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Robert Clark worked in some of the toughest Canadian prisons over his more than 30 years as a prison guard and eventually deputy warden. His new book, Down Inside, details the inner workings of the jails he worked at and gives insight into how they changed during that time and since his retirement.

Some of us have the privilege to not have to think about the conditions under which people live in prisons. If we’ve learned anything about them in the past few years, it’s that there are often times when people — and a disproportionate amount of minorities — end up doing time for petty crimes. People are becoming increasingly aware of the shortcomings of the judicial and penal systems around the world and a spotlight has been put on wrongful incarceration and the conditions within prisons. So what is going on in Canadian prisons? Clark outlined some of the major points in his book on The Social this week.

Technology is not improving trust

Clark says that one of the major changes he’s witnessed is how the addition of technology to the penal system has eroded interpersonal — and humanizing — relations between security personnel and prisoners.

“In the 1980s we used to patrol the areas like the prison yard, the weight room, the cell blocks and so on, on foot with a radio,” he said, “We’d interact with the prisoners, solve problems as best we could. Over time they’ve moved to a technology where prison doors are opened by an electronic button somewhere else in the prison. Supervision … is done through close-circuit cameras.” He added that even interaction between prison staff and prisoners has become less personal. They tend to resort to violence with difficult prisoners whereas when Clark started, they would have tried using communication to talk them down.

“Nowadays we have what’s called a SWAT team inside prisons,” he said, “And about five officers come with clubs and pepper spray, batons, shields and so on and they go in the cell, secure the prisoner and take them to solitary confinement.

“In the old days, we didn’t have any of this equipment,” he continued, “We learned back then to use what I call the ’20 minute rule.’ You can accomplish a huge amount in 20 minutes by talking. So a prisoner who wanted to beat up everybody who entered the cell 20 minutes ago, through our interpersonal skills and our calming and our respectful demeanor in dealing with these guys, we found that we could get these people down from being potentially violent to cooperative and we could walk them over to solitary confinement without handcuffs or anything else.”

The ‘Blue Wall’ code

Within prison culture there is a code that Clark refers to as the “Blue Wall” which is a sort of pact between officials to protect each other’s engagement in illegal activity when it comes to prisoners. It’s like what happens in Vegas, except illegal and a systematic exploitation of power.

“The ‘Blue Wall’ is a term I use to describe the code of secrecy that exists within the prison culture,” Clark explained, “Inside of prisons, there are things that go on that should not go on. They are very unfortunate and they’re sometimes illegal. This can be in the realm of mistreatment of prisoners … If a prisoner is mistreated or assaulted, that code of secrecy, that culture, dictates that no one says anything.” Clark clarified that he had never engaged in any mistreatment of prisoners, but found the Blue Wall to be the “biggest impediment to running our prisons safely.”

High rates of premature death

The Blue Wall is one of the contributing factors to the increased rates of premature death among prison inmates. Clark describes the closed system of secrecy that protects officers and disadvantages prisoners.

“The correctional system is a closed system,” Clark explained, “If a prisoner takes their own life while in solitary confinement, there has to be an investigation. But the investigation is completed by Corrections Canada. It is Corrections Canada’s managers who do the investigation and render the results. So they are at all times in control of the information … Quite often, rather than finding fault and culpability, we’ll point to issues such as ‘need for retraining’ and things of this type.”

The true goal should be rehabilitation

Clark pointed out that while many of us may look at prisoners and feel little sympathy for criminals, resources should be committed to rehabilitating them so that when they return to the world (as 95 per cent of them will), they are reformed rather than a threat.

“I believe in a civilized society like Canada, we need to ask ourselves: ‘What is the true goal of a prison?'” Clark posited, “To my mind, it would be to minimize the likelihood of people becoming re-involved in crime when they’re released from prison. That would seem to me to be the most sensible goal.

“And so, it kind of begs the question: ‘If that’s our goal, then should our goal not also be to create conditions that are conducive to rehabilitation? To create an environment which is humane and respectful and encourages us to reach our best potential?”

Most of those incarcerated were victims themselves

Despite working with criminals for decades, Clark still sees them as people with stories. He notes that most criminals are actually victims themselves of abuse, hard circumstances, poverty or a combination of those. He describes the cycle of mistreatment and mistrust of authority that leads people to a career of crime and life in and out of prison.

“Over 30 years, I reviewed hundreds of files and interviewed hundreds of prisoners in every possible scenario and what I found out is that every one of these people has a life story,” he said, “The majority of the people who end up in federal prisons had most unfortunate childhoods. They generally come into a household where there’s addiction and violence and chaos and they become wards of the state … Often by the time they get to provincial institutions, they’ve become quite hardened and quite bitter. And so when they get to me at a federal prison, they are so anti-social, so mistrustful of authority — they generally have an innate distrust of authority figures and uniforms — and so it’s very hard to reach them.”