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A call for universal reform
In my study of our court and prison methods, I found… a great wastage of human lives – a failure to reclaim and utilize them.E.N. Foss, 1914
Perhaps the least understood part of our criminal justice system is the correctional or prison system. Why? Primarily because, while everyone knows that prisons are places where we detain those who have committed one or more serious crimes, very few people have been inside one. That is, aside from what we might see on TV shows (such as Orange is the New Black and Prison Break), the odd documentary (such as the 2016 Netflix series Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons and the 1998 award-winning documentary The Farm: Life Inside Angola Prison) or news articles. However, most of us have likely had some contact, for one reason or another, with the police (such as for a speeding ticket or traffic violation, reporting some type of property damage, etc.).
Many of us have been inside a courtroom, but few of us have been inside a prison. Of those who may have been inside a prison, it was likely to visit someone being detained. And in that case, we only had access to the visiting centre. It should be no surprise that what goes on in our prison system, and in systems around the world, remains ‘hidden’ from the public. Yet, according to the World Prison Brief, there are currently over 10 million inmates worldwide on any given day. According to data from the United Nations, over the last 20 years the number of individuals, whether in remand or serving sentences in prison, has increased in most countries. The consequence of this trend places a significant burden (i.e., economic & social) on all societies. And collectively it undermines the UN’s Social Development Goal (SDG) number 16 – to by 2030 achieve ‘peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice and accountable institutions’.
Although there are several different legal systems worldwide, the structure of criminal justice systems internationally usually consists of three elements:
- law enforcement (the police)
- the courts
While there are different policing and court systems, there are even more variations of prison systems. For example, some of the primary prison systems globally include:
- juvenile, minimum, medium, and high-security prisons
- military prisons
- psychiatric facilities
- federal vs. provincial prisons
- jails vs. prisons
There is a respectable body of cross-cultural or comparative studies about policing and judicial systems. However, there is comparatively less of such research on corrections or prison systems. Yet, imprisonment represents the most extreme restriction of a person’s liberty. From a legal, governance and human rights perspective, imprisonment is deserving of greater scrutiny. For example, the recent attention given to ‘defunding the police’ leaves out the correctional system. Yet, as the Canadian Office of the Correctional Investigator’s website shows, there is no shortage of ‘complaints’ and inquiries into what goes on within prison walls.
This article offers a brief overview of how prison systems have evolved and a snapshot of some of the different prison practices globally, before concluding with a recommendation for prison reform.
Penology an evolving construct
When one asks, “how should an offender be punished or held accountable?”, there is no universal standard. (The United Nations’ 1990 declaration Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners has guidelines which are not legally binding on its signatory members.) Our response to ‘bad’ behaviour depends on our social, cultural, political and legal context. Overall, there is some sort of normative social or group disapproval. But this is a vague concept, especially in countries like Canada where there is considerable diversity in our values and norms.
There are three broad ideologies or responses to correctional practices internationally:
The practices are not mutually exclusive and may overlap, depending on the correctional program’s level and type.
Punishment is the oldest and most used societal response to a wrongdoer. Punishments range from simple detention to the death penalty in some countries. There are three general rationales for using punishment:
- retribution (getting ‘just deserts’ or accountability for one’s crime)
- deterrence (assuming we are capable of free will such that the risk of (severe) punishment deters possible offending)
- incapacitation (removing the offender from society, such as by detaining them)
Treatment dates to the Enlightenment period (1715-1789), which saw a more humane response to criminal behaviour. During this period, criminals were seen to suffer from some ailment or ‘sickness’ that could be treated. There are four primary forms of the treatment approach:
- medical model (programs that diagnose inmates’ ‘ailments’ and use the appropriate treatment)
- reformatory mode (programs that teach basic life and job skills)
- reintegration model (programs that try to create mutually acceptable resolutions between the offender and victim(s))
- treatment model (programs such as anger management or cognitive behavioural courses, family intervention initiatives, etc.)
(See Winterdyk & Manning, 2020, 20-21.)
Prevention is the most recent response that emerged as an alternative to the questionable effectiveness of treatment and punishment. There are three major categories of prevention strategies:
- primary prevention (for example, targeting high-risk individuals living in socially-economically disadvantaged settings or communities)
- secondary prevention (for example, youth programs in high-risk areas, neighbourhood dispute centres)
- tertiary prevention (for example, community-based corrections)
Although beyond the scope of this article, I note that globally and regionally, the response to crime is like a pendulum whose weight is not perfectly balanced. Worldwide data shows that how a prison is governed depends on many factors, such as cultural values, political ideologies, crime trends, etc.
Not all justice is equal
A notable difference between prison system practices around the world is the incarceration rates. In Canada, the incarceration rate was 114 per 100,000 in 2020 – one of the highest in the ‘developed’ world. By contrast, the incarceration rate ranges from 800 per 100,000 in North Korea and 716 in the United States, to a low of 51 in Japan and 37 in Iceland. Several countries still have the death penalty (for example, Afghanistan, China, Egypt, Iran, Japan and the United States, among others). Overcrowding is also a universal issue, with it being a bigger issue in some countries than in others.
The signing of the United Nations’ Convention against Torture in 1987 banned torture. However, according to Amnesty International, various forms of torture are still common in certain countries. Other countries have rejected torture, such as Norway, whose system is among the most humane. Even though Canada ratified the UN Convention, a 2016 report found that more than 1,600 inmates suffered solitary confinement at two Ontario jails over five months. Many were Indigenous people (Caplan, 2016).
Another example of detention variation, globally, is the use of pre-trial detention. In Canada, approximately 39% of suspected offenders are held in pre-trial detention before appearing in court. In the United States, only 22% of alleged offenders are held in pre-trial detention. At the other end of the spectrums, Venezuela detains up to almost 69% while the U.K. detains around 11%.
I could discuss many other issues. However, I would like to share a few basic facts that speak to the limits of all prison systems. Despite various rehabilitative initiatives in prisons around the world, reoffending rates remain high. Also, despite the array of models and philosophies used to detain and rehabilitate prisoners, the financial return on investment cannot be justified. This is especially when one realizes that corrections cannot fix problems that stem back to difficult childhood experiences.
However, rather than end on a pessimistic note, there is some evidence that it is possible to create prison environments with demonstrated success in ‘correcting’ inmate behaviour.
At the end of the day: dignity and decency
Without going into detail, there are isolated examples of prison practices that are ‘relatively’ effective. And ironically, as little as the public might know about the prison system, the positive indicators speak to a common theme that most global community citizens can relate to. In countries like Norway and Denmark, prisoners are treated with dignity and decency. For example, the prisoners and guards wear regular clothes and there are no evening lockdowns. The research shows that reoffending rates are less than half of the more conventional prison models. Operating costs are also notably lower than in most other countries.
COVID may have given us an excellent opportunity to question many of the correctional practices we take for granted. It is perhaps time (if not long overdue) to re-evaluate what we mean by justice and corrections! Rather than focus on rehabilitation, the prison system needs to introduce reforms that ensure a humane treatment that respects prisoners’ dignity and decency and align with the SDG number 16.
AUTHOR’S NOTE | The following resources were consulted in preparing this article:
- Caplan, G. (2016, Nov. 24). “How can Canada condone torture?” The Globe and Mail.
- Foss, E.N. (1914). Ideal prison system. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 4(5): 674-686.
- Hass-Wisecup, A.Y. & Saxon, C.E. (2018). Restorative justice: Integrating theory, research, and practice. Carolina Academic Press.
- Winterdyk, J. & Manning, A.J. (2020). Adult corrections within a Canadian context. In M. Wienwrath & J. Winterdyk (eds.), Adult Corrections in Canada (2nd ed.). deSitter Pub.
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The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then.
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