dogs. But she didn’t learn about it all from any one source, because no such source exists. Instead, it was her boyfriend who warned her about the scanner, while other visitors showed her how to sanitize her belongings.

One time, a few years into her visits, after Stephen Harper’s government had introduced new tough-on-crime policies and prison security had become stricter, a drug dog took an interest in Schoemperlen. “It was more complicated than before,” she says. “I remember seeing an 85-year-old grandmother crying because the ion scanner went off, and she couldn’t get in to see her grandson.” The dog sniffed around inside Schoemperlen’s car, and soon after sat down on the console, indicating the presence of drugs. Schoemperlen was interrogated in the back of a police car. “That was devastating,” she says. “To be treated like that was not anything I’d experienced. I really was made to feel that I was a criminal. It was embarrassing, humiliating. I was furious.” The incident went before the visitor review board, and, as a result, she couldn’t visit that day, or at all, until she was cleared. It also went on her boyfriend’s permanent record — all this even though no drugs were actually found.

Federal corrections investigator Howard Sapers, recently appointed to head up Ontario’s forthcoming investigation into the use of solitary confinement in provincial prisons, has documented the CSC’s inadequate communication and lack of compassion for families of inmates. He has decried the often “high-tech, low-touch” nature of increasingly common “video visits,” which allow prisons to cut down on security. “Families are very often in crisis when somebody’s in jail or somebody’s sentenced to prison,” Sapers told CBC News, “and it’s very hard to deal with the emotions that are in play through a video chat.” Leenheer’s support group recently met with Sapers in Edmonton. “We were so grateful to him for listening to our stories,” Leenheer says. “He said there was nothing remarkable about him being there, that it was his job. But he thought it was remarkable that we were there and willing to talk.” Even so, Leenheer says, Sapers has no direct policy influence — he can only make recommendations.

Family members cope with the incarceration of a loved one — and the lack of information and support that comes with it — in different ways. Leenheer’s response was to get an education: she earned a degree in justice studies and a diploma in correctional a group of people holding placards in front of a government buildingservices. She’s worked in the courts and spent time at halfway houses, helping former inmates get back on their feet. She founded TODD in 2013 and funds its operations via her credit card. What groups such as TODD offer is advice based on shared lived experiences. They also offer practical help — Leenheer, for instance, arranges ride-share programs for people who need help visiting relatives in far-off prisons. Elsewhere in the country, MOMS Ottawa, a group for parents whose children have committed crimes or are incarcerated, is gathering stories about the infamous oversensitivity of ion scanners.

While such grassroots initiatives are useful, they can’t help everyone who needs it. But in the absence of comprehensive information and support from the CSC, these organizations often offer the only help families can get. Leenheer says that as long as the need for that support exists, she’ll continue to provide it through her work and through TODD.

“When you think about it,” she says, “we’re only trying to keep our families together.”


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