location: publications / books / Justice Behind the Walls / Sector 1 / Chapter 1 Change and Continuity in the Canadian Prison: Lessons from Scholarship


Since its adoption in Europe and North America in the late eighteenth century as the principal form of punishment for serious crime, the prison has left indelible marks on our culture. These are recorded in great works of literature by writers such as Victor Hugo and Alexander Solzhenitsyn; they can be seen in the architecture of high-walled fortress penitentiaries and high-tech correctional institutions. Less visibly, they are etched on the lives of those who have endured the pain of imprisonment. Although these experiences sometimes see the light of day in accounts by former prisoners, more often than not they remain hidden in the graffiti of prison cells or explode into public consciousness in the form of violent riots.

Less evident and less accessible than great literature or imposing architecture, and less immediate than violent rebellion, is a library of scholarly work on the prison: its origins and historical evolution, its professed and covert purposes, its character as a social institution, its distinctive culture of the keeper and the kept, its successes and failures as a state institution, and its place in a system of social control that extends far beyond prison gates.

In this chapter I will reach into this body of work to place my study -- which is largely confined to two institutions in Western Canada in the late twentieth century -- in a larger historical, geographical, and conceptual space. My primary purpose in doing so will be to examine the myriad of questions raised by the prison as an institution and by the practice of imprisonment, specifically with reference to the role of the law, lawyers, and the courts. Studies by lawyers that are grounded in the reality of imprisonment are relatively absent from the literature. As I ask my students at the beginning of their first year of law school, is it not strange that lawyers and judges, as gatekeepers of the only process that can result in a sentence of imprisonment, know or care so little about what happens inside prisons? Lawyers and judges who participate in criminal trials well understand the rules of criminal procedure and the principles of substantive criminal law. It is in the acquittals or convictions that flow from the application of process to principle that we see the model of justice according to law. But what happens when justice results in a prison sentence, once all appeals have been exhausted, is rarely subject to scrutiny by the legal profession. The point at which the criminal justice system will have its greatest impact on the individual is the point at which for the legal profession the process has run its course. It is simply assumed that the prison sentence, whether by deterring, apportioning just deserts, rehabilitating, or simply incapacitating the prisoner for the duration of the sentence, serves the ends of justice. A significant part of this book will be directed to challenging the legal profession to take seriously its responsibility to those men and women who are sentenced to imprisonment, as well as to challenging the assumption that the prison sentence, as administered by prison administrators and staff, does indeed serve the ends of justice.

The broadened context of my inquiry is not solely for the benefit of the legal profession. A good deal of my time inside prisons has been spent talking with and observing the way prison administrators and staff make decisions affecting prisoners. Although they work in institutions with a deep intellectual and social history, most administrators and staff are unfamiliar with that history, or feel disconnected from it in their daily work. In the eyes of the law, correctional staff are important participants in serving the ends of justice, yet they receive little acknowledgement, and even less validation, of their difficult and at times dangerous responsibilities. While television is not a reliable guide to the realities of crime or the criminal justice system, the saturation of network prime time with programs about police officers and lawyers, and the exclusion of programs about prison life (the American series Oz being the only exception), speaks volumes about how the work of correctional staff is disconnected from the practice of justice. My interviews with correctional staff were, for many, the first time in their professional lives that someone from outside the correctional establishment had sought their views. In this respect, staff, like prisoners, are disenfranchised as participants in the justice system. By bringing together the library of prison scholarship with the actual experiences of correctional staff, I hope to expose some of the challenges and contradictions that these people encounter in their work.

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The Main Entrance, BC Penitentiary