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Lisa Kerr is an assistant professor at the faculty of law at Queen’s University. Paul Quick is a staff lawyer at the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic.

Few will be surprised to learn that our prisons house our most poorly educated citizens. What is less known is that incarcerated people in Canada are effectively not allowed to obtain the education that might help them get and hold a job after their release.

Before incarceration, most offenders are chronically under- or unemployed. Only 25 per cent of those admitted to federal custody on their first sentence have a high-school diploma (unlike 80 per cent of the general population). It makes sense, then, that the Correctional Service of Canada is required to provide “Adult Basic Education” – defined as education up to Grade 12 – to all who need it.

What makes less sense are the policies that effectively bar prisoners from using their own funds to go any further. In today’s economy, a high-school diploma is rarely enough to secure steady and meaningful employment, especially for someone with a criminal record.

Our claim here is not that CSC must provide or pay for postsecondary education for inmates. The problem is that the prison service stands in the way of those federal prisoners who are ready and motivated to pay for it themselves. CSC policy makes clear that prison staff are expected to facilitate access to postsecondary schooling. But that policy conflicts with another: the total ban on inmate access to the internet.

At one time, postsecondary education was available to prisoners through paper-correspondence programs, which they could access and pay for at their own initiative and expense. Today, however, it is nearly impossible to find a distance-education provider that does not require internet access in order to complete coursework. The few paper courses that still exist are disappearing fast.

Canada does have one excellent program, Walls to Bridges, that offers for-credit courses taught by university professors at a handful of prisons – but access and course offerings remain very limited.

CSC is governed by legislation that says its purpose is to contribute to the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society. With a huge annual budget (more than $2-billion, most of which is used to pay staff salaries and infrastructure costs) and a relatively low and steady rate of incarceration, we might expect our prison system to achieve a lot. Instead, the system stands in the way of the personal transformation that at least some inmates are hungry for. As the federal Office of the Correctional Investigator put it in a 2016 report: “It’s hard to understand how an environment deprived of computers and Internet, and thereby deprived of information, can be rehabilitative.”

Other jurisdictions, including the United States, Belgium, Finland and Norway, have adapted their correctional policy to allow for, among other things, access to postsecondary education through the internet. CSC has failed to catch up, despite the fact that there are effective ways to restrict and monitor internet use in a prison.

Given that Indigenous people in Canada are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, CSC is effectively ensuring that Indigenous inmates cannot use their time in custody to gain technical skills, training and accreditation. It follows that Indigenous and other inmates will find it harder to maintain crucial ties with their communities and envision life beyond incarceration.

The current state of affairs is not only bad policy and contrary to the governing legislation, it may be unconstitutional. We have yet to see a comprehensive Charter-based court challenge on this issue, but there is a strong argument that prisoner access to education and the internet engages section 2(b) of the Charter, which states that everyone has the freedoms of “thought, belief, opinion and expression.”

In one leading case, the Supreme Court said that s. 2(b) is premised upon fundamental values that promote the search for truth, participation in social and political decision-making and the opportunity for individual self-fulfillment and human flourishing. Access to online education, particularly for an incarcerated person who is cut off from the world, undeniably engages these values.

This is not a topic that appeared in the Prime Minister’s recent mandate letter to Bill Blair, the new Minister of Public Safety. Indeed, the federal prison system wasn’t mentioned at all. But it’s clear that the blanket prohibition on inmate access to the internet, and the corresponding ban on the ability to seek a credential beyond high school, is destructive to CSC’s goals of public safety and rehabilitation. It would cost little to remedy the situation and would aid the security goals of institutions, by helping inmates stay productively engaged with the world that the vast majority of them will return to.

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