Questioning the Purpose of the Prison System

Rory Sullivan, Queens University.


To rehabilitate or to punish? That is the question. When we send someone away to be incarcerated, is it the prison system’s job to make them a better person? Or is it to punish them for their crimes against society? As of the end of 2018, in Canada only 21.3% of offenders are serving life sentences, meaning that most inmates will be released back into their communities. Even those serving life sentences have eligibility for parole after 25 years for first-degree murder or 10-25 years for second degree. Furthermore, inmates will eventually be released back into our community whether we like it or not, so should we be more focused on how they’re being treated while incarcerated?

In 1992, inmate Richard Sauvé challenged a provision in the Canada Election act that prohibited prisoners from voting, and won his case. The Supreme Court said this on their decision to uphold the outcome of his landmark case: “denying individuals the right to vote will not educate them in the values of community and democracy”. Sauvé now works at the Queen’s Law Clinic as an Indigenous Justice Coordinator and has dedicated the past few decades of his life to helping inmates prepare for life after prison. I had the opportunity to meet with him to discuss his view on inmate rehabilitation and rights. When I asked him why he had pursued this case in the first place, his answer was simple. He stated that even though he was incarcerated, he still cared about what happened to his family and community. Being locked up did not take away the fact that he was affected by everyday issues, such as education or health care. Being incarcerated did not mean he lost his citizenship: and as a Canadian citizen he felt he still had the right and the duty to vote for the decisions that would still impact his life.

To my surprise, he said that he noticed inmates began developing more of a moral compass once they had the opportunity to vote, because they started to think about how their decisions affected others. They then in turn felt a sense of citizenship in response to their moral decision making.

When I asked him about other effective forms of inmate rehabilitation, he said that throughout all of his years of experience, nothing came close to the impact of inmate education. Many studies done about rehabilitation in prisons support his answer, and increasing education is shown to have had an impact on reducing recidivism rates. One study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that there was a 43% reduction in the recidivism rate for inmates who took part in prison education programs. On seeing the impact of education first-hand, Sauvé said this: “when you see so many get their high school education and they have so much pride… it speaks volumes.” Instead of being forced into something, inmates are making the choice to do something for themselves, and are being rehabilitated as a result.

The depth of this issue lies in the quality of education being provided for inmates in Canadian prisons. In 2015, Correctional Service Canada wrote a report evaluating the educational services they offer to inmates. One of their key findings was that “there is a demonstrable need for educational programming in Canadian federal institutions.” CSC found that education had an “overall positive impact on public safety”, especially for inmates considered high-risk. Despite the recommendations made by the CSC, Canadian education programs continue to be subpar. Lack of funding, absence of special needs accommodations, and untrained teachers are just some of the issues facing prisoners looking for an education. Sauvé himself said that many schools in the prisons are at capacity.

But education isn’t the only rehabilitation program that has suffered from a lack of funding or low priority. LifeLine, a program created in 1991 that provided support to those serving a life sentence and helped them reintegrate back into society once on parole, was cut by the government in 2012. Sauvé worked for the program up until it’s cancellation, and spoke about how effective it’s services were. Not only did it win awards, but despite it being cut in Canada, it was adopted in other jurisdictions in the US, such as California and New York. St. Leonard’s Society decided that LifeLine was one of the best resources available to inmates, and began to fund the program internally under the name PeerLife, (which Sauvé says is essentially the same as LifeLine). He is the last one in Ontario who is working for PeerLife, but he says that there are unfortunately too many inmates and not enough resources for him to reach them all.

Sauvé currently also works on a program targeted to those who have connections to gang culture, called Break Away. It took him three full years to get permission to bring Break Away to Collins Bay Prison, located in Kingston. The excuse he was given for the long wait was that inmates ‘weren’t motivated’. When he finally did receive access to Collins Bay, he did not find the unmotivated prisoners that were described to him; instead he found a large number of inmates who came in for weekly sessions and were clearly engaged in the self-help process. He even told me that he had inmates asking him to come in more frequently.

“When somebody comes out, are they prepared for today’s world?” This is the question that Sauvé says the prison system should be asking when they are deciding whether to release an inmate back into the community. The programs available to inmates just aren’t cutting it. Without more services centered around education or transition programs such as LifeLine, inmates aren’t being taught the proper skills needed to prepare for life after incarceration. Sauvé cites better resource management as one of the biggest areas that need to be addressed in order to help better prepare inmates. Currently, Canada’s staff to inmate ratio is one of the highest in the world at 1:1, and even though the federal inmate population has lowered since 2013, more guards are being hired. Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger stated that the increase in funding for more prison staff has not shown to be cost-effective at all, likening it to “telling Canadians they are paying the highest hydro rates in the world and getting tons of blackouts”.

Sauvé believes that prisoner rehabilitation is a public safety concern. We shouldn’t just know who is reentering our community, but we should make sure that those who come back are actually okay. Will they be able to find a job? Will they be able to contribute to the community? Will they be able to find footing in a world that is different from when they first left it? Prison reform is desperately needed in order to not only reduce the recidivism rate, but to also send productive people back into our society. When we treat people with respect and give them the tools to help themselves, it is clear that most will take the opportunity to be better.

One of the first things Sauvé told me when we sat down for the interview was that he tells the inmates he works with that he isn’t there to help them get out of prison, but to help them prepare for life after. Both the government and society needs to recognize the importance of rehabilitation for prisoners in the place of punishment, so that inmates can have the opportunity to become productive, contributing members of our collective community.



Brosnahan, Maureen. “Prison Rehab Program Axed Due to Budget Cuts.” CBC News, 16 Apr. 2012, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

Department of Justice, editor. “How Sentences Are Imposed.” Government of Canada, 13 Sept. 2018, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

Elections Canada, editor. “A History of the Vote in Canada.” Elections Canada, 10 Dec. 2019, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

John Howard Society of Canada, editor. “Problems with Education in Canadian Prisons.” John Howard Society of Canada, 13 Dec. 2018, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

Northwestern University, editor. “Benefits of Prison Education.” Northwestern Prison Education Program, 2020, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

Prison Studies Project, editor. “Why Prison Education?” Prison Studies Project, 2020, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

Public Safety Canada, editor. “2018 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview.” Public Safety Canada, Government of Canada, Aug. 2019, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

Richer, Isabelle, et al. “Evaluation of CSC’s Education Programs and Services.” Correctional Service Canada, Government of Canada, Feb. 2015, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

St. Leonard’s Society of Canada, editor. “PeerLife: A Collaborative Network.” St. Leonard’s Society, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.

White, Patrick. “Canada’s Investment in Prison System Isn’t Bringing Results, Watchdog Reports.” The Globe and Mail, 26 Apr. 2019, Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.