Dostoevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” We don’t fare well.

The image is a still from video shown at the Ashley Smith inquest in, 2013, showing the teen being strapped into a chair at a women’s prison in Nova Scotia because she was banging her head against the floor and wall in her cell. “Let us hope that Canadians pause on Aug. 10th to take note of the many injustices experienced by our fellow citizens in custody,” writes Catherine Latimer of the John Howard Society.

By Catherine Latimer

For more than 40 years, prisoners on Aug. 10th pay tribute to all those who have died while in custody. On this day in 1974, Eddie Nalon committed suicide in an administrative segregation cell at Millhaven Institution, sparking this annual vigil and call for justice.

If that call had been answered years ago, many young lives, including those of Ashley Smith, Eddie Snowshoe, Chris Roy, Devon Sampson, and, more recently, Terry Baker, might have been spared.

The growing disgust of citizens, advocates, and human rights bodies to allowing prisoners to languish in isolation, away from meaningful contact with others, should encourage an immediate end to this practice. The damage this type of confinement does to physical and mental health is well documented, and international bodies have defined periods of administrative segregation in excess of 15 days as a form of torture.

But this is not the only kind of prison death that demands action. The violence endemic to prisons, often borne of the hopelessness, overcrowding, and idleness, which can manifest in brutal and often deadly combat, needs to be addressed.

A recent court decision that acknowledged prison stabbings are reasonable as self-defence, due to the high levels of violence, implicitly admits prisons are intolerably violent. But prisons in Germany, Norway and other countries do not suffer this same degree of violence, which is dangerous to both prisoners and correctional officers.

The Correctional Investigators Report released last week identified 65 inmate deaths in a single year in the federal prison system alone. Even deaths resulting from natural causes should be subject to further inquiry. Lawsuits and other inquests are challenging whether underlying mental and physical illnesses received adequate treatment.

The Mandela Rules on the treatment of prisoners call for health care to be provided by agencies ordinarily responsible for health and not by agencies specifically responsible for prisons. Canada falls short of meeting that standard, except in Nova Scotia and Alberta.

Too often security and prison management issues lead to prescribed medicines being unavailable, limited, or arbitrarily changed by the prison. Prisoners wait long periods for illnesses to be diagnosed since access to medical services are limited. Chronic diseases, such as diabetes, are not managed with the same care as in the community, which can lead to serious complications.

The process of dying behind bars is a sad one. The tragedy of a terminal prognosis is compounded for family members and prisoners when they receive palliative care in custody. Now that Canadians have the right to receive physician-assisted death to relieve suffering, prisoners should have equal access to this option without delays. It would be even more just and humane to allow compassionate releases of those terminally ill so they could die with the support of loved ones. Other countries routinely allow such releases, so why can’t Canada?

Prisoners experience many other forms of injustice. Access to justice and legal materials is inadequate. Prisoners’ grievances are resolved only after lengthy delays. The parole system in which most prisoners are held until their release is required by statute is essentially dysfunctional. Prisoners are being held to the end of their sentences, when they routinely face peace bonds, which essentially lengthen their sentences. Prisoner net pay is reduced despite increasing prices of available products, such as stamps. Prisoners are forced to endure double-bunking in cells designed for one. Rehabilitative programs and skills training are limited, such that correctional plans are not completed prior to parole eligibility.

And finally, residual liberties can be denied in manners that likely violate Charter-guaranteed fundamental principles of justice. The government’s promised criminal justice system review should address these and other deficiencies of the current corrections system.

Let us hope that Canadians pause on Aug. 10th to take note of the many injustices experienced by our fellow citizens in custody. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” It is long past time to fix our broken corrections system.

– Catherine Latimer is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, a charity dedicated to just, effective, and humane responses to crime. Toronto Star