Catherine Chesnay, David Henry and Mathieu Lavoie.  Photos: Radio-Canada

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Catherine Chesnay, David Henry and Mathieu Lavoie. Photos: Radio-Canada

However, it is within this period that the risk of suicide is highest in prison. Experts believe it is time to be bold in Quebec and to ban short sentences.

“These are penalties that are relatively unnecessary. »The sentence of David Henry may shock more than one, but the director general of the Association of social rehabilitation services of Quebec (ASRSQ) is not the only one to think so.

“Most criminological studies show that short prison sentences have little impact on public safety,” says Henry. They are too brief to “effect a significant change in the person,” he says.

“She can’t learn a new job, she can’t go back to school … and it’s still a long enough detention period to lose her job, lose her home, lose her relationship with her spouse,” adds Mr. Henry.

In the coming months, the ASRSQ therefore intends to campaign with public decision-makers in Quebec to demand the end of short prison sentences. For the justice system, that would be a real 180-degree turn.

For years, short prison sentences have been increasing in number in Quebec. The figures from the Department of Public Security are unequivocal.

In 2015, 72.7% of sentences in provincial detention facilities were less than 6 months. This percentage has continued to increase, reaching 77.9% last year.

This is not to mention that 49.5% of the prison population is made up of defendants, that is to say people whose guilt has not yet been admitted or proven in court.

For the professor at the School of Social Work at UQAM, Catherine chesnay, it’s the world upside down. Especially since Radio-Canada revealed this week that the majority of suicides behind bars occur during the first two months of detention.

“Extrication would be the first strategy not to put these people in prison and not put them at risk of committing suicide,” she says.

Not free however

To those who would be tempted to believe that the streets would then be invaded by criminals, Ms. Chesnay retorts that short sentences are rarely given to people who have committed crimes against the person.

And just because a person isn’t in prison doesn’t mean they’re totally free, she adds. “In the collective imagination, we have the impression that there is prison and that’s all, that there is nothing else! “

“We can very well imagine a support that would be made in the environment, in the community, illustrates David Henry. It can be through specialized accommodation, through specific support programs. “

But what would ensure that the person did not take their own life anyway? Nothing, admits Henry. However, if the prison population is reduced, the correctional services will be able to offer better services, he believes.

“This would allow detention facilities to have the necessary resources to intervene with people who have the most criminogenic needs, who have the heaviest sentences and therefore to be able to provide perhaps more comprehensive, more elaborate programs”, continues -he.

400 missing agents

This issue is very real: there is currently a lack of 400 correctional officers in detention facilities in the province, according to the Union des agents de la paix en services correctionnels du Québec (SAPSCQ).

At the time of writing, the Department of Public Security had not yet confirmed this figure to Radio-Canada.

The president of SAPSCQ, Mathieu Lavoie, is nonetheless convinced that suicide prevention in prisons would be more effective if prisons had the necessary human resources.

“We were asked to do more with less,” he says. We do not have the means for our ambitions. We do not have the resources in the correctional services inside prison establishments to deal with these problems. “

He adds that the mental health problems among the prison population are much more glaring today than they were twenty years ago.

Mr. Lavoie does not believe that banning sentences of less than 6 months is the solution: prison is always the last resort, he says.

“When a judge or a court decides that a person should be deprived of their liberty, it is because they represent a risk for themselves, for society, that is to say a risk of reoffending too great”, he said.

The real way to stem the scourge of suicides, in his eyes, would be for the government to invest in prison infrastructure and in the attraction and retention of staff.

“Governments, often, do not want to invest … because we are behind closed doors because it does not have good press or good publicity to invest in prison establishments,” he laments.

An archaic institution

The criminology expert Jean-Claude Bernheim, who has studied the phenomenon of suicide in prison for more than 40 years, is among those who find short prison sentences more damaging than useful.

It is difficult to understand why more and more people are imprisoned on a preventive basis in Quebec, when statistics show that crime has been declining since the end of the 1990s.

“There could be fewer people in preventive detention, that the prisons are less overcrowded so that there are more possibilities for interpersonal interaction, that the machine is less inhuman”, believes Mr. Bernheim.

In his view, this would reduce the distress induced by the prison itself and help prevent suicide in prison.

Mr. Bernheim does not mince his words: “the only institution in the Western world that has not been questioned in a real way is the justice system”.

What does the minister think?

The Minister of Justice of Quebec, Simon Jolin-Barrette, declined Radio-Canada’s request for an interview.

Despite a specific question sent by email, the minister did not want to indicate his point of view on the short prison terms.

His cabinet nevertheless recalls that criminal offenses are defined by the Criminal Code, which falls under the federal government.

“In addition, it is up to the judiciary, during a judgment, to determine the penalties that will apply for a specific case”, adds the minister’s press secretary, Élisabeth Gosselin-Welcome.