Robert Clark’s “Down Inside” provides the reader with an authentic, unvarnished view of how prison staff perform their duties and how prisoners learn to survive, writes Jim Black.

Book: A compelling, critical look inside Canadian prisons

By  Jim Black, Catholic Register special
  • June 17, 2017

Down Inside: Thirty Years in Canada’s Prison Service by Robert Clark (Goose Lane Editions, soft cover, 265 pages, $22.95).

Winston Churchill reminded us many years ago that the way we treat crime and criminals is a reliable test of the civilization of any country.

The desire to rehabilitate all “those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment ... mark and measure the stored-up strength of a nation and (is) the sign and proof of the living virtue in it,” Churchill told the British House of Commons in 1910.

In Robert Clark’s account of his 30 years of service in Canada’s federal prisons, he provides us with an honest, unfiltered look at how we treat those incarcerated in our prisons. During his years of service, Clark found himself performing a diverse set of correctional and management roles in a wide range of penal institutions. He retired in 2009 as deputy warden in Kingston Penitentiary’s Regional Treatment Centre. Using the techniques of creative nonfiction, he conveys the hard reality of what happens “down inside” on the prison ranges, in the workplaces, in the recreation areas and especially in the solitary confinement cells.

For someone with either a developed interest in the culture of Correctional Services Canada (CSC), or just a passing curiosity about what happens behind the walls of our federal prisons, this book provides the reader with an authentic, unvarnished view of how prison staff perform their duties and how prisoners learn to survive. It held my attention from start to finish.

Clark addresses social justice through the eyes of a correctional officer who had a clear sense of what his mandate was.

“I took an oath to work professionally, ethically, and dispassionately to assist all prisoners to become law-abiding citizens. I pledged to set a good example (and) … to adopt a benevolent day-to-day approach,” writes Clark. “If rehabilitation is our primary objective, we must put aside our personal outrage at the nature of the crime and look at every prisoner as a unique human being in need of assistance to get their life on track.”

This overriding principle guided and shaped his ongoing encounters with prisoners. When prisoners were treated with respect and dignity, he found them more likely to respond positively and co-operatively. Unfortunately, most CSC employees did not share this view of their assignment or of those placed under their charge.

As a result, the prison system is marked by a collective culture of indifference and inertia that raises serious questions about the professionalism of CSC. In Clark’s words, “Too few prison employees care about the prisoners under their care…. Any interest in a prisoner’s well-being and their chances for becoming a law-abiding citizen is almost non-existent.”

This culture, Clark believes, is responsible for most of the problems within our prisons.

One of the most serious flaws of the CSC is its excessive use of solitary confinement. Here is Clark’s opening take on the matter: “Solitary confinement is widely overused in Canada’s prisons as a solution to many, if not most, institutional problems, although it solves none.”

He recognizes the consequences.

“As long as solitary confinement continues to be the catch-all for every problem that arises, there can be no hope of any change in correctional philosophy, or in its results.”

Investigators agree that prolonged periods of isolation and sensory deprivation often lead to emotional distress, mental illness, suicidal ideation and self-harm. A disproportionate number of prisoners taking their own lives have been housed in administrative segregation.

Clark draws attention to one of the most widely reported prison suicides of recent years — Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old prisoner who strangled herself with a strip of cloth while guards watched her on a video monitor and did nothing to intervene. By the time of her death in 2007, Smith had spent more than 1,000 days in solitary confinement.

Smith’s death was one of the events that led to Clark’s decision to resign.

“(Her death) prompted me to question the true nature of my employer, the prevailing culture at CSC and whether or not I could, in good conscience, remain part of the system,” he said.

Clark’s career in CSC is a compelling story, clearly and boldly recounted. He has done Canada a great service by sharing this story with us.

We are now in a position to determine whether Canada passes Winston Churchill’s litmus test for civility and humanity.

(Black is a freelance author and editor, with 40 years of experience in book publishing.)

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