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Locating Justice behind the Walls on the Correctional Map

Canada’s prison system includes federal prisons and provincial and territorial institutions. For reasons rooted in nineteenth-century political history, prisoners sentenced to terms of two years or more are committed to the federal system, where they fall under the authority of the Correctional Service of Canada. The federal prison population in the year 2000 was approximately 22,000, with 13,000 offenders incarcerated and 9,000 on conditional release in the community. CSC has a budget in excess of $1.3 billion and employs more than 14,000 staff. The federal "carceral archipelago" spans the geography of Canada, with forty-seven federal penitentiaries for men, classified as maximum, medium or minimum security, and seventeen community correctional centres for offenders on day parole, which are designated as minimum security institutions. There are five regional facilities for federally sentenced women and, until its closure in 2000, the federal Prison for Women.

Although I have interviewed prisoners and staff in many federal prisons my research and advocacy has been concentrated in prisons in the Pacific Region. In 1972, I conducted an intensive study at Matsqui Institution, then the principal medium security institution in the region. This study, the first of its kind in Canada, looked at how Wardens’ Courts were conducted. Subsequently, and with the help of students at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law, I began offering legal assistance clinics to prisoners at Matsqui and the B.C. Penitentiary, then the maximum security penitentiary for the Pacific Region. With the closure of the B.C. Pen in 1980, Kent Institution received its first prisoners, following an opening ceremony in which the Solicitor General described it as the "Cadillac of Canadian penitentiaries." In 1983 I conducted a study at Matsqui and Kent to see how much progress had been made. My 1972 and 1983 studies form the backdrop for the third and most intensive of my prison studies, the results of which are featured in Justice behind the Walls. This third study began in 1993, during my sabbatical year from the University of British Columbia Law School. That original year stretched into seven, my research continuing as I resumed my teaching duties.

My research for Justice behind the Walls followed a relatively straightforward trajectory. During 1993-94, first at Matsqui and then at Kent, I sat as an observer at disciplinary court hearings, segregation review and visit review hearings, case management meetings, meetings between staff and management, and meetings of management and inmate committees. I interviewed prisoners, correctional staff and managers and, with the permission of the prisoners involved, reviewed official correctional files. Between 1994 and 2000 I continued to visit Matsqui and Kent, although on a less regular basis, to build an inventory of case studies that would provide a secure foundation for my assessment and recommendations. Except where otherwise indicated, the events described in this book are drawn from my research notes, personal interviews, and official documents.

The decision to concentrate my research at Matsqui and Kent was not based simply on geographical proximity. Indeed, their locations forty-five and ninety miles, respectively, from my home in Vancouver make them unattractive places to conduct intensive research, which often requires a daily presence in the institution. However, the issues with which this book is concerned are confronted more often at these prisons than at any other in the Pacific Region. Matsqui, though only one of four medium security institutions in the region, is in the minds of both correctional officials and prisoners the toughest of the mediums. This can be seen not only in the kinds of prisoners sent there but by the fact that it has the largest segregation unit and the longest disciplinary court docket. Its prisoners are also more likely to be transferred to maximum security. Given that the trilogy of discipline, segregation and transfers are central to my study of prison justice, Matsqui Institution was the natural choice for my research at the medium security level. There was also another reason for selecting Matsqui. Since it had been the site of my first research project and one of the sites of my second project, I was familiar with the dynamics of the institution and so was in a good position to assess the balance of change and continuity over three decades.

Matsqui opened in 1966 and for the first few years of its operation was a specialized institution for drug offenders. In 1968 it began accepting a full range of federal offenders, although a heavy emphasis on "treatment" pervaded the institutional philosophy well into the 1970s. In its early days, Matsqui was regarded as a relative haven from the harsh regime of the maximum security B.C. Penitentiary because of the freedom prisoners had to move about within the prison and the amount of time they could spend out of their cells. Fast-forward to 1981 and the scene is quite different. That summer, Matsqui went up in flames in a riot that left the main cellblocks badly damaged and resulted in the establishment of a tent city to temporarily house prisoners. Following the riot, there were many changes in the prison’s physical and cultural architecture. Relationships between prisoners and staff tightened, as did the security regime; walkways that had once open were enclosed with chain-link fences. The prison closed in on itself. During the years following the riot, Matsqui increasingly took on the character and atmosphere of the penitentiary from which it had once been a welcome relief.

By 1993, there were only a few staff members at Matsqui who remembered the riot and even fewer prisoners who did. On the surface, the Institution presented a less harsh face, thanks to the awnings covering the walkway from the front gate, some landscaping and the presence of a large teepee less than two hundred feet from the main cellblock. The extent to which these external changes were indicative of the interior dynamics of Matsqui is a story left for later in this book.

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Cell Blocks, Matsqui Institution