Imprisonment and Release
A Grassroots View on Corrections
The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is a recent amalgamation (1979) of the Federal Penitentiary Service and the Parole Service. It is headed by the Commissioner of Corrections, who reports to the Solicitor General. Five geographic regions administer the operation of institutions and parole offices.
Under the Penitentiary Act and the Parole Act, the CSC has the responsibility to manage and administer the sentence pronounced by the court of all adults awarded a term of imprisonment of two years or more. Lesser sentences are administered by the provinces.
There are about 10,000 federal offenders in prison and some 6,000 in the community under supervision. Almost all incarcerated offenders will one day be released. The question is: Then what? Will society be waiting for him? Will a job be waiting, or his wife (14% are legally married)? Where will he go and what will he do? What has he become? Is he a better person? Is he rehabilitated? Did he "learn his lesson" or has he become bitter, more deviant, and more dangerous than he was before his conviction?
During the 50s and 60s, justice agencies generally operated on the belief and assumption that prisons could rehabilitate people. Crime was explained as a symptom of a sickness along the so-called "medical model." It is from those days that "alcoholism" was declared an illness (i.e. the only illness requiring a majority vote by the medical profession before being pronounced as such). Prisons were to operate under a "treatment model" and were expected to "heal" and rehabilitate offenders. This minimized the offender's responsibility for his criminal activity and created an attitude of paternalism as well as dependency. It also appeared to have resulted in the tendency to award longer sentences or those over three years. (The Dutch consider a long sentence one over three months.) Some of those opposing the treatment model may suggest other single-minded solutions that maintain putting the onus of reform on the correctional service by suggesting provisions like higher education/training and harsher treatment to instill penitence or disciplinary measures usually more suitable for children.
The treatment approach, of course, was not successful even though it really was never fully implemented. Recognition of this rather misleading approach resulted during the seventies in a shift towards the so-called "opportunities model." The law holds people responsible for their choice to commit a crime. The CSC follows this philosophy and wishes to reduce the paternalistic attitude of prisons as well as the resulting dependency displayed by inmates. Therefore offenders are expected to make their own choices and live with the consequences. All programs are now geared in that direction. Accountability, demonstration, and performance have become key words, and the CSC is expected to become a more honest and fair service.
One may hit at the root by asking, "Why give offenders 'opportunities'?" "What opportunities did the victim have or others who, in a similar situation, did not give in to the temptation, or who did not resort to illegal means?" The choice of name for the model is therefore likely not a fortunate one. However, expecting an inmate to bear the consequences of his program choices can be beneficial, and the consequences of his offence are dealt with by the court. The court can initiate innovative means that convey the intent of the law, the need of the victim, the need for restoration, retribution, and punishment, as well as the reform of the offender. The CSC will administer and manage the sentence in accordance with the court's intent and is now becoming more accountable.
However, the CSC is at the tail end of the criminal justice system. Actually, there is no such system, but in Canada we have a conglomerate of more or less autonomous systems — or rather, sectors — namely, the law, the courts, the law enforcement agencies, and the correctional agencies. These are again divided among federal, provincial, and municipal jurisdictions. The Law Reform Commission appears to be diligently involved in addressing every aspect of the justice system. Attempts towards unification of an operative system certainly require, above all, an overall acceptance and adherence to a pervading philosophy by all sectors involved, including society at large. CSC is at least organizationally addressing the deprivation of liberties in a systematic, responsible way, both in the institution and in the community. One can view the parole arm as the one that must contend or grapple with the results of whatever damage may have occurred in the family, in school, in the juvenile system, in the community, through contact with police, the courts, and probation service, as well as the damaging results from prison experiences.
If all these institutions failed to accomplish the desired results, one may wonder what a parole supervisor can do? The best way I know how to answer that is with the belief that any of God's creatures may change at any time in this life. Being reminded of "O that today you would hearken to His voice!" (Psalms 95:7b) will nevertheless not negate "Therefore God gave them up ... to impurity" (Romans 1:24, etc.), for we do not know His particular council nor the time or the day, but we are expected to continue in faith.
Response to Deviance
What is a community to do with members whose behavior deviates from the norm or whose behavior is unacceptable to the majority? What to do with those who obviously show an attitude of disrespect for law and order by breaching traditions and rebelling against generally accepted standards?
A natural reaction, common to most cultures, is that a community will attempt to rid itself of such disruptive behavior. It will desire to expel the problem, that person, or both. After all, he "upsets the applecart"; punish him, and if that does not stop it, banishment will. A more permanent way yet, and often revengefully preferred, is to take the offender's life. And ... back to the status quo.
Such a reaction is not only natural, but perhaps at times even found among us. It is so easy to ostracize a congregational member for not following suit. We may rationalize and say that it is his own fault, for why does he have to be so obnoxious, difficult, and different? (We hardly ever ask him that question.) In principle, how are such attitudes different from premature excommunication and execution before a court or a council has properly dealt with such a person?
Perhaps the initial questions require reformulation to read: What does the Creator require of mankind to do with those who breach the law? Some may reason that, above all, justice must prevail! But what did David do with the murderer Absalom? What did Christ do when an adulteress was placed before Him (John 8)?
In Canada most federal inmates are convicted under the Criminal Code of Canada. Its historical development, its basic philosophy, and the reasons for statutes to require imposition of imprisonment is outside my province and will hopefully be addressed elsewhere.
A logical answer to the question why we incarcerate people is to punish the offender and to protect society. Courts may suspend passing a sentence with or without conditions such as restitution, probation, community work, etc.; they may levy a fine, grant an absolute or conditional discharge, or imprison a person.
Imprisonment is the most severe sanction in Canada and should therefore not be overused. With only 3010 of sentenced persons ending up in federal prisons, this still means that some 4,500 individuals per year enter the penitentiaries. If the community were more involved in the justice or sentencing process, these numbers could effectively be reduced. By involvement, I do not mean political back-benching to pressure for government action, but to enter the "system" by community committees, by individually combatting crime (e.g., arresting shoplifters) and by assisting victims as well as offenders. Not all penitentiary inmates or "convicts" are beasts, schizophrenic or psychopathic rapists, killers, or armed robbers. In such cases, the fundamental notion of retributive justice usually still appears common to mankind. However, it should not go rampant (cf. Deuteronomy 19) or be applied to all other violations of legally established laws (crimes). For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay" (Hebrews 10:30), and Christ said,
You have heard that it was said 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil ... if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well ...
Besides protecting society, imprisonment can also be used for reasons like deterrence and reduction of crime, as well as for reform. However, the best deterrence is ensuring detection, arrest, and swift disposition. Instead of having the courts and lawyers following an adversary procedure or one based on opposition, the system should be geared towards cooperation in coming to a fair disposition that satisfies a general sense of justice, the victim's loss or harm, as well as the future of the offender and the community.
Imprisonment cannot be expected to be ultimately responsible for the offender's reform. The least it can do is only temporarily to stop the offender from committing further crimes. After all, most terms end in three or four years.
Why Incarceration? An Example
Upon receiving a man's request for a parole and related information from the police, the court, the prison staff and his case manager, I visited his family. While interviewing his wife, his 8-year-old son hid in the bedroom closet; he figured it could be his turn to be arrested (one year after his father's arrest). An upstanding citizen, his father, but as a security officer for fifteen years, stuck in a small town, discontent because he failed to get a promotion despite his efforts in fighting for justice and honesty also among his peers, he finally became increasingly frustrated with a storekeeper who repeatedly left his store unlocked at night. He started to pilfer but was caught and almost "crucified" when sentenced to serve a term of twenty-three months of imprisonment.
Why imprisonment? Does he pose a (violent) threat to society? Did previous disposition not help? He did not have any prior involvement. He is a criminal, is he? The humiliation of the loss of his career, the denouncing reaction of his peers, the community, and his relatives, as well as the return of the merchandise (for he did not pilfer for profit), along with his willingness to pay for any inconvenience or loss were not enough? Would he likely continue his "criminal" activities? Why should his wife and children suffer loss through his absence? What aspect of retribution, restoration, prevention, reduction, or reform called for imprisonment?
Imprisonment as we know it is a relatively new idea, not even two hundred years old. Prior to that, prisons were used to hold those awaiting trial or punishment, and to temporarily lock up drunks, vagrants, beggars, debtors, and the like. The more severe sanctions at the disposal of the court in those days were corporal punishment, transportation, exile, and capital punishment (e.g., England in 1780 listed some 350 capital offences).
Even though a house of correction was built in Amsterdam in 1595 and even though Pennsylvania decreed in 1682 that imprisonment should supplant all other sanctions for major crimes except capital punishment for homicide, it was not until 1790 that the Pennsylvania Quakers could establish the more humane way of penal sanctions. Originally they wished to secure a way to isolate offenders from their corrupting peers and to force them to reflect on their sins in their separate cells. They expected that this would render the offender penitent — hence "penitentiaries" — and result in his reformation. The dangers of isolation appear to have been ignored. Others added to this concept the idea of possible benefits from forced labor, in silence. This altered concept spread over North America and across the ocean.
Several penitentiaries were built in Canada during the 1870s, in Quebec (1873), in Manitoba (1877), in B.C. (1878), and in New Brunswick (1880). Others followed. These imposing fortresses, usually built away from population centres, could almost be regarded as symbols of the righteousness of the community. After all, one can point a finger at the outcast wrongdoers and so declare one's own behavior as just and legal. However, other kinds of institutions were built in Canada, to a total of fifty-nine today, but too many will be required if our society continues to expect only the government to deal with offenders. Prisons cannot be expected to rehabilitate people, for that is an impossible task and it diminishes the responsibility of the offender. Prisons cannot be expected to effectively reduce crime either, for they deal with only 1% or less of those who are involved in illegal activities.
When addressing a youth Bible study society once, I was asked, "What are those prison inmates like?" My answer was: "Most of them are like you and me, for they are sinful people with a wide range of personalities; you should be very thankful for having been born into the family/community you did." Of course, there are obvious differences, but "criminals" are often seen as lesser beings and non-members of a community. But what really is a criminal? One who broke the law? Once ... or twice? Is he therefore a criminal for life? "Once a thief — always a thief"? I trust you do not imprint that on the mind of your child who again stole a cookie or a dime, for I have regretfully seen too many such prophesies fulfilled. Discipline him, no doubt; but do not add harm to injury by ruining his self-concept as a child of God.
Nevertheless, most offenders are not like you and me for the positive development of inner controls, respect for justice, and the gracious covenant distinction are usually quite apparent in most believers. Some offenders obsessively maintain their criminal lifestyle, irrespective of all warnings, consequences, punishments, and opportunities they have experienced. But should every prisoner be labelled as a "criminal" in that sense and so be branded for the rest of his life? I trust not.
Parole is the procedure whereby a convicted person is granted a conditional release from a penal institution to serve the balance of his sentence in the community under decreasing conditions and supervision. Until 1898 prisoners could be released prior to the expiry of sentence only by a Royal Act — the Royal Prerogative of Mercy.
Parole in Canada has its roots in the Ticket-of-Leave legislation of 1898 which enabled the Governor in Council to release inmates. This process, aided by the Remission Service, lasted until 1959 when the Parole Act was proclaimed following recommendations by documents such as the Archambeault Report (1938) and the Fauteaux Report (1956). This new act was called an "Act to Provide for the Conditional Liberation of Persons Undergoing Sentence of Imprisonment." The Remission Service was abolished and an independent National Parole Board (NPB) was established with a Parole Service.
After a few years, the initial five-member board was increased to allow members to interview all inmates in institutions across the country. Regionalization in 1973 resulted in the placement of nine members at the Ottawa headquarters and about four fulltime members at each of the five regional offices. Ontario, Quebec and B.C. have their own parole boards dealing with inmates serving less-than-two-year terms in those provinces.
The Parole Act of 1959 was amended in 1969 and 1977. Under the act, the Governor in Council set out regulations prescribing the portion of the term of imprisonment that an inmate must serve in an institution before parole may be granted. Generally speaking, this amounts to one-third of the sentence or seven years, whichever is less. For where violent conduct was involved, half of the sentence must be served or seven years, whichever is less. Life sentences require ten and twenty-five years, or whatever is indicated by the court, as the portion to be served in prison before a parole can even be considered. Judges are aware, of course, of these regulations in pronouncing their sentences. They often make their reasons known to the Board and may add their support or opposition to a future parole. Even though the Board has exclusive jurisdiction and absolute discretion to grant, deny, or revoke parole, the Board highly respects, appreciates, and generally abides by the court's recommendations, if any.
To protect society properly, one cannot just take away one's freedom for a few years and then expect the person to return as a better citizen. One cannot just expect him to have become more in tune with a citizen's duties and responsibilities than he was before he went to prison. Such elements of citizenship are precisely the ones he could hardly learn or practise in prison. Deprivation of liberty, or the very nature of imprisonment, diminish or take away the practice of such fundamental elements of citizenship. The community cannot just write him off when he is sentenced, for he will be back sooner or later (and that is no threat). One should at least remember that most federal prisoners serve between two- and four-year terms.
The NPB can be regarded as the community's input towards the offender's reintegration into the community. Board members are appointed for a five-year term from any profession or vocation. They can impose special conditions on any release, but the Board cannot prevent anyone from being released on Mandatory Supervision.
The Penitentiary Act provided that a person serving a fixed term of imprisonment shall be credited upon admission with statutory remission of one-quarter of his sentence, subject to good behavior. This proved to be an effective tool in the prisons. In addition, the inmate could earn three days remission for each month if he applied himself industriously. However, these provisions were changed by a legislative act in 1969-70. Federal inmates must now earn all of that remission.
Therefore, inmates can now earn up to one-third of their prison term. However, the act also states that, if such a release from a federal prison is longer than sixty days, the offender is subject to parole conditions and Mandatory Supervision (MS) during the remaining time spent in the community. Unsatisfactory performance will result in a return to prison and the Board may revoke his MS. He must then again serve two-thirds of what was left over before again being released on MS.
Such persons were denied parole; they usually display an uncooperative attitude, for they resist intervention, based on "their right" to be released. More than 50% return to prison as they are generally problematic in the community.
CSC — Executors of Punishment?
Reasons for imprisonment are usually to remove a serious threat and/or to strongly denounce the offender's action or omission. The sentence constitutes the punishment and "corrections" are not to inflict further punishment. The length of a sentence cannot be altered, but under legislative acts the degree of deprivation of liberty can be reduced or increased. Therefore the controls and restrictions placed on one's liberty constitute the punishment and the deprivation of freedom can be served in an institution or in the community.
While moving away from the "treatment model" towards the "opportunities model," the offender is to be held responsible and accountable for his behavior. This means that he must also be enabled to make choices and to demonstrate improved, responsible conduct.
Although isolated and deprived of his liberties, the inmate is not relieved of all his obligations as a citizen. To meet these obligations, duties, and responsibilities, the CSC involves both the community and the offender in working towards appropriate ways of reintegration.
The sentence as punishment is restrictive but should not become repressive. Arbitrary exercising of authority and power may lead to vindictive decisions that will only substantiate the sayings that "prison is the breeding ground of crime" and "a means to perpetuate the criminal justice industry."
Regard for the offender as a member of society is and should be basic to the correctional process as well as to all criminal justice agencies. One must admit that this principle is often neglected by individuals who may have lost sight of the overall system, its purpose, and its particular as well as peculiar position. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and the fifth commandment as explained in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q & A 104) certainly provide food for positive thought in this respect.
Not all rights and privileges are lost through imprisonment. That is another stated principle, for inmates are not to become the property of a warden. Unjustified, petty, and perhaps vengeful restrictions will reduce chances of one's becoming a responsible citizen and can result in institutional strife and disruption. On the other hand, permissiveness may lead to a minimized sense of responsibility. At present, the service is continually struggling with enunciation of regulations, procedures, and methods of implementation to strike a sensible balance.
Privileges and the maintenance of privileges are to be earned. All prison inmates are to be involved in constructive activities. Parolees are expected to fulfill all legal and social responsibilities just like other citizens. "Taxusers" are to become "taxpayers." This concept, hopefully, is slowly gaining momentum.
Deprivation of liberty constitutes the punishment, and CSC can have effective control in the institution and in the community to protect society and to secure effective reintegration.
Parole — A Justifiable Service?
In addition to the above, a few reasons may need to be emphasized to justify the existence of a parole system. In certain cases, a parole may reduce the damaging effects of imprisonment. What these are requires the writing of a book. The possibility of parole often encourages positive behavior and participation in institutional programs. Experienced field workers will soon detect manipulations in this respect.
Parole bridges the transition from a restrictive, dependent, and controlled prison existence to a life in the community. This benefits both the offender and the community. Serving his sentence in the community on parole allows the offender to be a wage earner and taxpayer, to support his family, and to contribute to community life. It also costs the taxpayers a lot less than imprisonment: about one-tenth. After all, whom do we serve or who are our clients? The public, the taxpayers.
Parole continues to restrict the offender's activities and freedom, but it also allows him to grow and establish a crime-free life. Social workers may pose these aspects as an unnatural, impossible dualism, but that is a false dichotomy, for restriction of freedom and encouragement of growth are simply two sides of one coin. Exercising control and assisting in growth — is that not what "correction" should be all about?
Parole — On What Criteria?
When a parole officer is required to make recommendation to the Board for a decision to deny or grant a parole, he is not alone. Members in the community, as well as institutional staff and the inmate, are consulted and involved in the process. Together they review and assess the nature and gravity of the offence, the extent of involvement, the demonstrated degree of remorse and level of concern, as well as the restoration made toward the victim or the need and ability to do so, the pattern and length of his criminal history, the sentence, the court's intent, as well as efforts made to improve, the possibility of again becoming involved in criminal activities, and the readiness of the community to receive him and to provide support where and when required.
When the sentence appears not to have had any effect, or when the offender poses a risk to offend again or to be a threat to society, as well as when a release would generally depreciate the seriousness of the offence and promote disrespect of the law, who could or would recommend an early release?
In preparation of a parole or for humanitarian reasons, an inmate may be granted an Unescorted Temporary Absence (UTA). One may from time to time read in the daily news that an offence was committed by an offender on leave. Usually not all the facts are correctly reported. Let it suffice to state that over the past five years an average of 99.6% of these leaves were successfully completed without any incident.
Another area of confusion is the Mandatory Supervision. Although an offender is under supervision, he is not, as often reported, granted an earned parole, but is released by statute. He may be an uncooperative, unwilling candidate who did not get a parole or already lost a parole; i.e., "il ne donnait pas sa parole" (he did not give his word).
A certain degree of ignorance is often displayed by broadcasters and reporters. For example, a reporter stated that an appealed murder conviction was reduced to manslaughter, adding that the prison term was increased from a minimum of 10 years to 20 years. However, any murder conviction results in a life sentence. Therefore, the 20-year sentence in this case is a reduced one, and the 10 years mentioned is only the date of eligibility for parole.
Others may quote a judge stating that the NPB shortens the sentence by releasing inmates on early Mandatory Supervision. This is utter nonsense, for no one can shorten a sentence except the courts. Neither does the NPB grant Mandatory Supervision, let alone an early one.
Although the above may show that this parole officer can "bite," the parole supervisor must make sound and realistic judgments of all the investigative material he obtained or received. He must also make a fair, clear, and honest assessment of the offender and the community. The Board may greatly rely on his integrity before arriving at a decision.
Therefore, a parole supervisor is expected to be a capable judge of character and human behavior in general. He is not what one may call a "bleeding heart" or "Bible pusher," he is not trying to overturn the court's sentence, and he will not abuse his power to return a parolee to prison on a whim or personal dislike. He will clearly distinguish fact from fiction, fair judgment from prejudice, and he will strike a realistic, reasonable balance between serving justice and compassion, between serving the community and the individual. No person can be that perfect; that is why checks and balances are in place to prevent abuse or sliding off track. These include progress reporting requirements, superiors who sign the actual warrant of suspension, as well as suspension hearings by the board and other internal controls.
The most important aspect of the parole supervisor's work is the actual supervision in the community. He does not just receive the parolee in his office as often as required and sign the certificate, nor does he spend most of his time in the community running around to check up on his "boys." Involvement in a case ranges perhaps somewhere in between these extremes. Sometimes therapeutic intervention in employment, his family, or other relationships is required. With other cases, daily contact is necessary to alleviate, for example, suicidal feelings or other intentions. Once a problem area can be clearly defined or isolated, referrals are made and monitored. Each case is different from the next, and one must guard against prejudicial influences.
To properly exercise his powers, duties, and responsibilities, it is my belief that an initial establishment of trust with his client is required of the officer. The best opportunity for starting such a relationship is during the preparation for a parole. Recommendations to grant a parole are not to be made to score popularity points or because the parole officer likes his client, pities his family, or disagrees with the judge. On the contrary, confrontation about the seriousness of the offence, the necessity of a sentence, demonstration of change, lack of guilt, remorse, or concern, and the reality of his situation, are to form the basis for an honest, open, and fair relationship he can rely on. Establishing such a solid rapport often means running the risk of drawing hatred instead, at least for a while.
Once a fellow accused me of my un-Christian attitude for daring to question his expressed certainty that God had forgiven him and that as a Christian he would never be able to do such a crime again. He opened the Bible he carried with him and quoted 1 John 2:12 and 3:9. He felt I should have responded with: "Hallelujah!" or "Praise the Lord!" However, he could not answer my questions about the basis for his certainty and a reason for having been forgiven. A volunteer visitor had convinced him, he said. He was stunned and dismayed when I reminded him about his vindictive offence and when I read Chapter 2:4, "He who says 'I know Him' but disobeys His commandments is a liar," etc. We read more, also verse 3 and Romans 3:20 and following chapters. He requested consequent meetings, also with other team members present. Although he was later only moved to a less secure institution, an appropriate rapport was nevertheless established which may in the future function as a more effective basis than the position of power and authority.
However, there are as many ways of living up to the expectations of a parole supervisor as there are supervisors. They all come from differing backgrounds with a wide assortment of characters, philosophies, education, and experience. Nevertheless, their main goal is to serve society and justice in the best way they know how.
Public pressure on the government to increase sentences will not likely solve the crime problem, for less than one percent of the offenders end up in a federal prison. To send more people to prison and to add laws to imprison those who display primarily social problems, only increases the criminal justice industry and provides more Canadians with a damaging criminal record. Such suggestions are usually based on the false premise that crime can be beaten. Even if prisons could work miracles, the impact on the offence rate would be minimal and never solve the crime problem.
Increased community involvement is called for, in the courts, in prisons, but more so in combatting crime. Arrest shoplifters, for example, and fight fellow employees' pilfering. Overuse of the most severe sanction in Canada, imprisonment, will reduce its deterrent effect. One who hits his child for every infraction will have to beat him more and more to have any effect. Growth towards independence will then be no more than escape from authority. A change in the court system towards cooperation to reach a fair, just, and quick decision is another area the community should become involved in.
The tendency to have the police, courts, and corrections take care of any difficulties with some community members, appears to be a Canadian attitude that requires a change. Who can best combat crime? You and all of us, but not by just spending more money on additional prisons or a "Calvary" next to every city, but rather by supporting the work done and by becoming personally involved. Crime cannot be beaten, but it can be reduced by you and me, each in his own position.
Any views expressed in this paper are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Correctional Service of Canada.