Inmate complaints on the rise over access to religious services

By David Burke
CBC News | December 23, 2017

In prison, one of the only freedoms inmates have is to practise their religion — but in some cases, even that’s getting harder to do.

There’s been an increase in the number of prisoners filing complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission about religious accommodation.

Inmates are concerned about the delivery of spiritual services, the accommodation of spiritual practices and the observance of holy days, said Ivan Zinger, Canada’s correctional investigator, the country’s prison watchdog.

Religious leaders also say there aren’t enough chaplains in prisons to meet the spiritual needs of inmates.

Under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, prisons are required to meet a prisoner’s religious needs.

« Spiritual life is important to every human being, » said Zinger.

« In a prison setting, I think it can be also for some offenders a very key part of their rehabilitation. They can certainly gain strength and insight from practising their religion and I think that is all positive. »

In 2015-2016, inmates filed 49 complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission — up from 39 complaints the year before.

. . .

The number of complaints across the board seems low to Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

« Inmates may fear to report these kinds of things out of a fear of reprisals or retaliation. That’s certainly a concern of ours.… I think it would probably be fair to say there is an issue of underreporting as well within the prison system. »

Gardee said the council has fielded numerous complaints from Muslims in prison who feel they’re not able to fully practise their religion. He didn’t have an estimate of how many complaints the organization receives each year.

There are many problems inside Canada’s correctional service, according to Gardee, including inadequate services for religious minority inmates, a lack of cultural sensitivity training for staff and a complaints process fraught with challenges when it comes to issues of rights violations.

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