Prison | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Prison, as a term meaning a place in which people are kept in captivity, covers a variety of institutions in Canada. Jails, commonly called detention or remand centres, are used to incarcerate persons awaiting trial or those sentenced for short terms.


Prison, as a term meaning a place in which people are kept in captivity, covers a variety of institutions in Canada. Jails, commonly called detention or remand centres, are used to incarcerate persons awaiting trial or those sentenced for short terms. Traditionally the responsibility of municipalities or counties in most provinces, they are now part of the provincial correctional system that also includes reformatories (provincial correctional centres) for those sentenced to imprisonment for less than 2 years. Sentences of 2 years or more are served in federal penitentiaries that are part of Correctional Service Canada, administered through the federal ministry of the solicitor general. The division is based only on length of sentence. Constitutionally, criminal law is federal, but offences are listed not only in the Canadian Criminal Code and other federal statutes but also in numerous provincial statutes (see crime). Offences arising from federal statutes may be served in provincial institutions and vice versa, depending on the total length of sentences being served.

Institutions for juveniles, commonly called youth detention centres, are under provincial jurisdiction. The federal Young Offenders Act applies to persons from age 12 (the age of criminal responsibility) to age 17 inclusive charged with offences arising from federal statutes, including the Criminal Code. Provincial young offenders acts govern youths charged with offences under provincial statutes such as Liquor Control Acts, Highway Traffic Acts, etc.

Historical Developments

In the early 1800s prisons were essentially jails attached to courthouses. They were used for holding debtors for the civil process and to a lesser extent for holding accused persons awaiting trial. The first large prison, opened in Kingston, Upper Canada (June 1835), was designated to serve Upper and Lower Canada by the Act of Union in 1840. By 1867 Saint John, NB, and Halifax, NS, also had penitentiaries, and in 1880 Dorchester penitentiary was built in the Maritimes. The penitentiaries of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, now part of Laval, Qué (1873), Stony Mountain, Man (1874), New Westminster, BC (1878), and Prince Albert, Sask (1911), completed the chain of fortresslike prisons across Canada. In 1930 another opened in Collins Bay, Ont.

The development of provincial prison systems depended on the size and growth of populations, as well as on resources. Sentencing patterns also varied provincially, influenced by the number and kinds of available institutions. During the 12-month reporting period for 1994-95, there were an average 34 867 prisoners in Canada on any given day, with 14 933 prisoners in federal penitentiaries. After remaining fairly stable in the 1970s, the number of prisoners began to grow again in the early 1980s, despite the increase in other sentencing options; eg, probation, community service orders, restitution and fines.

The debate about prisons as institutions of punishment began with their inception. Prisons originated partly because it was no longer possible to banish offenders, and partly as a result of public abhorrence of the infliction of bodily pain and the exposure of offenders to public ridicule and shame, although stigma remains one of the essential elements not only of conviction and punishment, but even of official accusation. Penitentiaries (meant to lead the offender to penitence through isolation, silence and religious instruction) and reform institutions (meant to reform deficiencies in the character of criminals) reflected the values of their society. Work followed penitence as the major condition for salvation, but it was the work regime, often involving meaningless tasks and submission to rules, that was important.

An emphasis on training and education to "upgrade" the social position of offenders came next, followed by focus on rehabilitation and treatment, and in the 1970s, emphasis on due process - prisoners' rights and administrative fairness. Because almost all offenders are eventually released, it is highly questionable whether the expenditure of about $45 000 annually per prisoner makes much sense. It is now generally conceded that prisons exist because we do not know what else to do. Various groups, including the Quakers, who are instrumental in trying to make prisons places of humanitarian reform, have demanded their abolition.


Kingston penitentiary, opened with great hopes of solving the problem of crime and criminals, was plagued by dissension, corruption and inhumanity from the beginning. The first major investigation, the Brown Report (1849), is full of cases like that of Peter Charboneau, an 11-year-old child committed to Kingston prison for 7 years in 1845. While in prison he was lashed 57 times in 8½ months for offences in the jail, including staring, winking and laughing. Although there have been major changes in the handling of prisoners in the administration of the institutions, the problems and the reports continued.

A diversity of more than 200 federal and provincial institutions, generally classified as maximum, medium or minimum according to their security measures, as well as work camps and community release centres now exist. Programs are still modelled on the traditional beliefs in penitence (moral improvement), education, work and rehabilitation, but life in most prisons is essentially characterized by making time pass. Riots and hostage taking, although widely publicized, are relatively rare events considering the tensions created by a rigidly controlled environment.

Relationship to Community

Although generally isolated from the community, prisons depend on it for even a semblance of purpose and proper functioning. A network of interest groups with a variety of programs inside and outside the institutions has grown up around prisons; eg, the John Howard and Elizabeth Fry societies, halfway houses, prison visitors and self-help groups. Citizens in general, however, tend to know little and seem to care even less about who is in prison, what happens there and what happens to people after they leave.