Crusading prison watchdog awarded honorary doctorate

Posted on Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Howard Sapers, wearing a suit and tie.
By Mike Foster

Howard Sapers, an outspoken ombudsman who holds Canada’s federal prison system to account, is one of nine exceptional role models who will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa at the Spring 2016 Convocation.

For the past 12 years, Sapers’ hard-hitting annual reports have sounded the alarm about troubling conditions and changing demographics in Canadian penitentiaries. Under his leadership, the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) has raised red flags about the surge in Indigenous incarceration rates, overuse of solitary confinement, prison crowding and inadequate healthcare, mental health services and rehabilitation programs.

This is the first time that Sapers, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly in Alberta (1993-2001), has received an honorary degree from a university.

“This is a unique distinction and one that I am extremely grateful for and proud of,” Sapers said. “It means a lot to me coming from the University of Ottawa because I respect the institution and its criminology department. And I think it symbolizes respect, not only for my work, but also for the nature of my work.”

Independent oversight

Sapers, who has a degree in criminology from Simon Fraser University, is the third person to lead the OCI since it was established in 1973 in the wake of a serious prison riot at Kingston Penitentiary. An inquiry cited the Correctional Services’ inability to respond to prisoner complaints in a timely fashion as a key factor leading to  the April 1971 uprising, in which two inmates died.

Advanced democracies recognize the importance of addressing potential “maladministration of public services” in an independent way without having to rely on the courts or an outside adversarial process, Sapers said. “The OCI is one of the oldest corrections ombudsman’s offices anywhere. Canada is often looked at as a model. It is something we can be proud of.”

In blunt annual reports, Sapers makes recommendations that address systemic problems in Canada’s prison system. His latest report calls for more to be done to limit the use of solitary confinement, prevent deaths in custody, and meet the special needs of aging offenders and women in prison. 

He also urges that officials should pay more attention to the issues behind a sharp rise in Indigenous incarceration rates. While Indigenous people make up about 4% of the national population, they account for one-quarter of the federal prison population, the report states. And while the overall prison population has increased by 10% over the past decade, the Indigenous inmate population has risen  by 50% during that time.

Incremental change

Saper’s office also investigates complaints from Canada’s 15,000 federal prisoners. Thousands of cases are resolved every year in response to about 20,000 calls on a toll-free line and hundreds of letters from inmates. For nine of the past 10 years, the top complaint has been about access to and quality of healthcare. That was overtaken last year by conditions of confinement — issues such as double-bunking, segregation and security classification.

“I’m very proud of the ability of my staff to resolve complaints with professionalism and thoroughness,” Sapers said. “We are shining a light into some pretty dark corners. Sometimes, you do feel like you are banging your head against a wall, making the same recommendations again and again. But you do see incremental change and have to be optimistic that change will take root."

He was encouraged, for example, by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate letters to his Cabinet ministers after last year’s election. Among other things, the letters “talk about a criminal justice system review to try to bring some coherence back into the system after what was a very tumultuous time,” he said.

Sapers’ 30 years of experience in this field began with work on community-based policing and crime prevention initiatives. He later served as executive director of the John Howard Society of Alberta and vice-chair of the Parole Board of Canada’s Prairie region.

His stepson, Quinn Dabros, will receive a BSc in geology from uOttawa the day after Sapers receives his honorary doctorate on June 19. His son, Vaughn Sapers, is also at the University, studying toward an honours bachelor of commerce in accounting.

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