Prison life steeped in myths
Locked doors and barred institutions breed suspicion and myth.
Some Canadians believe jails are “country clubs” that coddle criminals. Others think they are medieval dungeons that strip inmates of their humanity and hope. Most people have never set foot in one.
The John Howard Society has worked inside Canada’s penal institutions for 146 years. It has helped inmates deal with the problems that brought them into the justice system, ex-prisoners reintegrate and troubled young people stay out of custody.
You can get in touch with a counsellor at the National Pardon Centre any time during business hours.
The charity doesn’t have the power to throw open the prison doors and give Canadians a look. But it is doing the next best thing. This month its Ontario branch is running a public education campaign called Counter Point designed to give outsiders a glimpse of life in the province’s 29 jails.
“The portrayal of crime on television or in the press can vastly misrepresent reality,” says Jacqueline Tasca, a policy analyst at the charity’s research centre. “Our intention is that this public education series will serve as a jumping-off point for larger discussions in communities across Ontario.”
One of the myths the non-profit group shatters is that Ontario’s jails are full of hardened criminals. In fact, two-thirds of provincial prisoners have not been convicted of anything. They are in pre-trial detention (known as “remand”) costing taxpayers roughly $185 a day for an adult, $451 a day for a youth. Most would be out on bail if they had a relative or friend willing and able to serve as a surety (an individual who agrees in writing to forfeit a specific sum of money if the accused fails to show up in court).
This underlines the link between poverty and incarceration . Growing up in a low-income family increases a child’s risk of ending up in foster care, dropping out of school, drifting onto the streets, getting hooked on drugs and being arrested. The vast majority of prisoners are from poor households torn apart by domestic violence. “If nothing is done to help people living in poverty, we all pay the price in higher crime,” the prison reform group contends.
Its research also refutes the claim by law and order proponents that tougher laws are needed to keep communities safe. Canada’s crime rate peaked in 1991. Its victimization rate — based on Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey conducted every 10 years — has not changed since 2004.
“Comparisons are often made between today’s crime and victimization rates and those of the 1960s, but there have been many changes to the way police report crimes and the way crime information is collected,” the John Howard Society points out.
The most interesting of its five fact sheets is the one that describes a day in the life of a provincial prisoner . It shows what a typical prison cell — built for one, but housing three — looks like, where prisoners shower, and where they get their daily allotment of 20 minutes of “fresh air.”
Here is the routine: prisoners are roused at 6 a.m. They climb over their cellmates to use the stainless steel toilet in full view of their cellmates and the guards. Breakfast is eaten in the cell. Then it is “range time” when prisoners (except those in segregation and protective custody) go to a guarded common area where they talk, watch TV, play cards, make phone calls or quietly pass the time.
At some point there is a hygiene break and yard time. Depending on the day, there may be visitation hours. Prisoners get to see their loved ones through a glass wall and speak on an internal telephone. At dinnertime, inmates are returned to their cells for their nightly lockdown.
“People who have never been here have no clue,” says Sue, one of the prisoners featured in the video. “But they judge you when they see your name in a newspaper.” She admits she took drugs and got in deeper than she intended. But it was to “to mask everything so I didn’t have to deal with it.”