||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
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.