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Vicky Mochama: The voice of Metro News.

We need a less punitive and more humane prison system: Mochama

A more humane system treats prisoners with compassion; it grants them a humanity that their lives might not have allowed for, writes Vicky Mochama.

More humane and less punitive policies, like this quilt-making class at an Ontario correctional facility, can help people in prison break the cycle.

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More humane and less punitive policies, like this quilt-making class at an Ontario correctional facility, can help people in prison break the cycle.

In prisons, we are facing a mental health problem and a growing population of women and girls.

To combat this troubling trend, we need to shift our thinking across the entire criminal system.

The fastest growing population in prisons worldwide is of women and girls. Sadly, this is also true in Canada. Overwhelmingly, female prisoners are some of society’s most vulnerable.

Per the Elizabeth Fry Society, “They are primarily poor or homeless, undereducated and have addictions or mental-health problems such as schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders.”

Since 2001, there has been a 100 per cent rise in Indigenous women in prisons. And according to Correction Services Canada, the number of people entering prisons with a mental illness doubled between 1997 and 2010.

Increasingly, the justice system is criminalizing those that society has failed to protect. We are punishing individuals for our society’s failures.

By making changes that are less punitive and more humane – for example, counseling and drug therapies rather than solitary confinement and prolonged sentences – the justice system can help prisoners escape the cycle of poverty and criminality. 

Disrupting the prison pipeline is not solely a concern of the federal government. The federal prison agency houses 40 per cent of the 40,000 incarcerated people in this country. The rest are in provincial and territorial jails, including people awaiting trial or serving community sentences.

A more humane prison system treats prisoners with compassion; it grants them a humanity that their lives might not have allowed for.

This inability to deal with pressing issues on mental health and vulnerability is increasingly evident. In the last decade, the number of prisoners who self-harm has tripled, according to data from CSC. Self-injury is a marker of mental distress.

More strikingly, deaths in prison tell of the failure to deal with problems that are becoming more urgent. For prisoners like Cleve Geddes, Moses Amik Beaver and Soleiman Faqiri, to name a few who died in custody, mental health was a factor.  

That many decades of punitive prison conditions have not worked is becoming evident to the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights, too.

The committee is undertaking a national fact-finding mission to understand the experiences of federal inmates. Since February the Committee has heard from 41 witnesses, including lawyers, advocates and individuals.

One senator, Senator Kim Pate, has been vocal in her criticism.

Speaking to the Montreal Gazette, she said, “We know that the people who end up in prison aren’t from another planet, they’re from our communities by and large. And unless they die in prison, they’ll be coming back to our communities … If the goal is truly to rehabilitate these people, we’re failing them.”

Our criminal justice system must focus on providing justice, not on making more criminals.

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