Human Rights—Committee Authorized to Study Issues Relating to the Human Rights of Prisoners in the Correctional SystemPublished on 15 December 2016 Hansard and Statements by Senator Jim Munson
Hon. Jim Munson:
Honourable senators, our Human Rights Committee is anxious to get on with work again. We have just finished our Syrian refugee report, and we are going to be in the midst of having our library analyst and others working very hard over the month of January on this report, which is a report asking the Senate to authorize us to examine human rights of prisoners in this country in our correctional system. That would include not only federal systems but provincial systems and with reference to both national and international law as well as to examine the situation of vulnerable or disadvantaged groups in federal prisons. That includes indigenous people, visible minorities, women and those with mental health concerns.
If I can take your time, because I think this is extremely important. We focused in our Human Rights Committee on a lot of international issues, but I think we have to look closer to home. We have to understand what is happening in our prisons. I think the committee believes that there are some things that are not happening and that are happening that are not right. It has to do with human rights infractions against prisoners.
We have read about this in recent months, but it has been present for years. The concerns range in topics from solitary confinement, segregation, mental health, as I talked about, suicide, privacy rights, the over-representation of Aboriginals, access to counsel and legal materials as well as issues relating to legal frameworks for peace officers.
The new independent senators, by the way, have come with all kinds of ideas, too, within this report. I’m encouraged by that because we want to do a good job with this report.
For background, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, the CCRA, is a human rights oriented legislative framework for federal corrections, and 2017 will mark its twenty-fifth anniversary. It would be fitting for the committee to review this framework in light of its anniversary, as several amendments to the CCRA have appeared to move away from a human rights approach. The CCRA was implemented to comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1992.
Moreover, honourable senators, the Nelson Mandela Rules were adopted unanimously by the seventieth session of the United Nations General Assembly on December 17, 2015.
This updated the 1955 UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners and, therefore, our committee could assess Canada’s compliance with these new rules in light of current federal correctional practices.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court of Canada rulings have clarified many prisoners’ rights — voting, speech, denial of residual liberties, and protection from cruel and unusual punishment. The committee wants to examine if they’re being carried out in practice as intended. Additionally, issues of oversight and accountability could be studied by the committee.
In closing, honourable senators, we will have many witnesses who are asking our Human Rights Committee members to come forward with new ideas and to have witnesses, but obviously we would like Minister Goodale to come before us. We would like to have Don Head, the Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada; Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada; and of course the John Howard Society, the Elizabeth Fry Society. So many groups work in this area.
We did have a forum for listening to prisoners at the Senate Liberal open caucus. This is where the idea came from. It is good to share what came out of that caucus. At that time I thought that people in Parliament were in a hurry doing something else, but we’re not sitting back and looking at those who are behind bars. The whole idea is about rehabilitation. Somewhere along the way we may have forgotten that part.
We have former prisoners we hope to invite here who were before the Senate Liberal open caucus. I believe this will be a long study. It will be so long that I hope we can have interim reports so we can work in real time in standing up for the rights of prisoners who have lost their voice.
Hon. George Baker: I would ask the senator a question, or make a comment. There is a senator here who is an expert in this area. In the last eight months, in reading case law every morning, I have noticed that this particular senator has been representing prisoners in prison, visiting prisons and has become part of two cases. One is called Oakes Re: and the other is Carter Re:, and this is before the “not criminally responsible” board, and that is Senator Kim Pate.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
Senator Baker: She has an outstanding history of representing prisoners that I hope she continues in her new position. The case law that I referred to is just three and four months old, and it is a remarkable story. She is well respected by our judges and by the review boards across the country.
Senator Munson: The good news is that Senator Pate is on the Human Rights Committee. That’s extremely helpful. The other good piece of news is that we both live in the Glebe in Ottawa. Senator Pate has come to me: “You just live down the street, Munson, so I need to talk to you about a lot of these issues.”
As a former journalist, I have visited a lot of prisons and have done stories on these prisons. I haven’t been in one or incarcerated.
I was talking to the former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien today over lunch about when I was appointed as Director of Communications for the Prime Minister. I said, “I worked for you and I passed security, but I happened to spend time in prisons.” He said, “Jimmy, those are five prisons outside the country in China, Egypt, Ireland, other places; that’s okay. You were doing your job there.” So I have an intimate knowledge of some of these things.
There’s a great deal of enthusiasm about the overpopulation of Black men inside these prisons. We talk about the indigenous people, we talk about women, and we talk about others, but as Senator Bernard reminded me, our study should address that issue as well.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
Senator Munson: Something wrong is going on, and our committee feels that we can add our voice into working towards rehabilitation and working towards giving voice to those who need our voice.
Hon. Joan Fraser: This is the point where I always rise like Scrooge and say, “How much are you going to spend?” Merry Christmas, Senator Munson. For the first time I’m going to say that I hope you spend a lot. I hope you can assure us today that you will travel across this country and visit, with any luck, many prisons and do hard investigation of what happens there.
This is a subject that has come up for years in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee. There are so many scandalous aspects in our prison system, and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that the Human Rights Committee will do this work.
I think your deadline is October. That doesn’t sound like very long, so I hope that you can assure me that you will do the travel and any other expensive study that is needed to do this study properly and that you will come back and seek an extension of your deadline, if necessary. I’m encouraged by your promise of interim reports.
Senator Munson: Thank you, senator, for that.
Senator Plett: That wasn’t a question. It was a comment.
Senator Fraser: I asked him for assurances. Will you give me the assurances?
Senator Munson: I will give assurances, but I believe the time that we’re living in right now is that I like to work and we like to work in real time. You might remember in the past Senate reports have taken a year, two years and so on.
A lesson was learned with our Syrian refugee report. We put out an interim report because things were evolving and happening. We put out observations at the beginning of that report, and then last week there were recommendations.
We knew that the Syrian community and advocates wanted something, so we had something, as you may remember, in June.
This will happen with this kind of report. I can assure you that it will go longer than October 2017.
I have four years and eight months to go here. I have only turned 70.
Just to give you a small list at the very beginning, if you want to know: Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, the special handling unit, Millhaven, Grand Valley, Donnacona, Joliette, Kent, Fraser Valley, Edmonton, Saskatchewan, Stony Mountain, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, Atlantic Institution, Nova Institution for Women. This is just a start. We will be on the road because you can’t cover a news story here. It is happening out there.