Our Prisons Are Full of Men

By Britney Dennison

As viewers start binge-watching the new season of Orange in the New Black, they might be forgiven for missing one of the most startling facts about prison life. In federal prisons in both Canada and the U.S., 93 per cent of people behind bars are men.

What the Netflix show does do well is show how prison disproportionately affects minorities, people struggling with substance abuse, and those with mental health challenges. The statistics out of Canada paint a picture of a problem worsening, with the number of black men incarcerated in Canada jumping 69 per cent in the past decade, and the Aboriginal inmate population growing by 50 per cent. And more than 80 per cent of all male inmates struggle with addiction and mental health challenges.

It’s no wonder some argue that our prisons are the new mental health hospital, the new residential school and the new ghetto.

Ruth Elwood Martin, who leads the Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education program out of the University of British Columbia, says that some of the men she works with used to speak nostalgically of their time in federal prison – how it helped them develop friendships, build skills and be rehabilitated. But now the men tell a different story. Because of a decade of tough-on-crime legislation in Canada it has been much more difficult for these men to access positive resources and work on their rehabilitation.

The approach to the justice system is often at the whim of the party in power. With the last Conservative government of Canada we saw increases in mandatory minimum sentences, restrictions for pardons and early release, harsher sentences for young offenders, and the elimination of job-skills programs.

This is a system that simply doesn’t work. But as a society we are not just failing these men when they are incarcerated. We are failing them long before that.

In Canada there is a lack of public support systems in place that would help prevent people from entering the justice system in the first place. For example, access to mental healthcare and substance use treatment is costly – much of the care is privatized, and the public supports are limited and include lengthy wait times. Our rehab centres have been known to throw people back into the streets if they relapse. Our recovery homes are sometimes nothing more than unregulated flophouses.

In prison, programs like education and job training, which are the most successful measures for reducing recidivism rates, have been slashed. And there is a lack of employment opportunities following release.

But there are things we can do. There are policies that focus on restorative justice and take into account the unique experiences that lead vulnerable men into the hands of the justice system. One good example is Gladue, a report that can be requested for Aboriginal offenders who have plead guilty to a crime. It details the history of the offender, which often includes socio-economic status, abuse, addictions and intergenerational trauma. This report is then presented to the judge to take into consideration during sentencing, who can then consider avenues besides incarceration, including restorative justice, community service and reduced sentences. Just imagine if this type of report were made available to all offenders.

There are even more radical reform arguments.

James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and a professor of law at New York University, argues that we should dismantle the entire prison system and rebuild it from the ground up, by removing the punishment model and focusing on rehabilitation. He suggests creating secure communities that provide programming for education, mental health care and substance abuse, and health care.

We also need to increase support for people following release. One study in the U.S. found that recidivism rates were significantly lower when juvenile offenders were referred to mental health services following release.

The reason for many of these gaps in resources and services is a lack of funding. Even the GLADUE system is overburdened and under-funded, which has led to significant delays in proceedings.

However, the problem is not the lack of money, but where it is being spent.

The budget for Correctional Service Canada increased from $1.7 billion in 2006 to $2.6 billion in 2014. But much of those additional funds were spent on more correctional officers and physical security measures. This type of enforcement spending has led to objectively worse outcomes across the board.

So we need to instead spend on evidence-based, proven-effective programming that leads to lower incarcerations and recidivism. We need to divorce policies from political viewpoints. And we need to provide social support to our most vulnerable populations.

So as you tune in to watch this season of Orange is the New Black remember that these struggles are real for many people, and until we make changes we will continue to fail our most vulnerable populations.  

Britney Dennison is the Research Advisor for Men’s Health Research and the deputy director of the Global Reporting Centre. Her journalistic work has won numerous awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Tyee, CTV, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera and more. She wrote this