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June 13, 2003


The Correctional Service of Canada is on the verge of prohibiting prisoners from purchasing computers in the future. Those who currently own computers would be allowed to keep them but not upgrade or repair them - thus ensuring that computers will disappear from our penitentiaries except for those that would be made available in supervised ‘common rooms’. It does not appear that there has been any consultation with the voluntary organisations who assist prisoners (e.g. the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry Societies) or educational institutions involved in distance learning, nor as required by section 74 of the CCRA, with prisoners themselves. You can hear a CBC news story on this issue that aired on on the World at Six on June 12, 2003, by clicking here.

You can also read the following letter, sent to the Solicitor General, Wayne Easter, by Graham Stewart, Executive Director of the John Howard Society of Canada, which ably marshalls the compelling correctional arguments against this ill-conceived development and the impact it would have on prisoners initiatives to learn important work-skills, improve their education, and enhance their limited opportunities for individual cell-based activities.

From Graham Stewart,
Executive Director, John Howard Society of Canada
to The Solicitor General of Canada

"Dear Mr. Easter,

In our view this is a terribly backward step and we would ask you to have the decision reconsidered. Our concerns relate to the following:

  1. Computer knowledge and skill have become necessary workplace requirements. Prisoners who are capable of learning how to use then should be encouraged to do so.
  2. Computers are purchased by prisoners with their own funds and their use is largely self taught making them a very cost effective way to allow training and recreation activity compared to practically any other that is available.
  3. Computers allow people to stay active in their cells when they are either unable or too frightened to participate in group activities. For instance, Kingston Penitentiary currently operates under rules that require about two-thirds of the prison population to remain in their cells during the evenings - with virtually nothing to do for years on end. The few that can leave their cells find very little recreational activity is available to them anyway. Far too many prisoners spend far too much time in various levels of restricted movement or segregation to justify the removal of one of the few useful activities that one can pursue alone in one’s cell.
  4. Common room computers will be of limited use and value. If there is a demand for their use, only those with power will get to use them. People who are learning will not likely be able to take the time on them that is required. Access times will be restricted and often cancelled whenever staff are sick or required elsewhere, institutional movement is restricted or holidays occur. It is unlikely that extended evening hours will be available. With the cost pressures on federal prisons today it is likely that money for computers, space and supervision will be short lived and allocated to higher priority ‘security’ operations. Computers will not be maintained or protected as would those that are owned by individuals. Many will become inoperable.
  5. The computers remaining with prisoners in the general population will become major commodities and access to them may become another aspect of the black market in prison. This makes for greater expense and greater potential for violence. As the number decreases over time the pressure on those with the remaining computers will increase.
  6. The security violations at Kingston Penitentiary that gave rise at least in part to this new policy appear from news reports to be the result of staff negligence in giving prisoners access to staff computers - not the ownership of individual computers by inmates. Unless CSC is planning to remove computers from the staff, the policy would appear not to address this problem and, so long as staff negligence occurs in this way, CSC computers will remain vulnerable.
  7. It is inconceivable to us that individually-owned computers cannot be managed in a way that prevents serious problems. Without networks, modems or access to phone lines they cannot communicate internally except by floppy disk and internet access is not possible. Authorizing only qualified suppliers to provide equipment and servicing for prisoner-owned computers should ensure that unauthorized equipment is not used. Suspicious equipment can be examined easily. They can be confiscated from those who abuse the rules.
  8. Computers have the potential to be used for distance education and a variety of training and information activities that could not be accomplished with computers in common rooms. Students currently using computers for advanced course work will inevitably have their efforts seriously frustrated or made impossible.

Without resources, access or substantial plans that ensure that all inmates are engaged in useful activities in non-work hours, it is astonishing that this largely self-funded and maintained activity that is flexible, accessible at all times and ultimately useful would be the target of such drastic action. Even if a full and rich recreational set of programs existed, many would still need and benefit from having their own computers to use.

We fear that the ultimate costs of this policy could be very substantial and ask that you suspend implementation until the matter can be reviewed more thoroughly. The review should include experts from outside CSC in education, recreation and computers as well as voluntary sector partners. This issue is too important to be driven totally by internal considerations."

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Michael Jackson