The Argument for External Oversight of Federal Prisons – The New OCI Annual Report

The recently published Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator (OCI) reinforces the argument for independent, external oversight of federal prisons in Canada. Issued in mid-February 2020 in both English and French, the OCI Annual Report throws a critical spotlight on an array of problems currently afflicting the federal prison estate.

Even though not an official OPCAT-inspired NPM entity, the Office of the Correctional Investigator is the closest Canada has to such a body. A 2019 report highlighted the many strengths of the mechanism from an OPCAT perspective.

In view of the OCI Annual Report’s less-than-flattering findings, it remains baffling that Canada has yet to put pen to paper to ratify the OPCAT, more so in view of the fact that a former Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that the OPCAT was no longer optional for Canada nearly four years ago.

It should also be noted that Correctional Investigator himself, Dr. Ivan Zinger, has repeatedly urged ratification of the instrument, including in a recent OCI Annual Report.

The OCI Annual Report 2018-2019 groups its findings and related concerns into six chapters as follows:

  • Healthcare in federal facilities;
  • Deaths in custody;
  • Conditions of confinement;
  • Indigenous corrections;
  • Safe and timely reintegration;
  • And federally sentenced women.

For the time-poor reader Dr. Zinger’s introduction to the OCI Annual Report, his so-called Correctional Investigator’s Message, offers an excellent overview of the report and his main concerns and recommendations. For ease of reference, a summary of his recommendations is also compiled in Annex 1 of the report.

Even so, the following paragraphs penned by the Correctional Investigator, highlighting contemporary causes of concern, merit our closer attention:

“Since assuming my duties, I have taken a special interest in identifying conditions of confinement and treatment of prisoners that fail to meet standards of human dignity, violate human rights or otherwise serve no lawful purpose. The issues investigated and highlighted in my report raise fundamental questions of correctional purpose challenging anew the assumptions, measures and standards of human decency and dignity in Canadian prisons:

  • Introduction of a standardized “random” strip-searching routine and protocol (1:3 ratio) at women offender institutions.
  • Staff culture of impunity and mistreatment at Edmonton Institution.
  • Elevated rate of use of force incidents at the Regional Treatment Centres (designated psychiatric hospitals for mentally ill patient inmates).
  • Lack of in-cell toilets on one living unit at Pacific Institution.
  • Provision of the first medically assisted death in a federal penitentiary.
  • Prison food that is substandard and inadequate to meet nutritional needs.
  • Operational challenges in meeting the needs of transgender persons in prison.
  • Housing maximum-security inmates with behavioural or mental health needs on “therapeutic” ranges that serve segregation diversion ends.” (p. 3)

Readers may recall that the Correctional Investigator dominated Canadian news headlines in January 2020 by dint of his multiple concerns about the so-called ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population. Dr. Zinger referred to this bleak reality as Canada’s ‘national travesty’, a concern which resonated widely and deeply among human rights actors and penal reformers in the country. It is therefore not coincidental that many of these same concerns are highlighted in the OCI Annual Report 2018-2019.

The above list of penal-related woes underscores the absolute need for independent oversight of prisons in Canada, whether federal or provincial, to which the Office of the Correctional Investigator makes an invaluable contribution. Simply put, left to its own devices Canada’s federal prison service is unlikely to quickly reform and correct practices which violate fundamental human rights without external prompting.

Furthermore, in the light of Canada’s long-overdue ratification of the OPCAT, the need for the Office of the Correctional Investigator and other analogue oversight mechanisms in the country is arguably even greater.

In the recent past other key reports of the Office of the Correctional Investigator have been highlighted on this website and come as recommended reading. The February 2019 report, Aging & Dying in Prison, which was co-published with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, is an illustrative case in point.

Prison by Matthias Mueller (2007)

The Correctional Investigator himself has captured the absolute importance of and need for the oversight function as exercised by his office in the following terms:

“I fully understand and accept that the business of prison oversight, standing up for the rights of sentenced persons and advocating for fair and humane treatment of prisoners are not activities that are widely recognized or praised. Yet, to turn a phrase made famous by a young Winston Churchill, if prisons are places where the principles of human dignity, compassion and decency are stretched to their limits, then how we treat those deprived of their liberty is still one of the most enduring tests of a free and democratic society. Independent monitoring is needed to ensure the inmate experience does not demean or degrade the inherent worth and dignity of the human person.” (p.2.)

The Canada OPCAT Project could not put it better and echos these sentiments entirely. It is high time for Canada to take the next logical step and to ratify the OPCAT.


The 2018-2019 Annual Report of the Office of the Correctional Investigator of Canada can be downloaded in English and French.

Read the related news release in English and French.

Check out the OCI backgrounder in English and French.

A related presentation deck has also been published in English and French.