Human rights violations in prison should not be shrouded in secrecy

We must give our justice system more tools to address misconduct by prison officials

Human rights violations in prison should not be shrouded in secrecy
Michael Spratt

In the intricate web of Canada’s criminal justice system, where underfunding, court delays, and societal neglect intersect, a profound darkness overshadows all – the helplessness in the face of rampant injustice within our correctional system.

Let’s not sugarcoat it – there is a palpable injustice within the walls of Canada’s prisons. If you’ve waded into the correctional investigator’s annual reports, you’re well-acquainted with the litany of grievances: punitive use of solitary confinement, inadequate access to healthcare and mental health support, incidents of discrimination and racism, and the haunting prevalence of sexual violence.

These tragic abuses aren’t confined to the pages of a report; they echo in the voices of my clients and their families. The frustration of hearing their stories is compounded by the realization that, often, very little can be done to seek justice.

Consider this plausible scenario: an inmate with mental health issues languishes in a “structured intervention unit,” or as we used to call it, solitary confinement, for longer than the statutory limit of 15 days, deprived of humane treatment. Or worse, as detailed by experts at a recent Senate hearing, an inmate removed from solitary confinement after 14 days for one hour to restart the statutory clock, then rehoused in solitary confinement or even housed in a ghost cell (an off-the-books solitary cell). In any of these cases, the avenues for recourse are limited.

Individuals in custody cannot often advocate for themselves, and even if they do, internal complaints are discouraged. Reports to the correctional investigator may shed light on systemic issues, but they offer scant relief to those seeking justice on an individual level.

Contacting a lawyer becomes a Herculean task, as bureaucratic barriers and a shroud of secrecy impede progress. Even when information is obtained, pursuing a human rights complaint or civil action becomes a protracted, convoluted, and expensive endeavour with no guarantee of timely resolution.

It’s a bizarre reality that there is no mechanism allowing individuals to return to the sentencing judge to address abuses occurring while serving the sentence. Instead, we handcuff ourselves with artificial restraints with pretentious Latin names – functus officio, they call it – to prevent judges from overseeing adult penitentiary sentencing they impose. Except we allow judges to vary all kinds of sentences in other situations. So, why not when there is torturous treatment while a person is serving a sentence?

Indeed, the sentencing judge, armed with knowledge about the offence and the offender’s circumstances, is in the best place to grant a remedy when people they have sentenced are subjected to inhumane treatment.

Right now, the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee is considering legislation from Senator Kim Pate that would allow judges to do just that – modify a sentence they impose if there is misconduct by prison officials.

This is badly needed legislation. The absence of recourse for those in custody, facing inhumane and illegal treatment, not only risks health and safety but also encourages disparities within our justice system.

Judges can consider pre-sentencing jail conditions, collateral consequences, and state misconduct when imposing a sentence, yet find themselves impotent when similar situations occur post-sentencing.

Senator Pate’s bill promises to expedite remedies and ensure uniform treatment for individuals experiencing injustice behind bars, irrespective of when the injustice transpires.

A mechanism allowing sentencing courts to review the administration of a sentence would empower them to scrutinize documents, assess the circumstances of potential abuses, and ensure fairness expeditiously.

It’s time to unveil the cloak of secrecy shrouding our correctional system and demand a more just and equitable path forward.

Ignoring the violations of human rights in prison, condoning degrading treatment, allowing prison officials to operate outside the law, and denying all possibility of accountability and transparency says a lot about us as a society – and none of it is good. It’s time to step out of the shadows and confront the reality of our correctional system, demanding change that aligns with Canadian principles of justice and humanity.

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