Canada’s prison system needs to focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment

Normalcy has shown to rehabilitate offenders and reintegrate them back into society

A solitary confinement cell. (Flickr/ Matthew Thompson)

A solitary confinement cell. (Flickr/ Matthew Thompson)

The federal government’s Structured Intervention Unit Implementation Advisory Panel has once again been tasked to study the government’s replacement for solitary confinement after disbanding themselves last year for failing to get answers from the Correctional Service of Canada. 

Courts in Ontario and British Columbia found that Canadian prisons were violating human rights by keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for long periods of time.

Solitary confinement is the practice of confining an individual in custody to a cell by themselves as punishment for 22 hours a day for 14 days, with food provided through a slot in the door and access to programs and amenities restricted or prohibited entirely. 

This practice is often abused, and inmates are isolated longer than the legally allowed time, which is considered a form of torture under Rule 44 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners otherwise known as the Nelson Mandela Rules

Several studies have found that solitary confinement has substantial health effects on a person’s mental wellbeing. One medical journal found that “isolated prisoners have difficulty separating reality from their own thoughts, which may lead to…paranoia and psychosis.” 

Anxiety, depression, and anger are commonly seen in isolated inmates. Solitary confinement worsens pre-existing medical conditions both mentally and physically, and inmates in solitary confinement have an increased risk of self-harm and suicide. 

“There are no normal rhythms of life in solitary confinement. So you’re isolated both from changes in nature and isolated also from the social routines that other people are connected to,” Craig Haney said, professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz and leading expert on the psychological impacts of excessive solitary confinement. 

BobbyLee Worm, a Cree woman from Saskatchewan, was held in solitary confinement for over half of her six-year sentence. After her release in 2012, prisoners were then given two hours a day outside their solitary cell. 

Structured Intervention Units” were introduced in 2019, which supposedly offer inmates more support and less isolation than solitary confinement. Prisoners are allowed four hours a day outside their cell and two hours a day with “meaningful human contact,” such as reintegration programs, cultural activities, and family contact plus shower time. But some advocates say this isn’t always happening, and a report found that the practice has continued after the government ended the practice two years ago.

The advisory panel is supposed to find whether or not these units differ from solitary confinement in meaningful ways. Some critics argue the SIUs are just a rebrand

Canada’s history of corrections goes back to English and French colonial settlements. The system was purely of crime and punishment, where pain and humiliation were the preferred forms of punishment. 

It wasn’t until the 1970s, after the Kingston Penitentiary riot, that human rights issues in the prison system were brought to attention when prisoners held guards captive and demanded reform.

In Norway, the prison system was restructured with normality, humanity, dynamic security, and reintegration being key core elements. The punishment is being away from family, friends, and community, so life inside the prisons looks very similar to normal life in society. 

Finland has “open prisons,” where inmates can own a vehicle and leave for work or school and return to prison, like a dormitory. Advocates say this model helps prisoners and reduces rates of recidivism, and considering only one in three released Finnish prisoners ever return to prison, they’re probably right. 

It’s a very different environment compared to prisons in Canada. While they have programs and access to services, they still lack the normalcy a human needs to function and the proper tools for inmates to reintegrate into society. 

Throughout the history of CSC, creating a safe society for every Canadian has been the main concern. Treating inmates fairly and humanely and providing rehabilitation and reintegration for offenders are ways to ensure that, because imprisonment alone does not address an offender’s social integration issues.