News Canada

'The law of the jungle'

By Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

Jail's not supposed to be nice.

But Canada's changing prison and jail population is making life more dangerous for everyone, inside and out, some warn.

What they say about the fallout of more prisoners, fuelled by growth in women and minorities, the mentally ill, the addicted and gang members.

PUBLIC SAFETY

Throw more and, in many cases, tougher prisoners together, take away their work details and programs, make them angrier, expose them to gangs, then throw them back on the street. Critics of Canada's corrections system say that's bad news all around.

"This is the part which is extremely scary for all of us ... You are creating a recipe for disaster."

-- Veteran guard Jason Godin, Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, noting 80% of prisoners will get out some day.

"We believe (overcrowding) has definitely led to an increase in repeat offenders ... The inmates, when they come back out, they are angry."

-- Michelle Gawronsky, Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union

"It's not about being nice to prisoners -- it's about making sure that we do the best we can to make sure they don't re-offend."

-- Federal NDP corrections critic Randall Garrison.

 

GUARDS' SAFETY

Feces and urine thrown in their faces. Inmates rioting, or trying to kill each other and themselves.

The stresses on provincial and federal guards just keeps growing, say their unions and researchers.

In 2011, Simon Fraser University criminologist Neil Boyd surveyed 200 correctional officers about their lives behind bars. Large percentages reported being hit by blood, feces, spit, urine and vomit or physically assaulted in other ways.

They also said they saw serious assaults. About 20% had witnessed an inmate die.

Almost all said their jobs have become more difficult over the past few years.

"I've seen everything from hangings of inmates, slashings, violent assaults inside jail using homemade weapons, two riots."

-- Dean Purdy, a 25-year officer, B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.

"The stress level has skyrocketed. There is no way you can deal with this for 12 hours and go home and turn it off."

-- Michelle Gawronsky, president, Manitoba union.

"We see things that aren't normal every day," with guards increasingly booking time off for stress, post-traumatic stress and depression.

-- Ontario guard Tammy Carson, Ontario Public Service Employees Union.

"Increasing liberties for inmates -- it has also become the officer is the inmate, and vice versa."

-- Dennis Malayko, Alberta public service union, on court cases that have made guards' jobs dangerous by limiting how long inmates can be locked down.

 

PRISONERS' VIEWS

One inmate, still behind bars in Ontario, says things were different when he was first jailed in the 1980s.

"There was always a guard on the range. He used to sit and play cards and chat amongst the guys," said the man, 48. "It has changed big- time."

He was recently assaulted with a broom stick, losing hearing in one ear, after guards left brooms and chemical cleaners on the range for inmates to clean up.

Weeks after the assault, he's back on the same range and the same thing happens every morning, he says.

"What's happened is ... they don't care about you any more," says Eric Bobiwash, 58, an Ontarian who's been in federal prisons and provincial jails.

"When I first started out in the system, there were guards who would talk to you and maybe try to steer you right. But now they just put you in your cell and forget about you. It's the law of the jungle, and the guards don't care."

 

GANG GROWTH

Put gang members together and you make them stronger. Kings of the range.

Mix them with other prisoners, especially the mentally ill, and you give them prey and recruitment opportunities.

Gang members run the drug trade in many centres.

It's estimated nearly 25% of all major prison security incidents are gang-related, the federal correctional investigator reports. The same is true in provincial centres.

"Young guys are trying to impress these (gang) leaders and (the leaders) will say, 'Hey, 'go do a head stomp tonight,'"

-- Alberta's Dennis Malayko

"You may not be a violent person but you get into the prison system, there's 54 gangs in there, the first thing you're going to do is join a gang."

-- Federal Liberal critic Wayne Easter

 

PRISONERS' VIEWS

One Ontario ex-con, recently released, said he was astonished by the level of recruitment from potentially Islamic extremists among disillusioned young men of all backgrounds.

In the provincial system especially, young gang members have respect for no one, from officers to older inmates, prisoners say.

"In the old days you fought one guy if you had a problem with somebody. If you lost, you just licked your wounds," says Robert Broley, an ex-con.

Now, gangs attack. Broley suffered three cranial fractures and still has a groove in his forehead from an attack in an Ontario jail by a gang of inmates.

"The inmates run the jails. They are the ones that determine whether you get your food, whether you can make a phone call, what channels to watch on the TV, whether you give up your medication or not, and if you don't you get beaten or killed."

 

TARGETS

The single greatest challenge in jails and prisons is the sheer number of mentally ill Canadians put there instead of in hospitals or other health care facilities. Just about everyone involved in corrections says it.

Complicating the picture is the number of offenders battling addiction on top of mental illnesses.

Instead of getting proper care, they assault others, get assaulted, mutilate themselves, try to kill themselves and get thrown into segregation, which is the last place they should go, the correctional investigator and guards say.

Using segregation for mentally ill offenders also forces out the inmates who should be punished for assaulting staff and acting out, Carson says.

OVERCROWDING

Offenders are being crowded behind bars so fast, new jails and guards can't be had fast enough. It's not rhetoric: Reports and audits say it, too.

The growth in federal prisons is largely from increases in Native and other minority groups, as well as women, which impacts life behind bars.

"Crowding is linked to higher incidences of violence, prison volatility and unrest, as well as the spread of infectious diseases."

-- Federal Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers, in his latest report

 

BEHIND THE NUMBERS

Male aboriginals are twice as likely to belong to a gang, disproportionately harm themselves, and are involved in almost 30% of guards' use-of-force incidents. They're also more likely to have their parole revoked once they're out, says the correctional investigator's office.

The increase in women inmates is already costing more federal money, with $30 million earmarked for 152 new beds.

 

THE TAXPAYER

Overcrowding and violence taps taxpayers, too.

-- In one Ontario jail in London, more than 100 inmates have begun legal action, claiming overcrowding and lack of staffing have led to more violence.

-- B.C. paid 34 inmates more than $3.5 million to settle lawsuits in four years, according to news reports.

 

THE VICIOUS CYCLE

Tensions from crowding erupt into assaults, which force ranges into lockdowns, which raise tensions even more.

Cuts to libraries, work programs, substance abuse programs and constant lockdowns lead to idle hands.

Says ex-con Bobiwash: "When you have men sitting there doing nothing, they're going to find things to do. And let me tell you, there's lots of things."

Such as? Dealing drugs, doing drugs and fighting, he says.

But a spokesperson for federal public safety minister Steven Blaney said since 2006, prison population growth has been "minimal."

"Double bunking is a completely normal practice used by many western countries," Jean-Christophe de Le Rue said.

--- --- ---

Day 1: Who's behind bars: The changing face of prisons and jails

Today: What's the impact?

Day 3: What can be done?


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