Prisons and Corrections: A Story Under Pressure (Part I)

Outside of life itself, what more does a person have to lose than their freedom of movement? As long as there have been states built on the rule of law, there have been jails and jailers.

And yet, in Québec, locking people up in order to try to correct their behavior and their way of thinking is a relatively recent practice. This type of prison sentence is more contemporary, and certainly, imperfect. Let’s take a look at a brief history of a Québec prison system under pressure.

By Mathieu Perron

Lock Up to Reform

At the end of the 18th century, the Western world developed, thanks to the writings of John Howard, the idea of incarcerating criminals in order to reform them. Inspired directly by this model, in 1821 the city of Philadelphia constructed the Eastern State Penitentiary. The first prison of its type, it isolated prisoners from each other day and night. This establishment served as a model for prisons around the world, including Canada.

In this new type of penal establishment, convicts were supposed to use their time alone to silently reflect upon their crimes and behavior. This would motivate them to change, and take them out of their criminal world. Before this, prison terms were an adjunct to torture and public executions. As often happens, the gap between the goals sought after and the means put into place by the authorities to achieve these goals was significant.

At the end of the 19th century, prison terms became standardized, and shortened.

In the 1870s, the federal government established a network of prisons. In 1873, the Saint Vincent de Paul complex, on what is today Laval Island (formerly Île Jésus) welcomed its first prisoners. It was the only francophone federal penitentiary in Canada.

In 1908, construction began on Montréal’s Bordeaux provincial jail. This new-style penitentiary was completed in 1912. Designed by Montréal architect Jean-Omer Marchand, the new prison was one of the few in Canada to incorporate the Philadelphia model, with a radial floor plan and separate wings. Bordeaux held almost 1,000 male prisoners when it opened.

The organization of space, the height of cells and the planning of activities for prisoners fell short in many ways. Overpopulation rapidly became a chronic concern. Conditions were grim: a lack of space in the cells led to a stifling atmosphere. The schedule was monotonous, with no outdoor exercise yard. Isolation was considered an essential part of the rehabilitation process. Prisoners – men and women – were rarely in contact with each other.

First seen on the Reflet de Société website December 6th, 2021.

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