Justice Behind Walls

by MJackson
ISBN: 155054893X

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A Review of: Justice Behind the Walls: Human Rights in Canadian Prisons
by David Colterjohn

In the early 1970s, shortly after Michael Jackson became a prisoners' rights advocate, the watchtower guards at B.C. Penitentiary used to track him in their gunsights as he made his way from the front gate to the prison's notorious "Penthouse", or segregation unit. When he left his photo ID at the front gate, it was returned to him scarred between the eyes by cigarette burns. Back then, with prison discipline enforced along military lines, the idea that prisoners might have rights' was a novel one. Nosy lawyers who asked too many questions about what happened behind the prison's bleak, grey walls could hardly expect to be popular with prison staff.
The past three decades have brought many changes to the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC), the agency responsible for administering Canada's federal prisons. In his superb new book, Justice behind the Walls, Jackson, Queen's Counsel and Professor of Law at the University of British Columbia, charts the trajectory of the many legislative, administrative and judicial reforms that have since taken place.
Although he scrupulously credits progress where he sees it, the author nevertheless constructs a compelling case for further systemic reform. In Jackson's view, the "Rule of Law" itself needs to be more perfectly understood and respected in Canada's prison system, not just by the offenders constrained behind its walls-but by the administration and staff of the Correctional Service itself.
Jackson is careful to detail the progressive, rights-driven thrust of documents like the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act (CCRA) and the Correctional Service's own internally generated "Mission Statement." Much has been achieved during the course of the author's career: Independent Chairpersons now preside over prison disciplinary hearings and prisoners have a fighting chance at winning a decision in their favor.
Other important reforms include the recognition of the administrative "duty to act fairly," the introduction of a prisoners' grievance process and the establishment of the Office of the Correctional Investigator. A new respect for aboriginal culture and needs now resonates among certain members of the correctional staff. For many inmates, travelling the "Red Road" of native healing has opened doors within the deepest chambers of the self.
Still, using sophisticated, sometimes difficult arguments, the author suggests that as a society we may have been telling ourselves too many "good stories" about the nature and the objectives of our criminal justice system. Though the stated restorative goals are often lofty enough, Jackson insists that "the idea and the practice of punishment are driven by conflict and contradiction." He points out that although the vast body of penal law and policy is written in bureaucratic, morally neutral language, when you strip away the jargon, the staff and administration of the Correctional Service remain "the bureaucrats of good and evil."
The Correctional Service emerges in these pages as a large, defensive bureaucracy with a difficult mandate and a long institutional history. At its worst, the author describes an organization whose members share common interests and profound assumptions that might not ever be openly discussed, much less spelled out in policy manuals. At times then, the Correctional Service acts according to unwritten rules that subvert both the letter and the spirit of the nation's actual laws. With cautious understatement, the author demonstrates how "law and policy, carefully crafted by judges, legislators, and senior administrators are not necessarily translated into the daily practice of imprisonment."
In fact, Jackson has documented a fearsome gap between legal theory and the cut and thrust realities of day-to-day prison administration. In his view, many prison staff and administrators have but a limited understanding of such basic legal concepts as "due process" or the "presumption of innocence." A Correctional Officer's version of a particular event tends to be taken at face value, while a prisoner who disagrees is presumed to be lying. Evidence is often irrelevant and a prison warden might sometimes act first and look around for justifications later. In Jackson's view, prison administrators have too much discretionary power and too little front-end, independent oversight. Accordingly, procedures that govern punitive measures like "administrative segregation" or "involuntary transfer" are often abused.
Weaving together a complex blend of legal argument, interview findings, and statistics, Jackson's theses come alive when he details individual prisoners' actual case histories. By giving some of these inmates the opportunity to describe their experience of justice' in prison, he stitches the human flesh back onto convicted felons' bones. With inexorable argument and compassionate insight, he tries to demonstrate that a prisoner remains a full person-no matter what he might once have done.
Inmate Gary Weaver's story illustrates this point. Weaver, a veteran prisoner with a horrific personal and penal history, spent years constructing his own path on a journey of profound inner transformation. Weaver was on the verge of winning his first breaths of freedom when he was falsely accused of assaulting a fellow inmate at B.C.'s minimum security William Head Institution.
Although phone records, the testimony of credible witnesses and an RCMP investigation all conclusively showed that Weaver could not possibly have committed the assault, he nevertheless spent close to three months in segregation and only escaped involuntary transfer back to the maximum security of Kent Institution by the narrowest margin. The transfer would have set back Weaver's journey to freedom by many years.
For some inmates then, Jackson shows that time spent in the bureaucratic clutches of the Correctional Service is nothing less than a Kafkaesque nightmare, where real monsters may be created out of failed-and sometimes very dangerous-human beings. This may be a strong indictment, but it does not imply that the author expects society to simply ignore crimes committed against its members.

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