Non-Christian inmates struggling to access appropriate spiritual support

The defeat of the federal Conservative Party in the October election has raised hope among prisoner’s rights advocates that the handling of minority religious services in the country’s prisons will be amended by the newly elected government.

According to multiple CBC reports, chaplaincy services were affected by the conservative government’s austerity agenda in 2012. The Tories decided not to renew the contracts of about 50 part-time non-Christian chaplains, planning to introduce an interfaith system in the prisons employing primarily Christian chaplains and community volunteers. However, the plans for the new system were widely unpopular, particularly among prisoner advocate organizations. The government then decided to outsource chaplaincy services to a private contractor.

Federal Liberal Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale declined to speak personally about the chaplaincy services changes, but Josée Sirois, a spokesperson for Mr. Goodale, responded on his behalf via email.

Minority religious groups and legal non-governmental groups have called the new Liberal government to look into the issues that minority religious groups face in the federal correctional system. The new Public Safety Minister, Ralph Goodale, said he will receive a full debrief on the issue before commenting about it. Photo courtesy of Ralph Goodale/Flickr, Creative Commons“The government is aware of the concerns surrounding this important issue in federal corrections,” said Sirois, who added that the minister would prefer to be fully informed before commenting any further “given the complexity of the issue.”

The Liberal Party has been critical of the changes in the past. In 2012, then justice critic Irwin Cotler denounced the situation as “clearly discriminatory,” saying at the time that the changes infringed on the principle of freedom of conscience and religion as enshrined in Canada’s constitution.

Religion can be a key element in the rehabilitation of inmates according to multiple experts, but with the 2012 changes, there is a question as to whether non-Christian inmates are being effectively serviced under the revised system.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal is currently listening to two religious discrimination complaints from Muslim inmates, and a complaint from another Muslim inmate is before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

Minority community leaders are calling on the new government to engage in the issue for this reason. For Amira Elghawaby, Communications Director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims, these complaints confirm the concern of minority communities regarding chaplaincy services.

“The service is spotty at best, discriminatory at worst,” she says, but it is difficult to measure the real extent of the issues.

Religion’s role in rehabilitation

Inmates from religious minorities at the federal prison system feel like “second class citizens” according to Karen Slaughter, a staff lawyer with the West Coast Prison Justice Society. Slaughter has called the new federal government to meet with religious minorities to find better ways to provide religious accommodations to this vulnerable group. Photo courtesy of Rennett Stowe/Flickr, Creative CommonsMubin Shaikh, an expert on radicalization and extremism, urges the government to improve the situation because without proper religious direction individuals could be more prone to radicalization, as seen in Europe. A religious practitioner without proper guidance “is like driving a car without brakes,” Shaikh says.

Yasin Dwyer, a former federal correctional imam, says that the situation in the prisons is “delicate.” After working for 12 years in the federal prison system, he stepped down as chaplain last year in protest of the Conservative government’s decision to privatize the chaplaincy services at all prisons. According to Dwyer, chaplaincy services are important because they provide a positive environment for prisoners to express themselves and can help prisoners in rehabilitation.

The imam explains that one of the most important aspects of religion is that it allows inmates to connect with the community through volunteers.

“The prison has walls, but these walls are imaginary because these prisoners are part of our community,” says Dwyer.

This is important as 90 per cent of prisoners in the system will eventually return to society, Dwyer adds. It is also why he stresses the need for the new government to take the role of minority religious communities in the prison system seriously.

As Dwyer notes, “Prisoners need a community to come back to.”

‘No sign of systemic discrimination’

Offenders have multiple avenues to report abuses: through the internal grieving system, private council and even the Office of the Correctional Investigator or the Canadian Human Rights Commission. However, these mechanisms try to first solve complaints internally, keeping information private, and making it harder to measure the real dimensions of the problem. On rare occasions, complaints scale up to the Human Rights Tribunal and are made public.

Currently the Human Right Tribunal of Canada is looking a complaint from two Muslim inmates, Mohammed Karim and Nicolas Hovanesia, who allege they endured religious discrimination at the Grande Cache Federal Penitentiary in Alberta. These allegations include denied equal access to religious services, charged for the use of religious material donated by the community, among other allegations. Photo courtesy of Zhu/Flickr, Creative CommonsAccording to federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers, whose office monitors the situation of religious minorities, the problem has improved since 2012. However, he says that “The situation is still far from perfect.”

Sapers explains there is no sign of “directed and systematic discrimination” against religious minorities. Complaints he occasionally receives are the fault of one key decision maker “who isn’t exercising their administrative discretion appropriately.” Sapers adds that most of the complaints he receives are about issues in maintaining a religious-based diet, and recognition of special religious holidays.

“It is not at the top of our [priority] list right now, because frankly, the inmate population is not coming in large numbers to bring this concern forward,” he states.

Sapers says his priority is giving accessibility to inmates to submit complaints. His staff members visit prisons across the country to monitor them, and he received over 20,000 complaints from inmates last year by phone.

“I would be misleading you if I told you we are getting every single complaint, and that every inmate feels they have access to legal recourses. That is not true,” says Sapers.

Minority groups falling through the cracks

Karen Slaughter, a staff lawyer with West Coast Prison Justice Society, shares Sapers’ concerns.

“There is a possibility for religious minority groups to fall into the cracks,” explains Slaughter.

She adds that ethnic community groups are receiving more and more complaints from inmates about religious discrimination, which is concerning because these groups don’t have the funding or the resources to prepare litigations on behalf of individuals.

“The service is spotty at best, discriminatory at worst,” -Amira Elghawaby, Communications Director for the National Council of Canadian Muslims

Slaughter says her organization has heard all kinds of religious complaints from Muslim, Jewish and Sikh inmates. However, she has never heard any from Christians.

“Religious minorities feel like second class citizens inside the prison system,” she says, pointing to a lack of education and resources as the main problem.

Slaughter says correctional services are a giant bureaucratic machine and change can only come from the top. She hopes the new government will implement some of that change.

For Sapers, he believes the new government could improve a few things with the correctional service system. One of his concerns is that some religious groups provide support, counselling, guidance and reintegration services on a voluntary basis.

“It is not entirely fair that some groups are paid for their services and others are [not],” says Sapers.

He also called on the government to do an external review to ensure that the terms of the contract with private company, Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy Inc., which provides the services, is inclusive enough so that no one feels excluded. In April 2016, this contract will be taken over by a new private company, Bridges of Canada Chaplaincy. The Calgary Journal tried to reach the new chaplaincy service provider without success before the publication date.

drodriguez@cjournal.ca

This piece was first published in New Canadian Media in Dec. 2015.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Rennett Stowe/Flickr, Creative Commons.

Infographic created by Daniel Leon Rodriguez.

The editor responsible for this article is Ashley Materi, amateri@cjournal.ca.