Thousands of federal offenders are serving life sentences in Canada’s justice system, and critics say they aren’t getting the rehabilitative support they need.
“A life sentence is quite different from a traditional sentence,” explains Anita Desai, executive director of the St. Leonard’s Society of Canada. People serving life sentences, or “lifers,” often grapple with a greater sense of hopelessness than other inmates, she says, and they require targeted supports to help them work through that.
That support used to be given through a federally funded program called LifeLine, which helped lifers envision, and then prepare for, a future outside of prison. The federal government scrapped the program’s funding in 2012 as part of massive cuts amid Stephen Harper’s tough-on-crime agenda. Advocates want the funding reinstated, but the current government doesn’t appear interested in the program either.
From 1991 to 2012, LifeLine paired prisoners with mentors who themselves served life sentences and then successfully reintegrated into the community. The mentors guided mentees on adapting to life in prison, helped them prepare for life on the outside, and supported them once they were paroled.
LifeLine won multiple international awards while it was running, and correctional systems in other countries have emulated the program. Before it lost funding, LifeLine was employing as many as 26 in-reach workers to provide services to over 2,200 lifers. The program was not only effective, it was relatively inexpensive as well, costing just $2 million a year.
When LifeLine’s funding was cut, a coalition of community groups raised money to run a stripped-down version of the program. That funding ran out in March 2018, further jeopardizing the future of LifeLine.
Desai and other advocates for prison reform say it’s time for the federal government to fund the program again. Ivan Zinger, Canada’s federal prison ombudsman, agrees. In his 2016/2017 annual report, Zinger called on the Liberals to do just that.
But a spokesperson from Correctional Services Canada (CSC) says the government isn’t considering reinstating funding for LifeLine at this time. The CSC says LifeLine has been replaced by the Lifer Resource Strategy—a set of materials in binders available for prisoners in their libraries.
Desai says the Lifer Resource Strategy isn’t adequate. She compares it to giving a student a textbook but no teacher. “Ultimately,” Desai says, “a life sentence is handed out by the government, and it should be the responsibility of the government to fund a program that’s demonstrated to support this specific population.”