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Behind the Wall: Comparing Canadian & U.S. Prison Systems

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

With their close proximity and shared borders, the United States and Canada have a unique relationship that has led to frequent comparisons between the two nations. One area where these comparisons are particularly stark is in their respective justice systems, which have evolved in distinct ways over time.

The justice systems of Canada and the U.S. have been a topic of much debate and criticism, with racial inequality and justice accessibility being significant issues in both countries. Imprisonment is used by both nations to decrease crime rates and safeguard society. Nevertheless, the prison systems of these two countries differ notably. Although far from perfect, the Canadian system is generally perceived as more just and impartial than its U.S. counterpart. One key contrast is that the U.S.aims to punish offenders with longer sentences, while Canada prioritizes the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals through shorter sentences and diverse programs. This essential distinction in the goals of the two countries' justice systems is reflected in several areas.

Prison Conditions

Due to its focus on punishment, many incarcerated individuals in the U.S. live in harsher conditions. Many prisons are understaffed and overcrowded, which can lead to cramped living conditions and lack of personal space. Cells may be small, poorly ventilated, and have inadequate lighting. Additionally, the facilities may be in disrepair, with broken toilets, showers, and sinks. In some cases, prisoners are forced to live in solitary confinement for extended periods, which can lead to severe psychological distress.

Mule Creek State Prison in CA - gymnasium modified in 2007 to house prisoners due to overcrowding

For example, in Texas, there is a ratio of one staff member to six offenders, compared to Canada's ratio of one staff member to 2.6 offenders. In Houston's jails, 24 individuals incarcerated in Houston’s jail have died due to factors such as staff shortages and mental health issues. New York City’s jails, including Rikers Island, are a well-documented humanitarian disaster. In 2022 alone, 19 people died while incacerated at Rikers. These examples highlight the challenges the U.S. justice system faces in providing sufficient care to those who are incarcerated and suggest that the government may not be providing adequate human resources to ensure the safety and proper oversight of incarcerated individuals.

In Canada, on the other hand, prison cells are generally considered to be of better quality, with more space and better ventilation. The Canadian government has made efforts to improve prison conditions and reduce the use of solitary confinement. Some prison quarters have been compared to “university dorm rooms.

Nutrition & Health Care

The typical diet in U.S. prisons consists of ingredients that contribute to chronic diseases such as diabetes. Foods high in salt, sugar, and carbohydrates are common, making it difficult for incarcerated individuals to receive sufficient nutrients to maintain a healthy body. In contrast, a study by the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has reported that the menus in Canadian prisons are nutritionally adequate, with a balance between nutrition and providing desirable foods from the incarcerated individuals' perspective.

There are also differences in how the two countries provide medical care to incarcerated individuals. In the U.S., many prisons outsource medical care to private companies, which has been criticized for providing inadequate care due to cost-cutting measures. In Canada, medical care is provided by government-employed healthcare professionals.

As for hygiene, both countries have standards that require regular cleaning of cells and facilities, but there have been issues in both countries with ensuring that incarcerated individuals have access to adequate personal hygiene products such as soap and toothpaste. In Canada, there have also been issues with providing necessary hair and skin care products for Black women in a timely manner, causing hair loss and other problems. In the U.S., prisons have been criticized for inadequate access to reproductive hygiene products, with reports of women being forced to use makeshift items such as toilet paper or socks. In some cases, this has led to health problems, such as infections. With three-quarters of incarcerated women of reproductive age, this is a significant issue. In Canada, while access to feminine hygiene products is generally better than in the U.S., there have still been reports of shortages and delays in getting these products to incarcerated women.

Education and Vocational Training: Preparing Individuals for Successful Reentry

The Canadian correctional system offers programs aimed at helping incarcerated individuals rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. These programs include anger management, financial literacy, job search assistance, and vocational training. However, a recent report by Canada's Correctional Investigator documents the poor state of education and training in prisons. According to a summary of the report, “the education provided is too narrow, as it is confined to adult basic education, high school completion, and very low level vocational programs.“ While these areas are important, the report suggests that policies should “…have a focus on moving individuals beyond the most basic requirements to ensure they are well prepared to return to the community.” Such programs are essential, as they can reduce the recidivism rate and help individuals achieve personal growth, preparing them for an easier transition back into their regular lives.

Educational programs offered in U.S. prisons vary by state and institution, but common programs include adult basic education (ABE), high school equivalency (HSE) or GED preparation, vocational training, college courses, and life skills training. Some states, like California, offer a music rehabilitation program, which has the psychological effect of providing comfort and easing the transition of moving from society to a correctional facility.

These programs aim to equip incarcerated individuals with the knowledge and hard and soft skills needed to succeed both inside and outside of prison. However, the availability and quality of these programs vary greatly depending on the resources and priorities of each prison system.

The Impact of Race and Ethnicity

Racism is a highly debated subject intertwined with the U.S. society and its prison system, with Black individuals bearing a disproportionate burden. Despite making up only 13% of the country's population, they account for 38% of the prison and jail population. Research has demonstrated that Black people tend to face harsher and longer sentences compared to other ethnic groups. This implies that systemic racism has resulted in a trend where Black individuals, even if they have committed fewer crimes, generally receive more punitive sentences than individuals of other races.

In Canada, the issue of systematic racism is not as deeply rooted in society as it is in the U.S. However, ethnicity is still an issue in its prison system. In 2017, approximately 110 complaints were reported to Canada’s Office of the Correctional Investigator, with most related to racial discrimination. There have also been concerns raised about the treatment of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons, who are disproportionately represented in the carceral system and often face discrimination.

Rehabilitation vs. Punishment

Canada's justice system generally prioritizes rehabilitation over punishment, setting it apart from the justice system in the United States. This restorative justice approach focuses on helping incarcerated individuals successfully reintegrate into society by providing access to educational and vocational training, mental health and medical care, and other forms of support.

While there are some significant differences between the two prison systems, both countries can take steps to improve the quality of life for incarcerated individuals. One key strategy is to increase funding for expanded educational programs, which have been shown to reduce recidivism rates and help individuals secure meaningful employment after their release. Both countries must also address issues such as racism that contribute to inequities within the justice system. This can involve implementing policies that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as providing training for staff and other stakeholders to recognize and address bias.

Both the U.S. and Canada should work towards creating a more equitable and humane prison environment and provide programs that can prepare people for life after prison. In doing so, justice-involved individuals will be more likely to achieve successful reentry and contribute in a positive manner to society, which can also help reduce recidivism.

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