The topic of Canada’s correctional facilities has long been a controversial one, with many critics of the system arguing that it does little to actually improve the behavior of inmates.
And with the rate of violence in Canadian prisons on the rise, many believe that prisons should be tougher on those living within them.
Robert Clark spent over three decades working in many different positions on the inside, dealing with prisoner escapes, intense lockdowns and on one occasion, a full-blown riot.
However, he’s also worked with prisoners, arranging ice-hockey games in a maximum-security institution, sitting in a darkened gym watching movies with three hundred inmates, taking parolees sightseeing, and consoling victims of violent crimes.
Clark spoke to Simi Sara on Monday about his new book, “Down Inside: Thirty Years in Canada’s Prison Service,” which challenges the popular perspective that a “tough-on-crime” approach makes prisons and communities safer.
Clark says he started his career as a student volunteer, not knowing how those working within the prison normally treated inmates.
He says that while many employees treated prisoners nicely, most were less-than-kind to them.
“It’s like they think the prisoners are less than human beings, and the way they interact with them day in and day out kind of reflects that.”
Clark found that treating prisoners with respect would lead to them respecting him in return.
“Even the most dangerous prisoner will react in a polite and cordial way if they feel they’re being treated like a human being,” he says.
Clark says it gave him an insight into how the prison system works for those on the inside.
“It led me to conclude that 99 per cent of the time the prisoners will react to the environment they live in.”
And he believes the impersonal environment he saw 30 years ago has only been made worse by the advent of technology.
Guards who used to personally unlock every prison cell and make rounds on late-night patrols have been replaced by electronic locking systems and overhead cameras.
Clark says that lack of interaction is a key issue with the current prison system.
“Prisoners knew us by first name and we knew them by their first name. And they knew which officer they could come to if they had a problem.”
And he says it’s caused the harsh treatment he saw when he was a volunteer to exacerbate.
“The system has become more and more impersonal, and less and less humane as a result.”
And as prisons get more and more crowded, Clark says it’s only natural that violence increases.
He says that in an overcrowded prison, prisoners are bound to react.
“When you’re dealing with people who don’t have the same coping skills as pro-social people, sometimes that reaction can be anti-social and even violent.”
As Clark climbed the ladder into management, he attempted to incorporate that interpersonal touch into the facilities he ran.
To that end, he has been outspoken in his criticism of certain aspects of correction, most notably solitary confinement.
However, Clark says he’s run into resistance from many of his contemporaries, so much so that he expects the reaction to his book to be, in his words, “antagonistic.”
But he hopes that some who may initially be opposed can take his findings to heart.
“I’m somewhat hopeful that people still working in the system will take a moment to pause and reflect about the way the system is, and maybe their role within it.”