Prisons are dangerous places. That should be a shocking statement, not a truism. Unfortunately for the people consigned to our correctional facilities, the risks that come from being a long-term guest of an often apathetic government can be extreme. The shameful reality is that we place inmates in public institutions where, in many cases, violence is a norm and self-protection becomes the best guarantee of survival – because for those who are imprisoned, some high-security detention centres are secure in name alone.
This disturbing fact has been made clear by Ontario Superior Court Justice Ed Morgan in an impressive ruling on prison violence. Michael Short, who had recently been convicted of robbery, was the target of a surprise attack in the Toronto East Detention Centre. He defended himself with a home-made shiv kept hidden for just such an occasion. The men who initiated the attack suffered slashing and puncture wounds. Mr. Short, who was also wounded, was subsequently charged with assault.
In finding him not guilty, Justice Morgan ruled that the stabbing was a legally justified act of self-defence. "The system put him in this situation," Justice Morgan wrote, "and the system cannot blame him for resorting to his own means of defence."
Because this is the Ontario correctional service he's describing and not some dystopian action film starring Kurt Russell, we should be appalled. Prisons are there to keep us safe from lawbreakers, but also to give inmates a place where they can change, learn and be prepared for a return to society, with some hope of living peacefully on the outside.
But Justice Morgan's description of Toronto East is of a facility where danger abounds, inmates are armed and a prisoner cannot count on the guards to protect him. Self-defence in these circumstances is a reasonable response. The alternative "appears to be a formula for a trip to the hospital or the morgue."
Given the documented failings that regularly beset Ontario's underfunded and understaffed prison system – including frequent lockdowns, overcrowding and an overreliance on solitary confinement – it shouldn't be surprising that many inmates know their jailors can't or won't protect them. But why do we permit some prisons to offer less security of the person than anywhere else in society? That should describe no place in the land of peace, order and good government.