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Introduction

This book is both a personal and a public journey in search of justice. The journey, begins and ends in a place -- the federal penitentiary -- where most people have never been, and where they hope that neither they nor their loved ones will ever be sent. Yet while the penitentiary lies beyond the borders of most Canadiansí personal experience, it is a looming presence in the public imagination. More so now than at any time since the birth of the penitentiary, the issues of crime and punishment are anchored in the stone and concrete of the prison. It is a rare day indeed that we are not confronted with a newspaper, radio or television story in which justice is measured by the length of the sentence a judge imposes or the appropriateness of a prisonerís release by a parole board.

The powerful focus the prison provides in the formation of visions of justice is not solely a function of media fixation. Since the end of the eighteenth century, when imprisonment replaced the gallows and deportation as the primary penalty for serious crime, the intertwining of crime and punishment with the prison has been played out in literature, music, theatre, and film. The success of Kiss of the Spider Woman, as a novel, a film and most recently a musical, is neither surprising nor accidental. It is a reflection of the huge space the prison occupies in the physical and moral architecture of punishment -- bars cast deep shadows on the stage as they do over the lives of prisoners. Kiss of the Spider Woman also illustrates a central theme of this book -- that the personal, public, political and cultural threads of life are interwoven in the search for justice and human dignity behind prison walls.

When I began my work in prison thirty years ago, justice and respect for human rights were distinguished by their absence. At the end of my first study of the prison disciplinary process in 1972, I concluded that the Canadian penitentiary was an outlaw of the criminal justice system. I suggested that the arbitrariness of prison discipline was a reflection of the scant attention the legal system paid to the rights of prisoners and of the courtsí attitude that the decisions of prison administrators were not reviewable. From a legal perspective, a great deal has changed since my indictment. The Supreme Court of Canada has brought the prison within the scope of judicial review; the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has entrenched in the Constitution fundamental human rights that apply to prisoners; and a new Corrections and Conditional Release Act intended to reflect the rights guaranteed by the Charter has been passed by Parliament. Paralleling these developments, the Correctional Service of Canada has developed a Mission Statement that incorporates respect for human rights and dignity. Volumes of correctional policy and case management manuals have been developed to guide prison officials and correctional officers in implementing both the new law and the Mission Statement.

Questions about the exercise of justice in prisons today must be placed in the context of these significant legal and policy developments. However, one of the lessons of prison research, in this country and in others, is that the law and policy carefully crafted by judges, legislators and senior administrators are not necessarily translated into the daily practice of imprisonment. This book addresses that issue by examining the ways imprisonment has changed and identifying the pathways to achieving justice as both a matter of law and a matter of practice.

The changes over the last thirty years have not taken place only within prison walls. Perhaps the most significant change has been the hardening of public attitudes about crime and punishment. Disturbingly, as the issue of prisonersí rights has emerged from the legal shadows onto a clearly defined landscape, it appears dangerously close to being eclipsed by rising concern for victims of crime and a growing fear about the erosion of public safety (a fear strangely impervious to the decrease in the rate of violent crime). The divide on the inside, between the keeper and the kept, now has a counterpoint on the outside, as the rights of victims and the public are increasingly asserted against the rights of prisoners.

My journey to better understand what we do in the name of justice when we sentence men and women to prison has taken me inside federal penitentiaries as a university researcher, an advocate and lawyer for prisoners, and a human rights activist and reformer. I have interviewed hundreds of prisoners, some considered to be among the most dangerous men and women in the country. I have also interviewed the men and women charged with guarding and "correcting" those sentenced to prison. I have been inside prisons in the midst of riots, hostage-takings, homicides and stabbings, and I have borne witness to the explosive power of prisonersí rage and frustration. My journey has taken me into segregation units -- contemporary versions of Danteís Inferno -- where prisoners scream abuse and hurl their bodily fluids and guards respond violently with fire hoses and nightsticks. I have sat with prisoners hopeless beyond tears as they contemplate suicide, and knelt at a segregation cell door, scanning through the narrow food slot the barren interior of a prisonerís world, begging a man not to use a razor blade to slash his eyeballs.

Not all of my journey has been so dark. I have witnessed the marriage of prisoners to women who saw in them a capacity to love, something prisons do little to nourish; I have participated in Aboriginal powwows where uplifted voices carried a message resonant with joy, where uplifted hands were the natural accompaniment to the beat of a drum, where the glint came not from a plunging knife but from the reflected glow from an ancient and shared heritage. I have seen acts of courage by correctional officers who have put their jobs, and even their life on the line to protect another -- even though the "other" was a prisoner.

In my previous accounts of imprisonment my focus has been almost exclusively on the experiences of prisoners. This book also includes the reflections of correctional staff on the most significant milestones in the life of the Correctional Service of Canada. But although Justice behind the Walls endeavours to capture the stories of prisoners and correctional staff alike, its ambition is a broader one. These stories are located within the larger framework of change and continuity in the practice of imprisonment and the role of the law in achieving justice.

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