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Canada's Tough on Crime Agenda and its Immediate Effects

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

by Nicole Kish  

A regression is occurring within our country. The Canadian judicial system is reverting to a “tough on crime” mentality. Longer, harsher sentences are being handed down by the courts. Legislation is passing re-criminalizing previously decriminalized activities. This is being done in the name of safety and security within society. Yet for all the claims these approaches make, what can factually be said for a judicial system that is “tough on crime”? A lot. These types of efforts are not new. There’s no shortage of comprehensive data available to measure the long-term accomplishments of this approach to crime. Unfortunately, one of the most problematic issues with the implementation of such judicial actions is its focus on the immediate, short term results. As history has informed us, that which offers the most stark and promising immediate result often bares adverse, if not dangerous, consequences down the line.

This is no exception.

Yet, perhaps more alarming is how extremely one-dimensional any direct positive attributes actually are. To accept the immediate benefit of the streets being void of crime, one must dismiss the transient nature of this. When the streets are swept, the jails fill, but it would be a misconception at best to assume that crime is down when jails are full.

Canadian prisons are not prepared at all for the increase in inmate population that they are seeing. They are overwhelmed by this flux in sentencing, and as in any healthy situation, balance must be maintained if any hope for success, let alone sustainability is desired.

The judicial system does not stand alone. It is just a portion of a larger institution, so it must function or attempt to function harmoniously with its collective partners. For the judicial portion of the criminal justice system to dole out more than its recipients within the correctional sytem can handle is to doom the entire effort to fail. Yet, this is what is happening.

Despite major red flags and loud cries from voices within the correctional system, this disaster blazes onward! For those of us currently incarcerated, the negative effects of this shift have already surfaced and affected us. Spatial issues have taken priority over all else. Incentive programs proven key to healthy rehabilitation are being removed indefinitely, while the remaining mandatory programs are becoming backlogged. Mandatory programs affect prisoners’ transition through security levels while incarcerated. For example, an inmate cannot move to medium security from the maximum without completing a modular intervention program. There is currently a 3 to 4 month wait time for prisoners to begin this. It becomes extremely problematic as security reviews are completed every six months, and prisoners who would otherwise move to medium are held in maximum, where there is little to do and less space to do it in.

It has long been proven that recidivism rates are drastically lower, some by 32%[1], when inmates are exposed to correctional environments that implement strong educational and behavioral programs. The maximum unit does not, and due to its structure cannot, offer these things. At the Grand Valley Institution for Women, Ontario’s only federal prison for women, the max unit is especially unprepared for such a jump in inmate population. Bunks have been added to six of the fifteen cells and are scheduled to be added in all but three. The cells, designed for single use, cannot adequately house two. They hold one desk and one chair. One inmate is therefore forced to remain in her bed during lockups, which occur from 9:00 p.m. to 8.30 a.m., 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. daily. With most programming only accessible to medium and minimum security women, those in maximum are left trying to fill the remaining hours creatively. Violence is rampant.

One program which has disappeared entirely is the private family visiting program. The private family visit (PFV) program was one where, when accepted, a prisoner could apply every three months to either spend a 24, 48, or 72 hour period in a house-like setting with loved ones. This quality program offered prisoners vital maintenance for outside relationships, not only giving many a sense of cause to carry on, but also reducing the real and harmful dangers of institutionalization that we face daily.

For those who did not have family, or for those needing reflective alone time, a solo version of the program was also available. Though family visits held priority, if none were booked solo applications could be approved. For many, the solo version of the program was just as important. One prisoner, who is now on her 24th year of incarceration, reflected on the loss. “I did both,” she explained, “the solo and the family. Those stays were big important parts of our prison time. The girls used to do everything for that time. It kept a lot people calm and really focused. In all my years I never thought they would take that away from us.”

Both versions of the program have been suspended indefinitely. Yet, though they are the first to go, they are most defiantly not the last.

These are, of course, only some of the immediate effects of our country’s new “tough on crime” policy. If things continue down this path, these problems will surely ripple with the long-term damages surfacing far from the prison walls they originated in. Longer, harsher sentences have never reduced crime. Over-crowded, negative prisons do not promote healthy adult lifestyles. They do not pave paths for rehabilitation. Positive reinforcement does. “Tough on crime” campaigns, in their plainest form, only serve one real purpose—to further the economy of crime. If punitive punishment was not intended, it is a natural sub-effect. Though Canada has in the past invested many resources into the preventive measures and positive reinforcement strategies proven to work, it stands today in regression, and it does so unfoundedly.

Nicole Kish, or Nyki to those who know her, is a talented singer-songwriter, artist, poet, and dedicated community activist. Over the past few years, Nyki founded a non-profit organization dedicated to improving literacy and educational opportunities within Ontario’s correctional facilities. As well she co-founded Bound for Glory, a not-for-profit arts and literary magazine for talented and neglected artists. Sadly, on March 1st 2011, Nyki waswrongfully convicted of 2nd degree murder for little reason other than she was there and was stabbed. She is incarcerated at an Ontario women’s correctional facility.


[1] In 2007, the John Howard Society of Edmonton conducted a study which showed that institutions that implemented strong reading and education programs had a 32% lower re-incarceration rate than those institutions that did not.


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