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

My horizon in connecting scholarship to practice, however, lies beyond the borders of the legal and prison establishments. A sentence of imprisonment, more so than any other form of censure in our society, is a public judgement visited upon those who have committed public wrongs. A sentence is designed to send a message both to the person upon whom it is imposed and to the rest of us, in whose name, and at whose expense, it is invoked. Engaging the scholarship of imprisonment is thus also of critical importance at a time when the public seems to be demanding more, rather than less, use of imprisonment. In the face of declining crime rates, Canada's incarceration rate continues to rise, ranking among the highest in the world. Even the appearance that we in Canada may be "soft" on crime in comparison to the United States, the most punitive country in the world, disappears when it comes to rates of locking up young people. In this Canada eclipses even the U.S. Yet there is currently a public clamour for more young people to be tried in adult court and for sentences to be made longer, parole more difficult, and prison regimes more rigorous. Politicians seem unable to resist the political benefits perceived to flow from stepping up the war on crime, deploying imprisonment as the principal artillery.

What is rarely heard in the public debate is that the invocation of imprisonment and the practices that accompany its execution have been punctuated over the course of two centuries by a succession of crises. These crises have led to commissions of inquiry and reports cataloguing both the abuses of power taking place within prison walls and the prison's pervasive tendency to make prisoners more dangerous and more anti-social. The 1989 report of the Canadian Sentencing Commission introduced its discussion of sentencing reform with a review of the findings of earlier commissions, which spanned the 150 years since Canada's first penitentiary was opened in 1835 in Kingston, Ontario. Again and again, these reports lamented the demonstrated failure of imprisonment to improve those subjected to its toils. In 1849 the Brown Commission reflected:

The vast number of human beings annually committed to prison in every civilized country, and the reflection that there they may receive fresh lessons in vice or be led into the path of virtue that, after a brief space, they are to be thrown back on their own habits, more deeply versed than before in the mysteries of crime, or return to society with new feelings, industrious habits, and good resolutions for the future -- must ever render the management of penal institutions a study of deep importance for the Statesman as well as the Philanthropist.

In Canada . . . [w]e have but one penal institution for which the aim is reformation and the little success which has as yet attended its operations, it is has been our painful duty to disclose. (Second Report of the Commissioners Apppointed to Investigate into the Conduct, Discipline, and Management of the Provincial Penitentiary: Journal of the Legislative Assembly [1849], cited in Sentencing Reform: A Canadian Approach [Report of the Canadian Sentencing Commission] [Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1987] [Chairman: J.R. Omer Archambault] at 41)

In 1938 the Archambault Commission reported:

The undeniable responsibility of the state to those held in its custody is to see that they are not returned to freedom worse than when they were taken in charge. This responsibility has been officially recognized in Canada for nearly a century but, although recognized, it has not been discharged. The evidence before this Commission convinced us that there are very few, if any, prisoners who enter our penitentiaries who do not leave them worse members of society than when they entered them. This is a severe, but in our opinion, just indictment of the prison and past administrations. ( Report of the Royal Commission to Investigate the Penal System of Canada [Ottawa: King's Printer, 1938] [Commissioner: Joseph Archambault], cited in Sentencing Reform at 41)

In 1977 the House of Commons Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada, set up in the wake of a series of riots in Canada's maximum security penitentiaries, added these words to the collective indictment by its predecessors:

The persistent recidivist statistic can be related to the fact that so many in prison have been irreversibly damaged by the system by the time they reach the final storehouse of the Criminal Justice System -- the penitentiary . . . It was compounded in schools, foster homes, group homes, orphanages, the juvenile justice system, the courts, the police stations, provincial jails, and finally in the "university" of the system, the penitentiary.

Most of those in prison are not dangerous. However, cruel lockups, isolation, the injustices and harassment deliberately inflicted on prisoners unable to fight back, make non-violent inmates violent, and those already dangerous more dangerous.

Society has spent millions of dollars over the years to create and maintain the proven failure of prisons. Incarceration has failed in its two essential purposes -- correcting the offender and providing permanent protection to society. ( House of Commons Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada [Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1977] [Chairman: Mark MacGuigan], cited in Sentencing Reform at 43)

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