Thin blue line in federal prisons | Jeffrey Hartman

By Jeffrey Hartman

Law360 Canada (February 15, 2023, 11:00 AM EST) --
Jeffrey Hartman
Jeffrey Hartman
The thin blue line is a political symbol promoting the assumption that law enforcement represents a thin line preventing society from spiralling into chaos.

I suppose overpoliced populations would argue the contrary, that law enforcement itself reinforces and reproduces social chaos, and we saw this play out in Parliament last week where the Honourable Blake Desjarlais had this to say:

“The auditor general is yelling at the top of her lungs about the conditions that are often facing Indigenous and Black people in Canada,” he said at a Thursday meeting of the public accounts committee, wiping away tears as he spoke.

“And the systems continuously stay the same.”

Desjarlais was referencing the auditor general’s May 2022 report finding that “CSC failed to identify and eliminate systemic barriers that persistently disadvantaged certain groups,” adding “the over-representation of Indigenous and Black offenders in custody has worsened with higher security classifications, the late delivery of correctional programs and the delayed access to release on parole,” raising similar problems in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

So, while the thin blue line might represent order to some, it is not difficult to find a different perspective on the issue.

Millhaven Institution is a federal prison near Kingston, Ont. I appeared there on Jan. 13, 2023, and observed a correctional officer wearing a thin blue line badge. This troubled me so I reported it to the Canadian Prison Law Association which in turn reported the issue to Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) commissioner Anne Kelly whose staff directed us to Kevin Snedden, regional deputy commissioner for Ontario. On Jan. 26, 2023, I provided a detailed account of my observations to Mr. Snedden who, on the same date, thanked me and advised that my information had been passed on to the warden to follow up. To date I have heard nothing further from CSC on the issue.

I Googled “CSC thin blue line” in preparing this article and discovered I have actually written on this subject before. In my June 10, 2022 piece, I wrote:

Next, CSC correctional officers have been wearing Thin Blue Line patches on their uniforms. The CPLA brought this to CSC commissioner Anne Kelly’s attention in early May 2022. On June 8, Kelly stated:

Following ongoing discussions with the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, I am pleased to report that, at the time of writing this response, Correctional Officers have resumed wearing their uniform properly.

CSC continues to communicate to staff the importance of how they present themselves in uniform and of promoting an image that conveys professionalism to both Canadians and the inmates under our care and custody.

Kelly also confirmed these officers were disciplined although the nature of the discipline was not specified.

Think about this for a moment. It took a critical mass of prisoners to complain to a critical mass of prison lawyers who in turn complained enough to the CPLA which in turn complained to commissioner Kelly for anything to happen. During that time, no one on the ground at CSC said or did anything about the Thin Blue Line patches? Perhaps I have incomplete information; if so, I would welcome a fulsome description of actual concrete steps taken by CSC exclusive of the CPLA’s initiative.

I also advised Mr. Snedden that of the dozens of staff I observed at Millhaven on Jan. 13, 2023, not a single one was wearing a nametag. When I visited a client at Bath Institution on Jan. 20, 2023, only one of perhaps a dozen staff wore a nametag. I raised this to Mr. Snedden for the stated reason that lawyers at the Department of Justice, in defending prisoners’ litigation against CSC, frequently demand the identity of staff involved in a given scenario and then use the lack of identification towards the claimant’s credibility.

Wearing a uniform properly is a pretty basic thing. Enforcing a uniform policy is also a pretty basic thing.

Why can’t CSC do it? Why does CSC allow staff — i.e., public employees executing a public function — to make overtly political statements of an oppressive nature to those who are being oppressed? What discipline, if any, has been meted out? Why do we trust this organization to rehabilitate prisoners? What other policies is CSC not able or only partially able to enforce? These are important questions. CSC spends close to $200,000 a year per prisoner and, at his Nov. 1, 2022, press conference, correctional investigator Ivan Zinger sounded the alarm:

For an organization that spends so much money to have poor correctional outcomes, especially for Indigenous prisoners as well as for Black prisoners, is a real shame and something that Canadians should be concerned with.

Canadians should be concerned, and we should be asking questions.

Jeffrey Hartman is a prison lawyer and one of very few Canadian lawyers pursuing civil/constitutional damage claims against correctional agencies in this country. Jeffrey practises alongside Lockyer Zaduk Zeeh, a prominent criminal defence firm in Toronto, and he is struggling through a PhD in legal studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

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