Wednesday, February 6, 2013

From the Outside Looking In: Experiencing Incarceration as a Prisoners Child

* A call for study participants *

What is the study? 

This study is about children in Northern Ireland and in Canada aged 8-25 who have a parent are in prison or who once had a parent in prison. I would like to know how children and young persons experience visiting their parent in prison, what might be hard about the visit and how they deal with it.

Who is doing the study?

I, (Erin McCuaig) am a Ph.D. student from Canada who is carrying out this research under the supervision of Professor Phil Scraton and Doctor Clare Dwyer. You can contact me by telephone at: 613-852-9618 or by email at: 

Why am I doing the study? 

Very little is known about how children and young persons feel about visiting their parent in prison. Understanding how you feel is helpful so we can let others know about what it is like to visit a parent in prison and how we can make the lives of prisoners’ children better.

What would you have to do? 

I would be asking you to talk about what it’s like to be a child or young person with a parent in prison or the experience of once having a parent in prison. I would also be asking you how you feel/felt about visiting your parent in prison. This would include some of the things that you might find hard going up to the prison and during the visit, and some of the things that might help you when you visit your parent in prison.

Do I have to participate? 

While it would be great to talk to you, you do not have to participate in the study. If you decide to talk to me, at any time you can stop answering questions and you do not have to answer anything you don’t want to. You can also stop participating in the study if you feel unhappy.

How long will it take? 

I would like to talk to you for about an hour and a half but there will be breaks and any time you want to stop for a break we can.

Will what I talk to you about be private? 

I might write some of the things you say down and I would also like to digitally record what we talk about so I don’t forget anything, but no one apart from myself, Phil and Clare would be allowed to hear the digital recording or read what was written down. Your real name will not be used and the information you share will be used for presentations and articles to tell adults and other young person’s about the lives of children and young persons of prisoners. The only time I would have to tell someone about something you said would be if you told me that you or some else was in danger or might get hurt. If this were to happen I would have to tell another adult but I would talk to you about this first.

What will happen to the information I give you? 

The information that you tell me will be used for presentations and maybe for writing articles. Your name will not be shared and any information that could reveal who you are will be changed to make sure it stays private.

Monday, January 28, 2013

2012 Year-in-Review

While two omnibus budget bills have monopolized much of the discussion in Parliament, issues related to criminalization and punishment have remained part of the national political landscape in Canada.  Below, I briefly summarize some of the stories that received attention in 2012 and what is potentially in store in the year ahead.


With the so-called Safe Streets and Communities Act receiving Royal Assent in March 2012 (read article by Tobi Cohen) -- an omnimess bill featuring new mandatory minimum sentences, additional eligibility restrictions for conditional sentences and record suspensions, changes to the governance of federal penitentiaries, and many other penal reforms -- a few Conservative MPs and ministers spent some of their political capital championing more austere conditions within prison walls.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has been at the forefront of these efforts (read article by Anna Mehler Paperny), defending the normalization of double-bunking whenever questioned about the increase in the federal penitentiary system's population, which hit an all-time high of 15,097 prisoners this past July (read article by Maureen Brosnahan).  

The Minister has also sought to make life more difficult for prisoners through the introduction of measures such as the elimination of incentive pay for prison labour (read article by Leah DeVellis) and instituting a ban on food purchased by prisoners for socials and fundraisers (read article by Maureen Brosnahan and watch clip from the Rick Mercer Report).  

As Parliament resumes, Senators are set to vote on Bill C-293 at Third Reading, a private member's bill that if passed into law will "allow the Commissioner [of Correctional Service Canada (CSC)] to prohibit an offender from submitting any further complaint or grievance, except by leave of the Commissioner, when the offender has persistently filed complaints or grievances that are vexatious, frivolous or not made in good faith". This is occurring despite concerns that the measure would place too much arbitrary power in the hands of CSC and could erode grievance mechanisms that are designed to resolve conflicts within federal penitentiaries in a peaceful manner (read speaking notes from the Office of the Correctional Investigator).  

Efforts to make living conditions for the criminalized more austere also transcend prison walls in a political environment where the belief "once a criminal, always a criminal" reigns (read article by Edward L. Greenspan and Anthony N. Doob).  Beyond restricting the eligibility for record suspensions and increasing related processing fees, some proponents of punishment are engaged in efforts to disenfranchise those previously in conflict with the law.  

For instance, Bill C-316 was tabled in the House of Commons in October 2011 and is slowly making its way through the legislative process.  This piece of legislation will, if passed in the Senate, eliminate the extension of qualifying and benefit periods for Employment Insurance "as the result of time spent by the claimant in a jail, penitentiary or other similar institution" in cases where the person is "found guilty of the offence for which he or she was being held or any other offence arising out of the same transaction".  Under this proposal, being labelled a 'criminal' is no longer viewed as a social disability, but rather a stigma that must be perpetuated and result in material losses for the unemployed beyond what they have already endured in relation to their criminalization and punishment.  How this measure -- one that removes employment insurance benefits from criminalized peoples who paid into the fund and will return to Canadian communities without this pillar of support -- contributes to 'public safety' or helps meet the complex needs of victims is highly questionable (read article by Jeff Davis).    

With more crowded penitentiaries (read article by Maureen Brosnahan) combined with the plummeting morale amongst prisoners, some of whom I have corresponded with, that often have little hope for the future, it should come as no surprise that incidents of violence and self-harm inside federal penitentiaries have increased in recent years (read article by Tonda MacCharles).  As we walk through the fog of punishment, carnage indeed lies everywhere for us to see if we care to open our eyes. 


As the punishment agenda rolls into 2013, there are at least three stories that are likely to generate headlines and intense political discussion in the year ahead.  

Top amongst them is the Ashley Smith inquest where Canadians will continue learn about the events and circumstances that led to this "predictable" (read article by Nicole LeBlanc and Jennifer M. Kilty), but "preventable death" (read the 2008 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator).  While the inquest has been well-publicized, one must wonder whether this moment represents a turning point in how we conceptualize and respond in situations where the mental health of individuals are in decline or if this moment will become another missed opportunity.  

Given the kinds of accounts and proposals that are emerging (for an example read the op-ed by Sandy Simpson) it looks like we are well on our way to not learning crucial lessons that Ashley Smith's life and death can teach us.  For instance, many commentators fail to acknowledge that prison policies and practices carried-out under the guise of security exacerbate or trigger the onset of mental health issues.  If any of us faced the kind of isolation that some prisoners experience, a number of us would try to have human contact by any means necessary, including engaging in self-harming behaviours and violence.  Being human, after all, requires social interaction.  Prisons often do an excellent job of stripping people of this basic need and destroying them in the process.  Those who ignore this, while proposing an influx of mental health services inside prisons are falling into the reformist trap that defines the history of this institution (read this chapter by Michael Jackson).  Security will always trump all other objectives we assign to this punitive structure.  No amount of well-intended thinking will change this pattern as 'new' policies, programs and infrastructure are erected in the space between now and the next series of tragedies and related inquests / task forces / Royal Commissions.  Should the conventional path be taken, the result will be, to use the words of the late Stanley Cohen, "more of the same".         

When the Ashley Smith inquest concludes some will argue that we have a moral obligation to try to meet the needs of those who are and will be incarcerated.  Beyond challenging penal inevitability and necessity (i.e. the idea that some persons with mental health issues will and need to be imprisoned), one can ask whether it is moral to careen down a path where our mental and physical health is secondary to the accumulation of wealth and access to mental health services is so abysmal that some people need to come into conflict with the law before availing themselves of such 'assistance'.  Should this absurd situation largely escape scrutiny and not result in significant changes we will have yet again missed the boat.  If one is to look at the federal government's recent attack on mens rea (read article by iPolitics and an op-ed by Edward L. Greenspan and Anthony N. Doob), it seems this ship has perhaps already sailed.  

The debate surrounding the introduction of social impact bonds at the federal level will also likely get significant attention this year (read article by Les Whittington).  To date, some have argued that this approach will lead to the development of innovative partnerships between the private, non-profit and government sectors to address identified social problems in a more cost-effective manner (read article by John Ivison), while others have argued that we are instituting a scheme that will allow for investors to profit on human misery (read blog post by the David Macdonald).     

As a theorist of social control patterns my principle reservation in regards to the introduction of social impact bonds is related to its potential for net-widening.  If identified social problems are commodified what is to stop an increase in labelling and creating new categories of 'deviants', diverting people who do not necessarily require 'intervention' into social control programs funded by private investors whose performance will likely be measured by the players that have an interest in their 'success'?  The impetus for growth is there and Canadians ought to be concerned about the potential infringements of our liberties that may result. 

Another important issue that could generate some discussion in 2013 is the continued disproportional number of Aboriginal peoples warehoused in Canadian jails, prisons and penitentiaries (read report by Statistics Canada).  To date, however, these New Residential Schools have not featured prominently in the on-going public discussions concerning the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Crown that resulted from the actions of Idle No More and their allies.   


All the developments described above have been problematized on many grounds by a wide-range of critics across social spheres, professions and disciplinary fields.  However, pleading for benevolence, making the case for evidence-based policy and practices, and advocating for laws that respect the rule of law, while necessary, have not swayed dominant positions on how to conceptualize and respond to the conflicts and harms that are currently appropriated by the Canadian carceral state (read book by Vincenzo Ruggiero - Chapter 10).  As I have become increasingly aware in my own research and related advocacy, trying to bring financial considerations into what is fundamentally a moral and emotive discussion is also fraught with danger, particularly in a context where this discourse is co-opted by proponents of punishment who tout the further degradation of living conditions for criminalized and/or incarcerated peoples as cost cutting measures to balance the books (read article by Ian Loader).  

So how can those who oppose the federal government's punishment agenda affect a shift in the discussion, one whereby a 'winning' political issue to be exploited turns into a 'losing' one to be abandoned?  Perhaps the answer lies in the stories of those victimized by state repression like Ashley Smith and those who remain "victims still" without access to the kinds of services required to address their trauma to the degree that is possible despite all that has been done in their names.  Perhaps not.  

Finding an answer to this question is the challenge ahead and it is crucial that a change in direction occur, no matter which federal political party takes the lead.  History has shown, after all, that the collateral consequences of producing social cohesion through dehumanization and 'enemy' construction is a dangerous and destructive game that leaves countless casualties in its wake and often well beyond what was intended.  Repeating this history is avoidable and we cannot stand by as the bodies of our brothers and sisters in crisis are stacked in human warehouses some call 'correctional institutions'.