Motion to Authorize Committee to Study Issues Relating to the Human Rights of Federally Sentenced Persons in the Correctional System and Refer Papers and Evidence from First Session of the Forty-Second Parliament to Current Session

By: The Hon. Wanda Thomas Bernard

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Hon. Wanda Elaine Thomas Bernard: Honourable senators, today I speak in support of Motion No. 31, that the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights be authorized to examine and report on issues relating to the human rights of federally sentenced persons in the correctional system. I thank our colleague Senator Pate for calling on us to complete this study.

In the previous Parliament, the study’s final report was drafted by Human Rights Committee members and analysts over the course of a three-year study, consisting of 30 public hearings with testimony from over 150 witnesses and 30 on-site visits across the country. We visited federal penitentiaries, healing lodges, community-based correctional facilities and mental health centres. As the former chair of the committee and as a registered social worker, I emphasize the urgency of the tabling of this final report and its recommendations. Our duty as senators is to act in the best interests of all Canadians. Witnesses placed their trust in us, and prisoners are relying on us to follow through with our commitment to hold our government accountable for the safeguarding of their rights.

This study was a thorough examination into the policies, practices and procedures in the correctional system and the resulting conditions endured by prisoners. The final recommendations have the power to create real change. This work recognizes the humanity of prisoners and their right to access basic needs. It is about building strong communities and creating systemic change. Throughout this study, committee members heard repeatedly that this system is not working. It was frequently referred to as a “revolving door.” This report will outline concrete recommendations for systemic change to the criminal justice system.

The Senate Human Rights Committee’s interim report entitled The Most Basic Right is to be Treated as a Human Being, exposed racial inequities and the ways systemic racism impacts the lives of Indigenous, Black and racialized people. As we find ourselves witnessing and experiencing the current civil rights movement after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, many colleagues have expressed dismay and disappointment as they have become aware of some of the realities of systemic racism faced by Black Canadians.

On October 24, The Globe and Mail released an in-depth article on how Black and Indigenous prisoners are impacted by systemic racism, specifically in the form of assessments that have been shown to disproportionately rank Black and Indigenous prisoners as more likely to reoffend.

These findings are just one of many racial inequities found in the criminal justice system. The committee heard, over the course of the study, many forms of systemic racism in Canada through policies and practices within the correctional system. The final report on prisoners’ rights is a step toward racial justice. Finalizing this study will shine a light on the experiences of incarcerated Indigenous, Black and racialized people, showing that we believe their lives matter and we have not forgotten our commitment to them.

Honourable senators, we have each sworn to represent our regions and to serve the most vulnerable people in our country. Many people do not recognize prisoners as vulnerable people due to their criminal records. The punishment for a crime is serving time or the loss of liberty. The punishment for a crime is not to have your other rights taken away through everyday practices in prisons. All people, no matter their history, deserve basic human rights. The reality is that prisoners are vulnerable people due to the systemic oppression that impacts their circumstances, such as poverty, racism and colonialism. Some of the key areas of concern that the committee examined were basic physical needs like access to health care, dentistry, nutrition, exercise and physical space. We also looked at social and psychological needs, including social contact, access to educational resources, mental health services and access to meaningful cultural, religious and faith-based ceremonies and practices.

In my 40-plus years of working as a social worker, I have worked with incarcerated men and women, families of those incarcerated and communities on the other side of that revolving door. Canadians have collectively grown accustomed to ignoring the realities of prisons as prisoners are warehoused out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. Prisoners are members of our communities, and ignoring their human rights does not strengthen our communities.

The realities of Indigenous, Black and racialized people; people with disabilities; and women are all represented within the interim report, and the final report would deepen the understanding of some of the most vulnerable people we represent.

In my years of research with the African Nova Scotian community, one crucial part of my research has been to share the results with people who were interviewed, peripherally involved and could be impacted by the results. Not allowing the public to see this final report would be harmful to the people who have been invested throughout the process, awaiting the potential for systemic change.

My fellow committee members can attest to this. As we walked through each institution, prisoners told us that they were following the study; they watched us on CPAC. My office still receives requests from prisoners regarding the release of this final report.

Finishing this study is an issue of human rights, research ethics, and of transparency and trust. Canadians have placed their trust in our institution with their personal stories and professional opinions. People participated in this study in good faith, and we have a responsibility and a duty to follow through with this work for them.

Honourable senators, I urge you to recognize the humanity of the thousands of prisoners who are essentially warehoused across Canada. Let’s put a stop to the human rights violations that are invisible to most of our society by finalizing this study and tabling the final report to change a system that is not working.

Thank you.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

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