As one of their final insulting acts involving the Canada's criminal justice system, the Conservative government served notice that it would not be renewing the contract of the prison ombusdman, Howard Sapers.
Now that the Trudeau Liberals have taken power, many of us who are concerned about the rising numbers of women, indigenous people and older Canadians within our prisons are urging the government to reconsider removing Sapers. We are also urging the government to repeal many of the alarming pieces of legislation that affect the rights of Canadians who come into conflict with the law.
I wrote this profile of him two years ago for Simon Fraser University's AQ magazine. Here is an abridged version.
On April 14, 1971, Kingston Penitentiary was rocked by a four-day riot that resulted in the deaths of two inmates and the near physical destruction of the prison. Canadians watched in horror as the inmates held six guards hostage. They held a news conference to complain about their lack of recreational time and work assignments, and to air their concerns about future conditions in the newly built Millhaven Prison.
The riot was part of a continuing pattern of unrest in the Canadian penitentiary system that lasted through the 1960s and into the early 1970s. It was clear something had to be done to stem the tide of violence and end a pattern of human rights violations.
“The riot in Kingston had the infamous distinction of having involved loss of life and having taken place at the hands of one group of inmates beating to death another group of inmates,” explains Howard Sapers (BA’80), who is Correctional Investigator for Canada and a graduate of SFU’s School of Criminology. “Besides the loss of life and brutality, there was massive property destruction. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was retaliation against some of the inmates involved in the riot by correctional staff when the inmates were transferred to another institution.
“It was about as bleak a situation as you can imagine in corrections,” says Sapers.
Shortly after the riot, Sapers recalls, the federal government named a commission of enquiry that concluded that the inmates were responding to the inability of the corrections system to honestly address legitimate grievances.
“It was about the conditions of confinement,” he explains. “The circumstances within the institution were so bad and the issues being raised by the inmates were so important, but they were not being addressed.”
The government accepted a recommendation from the enquiry to appoint an independent investigator who would consider prisoner grievances and make recommendations to the government. That position was given statutory powers in 1992 when the current Corrections and Conditional Release Act was proclaimed.
“That legislation was very significant because it was crafted so that it would reflect the Canadian Charter of Rights,” says Sapers. “It was an expression of Canada’s commitment to the Charter and to the values in the Charter and to human rights.”
Sapers is only the third Correctional Investigator, following in the footsteps of Inger Hansen, the legendary Canadian judge and privacy commissioner, and Ron Stewart, who held the position for nearly 25 years. Sapers was named to the post in 2004.
“It seems to be a slow rotation, this position,” he laughs.
In the 10 years since he was appointed, Sapers has distinguished himself as a tireless advocate for prisoner rights, particularly the rights of women, Aboriginal Canadians, and those suffering from mental illness. He speaks regularly to the public and the media about the alarming increase in their numbers in federal prison.
“There is a keen public interest in criminal justice issues, which has been heightened by a government that has made law and order a centrepiece of its agenda. It has resulted in a higher profile for the office and a higher caseload for the office,” he says.
“There are now more women and men in penitentiaries who are staying longer than they did 10 years ago,” he adds. “We’re dealing with an environment where there are lots of demands for public information. With the number of bills the government has presented to Parliament, we’ve also seen lots of demand from parliamentarians to present information to the Canadian public that’s accessible.”
He notes that also over the last 10 years the capacity of the prison system is being challenged by the near doubling of the number of women in prison, an increase in the Aboriginal population from 17 percent to 23 percent, and a dramatic increase in the number of black and visible minority inmates.
“That says something about how our system works and about who is coming into conflict with the law. I think that needs to be examined. That’s not the role of the prison ombudsman, but it’s my role to point out that that’s how our prison population looks today.”
His efforts to expose the plight of mentally ill inmates have garnered him national attention. In 2010, he was awarded a Presidential Commendation from the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA) for his long-standing role in defending the rights of mentally ill offenders.
“Mr. Sapers has made the plight of the mentally ill in Canadian prisons a priority throughout his mandate,” says Stanley Yaren, past president of the CPA. “His office has made strong and practical recommendations to Correctional Services Canada, and he is persistent in bringing otherwise hidden issues to the attention of Parliament and the public.”
Sapers has also been awarded the Canada 125 Medal, the Weiler Award for social development, the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, and the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal. Last year, Sapers received the SFU Outstanding Alumni Award (Public Service), and he continues to speak on challenges facing Canada’s corrections system at public forums at the university and with faculty as part of his role as adjunct professor.
When Sapers enrolled in criminology at SFU, the Burnaby native was preparing for a law career, not a journey into the dark heart of the corrections system. He believed a background in criminal justice would come in handy for any young and ambitious lawyer. But he quickly set aside his legal ambition after taking several courses in criminology. He realized his calling was in community-based crime prevention.
“I was very interested in crime prevention and social development, crime prevention and environmental design, and different ways of looking at policing in terms of preventing crime and not just responding to crime,” he says.
After leaving SFU, Sapers found employment with a community-based crime prevention program funded by the B.C. Attorney General’s Office, then later worked with young offenders in the probation field. In 1982, he took a position as executive director for the John Howard Society in Grande Prairie, Alberta, working with offenders to help them transition from incarceration to settlement.
“What was exciting about this job was that I had the opportunity to run a small agency at the age of 25,” he says. “It was doing some very innovative programming involving victim-offender reconciliation and some very progressive work with community education in public schools.”
Sapers then moved to Edmonton where he became the director of research and policy for the John Howard Society of Alberta and was eventually named its executive director. During the early 1990s, Sapers also became the chair of the Mayor’s Advisory Task Force on Safer Cities, which emanated from a United Nations meeting and the Montreal declaration on how to grow safer cities.
During his Alberta years, Sapers became alarmed at the direction being taken in terms of criminal justice policy in that province. “There was a lot of rhetoric in those days; we had just come through the capital punishment debate in the 1980s, and we were engaged in debates about gun control. There were also debates about the Young Offenders Act: Was the legislation good or bad? Was it soft on crime?
“I felt the shift in public discourse didn’t reflect the reality. I felt a lot of these issues were being politicized.”
In 1993, Sapers decided to run for public office and was successful in his bid for a Liberal seat in the Alberta legislature. He served two terms, which included stints as house leader and leader of the opposition.
“Some of the issues I worked on in the legislature may not sound like crime prevention or corrections, but they are all related to building better and safer communities and having government be more accountable and transparent in how they do that.”
As an MLA, Sapers toured Alberta on a select standing committee whose work led to the creation of the province’s access to information and protection of personal privacy legislation. He also proposed a private member’s bill to create a non-smoker’s bill of rights. Though his bill didn’t pass, much of its content became part of Alberta’s non-smoking legislation.
“There are a number of things that members of the legislature can do, and it really is just about the issues you’re interested in and how to pursue them,” he says. After his defeat in 2001 (by fewer than 150 votes), Sapers was offered a position with the National Crime Prevention Centre as director of the Crime Prevention Fund that provided funding for multi-year social development projects designed to prevent crime.
“These projects were very much at the grassroots level,” says Sapers. “They dealt with early childhood intervention, supports for women and children at risk, anti-poverty programs, educational programs, and a whole host of community-building and crime prevention programs – more than $40 million worth of projects. Every one of them had to have an evaluation component. The idea was to learn from the successes and failures of those projects and then apply those lessons.”
Sapers was then appointed vice-chair of the National Parole Board for the Prairie Region where he served until he was offered the job of Correctional Investigator. It has been a long and varied journey, one that has given Sapers a unique perspective as someone who has seen the criminal justice system from all sides.
“You do have a different view of things when you’re working on the street, or when you’re working in a halfway house, or when you’re working with a local neighbourhood association to deal with graffiti and nuis-ance crimes,” he says. “Add to that providing funding to organizations and evaluating them against major policy initiative goals, or making decisions about the liberty of individuals who come into conflict with the law, or providing policy advice to an organization the size of the parole board. In the job I now have, certainly my perspective has evolved very much.”