Canadian Prisons

Our Federal Correctional Institutions

Correctional Service Canada is the federal body in charge of administering custodial sentences of two years or more for adult offenders. The provincial systems handle all other sentences, including prison terms of less than two years, and all non-custodial sentences including probation, conditional sentences and community service orders.

Correctional Services Canada does not decide on the parole or statutory release of federal offenders. This is the responsibility of the National Parole Board. Once an inmate has been granted parole or statutory release he or she remains the responsibility of corrections officials throughout the conditional release until the sentence is completed.

Punishment vs. Rehabilitation in Our Prisons

Corrections officers must balance the goal of punishing offenders with that of preparing inmates for their eventual release into society while maintaining a prison environment free of violence and destructive behavior. While administering sentences corrections officials must strive to meet two major goals: punishment and rehabilitation.

The contradictory nature of punishment and rehabilitation becomes evident when we start to discuss prisoner rights. Many people hold the point of view that criminals chose to give up their rights and freedoms when they commit a crime. On the other side, prisoner advocates and those interested primarily in rehabilitation feel detainees should be allotted the same rights as ordinary citizens. Examples of these rights include the right to a fair hearing before being punished by prison officials (punitive actions within a jail could include being moved to solitary confinement or transferred to a higher security prison), the right not to endure arbitrary searches or lockdown and the right to fair and respectful treatment by prison staff. This is argued on the basis that prisoners will not learn how to function in society and will have limited success in their treatment programs if they are constantly subject to the frustrating reality of limited personal liberty.

Theoretically, if we were truly interested in the rehabilitation and successful community reintegration of our prisoners, our prisons would be fashioned as treatment facilities where staff trained as counselors and therapists would help prisoners work through areas of addiction and social behaviors. The therapeutic approach would be most successful if carried out in an environment sensitive to the rights and dignity of those undergoing treatment. In addition, prison time would be kept to an absolute minimum to allow a maximum period for contact with and support for the convict while living independently in the community.

There are several reasons why this is not the approach we as a society take with criminals. Most importantly, this approach would contain no punitive element. As a society we must punish criminals for the harm they have brought to their victims, be it physical, financial or emotional, and for the fear they instill in the law-abiding population. A civilized society does not tolerate or condone the victimization of others. Punitive sentences demonstrate this. Secondly, there is no evidence to suggest that a corrections system focused entirely on rehabilitation would deliver a high enough success rate to justify its implementation. In addition, many convicts do not want to be rehabilitated, as is evidenced by the many that refuse to participate in prison programs.

So if rehabilitation cannot be properly achieved in a punitive environment, why not just focus on punishment, and leave rehabilitation out of the equation? The answer is because eventually most of our prisoners will be released to live among us. In spite of the fact that we don’t want prison to be a soft place, most people hope for the sake of their own safety that during the course of a sentence corrections staff will be able to have some effect in teaching convicts how to live and function in the real world as productive and law abiding citizens.

It would be ideal that prior to the completion of a sentence a prisoner would be able to work his or her way down to a minimum-security prison, demonstrating the ability to safely make the transition back to the outside world before release. It is very much not the ideal that a prisoner proves to be so violent and uncooperative that he or she must serve out thier sentence in a special handling unit (an ultra-maximum security facility) only to be released directly into the community when that sentence is up. The latter is the situation currently faced by corrections officials.

The Best Way to Run our Prisons

There is no perfect formula for how jails should operate. On one end of the spectrum is the belief that prisoners should be given the basic necessities, face long hours of hard labour and lockdown and forfeit all rights and freedoms. On the other end is the belief that prisoners need help, not punishment and our jails should be treatment centers rather than punitive institutions. Neither of these ideas are entirely practical or appropriate. The best philosophy on how to operate our jails falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. The real job of our correctional institutions is to strive for the correct balance.

Keeping Rehabilitation in Balance

One method of bringing rehabilitation into balance is to offer programs to prisoners. Many people, including those who advocate a stronger punitive focus in our corrections system see the value in many of the programs currently offered to inmates.

Data shows that inmates who have participated in education and employment programs and treatment programs for substance abuse, emotional, mental and sex offence, have a reduced rate of re-incarceration. Even though some program success rates are modest, there are other reasons why prison programs are useful. Programs add structure, variation and productivity to the lives of the prisoners. This creates a safer prison environment for those who will attempt to reform themselves or tackle addiction or psychological problems.

Keeping Punishment in Balance

There must be limits to recreation and personal freedoms in our jails in order to fulfill their punitive function. This is where Canadian jails have come up alarmingly short.

Investigations into Canadian prisons over the last several years have found hundreds of disturbing situations including the following: taxpayer funded tattoo parlors in prisons, inmates ordering in pizzas, inmates watching fights on a big screen TV, private marital visits for maximum-security inmates, inmate access to pornographic magazines, hardcore pornography broadcast through prison television systems to prisoners including convicted sex offenders and inmates stocking prison libraries with pornography.

An 2000 investigation into a BC jail described a taxpayer funded New Year’s carnival complete with pizzas, sno-cones, popcorn, a hockey slap-shot radar gun and giant Sumo wrestling suits.

Another investigation in 2002 revealed an inmate baseball tournament and pool party at a Saskatchewan jail with inmates being served bacon-wrapped filet mignon, pork souvlaki , shrimp rings, and an oriental party platter followed by Legend ice cream.

In 2004 a confirmed media report concerning a federal women’s prison in Ontario detailed how inmates including Marcia Dooley, who tortured and killed her seven-year-old stepson and Mary Taylor, who murdered an on-duty police officer were offered a spa day including facials, pedicures and manicures and aromatherapy treatments. The inmates were also served tea on fine china and a serenaded by a classical harp soloist.

Another issue of concern is that of temporary access passes. Canadian prisoners are eligible to apply for both escorted and unescorted temporary absence passes during the course of their sentences. Those serving life sentences can apply for a pass once half of their sentence has been completed; those serving life or indeterminate sentences can apply for a pass three years prior to their parole eligibility date.

Some of the scenarios in which these passes may be issued are justified, for example, medical passes. That being said, there is no good reason why a prisoner should be allowed to leave the prison unescorted during these absences, as is currently the case when an unescorted pass is granted. The other reasons that these passes are currently being issued by both corrections officials and the National Parole Board are questionable. These include family contact, parental responsibility, personal development (this can include contact with friends), community service, administrative or compassionate. These are the exact freedoms prison life should take away.

The following is a recent example of the Correctional Services Canada issuing a temporary access pass. Maximum security inmate Frederick Earl Fisk, who was serving a life sentence for shooting another man in the head seven times over a drug debt, got his girlfriend pregnant during a conjugal visit. Correctional Services Canada issued Fisk a day pass and bought him a plane ticket at taxpayers expense so he could go see the prenatal ultrasound.

Each of the situations discussed above clearly cross the line of what would be considered acceptable prison activities by the average Canadian. These investigations draw attention to the need for prisons to be accountable and open to public scrutiny. Despite numerous complaints from opposition MPs and concerned citizens, prison investigations continue to yield stories like those listed above.


Jails must be an appropriate blend of both punishment and rehabilitation. Jails will never successfully rehabilitate, neither will they properly punish without creating unwelcome consequences. Corrections staff must work within this reality. As the public keeping watch over the corrections system, all we can ask is that a proper balance is kept. That is why it is prudent that we understand what is going on in our jails so that we can keep the frivolity and waste revealed in prison investigations from continuing.

The real pressure to fix the corrections system should not be directed entirely at Correctional Services Canada. Judges must ensure that dangerous criminals are receiving maximum sentences. Our politicians must ensure the criminal code empowers judges to do this. The use of consecutive sentences or life imprisonment with no chance of parole would take away the problem of trying to rehabilitate those who cannot be rehabilitated or who do not deserve to be released from jail regardless of rehabilitation.

Corrections Canada is a federal agency that receives its funding and direction from the federal government. Our federal government must set the tone for corrections officials to follow. What goes on in our jails is a direct reflection of the attitudes and actions of our government.