This paper looks at the issue of prisoner rights and the opportunities that are available in order to address inmate grievances. The emphasis will be on the Alberta experience. In particular, the roles and functions of the Alberta Ombudsman and the Federal Correctional Investigator are examined, including a brief history of both offices. Furthermore, the principles of the John Howard Society are examined in relation to inmate concerns. This paper also briefly examines the early history of both prison conditions and prisoner treatment. In relation to present day inmate concerns, the paper looks at the nature of complaints and alternatives for resolution.


In 1831, a legislative committee in Upper Canada (now Ontario) raised the issue of prison size and administration. It was found that the existing jails were too small and primitive, creating a breeding ground for destructive and hardened criminals. In an attempt to resolve these problems, Kingston Penitentiary was constructed, becoming the first penal institution to be opened in Upper Canada. The Penitentiary was opened in 1835 while still under construction and served as a new home to those prisoners serving sentences of two or more years. Kingston Penitentiary quickly developed a reputation of being a tough place to do time, as illustrated in its four basic principles of discipline and control: Prisoners should be kept in solitary confinement when not at work; a strict rule of silence should be maintained, but they were permitted to communicate with the guards; a regime of discipline was to be enforced, constant collective employment would keep the convicts busy.

The penal system at this time believed in punishing to deter (Packer, 1971, p. 103). Kingston Penitentiary was not immune to this way of thinking. The use of the cat-o-nine tails (a whip with nine knotted lines fastened to a handle) and the rawhide was frequent. There could be as many as 40 public whippings in one morning (Gosselin, 1982, p. 72). Kingston's severe guidelines are illustrated in the amount of floggings handed out for petty infractions:

Laughing and talking: 6 lashes, cat-o-nine tails
Talking in wash house: 6 lashes, rawhide
Threatening to knock convict's brains out: 24 lashes, cat-o-nine tails
Staring about and inattentive at breakfast table: bread and water
Leaving work and going to privy when other convict there: 36 hours in dark cell and bread and water (Gosselin, 1982, p. 72).

Around 1867, the idea of incentives as a form of criminal reform evolved, granting well-behaved prisoners privileges such as "lights at night for reading, frequent letter-writing opportunities, and membership in the chapel choir" (Calder, 1985, p. 298). The removal of privileges became a more common form of punishment as deprivation and isolation were more effective than flogging as a means of control.