Canada’s federal correctional system has a strong foundation

Stan Stapleton, President of the Union of Safety and Justice Employees, The Hill Times, Wednesday October 17, 2018

Working to prepare federal prisoners to return safely to our communities — it’s what we do every day. 

Just as millions of Canadians show up to work each morning, thousands of Canadian safety and justice employees head to federal prisons, community parole offices, and community correctional facilities to rehabilitate 16,000 individuals in federal custody. 

The transfer of Terri-Lynne McClintic to a healing lodge while serving time for a horrendous crime has sparked public outrage. And as the father of two grown daughters, I can only imagine the eternal pain of Rodney Stafford, father of 8-year-old Victoria Stafford.

I am also, it turns out, a thirty-year federal employee of a maximum and medium security federal prison, and one of the many public servants who has worked on a daily basis to prepare offenders for their eventual return to society. 

Consequently, it is worth shining a light on how our system of rehabilitation is designed to work . 

Rehabilitation isn’t something federal offenders choose. It is the imperative for everyone who arrives in a federal prison.

In 1980, I started my career as a Correctional Officer (guard). After 22 years, I left the Correctional Officer ranks to become a social programs officer.

If you fall afoul of the law, and are sentenced to time in prison for two or more years, you are going to a federal prison. Many lawyers work hard on behalf of their clients to avoid it, knowing full well that it can be a challenging road. 

Canada’s federal prisons are tough, and tensions can run high as hundreds of broken, sometimes pathological individuals, are housed under the same roof. 

Gangs have emerged as a pervasive phenomenon in many prisons, further exacerbating already dysfunctional social relationships between and among prisoners. 

The threat of violence, even in higher security prisons, can be omnipresent. Women’s prisons are not immune to many of these dynamics. 

This is the environment in which parole officers, program officers, teachers, Aboriginal liaison officers, elders, librarians, and food services employees embark upon the path of rehabilitation with every federal offender who is sent their way. 

Almost immediately upon sentencing, individuals are assessed at a federal prison for their “index offence” (their most recent crime) and longer term criminal history. Their level of risk, including their propensity for violence is also considered. 

A cursory examination of their mental health needs, including a history of substance abuse, is also undertaken. If they are Indigenous an Aboriginal social history should be written. There is no test for Indigenous heritage so identity is based upon self-declaration. 

Once complete, a federal parole officer — who has been assigned a caseload of 25 to 30 federal offenders — develops a correctional plan which is used as a benchmark. 

Participation in correctional programs, educational upgrading, pro-social behavior, among other things, is an indicator that the person is developing an awareness about their need and capacity to change. 

As offenders progress in their correctional plans, parole officers regularly make recommendations about cascading down to lower levels of security, and transfers to other insitutions, including healing lodges. Where there isn’t progress, individuals can remain where they are or be reclassified at a higher security level. Prison wardens make the final call. 

Many parole officers will tell you that lifers, like McClintic, by virtue of their extended sentence, are more inclined to “get with the program” —understanding that they have decades ahead of them and resistance won’t get them far. 

In pressure cooker environments like federal prisons, however, offenders can lose control, and the highly broken backgrounds from which they come can play out again, especially in the early days of a sentence. 

Rehabilitation can also be a challenge when resources are scarce, caseloads are overwhelming, correctional programs keep changing, and those on the frontline are not able to fully share their expertise. 

Since the Liberal government took power, three House of Commons committees have issued over 100 recommendations to improve offender outcomes in federal prisons. There is no doubt that there is much to be done, and federal Minister Ralph Goodale is working to make changes. 

But it is also important to have confidence in federal Corrections as it exists now. While by no means perfect, those who show up every day to work with prisoners that most Canadians have written off as permanently damaged, reprehensible or not worthy of their humanity believe there is hope in the unlikliest of places. 

The surprising news is that, for the majority of federal offenders, change is in fact possible. As long as there is a strong foundation, and the necessary resources for those in federal prisons and the community to support the deeply challenging work of rehabilitation, Canadians need not fear that the system has gone awry.