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Why violence is okay but senators can be insulting | Murray Fallis

Thursday, June 24, 2021 @ 2:12 PM | By Murray Fallis


Murray Fallis %>
Murray Fallis
Prisoners go through rough stuff. Violence, beatings, racism, sexism. “Down inside,” things can get pretty rough. As a result, many federal prisoners develop thick skins. Both literally and metaphorically, they learn to roll with the punches.

On Wednesday June 16, the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights released its report on federal prisoners. After four years, the committee made astounding findings. Though the substance of the report is downright shocking, the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers’ (UCCO) response was perhaps more shocking still.

The report is emotionally exhausting to read.

Twenty five per cent of prisoners are Indigenous. Seventy per cent meet criteria for at least one mental health disorder. Thirty one per cent have hepatitis-C. Roughly 80 per cent have substance abuse issues. The report finds prisoners “face mistreatment on account of their race, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion.”

Yet, in spite of all of the depressing statistics, the highlight of the report is Annex C. Annex C contains a letter from the UCCO president. In it, he requests that then Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale speak to senators. Specifically, he calls on Minister Goodale to speak to senators as he found their comments about racism, sexism and violence in the prisons to be “derogatory,” “inflammatory” and “counter-productive.” Yes, you read that correctly. As senators were discussing how racism, violence and human rights abuses hinder reintegration, the UCCO felt it appropriate to ask senators to tame it down a notch.

There are two concerning elements to this letter. First, the UCCO has missed the spirit of the discussion which focused on shortcomings in our correctional system. Among them, gross over-representation of minorities, discrimination and serious failures to comply with human rights legislation and with the Charter.

Second, his comments, if affected, would undermine the role of the Senate. The senate is a chamber of “sober second thought.” Following the political banter of the House, the Senate is where sensibilities, wisdom and evidence are meant to prevail. The prospect that a minister might intervene so as to limit the speech of esteemed senators is at best concerning and at worst unconstitutional.

I do not know if the UCCO president had the chance to watch seven of his colleagues assault a Black prisoner without provocation. This sort of footage is precisely the reason why senators must be able to talk about racism, discrimination and violence in our prisons. The UCCO letter is almost certainly what the Justice Louise Arbour meant in 1996 when she wrote:

I believe that it is also part of that corporate culture to close ranks, and that the defensive stance of senior managers was often motivated by a sense of loyalty to their subordinates. This otherwise admirable instinct should, however, always defer to the imperatives of scrupulous commitment to the truth which must be displayed by those entrusted with people's liberty.

If senators, who have a statutory right to visit prisons, cannot speak openly about violence, discrimination and racism inside those prisons, then who can?

Murray Fallis is a lawyer with John Howard Canada.

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