Parole, from inside looking out | David Dorson

By David Dorson

Law360 Canada (November 10, 2023, 9:30 AM EST) -- I was thinking about parole even before I was sentenced. Every federal prisoner does, even those facing many years inside before being eligible. Yet my encounter with the parole process, as for most prisoners, was one of constant frustration. It often seemed their prime goal was to keep us in jail longer.

In Canada you are eligible for parole after serving one-third of your sentence, if your application is approved by the Parole Board of Canada. We used to allow “accelerated parole” at one-sixth of sentence for the many prisoners who were considered very unlikely to commit another crime but this option was abolished by the Harper government and has not been reinstated. 

Understanding what parole is

Parole does not, as it sometimes suggested, mean “freedom” from your sentence. It means only that you may serve part of your sentence while living in the community rather than in a prison. While on parole you are closely supervised and subject to many restrictions (such as not being allowed in certain places or not being allowed to drink alcohol). You can be sent back to prison at any time and for any reason. One of my housemates was sent back for four months on a trumped-up accusation that was later abandoned — after he had four more months in prison away from his family and work.

Parole in Canada has a strong record of success, with only a tiny portion of parolees ever convicted of another crime. Parole can help prisoners reintegrate into society while also being vastly less expensive than imprisonment. Data on all this are readily available by searching “CCRSO Canada” for the annual report of the Parole Board. Yet many prisoners do not get parole at all, and those who do rarely get it in the timelines prescribed in law. 

They want to keep us here longer

From my first day in prison, the consistent message was that I was a bad person and a threat to society. Parole, prisoners are frequently told, is a privilege, not a right, though in fact there is a legislative entitlement to it. The system behaves as if it can disregard the rules on parole — as prisons do in many areas. It is hard to describe the sense of powerlessness I felt sitting in the office of some minor functionary who has, and evidently liked to use, the power to keep me in prison for months or years longer.

In one of my first letters home from minimum security — a few months after I began serving my sentence — I wrote: “I have heard already that they often delay parole through various means — they seem to want to keep people longer, though the reason for that eludes me.” This was after my first meeting with my parole officer in the prison, who was not optimistic about a quick parole for me even though the judge and all the assessments had declared me to be very low risk for committing another crime. 

In my next letter, a couple of weeks later, I wrote: “As we talk to other prisoners about it we hear plenty of stories of similar or even worse errors, in which people are given hopes that are later dashed. I really can’t understand why the system seems to want to keep us all here longer when the law specifies parole dates; everyone here has already been designated as very low risk and the cost of keeping us is high. Yet it seems to be the norm that almost nobody gets parole on their official eligibility dates.”

No information

One aspect of parole that struck me was that I couldn’t get any reliable information about the process or my own prospects. Prisoners get no written information on how the parole system works. I actually read the statute and regulations on parole, but few prisoners would have the background to understand the legal language even if their reading capacity was sufficient. Our laws and regulations are written for lawyers, not for lay people.

We prisoners were forced to rely on other prisoners’ experience and rumours. But this was problematic because different parole officers (there were four or five working in the prison where I was held) told different stories to different people. A couple of parole officers in this prison were widely considered by prisoners to be mean or incompetent; I was lucky not to be assigned to one of those but knew prisoners who were and suffered for it.

Ups and downs

My hopes for parole went up and down several times. At the start of my time, I hoped I could get a hearing within about six months, which is the legal requirement. However, the prison psychologist determined that I would have to do a “program” before being paroled, even though I did not meet the official criteria for having to do so. Such programs — I’ll have more to say about them in a future column — typically take several months to complete, and, as the auditor general found, are not provided frequently enough to meet the demand, resulting in many delays in parole. The delays cost vastly more than it would to offer more programs but CSC seems uninterested in fixing this problem. 

I was then told that the program I was required to take would not be offered at this prison for many months, which would delay my parole significantly. However, if I “wanted” they would transfer me to a higher security prison for several months to do the program there. Nobody wants to go to a higher security prison! This is a typical prison choice, just the way that if you don’t “choose” to take a job to which they assign you, your daily allowance is eliminated, and you lose any chance of parole. 

Fortunately, before I had to make that decision, I was informed that the prison was going to offer the program I was required to take, so I could stay put. At that point — about three months after my arrival at minimum, I was once again optimistic about when I might get a parole hearing. This optimism also turned out to be unfounded, but that’s a tale for another day. 

David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. Law360 Canada has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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