New book, new approaches to corrections | John Chaif

By John Chaif

Law360 Canada (September 25, 2023, 1:06 PM EDT) --
John Chaif
John Chaif
I started my life sentence in 1983. I went through 39 years of imprisonment and multiple attempts to “fix” the judicial system. Not one attempt has started and ended positively. The punitive mind-set always takes over and nullifies the beneficial aspects of the attempt.

I have just finished reading Benjamin Perrin's book Indictment: The Criminal Justice System on Trial scheduled to be published in October (University of Toronto Press). This review speaks of my experiences in relation to the expressions of the author.

The first part of the book is anecdotal and evidence-based statistical data on the effect of the justice system on offenders and victims alike.

In the second part of the book the author has also done well in explaining how other nations have dealt with some of these problems and how their solutions would address the failings of our present system.

The book is a classic example of how life’s experiences can bring about a change within our understanding. The author has clearly had some kind of experientially induced transformation of his perception of the Canadian justice system. His father-in-law suffers an addiction to crack cocaine and a had a run-in with the judicial system. Whatever the initial shock, we need to remember the author is not speaking from first-person experience.

As a result of the shift within Perrin’s perception and understanding of the justice system he has bravely admitted his previous stance on crime and punishment was wrong. But the book suffers from a lack of real direction on how to affect change. While the author was in-house counsel for the Harper government which viciously and without mercy attacked some of the very programs the author now recognizes as effective tools for positive movement toward a safer society.

Peer support groups such as Lifeline, a program using successful lifers to assist other lifers to rehabilitate and reintegrate back into society in positive ways, was cancelled and dismantled. The Lifeline program was funded and controlled by Correctional Services Canada. When started there were six liaison workers and two administrative support staff. The liaison staff were all serving life sentences and had been in their communities on full parole for a number of years. These successful lifers would enter the federal prisons to meet with both groups of lifers and individual lifers. Their focus was enabling lifers to adjust to their life sentences while teaching them how to prepare for eventual release. Part of the preparation would be encouragement to participate in cognitive behavioural programming to address criminogenic factors or to take other programs useful to rehabilitation and reintegration.

Another aspect of this preparation would have the liaisons actively promoting reconnections with community services needed by long-term prisoners trying to re-enter society. Reconnecting with services such as a health card, driver’s licence and mental health services would be a small part of that work that may need to be done. The liaison would be able to attend parole board hearings in the role of assistant to the offender. The author should have included ways in which the public could participate in changing the destructive elements of the justice system so that our system actually begins to heal the damage done.

Volunteer programs (volunteer members of the community participating in a wide variety of activities inside the prisons) had funding cut. Support staff for these programs were reassigned. Porousity of prison walls was sealed off through the imposition of impractical demands upon the volunteers with regard to hours of training and security clearance procedures. The aid and assistance of volunteers was denied prisoners trying to change their personal understandings of how to live peaceful and productive lives.

Post-secondary education access continued to be denied. As access to online education became the main form of distance-learning the denial of access to the Internet and those sites became more damaging to the hopes of prisoners wanting to improve themselves. Again impractical demands upon those post-secondary teachers willing to establish courses inside prisons created oppressive barriers to higher education.

Education in technology has remained stagnant or suffered regression as more and more of these programs moved to Internet provision. Prisoners were denied access out of fear and the ignorance of the penal administrators.

Training in trades was given lip service while Canadians everywhere suffer from lack of access to services like electricians, plumbers, carpenters, masons, etc.

All the elements the author now recognizes as being critical to the reduction in recidivist crime and important to a healthier society were attacked under the Harper government. And the present government has been slow to move our social justice into the 21st century.

The author feels the whole system should be scrapped. And I will help you see how simple shifts in emphasis within the present penal system can be economically beneficial or feasible and stand a far better chance of actually happening.

  • Reintegrate volunteer activities. This would increase community values within the prisons because volunteers carry those values within them and will express them directly or indirectly during all of their interactions with staff and prisoner alike.
  • Restore peer support groups.
  • Restore the Citizens Advisory Committees and give them more input into daily realities of imprisoned life. Allow these volunteer committees more ability to bring community values to the decision-making processes of the administrators and implementers, with a focus on the principles and actions of restorative justice.
  • Encourage and promote post-secondary teachers coming in to teach post-secondary classes.
  • Create controlled access to the websites providing post-secondary education.
  • Implement the program John Howard Society has tried for over a decade to create by allowing tradesmen from community companies to enter and train offenders in the trades their businesses utilize. The offender can then return to the community to work for those companies.
  • Bring the labour laws into the prison and allow the prisoners to join a union, so the prisoners learn how to function in a proper work environment – paying taxes, contributing to their pension plans, accessing scholarship funds and contributing to the overall social infrastructure.
  • Remove the punitive and discriminatory elements within other parts of our legal social structure such as the denial of Old Age Supplement (OAS) to prisoners. Remove the arbitrary denial of access to other government assistance programs and taxation benefits.
  • Give the Office of the Correctional Investigator, the federal prison ombudsmen, real teeth. Give this office the ability to enforce systemic change.
  •  Repair the grievance process so that corrective actions can be enforced in a timely manner.

Perrin’s book is clear, concise, articulate and well-informed. He has clearly spent a great deal of effort on his research and conveys his findings in a very readable manner. He has edited the anecdotal evidence in such a way as to preserve the gist without losing the reader in unnecessary details. 

There are concerns with the basic construction of the book. The author has done well in listing the problems with the judicial system. The author has also done well in explaining how other nations have dealt with some of these problems.

However, Perrin has not brought to the table clear direction on the actions that could be taken by the legislation or the general public to bring about the changes he so clearly indicates the system needs.

While the author is quick to illuminate the need for change, he does not use his life experiences with governments, policy and legislation to draw a roadmap for the legislators and the public to affect change.

As noted above, I have offered some suggestions in this regard.

In 1983, at the age of 27, John Chaif was sentenced to life in prison with 25 years until parole eligibility. In 1988 he escaped from Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont. He was later rearrested in the United States and spent six years in the federal prison system there before being transferred back to Canada. Chaif has spent a great deal of time inside advocating against systemic abuses, including abuses relating to prison labour. His advocacy has at times attracted the attention and opposition of prison authorities. Earlier this year he won a Federal Court challenge he brought after being denied day parole (Chaif v. Canada (Attorney General), 2022 FC 182). Chaif was subsequently released from prison on day parole this past May at the age of 67. He now continues his activism on the outside, as a vocal proponent for the human rights of prisoners.

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