Home > Uncategorized > “This place is a warehouse” – Imprisoned People Speak Out on Differences Between Federal and Provincial Prisons

“This place is a warehouse” – Imprisoned People Speak Out on Differences Between Federal and Provincial Prisons

When people talk about prisons in popular Canadian discourse, they tend to be speaking about the Federal system. This is in part because it is relatively uniform across the country in terms of its governance, whereas Provincial systems inherently vary from province to province. As a result, the provincial systems are very rarely put under the public microscope and this has allowed for some dramatic differences which amount to severely sub-standard conditions for people imprisoned by the Province. This is especially true in Ontario, the province which has far more imprisoned people than any other.

In practice there are so many more things – both objects and activities, facilities and programs – that people in prison in Federal penitentiaries have access to in comparison to people in provincial prisons, and this leads to a substantive difference in the material conditions in our standard of living. In theory,  things that are understood to be “rights” or “entitlements” in federal institutions are considered to be “privileges” for people imprisoned by the province.

In the federal system if prison authorities try to take things away – be they services, programs or objects – they are (to some extent) held accountable through popular expression and democratic process by means of elected Inmate Committees, which exist not by favour of the institution but by mandate of correctional services Canada to function as both a representative voice and an organizing body for imprisoned people. In the provincial system where Ontario’s Ministry of Correctional Services affords no such rights, the few things we have are used to control the people imprisoned here. With no protections for our rights and no meaningful accountability or oversight, the effect is that we are imprisoned in what is functionally no more than a high security warehouse.

Gordan Gatt, 53, has spent more than half his life behind bars – more than 20 years between 4 different federal penitentiaries, and more than a decade in provincial prisons. He has been on Unit 5A at the Central North Correctional Centre – a provincial facility – for almost 2 years now.

For Gatt, there is a “hundred times difference” between the federal and provincial systems that can be summed up in a single word: “freedom.” For him, one of the most meaningful facets is the simple fact that in federal prison cells, “you have everything…you make your cell yours.” He describes having a lamp, television, radio, and shelves filled with personal items, even plants. He also talks about the wide array of food available for purchase and the ability to prepare for oneself on the unit. These are all things that we do not have in provincial prisons.

Here, the guards can make us take pictures down from cell walls for punitive or arbitrary reasons, because, as they have made it clear to me, having pictures on our walls is a “privilege” we are “not entitled to.” Gatt says that in a federal prison “that would never happen.”

While there has always been a difference between the two systems, according to Gatt, it has become significantly more pronounced in recent years. When I ask him about what needs to change in provincial prisons he says, “it should go back to the way it used to be” [before super jails and spending cuts].

Before the province started making per-prisoner spending cuts in the provincial system, there used to be access to gyms, people were not ‘locked out’ of their cells all day, there were fewer ‘lock-downs,’ and there was far more ‘rehabilitative programming’ available to imprisoned people. For example, when the most recent cutbacks resulted in earlier nightly lockups at the CNCC, one impact was that all evening programs and those run by volunteers – literacy, alcoholics anonymous, bible study – seemed to have simply disappeared.

Joel LaRoche, 47, has spent 10 years in the federal system and 6 years provincial. He too says that there is a “big difference” between the two systems. Citing everything from visiting policies to the quality of food to the fact that in federal prisons people do not have to wear prison issued uniforms – “you get to wear your own clothes,” he says. He emphasizes the ability in the federal system to work for pay instead of as free labour in provincial intuitions. He also says that in federal prisons “your movement is better,” by which he means there are more opportunities to leave the unit and to do so in a fashion that less resembles being herded from place to place.

“It’s not right what they’re doing here,” says LaRoche in summation, “It’s violating my rights as a human.”

I ask LaRoche what he thinks accounts for the drastic difference in treatment between the two systems. “There’s only one reason,” he tells me, “and that’s the committee [providing] a voice for the inmates.” He adds, “it’s definitely not the government,” meaning that it is not any action being taken by the government that makes the federal prisons better.

When I suggest there are actually substantial legislative differences between the two systems, here is what he said: “If [the policy] were anything close to the same, this warehousing would not be happening…what do they think they are trying accomplish? Why would you take away a man’s quality of life? Is that going to make him better? No, it’s going to make him bitter and more violent.”

Jason Brown, 37, has spent more than 12 years imprisoned with over 4 of those in the provincial system. While at the Fenbrook federal pen he served as secretary of the inmate committee there. Correctional Services Canada mandates that there be a committee “who assists in the rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates into communities as law abiding citizens,” and “to establish a means for inmates to provide input providing institutional operations, thus contributing to safe and secure operations” [there is no equivalent provincial policy].

I ask Brown what, in his words, the committee does. “It went to bat for the inmates,” he tells me. “If [the prison is] impinging on your rights,” he says, “the committee makes sure they’re held accountable for whatever decisions they make.” Here at the CNCC, and in other provincial prisons, there is no one who holds the institution accountable.

In the provincial system “they basically lock you up whenever they want…I don’t want to use the word,” Brown says recognizing the hyperbole in what he is about to say, “that is a lot like a dictatorship.”

Brown goes on to describe Provincial prisons as places where “guys are walking around like either zombies or machines” with nothing to do but wait for their release dates. “I know it’s cliché”, he says, “but it’s hell.”

“The provincial system is not what it was 10 years ago,” Brown explains, echoing what Gordan Gatt told me. Recognizing the impact of “all the cuts,” he says that currently “they don’t really do anything to prepare you for your release.”

I ask Brown what should be changed. “They would have to do it similarly to the Federal system…I don’t know where to start cause there is so much that has be done here,” he tells me. I ask him for a specific suggestion. He says “more rehabilitation.”

I ask Brown to sum up his position. “They treat you more human in the federal system. Here they treat you like cattle. We’re a warehouse.”

Chad Mauthe, also 37, has spent nearly 8 years in the Federal system and 5 provincial. When I ask him about the difference, he says, “you seem to have more rights when you’re in Federal, they seem to care a little bit more, they’re not just warehousing you.” He emphasized both the quantitative and qualitative differences in what he calls “extra-curricular activities” – work times, access to facilities and programs, etc. In federal prisons he says there are “more things to take your mind off frustrations. Here we’re just penned up.” He laments the “quality of life in here…you don’t really have anything to do except walk around, read the paper, and watch music videos.”

Mouthe notes that in provincial prisons “there is a lot less contact…your community support is cut off from you” because of visiting policies and practices and due to the exorbitant cost of phone calls. This is something also mentioned by each Gatt, LaRoche, and Brown.

“Here they hold your privileges over your head,” Mouthe says. “Work and programs are treated like a privilege,” he explains, telling me that while at federal prisons “work” is still exploitative, at least there is some payment. “Here,” he says, “getting off the range – the privilege – is your payment.”

When I ask Mouthe what needs to done to change things I’m surprised by his initial response. “They should build more jails” [in order to provide more specified programming in less crowded facilities]. I suggest to him that many of the people who support prisoners would find that solution unacceptable as it is often said that building more prisons directly leads to the imprisonment of more people. Here is his response: “I don’t believe in warehousing. I don’t think a guy should come to jail just because he has done something wrong…if there are community options available, obviously that is preferable…the laws are too tough…but I also think the world would be fucked without jails.”

I disagree with the last part of Mouthe’s statement. I want to live in a world without jails. But here is what I do agree with: if we want to live in a world without prisons, we need to seriously improve community based supports for people, and we need to develop and implement alternative justice models. But we cannot allow conditions in these warehouse-like super jails to continue deteriorating while we struggle to build those kinds of communities.

The provincial prison system in Ontario is a disgrace. But I need to recognize that I have great trepidation contrasting the provincial and federal systems during a week in which I have spent so much time thinking about the torturous abuse endured by Ashely Smith before she was killed by the federal prison system that I consider this: all four of the people interviewed for this piece have spent substantial time in both systems and each are saying unequivocally that provincial prisons are much worse places.

Both systems are expanding and both are getting worse. The new provincial prisons being built are much like this one – superjails – and due to the reality of the conservative government’s so-called tough on crime agenda, the new prisons soon will too be overcrowded. And like the already existing prisons, they too will be filled with people from communities disproportionately targeted by increasing militarized policing and disproportionately impacted by existing and upcoming austerity measures being enacted by all levels of government. These places are warehouses for people from targeted communities – communities of colour, immigrants, poor people, indigenous people, and people disabled by inadequate supports for mental health.

I’d like to conclude with the following digression:  in that other world that is possible – the one that it has been said we might be able to hear “breathing on a quiet day” – there are indeed no more prisons. But in that world there’s also no more rape and no more routinized, systematized or sanctioned violence against women. There are community-based solutions for people with substance abuse problems and structural supports easily accessible for everyone’s mental health needs. In that other world that is possible all of our communities are actively and vigilantly anti-racist, and we have social justice and egalitarian economies, and there is healing. In that other world that is possible, we no longer use the word ‘crime’ and when people have violated collective agreements or caused harm to other persons we work together to seek restorative justice and balance.

Prison abolition is a necessary part of a just and sustainable world. While we struggle for that world there are immediate reforms that we can make today to include the lives of people imprisoned in these warehouses. And while we make for immediate reforms of unjust systems, which we must, we would also be wise to always remember that Indian activist Arundhati Roy was right; another world is possible, and on a quiet day, even in here, I too can hear her breathing.


Coming Soon: ‘Super Jails – Portrait of a Provincial Prison’ but before that, up next is the result of my application for parole.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. torontogoat
    November 13, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    So this. So very this.

  2. November 14, 2012 at 11:31 am

    The Ontario Government pays jails $300.00 a day per inmate. The competition for bodies is obscene.Most of the guards are failed policemen who take their anger out on prisoners.
    In Canada,the uniform has become an excuse not to think.
    Canada is where Germany was in the late thirties. They have targeted an identifiable group and blame this group for Canada’s failure as a nation. Using the legal system to persecute them and anyone who looks like them has become job security for crown attorney’s and cops. Canada’s 20 most wanted are Muslims.
    When a Canadian kills 50 kids he is a monster when Canadians kill 50,000 aboriginal children brutalized in residential schools they are called christians.
    Canada owes First Nations 3 trillion dollars and Harper would rather eliminate the debtees than the debt.
    Decent canadians should be saying we don’t want to be known worldwide as a nation of of child killers.
    Decent Canadians should be saying if Canada won,t pay it’s debts than why should we pay taxes?

  3. jenn
    August 18, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    that’s messed up. most provincial are not that bad but federal are so why should federal be better if anything it should be worse the are major crimes in federal like rapests , child molesters, serial killers ext they should be treated like crap. they don’t deserve to live. they should live in hell or be put to death .

    IT would save us a lot of money and less overcrowding.

  4. December 17, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Somehow,I getthe impression that we talk more of guest houses than PRISONS. Prisons are built to ‘punish’ people for committing crimes. They are not ‘make work establishments’.
    The big problem, in my opinion, is “evaluation” How a crime is viewed; if a person is abused or torchered or killed, then a crime has been committed. If a person is injured or killed in an auto accident by a careless driver, or one on heavy dope or booze, he/she has committed a crime. If a person injuires or kills someone in an auto accident because he/she was distracted by some unplanned event, such as a stinging insect, bee, wasp,etc., or some object blows off the dash and he reacts, “automatically” to catch it, his/her attention to the driving ius distrtacted for a couple of seconds and the vehicile crosses the miridian just enough to make contact with an oncoming vehicle. the collission causing severe injury and death; where is the crime???? The responsible driver may spend tweo or three years in and out of hospital, suffering severe, excruciating pain, and he’s treated “as tho he wes a criminal”. WHERE IS THE JUSTICE??? The years of pain and incapacitation. should be enough. What justice is served by a prison sentence?? The pain goes on……


  5. Beth
    March 6, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Hey Jen ,hope no one you know ever goes to jail.

  6. Jimmy Black
    March 28, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    let me tell you this…after having spent many years in our federal system I can clearly say the whole system is corrupt and full of lying cheating guards who don’t give a shit who lives or dies. I personally know two guys who have been kept in 22years and never killed a soul..stayed charge free and did every program available yet they are overridden by parole officers due to simply not being liked…our system is wrong and the guards etc…are given way too much power because they are too damned lazy to do their jobs properly.The food in these places isn’t fit for a dog and let me tell you that not all guys inside get to do easy time like that scum bag Magnotta as outlined in your previous article…he is a punk and the guards love guys like him…the rest of the guys inside suffer and get treated like shit but if you are a rat or can help a copper you live like a king…they talk about their programs but when a guy does them they just laugh and say “you’re still a risk…they deny moves to well earned lower security based on their personal opinion of a con rather then looking at the success that guy has had while away,the system is wrong and very abusive and all they do is complain about the crime rate to the public when they don’t have the guts to tell the truth about what really goes on in the joints.Sure there are pool tables in some pens…but they forget to mention that the cons pay for them out of their own pockets…the pens have outside contracts through CORCAN that CSC makes money off but they pay cons nothing to do the work that earns CSC their budget by these shops…wake up and look at the real picture .

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