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Prisoner rights activism alive and well | John L. Hill

Monday, August 16, 2021 @ 2:24 PM | By John L. Hill

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John L. Hill
“Lock ’em up and throw away the key!” That is the response one receives from many unaccustomed to how our correctional systems operate. Every so often, along comes a dedicated group of individuals willing to tackle issues that can have a profound effect on injustices towards prisoners and a deleterious effect on rehabilitation. Most prisoners will return to society after being incarcerated. It is in society’s best interests that these individuals are given the supports they need to re-enter society and not become recidivists.

All Canadians, I think, owe a debt of gratitude to the fine work of several groups who strive to ensure that prisoners re-entering our communities do so with an attitude that will allow their reintegration to be successful. I want to name two such groups and compliment them on their valiant efforts that became apparent in 2021. Although there are others, two groups stand out in particular:

The first is the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic. This is a university-sponsored teaching operation that allows law students to get a “hands-on” demonstration of how Canada’s prison system operates. In 2019, Paul Quick, the clinic staff lawyer, with the assistance of Ryan Mullins (Law ’20) and Alexa Bannister-Thompson (Law ’21) challenged the correctional service and the parole board in order to right a wrong that saw certain inmates kept incarcerated beyond their statutory release date. The decision of the Ontario Superior Court was handed down in January 2021. (John Howard Society of Canada v. Canada (Attorney General) 2021 ONSC 380). The court held that it was a violation of s. 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to hold an inmate beyond his presumptive statutory release date simply because the law allowed the correctional service and the Parole Board of Canada a total of 120 days to keep a prisoner jailed to await a decision to cancel or revoke a suspension of release.

The issue had not been challenged mostly because the prisoner was either too impecunious or unable to bring an action in time to avoid the issue being moot or both. Inmates unjustly detained often become angry and pose a threat of future criminal activity upon release. The Queen’s Prison Law clinic stepped in and righted this wrong to the benefit of us all.

The second group deserving our commendation is the Senate of Canada. Prior to COVID-19 lockdowns, the Senate’s Standing Committee on Human Rights spent two years visiting penitentiaries across Canada looking into systemic problems. In June of this year, a 326-page report was released. There were 71 recommendations advanced that will force the correctional service to deal with issues that have been readily apparent but ignored for years. These issues include over-representation of Indigenous, Black and other racialized minorities, access to health care, enhanced rehabilitation and reintegration programs and greater oversight and accountability when force is used, or prisoners kept in solitary confinement.

One of the standing committee members, Sen. Kim Pate, underlined that it is essential to ensure that prisoners re-entering society (as they surely will) emerge better from prison than when they went in.

People who have no or only limited understanding of how Canada’s correctional systems work will be unmoved by these efforts to effect change. Yet all Canadians will benefit in the long term by reduced recidivism. Once in a while, we should acknowledge our gratitude for groups such as those mentioned here who work not just for prisoners but for us all.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. Contact him at

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