Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Canadian Prisoner Reflects on "Life" in Prison and the Conservative Crime Agenda

Prison politics diverting public’s attention

by: Gregory J. McMaster - June 27, 2012

When media covers prisons in general and Correctional Service Canada (CSC) in particular, headlines traditionally mention murder, riot or escape. Along with the changing political landscape we now see the country’s federal penitentiary system being utilized for political sound bites. The federal government is generating the recent news cycles, not prisoners. Many citizens and most prisoners believe the politics of prison are being used to divert attention away from headlines, such as the F-35 fighter jet debacle and robo-call federal election scandal.
More spirited legislation and policy changes are being rushed through Parliament. Most changes will have devastating effects on the correctional system, the men and women imprisoned there and ultimately the society they will be released to. Dire warnings from judges, lawyer’s associations, constitutional law professors, parole board of Canada and CSC administrators are arrogantly ignored.
It would appear the current government’s objective is pandering to the right-wing extremism of the Conservative party and solidifying their base. Penitentiary wardens and front line correctional staff are learning of many policy changes the same day prisoners are. By any standards, this is not a responsible way to run a federal penitentiary system.
Canada Corrections is at the precipice of slipping back into the draconian dark ages of dungeons, torture and daily doses of brutality; as it was a mere 40 years ago. Broader reaching correctional powers to be misused, no real watchdog and no opportunity for civil remedy is a recipe for human rights abuse.
The ultimate goal of a civilized county’s correctional system should be to assist prisoners in modifying their behaviour and thought process in order to return them to society as stabilized members of the community.
With significant changes recently made to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, the current government has thrown the concept of rehabilitation, redemption, forgiveness and starting over out the window. Instead the focus has become retribution, punishment and human rights violations.
A junior high school student can figure out treating men and women in this manner will harden and entrench criminogenic beliefs and values, not change them for the better. Welcome to the industrial complex of prison building.
The current government wants an American-style prison system. The only measurable success from the monumentally failed American penal experiment is corrupt politicians and prison industry moguls becoming extremely wealthy. With an American-style prison system comes American-style riots, countless unnecessary deaths and unfettered mayhem.
Having spent 15 years confined to U.S. maximum security and super maximum security prisons I know exactly what’s coming. With no rights, no protections and no recourse prisoners across Canada will believe they have no choice other than to rise up and once again shed their life’s blood in a desperate cry for help.
History repeats itself. Four decades later a country has forgotten the 1971 Kingston Penitentiary riot that tested its national conscience and brought the debate of humane treatment of prisoners to the forefront.
Downplaying the severity of overcrowding across the country, Correctional Service Canada employs word games to skew statistics.
Double bunking
(one prisoner stacked on top of the other) versus double occupancy (side by side beds)
Fenbrook Medium Security Institution is my current place of incarceration and statistical reference point. Similar attempts to skew statistics are replicated across the country. CSC will state 15.7 per cent of the Fenbrook population is double bunked. Factually, 68.4 per cent of the Fenbrook population shares their cell with another prisoner.
CSC will state Fenbrook prisoners are housed in rooms, not cells. In direct contradiction CSC policy definition of a cell states: “Cell area contained by walls or partitions designed to accommodate one or two inmates.”
A Fenbrook double-bunk cell is 6.8 feet wide; double occupancy cell is 11 feet. The additional 4.2 feet of width seems significant until the second wardrobe, desktop and bed frame are factored in. What CSC statistics never mention is the other human being perpetually in your head space. There is zero privacy and constant intrusion.
In most cases prisoners are not permitted to select their cellmate. Overcrowding means whatever steps off the transfer bus is what gets jammed into your cell. This includes mental health patients, active drug addicts, communicable diseases and scurrilous informants fabricating stories to curry favour. Sometimes you just get the whole miserable ball of wax, an all-in-one package with maladies you cannot begin to imagine.
Doesn’t matter if CSC calls it double bunked or double occupancy; the majority of prisoners I know refer to it as double-bunked hell. As a direct result violence is on a severe upswing.
The correctional investigator of Canada is highlighted in the public’s eye and held up as the country’s watchdog on corrections. Factually, the correctional investigator can only make recommendations and has zero enforcement powers.
The federal government makes sure the correctional watchdog has no teeth and can never bite.
Taking the toothless watchdog theory one step further, the correctional investigator of Canada cannot be subpoenaed by abused prisoners to give evidence at trial. The correctional investigator is literally barred from testifying about the investigations it conducts and the abuse it documents.
To be fair, within the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada there are professional, hard-working men and women fighting to be ethical. In a queer travesty of justice there are times when free citizens of Canada working for the correctional investigator are just as handcuffed as I am.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced a one-third pay cut for all prisoners. In a political sound bite unsupported by facts, Mr. Toews rationalized since citizens spend approximately one-third of their earned income on room and board, prisoners should too.
Problem is prison salaries are not remotely comparable to those of society. Most prisoners are paid pennies per hour, not dollars. Adding insult to injury we are charged real world dollars for everything we purchase.
Canadian prisoners have not had a pay increase since the early 1980s. Most goods we have access to have tripled in price since then. We have no collective bargaining and cost of living increases are nonexistent.
Mr. Toews ignores the fact prisoners are already forced to cover the cost of many essentials, such as medical devices, dental care, shampoo, Tylenol and toilet paper. The list of basic needs and essentials the government has cut is overwhelming and we are constantly forced to make hard choices.
Cutting our measly salary by one-third when we actually need a dramatic pay increase turns difficult into impossible. The 30-year-old policy of paying prisoners pennies per hour was based on a formula where room and board are already deducted.
Personally, a pay reduction means I will no longer be able to afford telephone contact with my wife, sister and elderly mother. Through kickback arrangements between CSC and the phone provider I pay 23 cents per minute, every minute. Calling plans are not allowed.
Mr. Toews also announced prisoners would be paying more for their phone service.
Many prisoners use their meager salaries to help support their families. A one-third pay cut means there will not be children’s birthday presents, Christmas presents, child support, help with rent or keeping the car on the road.
Through political sound bites, drastic changes taking place behind prison walls and fences are touted as cost-saving measures. Continuing to commit untold millions of tax dollars to pursue the already failed drug intervention experiment seems a direct contradiction to the stated goal of cutting costs. Not surprisingly, in response to Mr. Toews’ severe punitive measures, many prisoners are surrendering hope and turning to drugs for solace.
Considering the current government’s total lack of transparency on seemingly everything I am perplexed by the taxpayers’ complete disinterest in a nationwide building project within federal penitentiaries. The end result will not be a typical, “It’s a government contract, what did you expect?” joke. The “unforeseen cost overruns” for this calamity will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Continuously incarcerated since 1978, I have been studying the prison system in the United States and Canada for over three decades. Besides living it, I also expound on prison life through television specials, national radio interviews, newspaper articles, magazine essays, university textbooks and civil lawsuits.
Judges, professors, criminologists, editors, publishers and producers have all credited me with being a factual source of prison news. I know what it is when I see it because I have seen it so many times before.
I suspect millions of dollars will be siphoned off every prison construction project in the country to line the pockets of politicians and their cronies. Not only does history have a habit of repeating itself, quite frankly within the booming industry of prison construction it has always been this way.
A thought on “experts” and Corrections. To ascertain the services required for a prisoner to serve his/her sentence in a productive, healthy and reflective manner, the governing bodies should be listening to the real experts: the men and women who break their bread and wrestle their sleepless nights in the steel and concrete cages. We will be quite frank and tell you exactly what it is we need to survive, to grow and to change.
Listening doesn’t cost a cent, nor does using common sense. Continuing on the current path will eventually bankrupt the government (as it has several U.S. states) and cause Canadians to once again question the conscience of a nation.
Please don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger. When honest or more intelligent minds prevail I would relish the opportunity to engage politicians and the citizens they purportedly serve on the realities of prison life.

• • • •
In 1978, appellant Gregory J. McMaster pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of a police officer in Minnesota. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and has been serving that sentence in the Minnesota prison system.
In 1978 and 1979, McMaster was charged in Canada with having committed three first-degree murders there prior to his arrest for the murder of the police officer in Minnesota. Canada initially requested McMaster’s extradition in 1979, and protracted discussions and negotiations ensued between the US and Canada.
In 1992, Canada submitted an updated extradition request, later that year, in a proceeding initiated by the US, a Magistrate Judge 1 conducted an extradition hearing, determined the pertinent facts, and certified McMaster’s extradition to Canada. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


The latest 2012 International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA) hosted by Trinidad and Tobago June 13-15 presented some interesting arguments and talks from activists, former prisoners, and scholars attending from all over the world. To view video copies of presentations from the conference see: Video Presentations ICOPA 2012

also see the University of Trinidad and Tobago web page on the conference:

To learn more about ICOPA 2012 and to stay up to date on future conference dates and submission call outs see:

"Ruth Rittenhouse Morris was a Canadian 
activist, scholar, and Quaker. She was at the forefront of the early prison abolition movement, and a founding member of the International Conference on Prison Abolition (ICOPA) which is one of the most prominent abolitionist groups working today."  learn more about Ruth: 

Also founded by Ruth was the Toronto based Rittenhouse.  A small one staff member organization mandated to provide the public education on prison and prison abolition.  "Find out more here:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Woman Asks Judge for Federal Time

A surprise twist in the case of a 19-year-old who was to be sentenced Friday for a knife-point robbery she committed in April.
Camille Strickland-Murphy has asked Judge Pamela Goulding to give her more than two years in prison so she can go to a federal facility in Nova Scotia because she and her family fear she won't get the medical treatment she needs in her home province.
In May her lawyer, Peter Ralph, had suggested she be given a sentence of less than two years so she could serve her time in this province and be near her supportive family.
Crown lawyer Bill Carigan said Strickland-Murphy, who used a knife to rob another woman at a St. John's bank machine, should be sentenced to three years in prison.
Strickland-Murphy has dealt with mental illness most of her life.
The last time she appeared in court Ralph raised concerns that the psychiatrist at Her Majesty's Penitentiary, Dr. David Craig, would change her medication.
"I've been advised that Dr. Craig intends on changing my client's prescription while she is in custody, which is disturbing. Certainly, there is a number of psychiatrists who thought that a prescription for anxiety is important for her and she has been advised by Dr. Craig that he is going to stop that medication when she is in custody," he said on May 25.
On Friday, Ralph said that's exactly what has happened to Strickland-Murphy who has been in custody since her arrest.
Other inmates have complained in the past about Craig's prescribing practices.
His approach to medicating prisoners is currently under review.
In March 2011, the provincial justice minister ordered a peer review of Craig's work at the penitentiary but it hasn't reported yet.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Long Term Solitary Confinement Goes to Court in California

Think this couldn't happen in Canada?  Think it hasn't already?  Prison officials find all kinds of excuses for circumventing rights protections currently in place for people inside.  With the direction we are going it shouldn't take long at all for this kind of torture to be widespread in Canada's pens too!

 Update about 'Support Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners' Five Core Demands (hunger strike)' on

Yesterday, a group of civil rights, human rights, and prisoner advocacy organizations filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Pelican Bay prisoners who have spent between 10 and 28 years in solitary confinement.
The legal action is part of a larger movement to end inhumane conditions in California's Security Housing Units (SHU), a movement sparked and dramatized by a 2011 hunger strike by thousands of SHU prisoners, including several of the ten named plaintiffs.
The federal lawsuit alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ right to due process.
The class action suit was jointly filed by California Prison Focus, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, The Law Office of Charles Carbone, and Siegel & Yee.

for more info: