The Prison Environment

The physical, emotional and psychological prison environment faced by all federal inmates is determined by the prevailing beliefs and attitudes held by the criminal justice system and the general public concerning the appropriateness of certain types of punishment. Some maintain that in order for a punishment to be acceptable to the public, it must clearly demonstrate adverse effects. Others insist that the punishment of incarceration does not have to, and should not, be equated with harm and that the creation of a humane and effective prison environment requires the development of mechanisms with which to reduce deprivation of liberty (Wormith, 1985).

Beliefs and attitudes about punishment can be complex and inconsistent. For example, a 1985 Gallup Poll showed that while over half of those polled felt prisoners had too many rights, 23% felt they had too few rights and almost two thirds felt that greater emphasis in prison should be placed on rehabilitation and community reintegration, even at the expense of security risk (Wormith, 1985). Many people, therefore do not equate prisoners' rights with rehabilitation and reintegration. Unfortunately this inconsistency does not provide the policy makers with any clear guidance from the general public.

While it may be tempting to dismiss the harsh prison environment of the past as archaic and no longer in existence in the modern day, many of the attitudes and practices of over 200 years ago still exist and inmates remain a disadvantaged group socially, legally, and politically. The sentence of banishment is no longer codified in the criminal law, but it is still, in effect, practised when offenders are sentenced to terms in isolated institutions, often great distances from their families, friends and homes. This affects female long term prisoners greatly, as there are only five federal institutions for women. Many female federal inmates are not able to stay in their home provinces, and this causes stress on these women, particularly those who are mothers of young children. And although most forms of corporal punishment have been banned from Canadian institutions, solitary confinement, which is widely considered to violate basic human rights and dignity, is still extensively used as a form of discipline. One report produced for the Solicitor General of Canada pointed out that human isolation was found to have marked physical effects. For instance, the "sudden death" phenomenon has been recorded, whereby inmates die for no apparent pathogenic reason, but from a sense of hopelessness and despair resulting from feeling that they have no control over their circumstances or future (John Howard Society of Winnipeg, 1990). Inmates are still subject to censorship, limited conjugal and visiting opportunities, inadequate treatment and training facilities and almost unlimited transfers. They cannot vote in some provinces and have limited privacy and access to procedural due process. Prisoners theoretically have the same basic human rights as anyone else in society, but these rights are only as accessible to the inmate as current penitentiary administrative policies and procedures will allow.

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