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Something’s rotten in Denmark | John L. Hill

Tuesday, September 21, 2021 @ 9:51 AM | By John L. Hill

John L. Hill %>
John L. Hill
A recent BBC report quotes Denmark’s Justice Minister, Nick Haekkerup, as advocating an end to communications between long-term prisoners and members of the public and to further restrict prisoners using social media from speaking of their crimes or to discuss them in podcasts. The event that triggered Denmark’s drastic proposed response was a report of a young woman falling in love with a convicted murderer and sharing her conversations with the media.

Haekkerup’s solution was to stop all reports of such intimacies. “We have seen disgusting examples in recent years of prisoners who have committed abominable crimes contacting young people in order to gain their sympathy and attention,” the justice minister said. He added that convicted criminals “should not be able to use our prisons as dating centres or media platforms to brag about their crimes.”

Canada is not immune from similar contacts between inmates and members of the public. Many years ago, child killer Clifford Olson showed me pictures of nude women that were sent to him in the hopes of developing a relationship. An ability for an inmate to receive mail and continue to communicate is considered a right restricted only by the sharing of information that would jeopardize the security of the institution or pose a threat to the safety of an individual. Further, on Oct. 1, 2008, s. 743.21 of the Criminal Code took effect that allows a sentencing judge to prohibit direct or indirect communication between the offender, his victim or other identified persons.

Unless inmate mail is censored by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) for safety considerations or restricted by judge’s order, prisoners retain the same rights as the rest of us to use the mail to communicate as they so choose. Indeed, since most prisoners will likely be released to the community it would be detrimental to future community reintegration to deprive inmates of potential support networks.

Unfortunately, the problem is more serious in that there is often too little community contact. Some prisoners answer ads in periodicals they receive just to get the junk mail. After all, some mail, however irrelevant, is better than no mail at all. Some inmates simply have no family or friends. In some prisons, administration authorizes volunteer visits to maintain community contact. In federal penitentiaries unlike provincial jails, family and friends can interact with incarcerated individual face to face rather than behind a glass barrier. Inmates who have a permanent relationship and who have exhibited good behaviour can have extended family visits.

The correctional service has been criticized for fostering “toxic masculinity” by restricting all opposite sex interactions and tolerating bully-like behaviour. The visits and correspondence initiatives allowed by the CSC are an admirable antidote to this tendency when men are confined in close quarters. The same rules apply in female prisons and again a sense of normalcy is fostered.

The deprivation of liberty is the most severe punishment our law allows. The maxim that criminals go to prison as punishment and not for punishment should never be forgotten. It is regrettable that politicians sometimes appeal to the electorate by getting “tough on crime” and restricting inmate liberties without regard to long-term consequences.

The Danish restrictions are presently under review by the Danish Institute for Human Rights. A right to family life is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights. Maria Ventegodt of the Danish Institute told the BBC that an examination of the proposed Danish law is already underway. She said, “What we will look at is maybe two questions. First of all whether there is a legal basis to make this limitation at all in the first place. … The second thing is whether it is proportional.”

The right-wing opposition in the Danish Parliament has signalled its support for the changes. Hopefully, if the restrictions in Denmark are allowed, the measures will not be replicated elsewhere.

John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. Contact him at

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