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.
Long-term confinement would put any human being under enormous pressure. No surprise, then, that acts of resistance and periodic eruptions of violence have punctuated Québec prison history.
In November 1932, a group of inmates set fire to the Saint Vincent de Paul Penitentiary. Several buildings went up in smoke. Their leader, a man named Crosley, was of Afro-Canadian origin. The same strategy had been used at Kingston Penitentiary, without success. But following the Saint Vincent de Paul fire, authorities investigated prison conditions in Canada. Inmates’ complaints were noted: jails were overcrowded, and detention conditions were too strict. But everyone would have to wait a while for changes to take place…
In 1952 another prison riot erupted, this time at Bordeaux jail. At its origin was bad treatment by guards, and monotonous meals. During this decade no outside authority oversaw prison guards. They acted with total impunity, often in a cruel and degrading manner towards prisoners.
During the 1970s, prisoners’ associations were set up. The Centraide charity of Greater Montréal was shaken by controversy when it was discovered that some of the donations they collected went to prisoners’ associations. Other violent events shocked the public, such as the August 1972 escape of the charismatic French criminal Jacques Mesrine from Saint Vincent de Paul. In federal penitentiaries, where terms of imprisonment are longer that in provincial jails, conditions were terrible for a long time, especially for women. It was only after riots and the mobilization of inmates that things began to evolve, slowly.
Rehabilitation and Reform
Both inmates and the penal system that is supposed to reform them set out on the long road towards rehabilitation. Federal and provincial governments engaged in important reforms starting in the 1980s. Programs designed to treat addiction, and to get inmates to better endure separation from their children, were established.
Nonetheless, the consequences of the holes in our social safety net combined with our repressive system haven’t disappeared. This is especially true for marginalized peoples such as First Nations and the Inuit. These vulnerable populations are overrepresented in the correctional system. In 2019, in Quebec’s prison system, these peoples represented 6.4% of all inmates when they only represent 1% of the total population of the province. In 2020, these same groups represented 30% of all federal prisoners across Canada when they only comprise 5% of the total Canadian population.
Faced with these numbers, the question remains: what system do we have to reform: prison, or society?