Sister Marguerite Rivard has spent the last 25 years volunteering in Quebec’s notorious prison system, gaining rare access to some of the province’s most secretive establishments.
“If you came in, what would you see? Misery, suffering, people who are at the mercy of the legal system,” she says.
Rivard describes a place where solitary confinement is increasingly relied upon as punishment — and protection — where overcrowding remains a chronic problem and healthcare services are either lacking or mismanaged.
“There is a complete lack of comprehension of human lives.”
“The conditions are only getting worse,” Rivard told VICE. “There is a complete lack of comprehension of human lives.”
Opposition politicians have also been decrying the situation. In November, the Parti québécois’s public security critic Pascal Bérubé delivered a lengthy speech on the province’s detention system, which he described as “bursting at the seams.”
“There’s overcrowding, shortage of staff, maintenance deficits, drone flights, riots and other problems that are only getting worse,” he told the National Assembly.
We wanted to see for ourselves: when the Quebec government announced it would be touring its provincial detention centres last fall, VICE asked to tag along. We were turned down, “for our safety.” Efforts to interview Jean Rousselle, the politician in charge of the file, were also unsuccessful.
But testimony gathered from inmates, staff and volunteers shed light on the dehumanizing conditions inside, an environment many said is more akin to a school of crime than a place of rehabilitation.
Dispatches from Quebec’s prison system.
Rats, pills and suicides
Charles Samson* spent the better part of a year at the overcrowded Rivière-des-Prairies jail, in Montreal. Recently released after being incarcerated for weed trafficking, he recounted how his stint began on the floor of a gym, a makeshift overflow cell he shared with 30 other detainees.
“When we’d wake up in the morning, it was like we’d spent the night smoking cigarettes.”
Samson was later placed in a single cell with another inmate, which he says was “better,” though a bedbug infestation and poor air quality made it hard to sleep. He says the rumour was the air filters hadn’t been changed since the nineties. “When we’d wake up in the morning, it was like we’d spent the night smoking cigarettes.”
Inmate François Delorme* —who spent more than a year at the Bordeaux detention centre for drug-related offences— says he is still haunted by the sound of large rats stirring around the trash cans at night. “At night, I had to stuff magazines in the crack below the door, the rodent problem was so bad,” he describes. “Mice would even rain down from the third floor.”
Delorme says the conditions, especially in the scorching summer heat, brought out the worst in people. He recalls moments of violent tensions between inmates or with staff. “Sometimes we’d all be on deadlock, stuck inside for three to five days because of a fight.”
The menu wasn’t much to look forward to either. “I ate chicken tendons and cartilage,” he says. “It was really just for survival.”
“Mice would even rain down from the third floor.”
The most strident concern, however, was the lack of access to health care.
“If you have a toothache or a cavity, they just pull out your tooth. And if anything hurts, it takes forever to see a doctor,” says Samson. “Some people’s conditions deteriorate so much during that waiting period that they end up in hospital,” adds Delorme.
More than 60 percent of inmates suffer from some form of mental health issue, and according to Samson, this aspect is grossly mismanaged. “I’ve never seen so many people popping (prescription) pills,” he says, adding the medication is often given without proper follow-up. “Whatever you want, the doctors will just give it to you.”
For Fanny Gingras*, who suffers from anxiety and borderline personality disorder, proper care was hard to come by during her sentence in a provincial prison for sexual assault and sexual exploitation. “I was on medication and needed follow-ups, but I often found myself going for days without my prescription,” she describes. “I’d spend entire nights crying, unable to sleep.” Gingras, who was part of one of the last cohort of inmates at the now-shuttered Tanguay Institute, spent most of her time sleeping on the floor underneath her pregnant cell mate’s bed.
I’ve never seen so many people popping (prescription) pills.”
Then there are the suicides: two inmates killed themselves during Gingras’s stay, and those who attempted to do the same were punished rather than treated. “Their way of protecting you is to send you in isolation,” she says. Though she’d personally never been to what is commonly known as “The Hole,” she says cellmates’ anecdotes were alarming. ”There is no toilet paper in there, and you can’t get sanitary napkins. I knew a girl who had her period and just had to bleed on the ground.”
“You want to die so they send you to the worst place possible? I don’t get it.”
According to a 2009 study, an average of 9.4 suicides occur in Quebec’s prisons every year along with about 16 attempts. Comparative figures from other provinces are hard to obtain, but in federal institutions, more than 40 percent of the country’s inmate suicides happen in Quebec penitentiaries.
Also worth noting: the number of Quebec inmates sent into isolation went up 33 percent between 2010 and 2015 and the total number of times isolation was used as a punishment saw a 93 percent increase (meaning some inmates made several trips to “The Hole”).
“You’re not allowed to speak to the guards.”
Gingras says the biggest challenge of her prison experience was being separated from her child. While there are programs that allow parents to spend time with their children, she wasn’t informed of their existence until several months into her sentence. “You’re not allowed to speak to the guards,” she said. “The door is closed and they just watch us through a window.”
“Dehumanizing” is a word that came up in nearly every interview conducted by VICE.
Away from prying eyes
Though all the inmates’ stories paint a similar picture, VICE News was not able to independently verify the allegations. The office of the Ministry of Public Security declined our interview requests and turned down our application to get a tour of any one of the establishments, citing “safety reasons” and to “protect the confidentiality of inmates.”
However, many details are confirmed in publicly available reports. According to the Société québécoise des infrastructures’ annual report, 33 percent of the province’s jails have received a rating of E, a failing grade which qualifies the buildings as being in “very bad” shape. Research obtained by VICE News also shows that one third of the centres is either full and/or well over capacity.
In her 2015-2016 annual report, Quebec Ombudswoman Raymonde Saint-Germain wrote that offenders were often “crammed into the same room where the air quality leaves much to be desired and the heating is inadequate” or bunked so close together in common areas “that it is difficult to navigate the mattresses on the floor.” She was also critical of the available medical care, citing a 2011 report in which she’d found that “health services and social services for detainees with mental disorders were in sorry disarray” and deploring the fact that much had improved since.
In the northern Quebec region of Nunavik, the absence of an official correctional facility has resulted in up to seven people being crammed together in police station holding cells intended for one person. After her 2015 tour of these facilities, Saint-Germain found the conditions so dire she published a standalone special report calling for urgent action.
“Cells are generally unsanitary and equipment is obsolete, defective or insufficient.”
“Cells are generally unsanitary and equipment is obsolete, defective or insufficient,” she wrote. “Often unusable, sanitation facilities do not offer any privacy, and access to water is limited.”
The consequences of these deep-seated problems are regularly reflected in the news. In the past few years, Quebec’s correctional system has made headlines for some high-profile suicides, deadly riots and murders. It has also been the scene of some the country’s most outrageous prison breaks: the spectacular helicopter escape of two inmates at Saint-Jérôme back in 2013, a copycat incident at Orsainville jail in 2014, and the time Francis Boucher, the son of Mom Boucher, Quebec’s most notorious biker, managed to very casually walk out by assuming another inmate’s identity.
Mathieu Lavoie, the president of the prison guards’ union, told VICE News many of these situations could have been avoided had the jails been properly funded and staffed.
His workers have now been without a contract for more than a year and a half, and Lavoie says the stalled negotiations are making their jobs unsafe. According to a number of studies partially funded by the union, the detention system’s subpar conditions takes a heavy toll on the men and women who work there, who demonstrate higher than normal rates of absenteeism and burnout.
“When the general environment is toxic, the interactions are toxic, the workplace is toxic,” Lavoie says. He adds there aren’t enough guards to properly cater to the population and that staff is often inadequately trained to respond to or cope with the very complex issues the prisoners present.
“When the general environment is toxic, the interactions are toxic, the workplace is toxic.”
The lack of resources has a heavy impact on inmates, who don’t receive adequate rehabilitation plans. The 2016 Auditor’s report of Quebec’s correctional services highlighted that more than 45 per cent of inmate evaluations were not conducted within the required timeframe and that most did not have access to necessary treatment programs.
The auditor called the minister’s efforts to track inmates’ progress “insufficient,” adding that the government didn’t even keep unique files on each individual inmate.
“We don’t like talking about detention centres, it’s a hard sell.” Lavoie says. “Discussing and investing in this system is essentially admitting that we have a societal problem, and we don’t want the population to know that so we sweep these matters under the rug.”
Fixing what’s broken
For Eric Belisle, president of prisoner’s rights group Alter Justice, the province’s current approach of building new jails is just a band-aid solution.
Instead of providing additional space, new jails just end up replacing crumbling buildings, he explains. The real solution to overcrowding, Belisle says, is to send fewer people to prison. But that is an overhaul that needs to come from federal legislators.
“We have to ask why this overpopulation exists, see if there are other solutions in terms of alternative justice.”
A 2014 report by Quebec’s minister of public security found that the province’s prison population grew 31.6 percent between 2004 and 2014. The biggest jump occurred in 2012. Part of the reason behind this increase, the analysts theorize, is the Conservatives’ Safe Streets and Communities Act, which was passed in March 2012 and imposed mandatory minimum sentences on small offenses. “When you tally up these sentences, 70 percent ended up being falling within the jurisdiction of provincial establishments,” says Belisle.
“Everyone needs to talk, we need to consider alternative sentences for small offences, sanctions outside of the criminal justice system,” Belisle says.
Nearly half of the province’s inmates are still awaiting their trial and/or sentence. Many wait years before their cause ends up in court, and one judge warned these delays would soon cause the existing system to “blow up.”
Recent focus on this summer’s landmark Jordan decision — which ruled that people accused of crimes have the right to a “speedy trial” (that’s 18 to 30 months, depending on the type of charge) — seems to have put the wheels in motion. To ease the pressure of these deadlines, Minister of Justice Stéphanie Vallée recently proposed a new bill that would inject $175 million into the court system for additional judges and lawyers.
“Especially youth, this is not a good place for them.”
Belisle says this solution is short-sighted.
“It’s one thing to put money in this, I’m not saying it’s not a good thing, but I just think it’s a shame we’re not going further with a broader reflection,” he says. “We have to ask why this overpopulation exists, see if there are other solutions in terms of alternative justice.”
*all former and current inmates asked that their names be changed for fear of retaliation or further stigmatization