Anti-Black Racism in Canadian Prisons Remains Rampant, Despite Government Pledges
Systemic racism is built into Canada’s prison system, but federal parties have little to offer incarcerated Black Canadians and their families.
This article originally appeared in The Breach.
More than a year on from a supposed reckoning over anti-Black racism in institutions, Black people in Canada’s prisons are providing startling examples that underline nothing has changed.
According to testimonials provided to The Breach, Black prisoners reported being called “monkeys” or the n-word by correctional officers.
One Black prisoner described how he was called “lazy”—a stereotype levelled at Black people since slavery—and denied prison employment despite clear evidence that he was suitable for the position.
After a Black prisoner submitted a request for a temporary absence to take his family to the zoo, a prison officer asked if he wanted to go because he was from Africa.
When a guard mistook a Black prisoner for another Black prisoner, she said, “all you guys look alike.”
Most, if not all, incidents of explicit racism like these remain unacknowledged or go unpunished, and incarcerated Black people are unable to react to these aggressions, no matter how egregious.
If they react, they are the ones blamed. If they file a complaint, they are often pressured to withdraw it, and they have even been threatened if they stand their ground. If a complaint goes through, it is usually denied without a proper investigation resulting in no serious consequences for the officer involved in the racist incident.
As widespread reports surface of verbal and physical abuse and discrimination in Canadian prisons, advocates and prisoners are raising concerns that systemic racism continues to lead to longer incarcerations, harsher punishments and daily degradation for Black prisoners in particular.
Yet no major political party appears ready to meaningfully address the anti-Black racism embedded in one of the country’s most secretive and powerful government agencies: Correctional Service of Canada.
While the Liberals presented Bill C-22, which aimed at tackling the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, the proposed amendments suggested no changes to the way sentences are managed by Corrections Canada.
Corrections Canada says it will fight racism in its prisons, but it shies away from acknowledging that systemic racism is built into the culture and workings of its institutions.
Black prisoners frequently report that Corrections Canada staff perceive them as hostile, belligerent, and intimidating because of the way they carry and express themselves.
“If we’re assertive… [guards say] we’re being aggressive,” one Black prisoner explained to The Breach. “If we disagree, we’re being confrontational.”
According to another testimony, one correctional manager told a Black man accused of having an intimidating attitude that it was normal for anyone to feel intimidated if they were to enter a room and see three Black men standing together.
The names of prisoners have been kept anonymous to ensure safety from punishment or repercussions.
Following the police murder of George Floyd and the eruption of protests across Canada and the United States in 2020, Corrections Canada Commissioner Anne Kelly wrote an open letter to Canadian federal prisoners and their families saying she recognised the need to learn from Black people and “to do better.” Soon after, Corrections Canada created a joint working group with the Parole Board of Canada to look at racism and diversity in the federal corrections and conditional release system.
More recently, Kelly wrote a second open letter to federal prisoners in which she underlined that Corrections Canada was “committed to ensuring our programs, policies and practices are responsive to the unique needs of Black, Indigenous and ethnocultural offenders in our care.”
But Black prisoners themselves tell a very different story about this country’s prisons. It’s a story of ongoing institutional anti-Black racism that has been permitted at every level of the administration, from the direct racism of guards to policies, rules, and procedures that entrench institutionalized discrimination. It raises serious questions about the sincerity of Corrections Canada’s efforts to address the racial biases and discrimination that have repeatedly been identified in their prisons.
More than a year after Floyd’s murder, Black prisoners have yet to see Corrections Canada take tangible, sustainable and substantial measures to address systemic racism, let alone recognize it.
The Breach heard testimonials from Black prisoners about their experiences in the prison system, and from other lawyers and advocates whose imprisoned Black clients tell similar stories. Imprisoned Black people say that their skin colour matters more than ever before, and they are being reminded of it every day. They tell us that they are suffering.
Consider how the police murder of George Floyd inspired an otherwise apathetic American and international public to acknowledge anti-Black racism in American policing because we could see it: the video of Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into Floyd’s throat was instrumental in affecting public opinion and galvanizing resistance to police violence. Credible witnesses to police brutality came forward; data about racially motivated police bias accumulated.
Comparatively, a lack of media attention, public awareness, and effective oversight has enabled a culture of anti-Black racism in Canadian penitentiaries. There are no cell phones to record racially motivated attacks, and those who witness institutional or guard mistreatment of prisoners are called unreliable, or are forced to remain silent because they know better than to testify against an officer or challenge the system. Even when video recordings are potentially available, getting access to those recordings can take years (as with the seven-year delay Christophe Lewis endured to access the recording of an abusive use of force incident that he suffered at the hands of guards).
Federal government has long known of anti-Black racism in its prisons
Data about Black prisoners’ experiences in Canadian prisons is virtually nonexistent. The Correctional Investigator’s report on The Black Inmate Experience in Federal Penitentiaries marked the last time Black prisoners’ experience was seriously considered. That was 2013. Despite the report’s damning findings, nothing has changed.
A senate report entitled Human Rights of Federally Sentenced Persons, which relates shocking cases of racism, describes Corrections Canada’s culture as defensive and characterised by secrecy and intimidation, and expresses serious concern “with the wide range of testimony pointing to ongoing discrimination in federal correctional facilities.” The report also highlights the failures of Corrections Canada’s complaint system, including the issue of guard intimidation and the rarity that complaints are addressed. Imprisoned people, it explains, often “avoid filing grievances because the process is ineffective and they fear intimidation and retaliation.”
Corrections Canada staff’s perception of Black people as threatening extends to Black visitors to prisons. Black families visiting loved ones in prison have reported being unfairly criminalized and harassed by Corrections Canada staff. Ultimately, Black people are the ones expected to correct their behaviour. Staff members’ perceptions of that behaviour, which are undoubtedly clouded by conscious or unconscious biases about Blackness, are never questioned.
The 2013 correctional investigator’s report explains that Black prisoners “are more likely to be charged with misconduct that involves subjective judgement on the part of correctional officers (e.g. disrespect toward staff, disobeying a rule, etc.).” When clear evidence of prisoner misbehaviour is required, Black prisoners are less likely to be charged. In other words, discretionary charges, which are based on staff perceptions rather than evidence, are marked by staff biases against Black people.
These discretionary charges and biases can result in the denial of parole (which means more time behind bars), less privileges or access to rehabilitative programming, increased surveillance, and even a higher security classification (incarcerated in a maximum rather than a medium security prison, for example).
Superficial changes aren’t enough
Correctional staff lack training about the reality of Black people’s experiences with the criminal justice system, and in Canada more broadly. The Black Lives Matter movement highlighted how Black people are consistently mistreated by law enforcement. Anyone with lived experience of frequent, racially motivated police search and frisk would distrust police officers, and the justice system in general. Yet there is no recognition of, or systematic effort to account for, the historical marginalization and state surveillance of Black bodies at Corrections Canada. In Canadian prisons, Black people must bury their feelings, as any perceived negative views of authority figures are interpreted as anti-social or marginal values, which can result in higher security or the denial of parole.
Ensuring that Corrections Canada staff receive effective and ongoing anti-racism training—and requiring oversight to ensure that the training occurs and is appropriate—and hiring a more ethnically diverse staff is important. Yet solving an institutional problem through staffing deflects responsibility from the people who hold power, like wardens, regional commissioners, or Commissioner Kelly, who have allowed a strongly embedded culture of impunity to prevail. It also burdens newly hired racialized officers with the responsibility of changing a racist culture, once again asking Black and other racialized people to solve predominantly white racism while disregarding how racism is systemic and part of the bureaucratic structure of the prison system itself.
Anti-racism training and an ethnically diverse staff fall short of being a complete solution since anti-Black racism affects every aspect of the prison experience. Black prisoners present lower rates of re-offending but are more likely to be placed in maximum security institutions where access to programs is limited. They are also less likely to be granted parole or temporary absence. Black people are overrepresented in Corrections Canada’s segregated population and in “use of force” incidents, according to a March 2017 letter from the correctional investigator to Senator Jim Munson, chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights. Black prisoners spend longer in “Structured Intervention Units”—a form of isolation that replaced segregation—than other groups, according to a recent external review of the practice; and risk assessments have repeatedly been found to be biased against Black prisoners, most recently by a 2020 Globe and Mail report.
A spokesperson for Corrections Canada told The Breach the institution is “developing an anti-racism framework, which has three pillars ofS focus: inmates, employees and stakeholders.”
“[Corrections Canada] has already begun engaging with its National Ethnocultural Advisory Committee (NEAC) on this draft framework,” and is seeking input from a variety of sources, including from “members of Black communities from across Canada.” The spokesperson added that Corrections Canada has launched “the Ethnocultural Action Framework,” which is “designed to enhance organizational capacity to respond with agility and inclusivity to the needs of ethnocultural offenders.”
But while the institution has had many opportunities to change in the past, it has done very little, if anything, to mitigate the racism inherent in the system. Not only has Corrections Canada failed Black prisoners, it has failed incarcerated Indigenous people and its elderly population; it has failed its own Indigenous and racialized employees, and, as a result, it has been facing an increasing number of lawsuits in recent years. Given this poor record, Black incarcerated individuals say they have little, if any, expectations when it comes to the commissioner’s announcement that she wants to “fight against racism and discrimination.”
Corrections Canada needs significant changes that can only happen when mandated from outside the organization’s power structure and overseen by third-party groups who will make visible Black lives behind bars in Canadian prisons and listen to Black prisoners.
Or perhaps Corrections Canada’s history of failed changes suggests that the prison system can’t be reformed but should be replaced: from an outdated vision of punishment to a community-based strategy that sees justice in education, mental healthcare, anti-racism, housing, and equal economic opportunities.
With anti-Black racism in Canadian prisons an apparent afterthought among federal parties this election, there is little impetus for Corrections Canada and whichever party governs next to end the systemic racism in Canada’s correctional system.
Simon Rolston lives in Vancouver, and he writes about criminal justice systems, prison writing, and American literature. His book, Prison Life Writing: Conversion and the Literary Roots of the U.S. Prison System, was recently published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press.