If prisoners can't receive education beyond a GED, how will they acclimate and survive when they leave prison? That's the starting point of some research work by Queen's Law criminal law professor Lisa Kerr and Queen's Law student Sam Bondoux, looking at issues around prisoner education in federal prison in Canada -- starting from the bizarre and nearly unique fact that Canada doesn't allow prisoners Internet access.
Lisa Kelly is a criminal law scholar, examining privacy issues among other things. She recently published a paper on the Jarvis case... and some of the issues that the Supreme Court decision raises about surveillance and privacy in general. She joins us, with Lisa Kerr, also a criminal law professor at Queen's Law, and the developer and instructor of the criminal law module in Law 201/701, Introduction to Canadian Law.
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00:03 Matt Shepherd: Welcome to Fundamentals of Canadian law. I'm Matt Shepherd. One of the side benefits of being a law student is you get to work with Law Faculty, and today we get to dig into those kinds of collaborations. Professor Lisa Kerr, is the creator and instructor of our criminal law module in law 201-701, Introduction to Canadian Law. For the past months, she's been working with Queen's Law Students Sam Bondoux on a project about Canadian prisons education and access to the internet, they joined me to talk about the surprising state of education in federal prisons and how student-teacher collaborations happen and work. Fundamentals of Canadian law is brought to you by the Queen's Certificate in Law, the only online certificate in law offered by a law faculty in Canada. You can find out more at takelaw.ca.
01:01 MS: Lisa, Sam let's talk about access to education among the prison population in Canada. What's the current lay of the land?
01:09 Lisa Kerr: Well, I think the first really important thing to say is to emphasize how high the needs are in terms of incarcerated people and education. So only 25% of those entering the federal prison system have a high school diploma. Compare that with the general population, where 80% of Canadians have a high school diploma. So that tells us this is a population that has a lot of educational need, and so it's no surprise then to learn that the Correctional Service of Canada, our federal prison system, does commit to delivering high school equivalency training within the prison system and so lots of inmates access that high school equivalency program. But there's also a small percentage of inmates who wanna go further than high school. We all know that a high school degree, high school diploma, is not gonna be enough in today's world to get a job, to get meaningful employment that's sustainable and so on, especially for someone with a criminal record. And so for those who wanna go further, beyond high school, while incarcerated, I think many Canadians would be shocked to learn that the prison system effectively prohibits them from going beyond high school.
02:20 MS: And it only makes sense that people leaving prison, the better their prospects are, the better the chance they have to survive and succeed in the outside world.
02:28 LK: Of course, that's just common sense. We all know that, right? That's why we all go to high school, go to college, encourage our kids to do so, so that we can have meaningful employment, take care of ourselves and our families. Sure.
02:40 MS: Right. So what are the barriers? What is prohibitive about people seeking that education?
02:44 LK: Yeah, so it's not an explicit prohibition, right? It's not corrections. They don't have a rule on the books that says nobody is allowed to go to college. But what they have is a situation in which the ban on internet access, and this is a total comprehensive ban for everyone in prison in Canada. You are not allowed to access the Internet in any way, shape, or form.
03:06 MS: Wait, wait, wait, at all?
03:07 LK: At all.
03:09 MS: Ever?
03:09 LK: Ever.
03:09 MS: What?
03:09 LK: Not to communicate with your family, not in any kind of secure supervised way. There is simply none of that. And I know Sam's gonna talk about what's going on in other countries on that topic. What that means in terms of accessing education is that inmates are unable to access distance education providers. Now, in the old days, right, before the internet, the prison system said, "Sure, if you wanna go beyond high school, you can pay for it like other Canadians do, and you can mail away and access a paper-based correspondence education program." And some inmates did that, they did exactly that. The problem today, is there are very few, if any, paper-based correspondence programs left. Why is that? Well, it's because online providers like Athabasca University, these other online education providers, they presume in a country like Canada, that everyone has access to the internet.
04:05 LK: So if you're gonna take one of these classes, you gotta go online, you gotta download materials, you may have to do a test online, you may have to access online tutorials. It is a presumption now, that distance education is online education. So the total ban on access to the Internet, is a total ban on access to any training or education beyond high school.
04:29 MS: Right? And I was in a meeting earlier today kind of in my professional capacity and we were looking at trend lines of, here at Queen's, of in-class education versus online education, not at the law school, but kind of in the school as a whole. And it is a dramatic shift over time in terms of how much education people are seeking online. We're changing our model, we are as an institution gravitating more towards online course delivery than anything else.
04:58 LK: I think that's one of the reasons I've become very passionate about this topic is, I work in a university, I'm well aware of this shift to online education, and I'm well aware of some of the benefits that flow from it. It's more democratic, people living in remote regions can access it, people with complex family care obligations, and so on can access it. It's a great thing, and it's something that it makes simply no sense to not bring these developments into penitentiaries. These are places where, as I say, people have high educational needs, people are often without meaningful activities, it's expensive to run programs in these places. You gotta get staff and it's difficult to get people past security. There are all kinds of limits on what you can do in terms of rehabilitative programming in the prison system and accessing an online course is not difficult. You set up a little computer room, you make sure that all the security controls and everything are in place, and you let people go sit in front of a screen and learn. Why would we not do that? Why would we insist that inmates sit, unoccupied, unable to develop as individuals, unable to connect with their families, all these things that would keep both the prison safer, and the community safer once they're released?
06:16 MS: Right. And I'm still stuck on zero internet. I had no idea. I just I guess I just assumed there was some sort of controlled, gated, observed, monitored, but you could check your email every once in a while or something like that.
06:29 LK: There isn't and it is something that I think Canadians don't know about, and I know Sam knows a lot about what's been going on in other countries on this topic.
06:37 MS: Yeah, that was kind of where my head was at was... Is this just a Canadian thing, or is there sort of like a global literally global prohibition on people in prisons accessing the internet?
06:49 Sam Bondoux: No, it's actually, it's quite the contrary. It's really, Canada is far far behind other jurisdictions in terms of access to education and post-secondary education needs in prisons. We're lucky that we can look to the other jurisdictions to see how they've been doing it, and how they've been successful and what sort of systems they've put in place. So even the US prisons have limited access to the internet for their inmates for post-secondary education but also for other things like communicating with their families. And Europe is far far ahead of Canada so they have many different programs in place in different European states. And what these programs look like are essentially an internet network specifically for the prison system where they can manage security risks. They... For example, in the UK, they take an inmate profile and when the inmate enters the prison, they're assessed, their risks are assessed, and they're given a specific login and on their log in, they have limited internet access, tailored to their risks. So if they have employment needs identified at intake, they might have the ability to access the Internet for instruction on how to improve their CV or instruction on what sort of skills they have in what sort of workforce area they might enter when they're released.
08:15 SB: And this becomes really, really important at release because in Canada, when inmates have a statutory release date coming up or a parole hearing one of the things, specifically at parole hearings, that the Parole Board of Canada will be looking at is their release plan. They do not have access to the Internet to make themselves this release plan and so when they get out, they have to do all that stuff. So whether that's finding a job is the big one, which is clearly linked to recidivism, and sort of returning back to that criminalized life.
08:50 MS: Right? So we know from international examples, like at home, I can log into my router, and turn on parental controls and I can say that the internet in my house can access these sites and not these sites, so we know systemically from other jurisdictions that it's entirely possible to make basically a internet for the prisons that only allows people to access what they need to access to pursue education, job opportunities, that kind of thing.
09:17 SB: Yeah, that's exactly right. And really, what has happened is since this ban on the Internet has been in place, the ban is in the correctional services policy, which was put in place in 2003. And really, at that time, the internet played a completely different role. There's been huge developments in the Internet in the past 20 years, and it plays an increasingly important role in daily life, really. Not just post-secondary education, but in the way we communicate and in the way we do simple tasks like banking and really, with these developments that have made the internet so important in the general community, we've also seen developments in technology that allow us to really achieve those security goals as well. And that's what we've seen in these other jurisdictions;that they can use the technological developments to make sure that the access is really secure, which is of course something that we're worried about also, but it's doable.
10:19 LK: Yeah, it's not just this big scary thing in the outside world, that inmates are gonna have unfettered access to. That was kind of where the ban came from, in 2003, right. Now, as Sam's saying, we have all this technology, we can control exactly what folks are doing on the computer. Net Nanny, any parent [chuckle] knows all about these software management or programs. And so, the prison system just hasn't caught up yet.
10:47 MS: Yeah.
10:49 LK: And why haven't they? 'Cause they don't have to. This is an isolated population, it's very difficult for them to assert their rights it's very difficult for them to access lawyers and so the prison system hasn't had the pressure on it to catch up with technology and with the needs of the populations held there.
11:06 MS: And I guess just as a mental exercise, I am just trying to think of what I could do and what I could access these days. Now, in 2020 without internet access. It's not much. It would be profoundly difficult for me to even in-class education would be impossible for me to pursue without internet access. I need to register for these courses.
11:26 LK: Well, and here's the thing. So one of the things the Prison Service has said in response to some of these critiques that we're making is they said, "Well we do deliver some college courses within the prison, right? And there is an excellent program called Walls to Bridges. We're developing this here at Queen's University right now, in fact, and Walls to Bridges there are university professors, who go in to institutions and teach university courses. And in fact, they're for credit and then the students enrolled at the university can go into the prison and take classes with inmates and it's an incredible experience for everyone involved, and there are classes like that. The problem is, number one, they're not available in every institution. Number two, they're one-off classes, right? Yeah, you could take a sociology of punishment class potentially at a particular prison, but you can't work toward an accreditation.
12:16 MS: Right.
12:17 LK: Right. And that's... These people don't need random humanities classes, they need an accredited degree, or diploma, so that they might be able to get employment. I'm sure they enjoy and benefit from intellectually these other courses, but we need to offer all of it to them. And the third thing is that even the folks who teach in Walls to Bridges, or other one-off college courses, they talk about how difficult it is to teach students who cannot do homework between classes, who cannot go online and learn between classes. It's not like they have great access to text books and literature in prisons, either, so they're delivering these courses. Sure, there's a ton of limits on access across the country and it's really hard to teach students who don't have a computer.
13:02 MS: Right. I mean, again, even here, I've taken some courses at Queen's recently, courses in the Certificate in Law, in fact, but even the in-class courses, you still have to log into learning management software, your readings are there, video reviews of past classes are there. It is even the most kind of in-class class is still integrated with online services to a point that I can't imagine how you could disassociate them at this point.
13:29 LK: Right, well you can't.
13:30 MS: Right? And so, hence the problem. So are there any other risks that people are considering in terms of granting internet access or is this pretty much just solved by this problem of we can gate and control what people do have access to.
13:45 SB: Oh, it is really solvable. And one of the things that they see in for example, in Norway is that it's a highly motivating tool to have for these inmates so they can monitor it. The internet is very monitorable and you can see what it's being used for, and you can take it away as easily as you can grant it to these inmates. So having this access to the outside world is a highly, highly motivating for them and can completely change the culture in the prison to a culture of learning as well, which is, it's just another side positive benefit.
14:30 MS: Hey it's Matt, it's early in the new year, and a great time to think about your 2020 goals. If education is on the list, consider signing up for the Certificate in Law, the only Online Certificate of its kind offered by a law school in Canada. If you take just one course a semester online, starting this May, you'll have the Certificate in Law from Queen's University, one of the best law schools in the country, by the end of 2021. We offer courses in corporate law, Aboriginal law, intellectual property, workplace law and more. No matter what you're doing in life, you can get a deeper, richer understanding of how the law affects you as a citizen and as a professional, through our program. Find out more at takelaw.ca.
15:18 MS: There's something else that's kind of anomalous about Canadian prisons which is the indigenous population in Canadian prisons is way out of whack with the actual indigenous population in terms of per capita, the number of people in Canada. Does this have a knock on disproportionate effect on indigenous inmates?
15:37 LK: As I always tell my students in my prison law class, every prison policy in Canada has a disproportionate impact on indigenous people, because our prison system is disproportionately full of indigenous people. So yes, this is a state policy that is basically saying, for those indigenous people who've been taken from their families and their communities, and incarcerated, we are gonna stand in the way of maintaining family bonds and relationships, being able to access elders in your community and so on. Other things that could be hugely important for an indigenous inmate to both do well while incarcerated, and have some ability to re-integrate. We're saying to that indigenous inmate, you can't develop your education, you can't do a course at Athabasca in indigenous studies while you're incarcerated. These are absolutely unacceptable especially, when we're dealing with a 30% prison population indigenous people in Canada, and so we have sort of come a long way in terms of recognizing that the indigenous people in the prison system are... The reason they're there is largely because of the legacy of colonization in this country, right, the impacts of residential school, the impacts of the Sixties Scoop, the impact of the rates of children in care, indigenous children in care.
17:03 LK: We know, we recognize that those state programs of discrimination generated this huge prison population, right? Did things to people that caused them or contributed to their offending and now they're sitting in prison and we say, "You can't do any of the things that would help you heal as a person from those experiences, that would help you gain knowledge, that would help you stay connected to your community and to the healthy parts of your life." And so to me, these issues are particularly unacceptable when we think about the demographics of the Canadian prison system, and the role that colonization has played in producing that population.
17:48 SB: This policy is really further marginalizing this group of people who are already so marginalized and it's really a unique and new feature of our prison system, that it's the sort of social isolation from the real world. And when you're in there for really any amount of time, but longer amounts of time when this digital world is moving at such a rapid pace, you come out, and it's really this type of isolation that we've never seen before.
18:14 MS: It seems like there's sort of a two-tier problem that you're discussing here. One is should inmates have some access to the internet as an important part of life, not just for education, but for other things. And there's kind of a parallel question of should inmates have access to education, which by necessity requires access to the internet. So which comes first?
18:37 LK: Well, you're now getting into the territory of strategic litigation. [chuckle]
18:42 MS: Right. Fair enough.
18:42 LK: In asking which comes first. I don't think they're separable. They're not separable, but I think that it's more strategic to talk about the need to access education. I'm not just talking about fancy post-secondary education, I'm talking any training beyond high school, whether it's a trade or vocation, accounting degree or computer science or sociology, right, whatever it is. It's the fact that the lack of internet access impairs access to those things makes it particularly unacceptable, and so I think that's a really effective way to communicate this issue but equally important is the ability to communicate with family, to know how to do online banking before you're released from custody, to be able to maintain these technological skills that everyone else in society absolutely has.
19:41 LK: And so the issues are not separable but I think the education angle on it is what could particularly capture the attention of Canadians. In a way you don't wanna be pushing for the right to the internet 'cause that sounds maybe too fun.
19:57 MS: [chuckle] Fair enough.
20:00 LK: But the reality is, yes, the internet is fun, but the internet is also how we run our lives. Right, and how we... And it's not all just for folks who might wanna access an actual program, Distance Education Program. There's all kinds of free educational tools online, right? You look at the Harvard Open Learning initiative you can basically take any course at Harvard for free online. You don't even have to be part of a registered course. There's all kinds of MOOCs, right, these massive open online courses. These are the kinds of things who knows if folks will actually register and pay for our distance education course. But why would we not want them sitting there learning and making use of this dead time away from society? And you know Matt I think about the fact for many years now, I've worked on trying to reform the laws of solitary confinement and solitary, putting inmates in solitary as a way of controlling and responding to behavior, responding to the problems that prisons have in trying to manage institutions. And then I look at this issue, and I go... How about instead of giving them more isolation, you give them more engagement, more meaning.
21:10 MS: Right?
21:10 LK: Something to do other than the bad behavior that gets you into solitary. So I started to realize it's not just about getting a prison system to stop doing really bad things to inmates, but also to turn their attention to the positive and productive, and engaging things, that they could be doing.
21:26 MS: But there's a whole trope in movies, television shows. The guy gets out of prison, and it's a strange and unfamiliar world, 'cause he's been inside for so... What are these things called cellphones? And I think with technology the way it is today, and where we are today, the amount of time it takes to create that disconnect is much shorter than it used to be. And if you don't have internet access at all, you are disconnected from the world in such a profound way, that I think it's taking less time for people to be kind of divorced from external reality and harder for them to reintegrate if they don't have those resources.
22:02 LK: Right? I feel that I am divorced from technological change because I haven't kept up enough myself, so I can well imagine how they feel. One thing I should say I've taught courses in prison, and there's something really magical about it, because no one is on their phones.
22:18 MS: Right, fair enough. Yes.
22:20 LK: And it's a space where even I have to leave my phone at the front gate. It's a space where you actually realize how oppressive technology is for the rest of us in many ways. And so the suggestion is not to just have iPhones everywhere and all of these things, but to have controlled responsible use. I mean, arguably, [chuckle] we could use some of those limits in society as well, but to just say no access a total ban. The United States isn't doing that. Europe isn't doing that. Canada is way behind; a total ban makes no sense.
22:57 MS: Yeah, so I'm curious about you guys, so Lisa, you are a law professor, Sam, you are a law student, how did it come about that you were working on this project together?
23:06 LK: Yeah, well I was looking for a research assistant to develop a policy paper, on this topic, and Sam was enrolled in the Queen's Prison Law Clinic, which is a really awesome opportunity that students have here at Queen's to go and do real legal work on the ground, go inside the penitentiaries in the Kingston region, and represent inmates on their various legal issues. And so Sam was doing that work and that was exactly the kind of research assistant, I was looking for. And so I think what's cool is that Sam's been able to take the academic work that she did for me and then go to the clinic and think about, "Okay, now what concrete legal steps can we actually take to try and make change?"
23:48 MS: Right? So it's a sort of a fluid, translation from the research part to the work at the clinic.
23:53 SB: Right it's... It's really a well-rounded experience on the side. In the evenings, I get to do this research and then in the day I get to go into the prisons, meet these people who have these problems and hear about how they cannot access education that they wanna access, they cannot develop themselves in ways that they want to develop. And then I get to go to the clinic and really think about the strategic litigation side of it, and the law, which is pretty cool.
24:18 MS: So what happens at the end of this, is there a paper or is there... What is the end point of the work you're doing together?
24:25 LK: Well, we're working with a civil liberties organization that may do policy and litigation work moving forward, and the clinic is also invested in doing the litigation and advocacy work that could create change. These things are fairly long process and they involve multiple levels, right? Advocating, lobbying our policy makers and our politicians, doing podcasts like this, get it raising public awareness, and then also using the sort of more blunt legal tools of the grievance system and judicial reviews, and so on. So we're thinking about all of those pieces and pursuing each of them. Yeah.
25:09 MS: Great. Thank you so much guys.
25:10 LK: Thank you.
25:12 SB: Thank you.
25:16 MS: Thanks to Lisa and Sam. There's a lot that most of us don't know about Canadian prisons, and you get a glimpse into that system and how it works in the criminal law module of Law 201/701 Introduction to Canadian Law. If you're interested in government and power in Canada, we also offer a deeper dive into the subject in law 205/705 Public and Constitutional Law. You can learn more at takelaw.ca Fundamentals of Canadian law is recorded at Queen's University, situated on traditional Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee Territory. Our theme music is by Megan Hamilton who is also a staff member here at Queen's law. You can find out more about her music at meganhamiltonmusic.wordpress.com. Thanks for listening.