David Milgaard says the word “free” with intention, as though it might just float away. In a deliberate yet delicate cadence, the 68-year-old former prisoner is reading poetry over the phone from his townhouse in Cochrane, Alberta.
He recites: “It is in a lament of time, trusted like a given home, an open pleasant place, with a fire and a love of the people that live there, that I choose to remain free.”
“I like that one,” he says.
The poem is about his family and trying to stay close to all that is good, when the world viewed him as a killer.
“I needed that just to keep my head up and move forward, and feel cared for by a sense of morality that I held on to.”
He wrote A Candled Home from inside Ontario’s maximum-security Millhaven Institution while serving a life sentence for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. Easily Canada’s most recognizable name among those wrongfully imprisoned, Milgaard says he was never actually able to achieve any kind of freedom within his own mind during the 23 years he spent behind bars—not when people believed he was capable of something so horrific. As fellow poet Gord Downie famously sang in “Wheat Kings,” the Tragically Hip’s homage to Milgaard, “No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.”
It felt like walking on the moon.
Winnipeg-born Milgaard was incarcerated at 17 and emerged at 39, bewildered by a simple trip to the grocery store. He remembers trying to buy flowers for his mother, Joyce, a recognizable face on the news and her son’s greatest ally, but leaving empty-handed. “It felt like walking on the moon,” he says.
Today Milgaard doesn’t dwell on the judicial missteps that linked him to the 1969 death of 20-year-old nursing assistant Gail Miller in Saskatoon. Once freed, with help from a team of lawyers that included University of Manitoba alumnus David Asper [BA/80], Milgaard made it his mission to help others unjustly incarcerated. Last year, both he and Asper—now the acting dean of UM’s Faculty of Law—were named recipients of UM honorary degrees, celebrating their work in this area.
Milgaard not only advocates for those wrongfully convicted, he brings his unique voice to push for a rethinking of prison systems in Canada—a conversation gaining momentum, given the brighter spotlight COVID-19 has cast on inequities.
He says transformation of the punitive nature of Canada’s prison system is long overdue. Milgaard isn’t excusing criminal behaviour, but insists that a more effective system for dealing with offenders will reduce future victimization and ultimately create a safer society. He says he had a front-row seat to all the shortcomings of the status quo.
“People who are caught up in the punitive justice model, they don’t really have any opportunity to make a legitimate change in their lives…. As a prisoner, for as long as I lived in prison, you know, you’re not given credit, you’re held in a situation where they’re focusing on all of the things about you that aren’t good. They’re saying you’re not going to make it. You’re a danger. You’re a threat to society,” he says. “You know, if you want people to draw some sort of richness from themselves, hold up their strengths.”
Decades removed from that nightmare, Milgaard still vividly recalls life behind bars and the volatility always present. Sometimes it would quiet down; other times tension ran high. “It’s often tenuous—you can feel it,” he says. “It’s a horrible place.”
Milgaard clung to hope between appeals, but at times couldn’t see any sign of it on the horizon. “You do end up coming to a loss and sadness inside your soul. But I don’t want to draw a real distinction between my situation, because I didn’t do anything wrong, and the person who has done something wrong who is inside prison. A lot of people have a hard time. They are just going through it one day at a time. They struggle very much.”
He’d watch the coming and going of young offenders, some of them charged with crimes as minor as stealing tires, but who, after having lived within the institution’s microcosm, would slide further down the wrong path. It’s why Milgaard calls Canada’s prisons “a growth industry.”
“People inside prison live with the rule of thumb that it’s okay to do wrong. Morality is basically capsized. You know, people are dying inside that equation and we have to do something. We have to change the punitive justice model of this country,” he says. “Start holding values up over people and saying, ‘All right, you have many different abilities. You have many different things you can do for yourself and you can go out there and you can live a life and you can do well for yourself.’”
Milgaard, now a father of two teenagers, has regular contact with those still in the system. Many send their stories of innocence, asking for his help. Most recently, Milgaard brought his advocacy—and a pro-bono private investigator—to try to free Odelia Quewezance, a Saulteaux woman who has served more than 25 years for a murder she says she didn’t commit.
When COVID-19 hit, he teamed up with Canadian Senator Kim Pate to push for early releases, concerned that lesser convictions could become death sentences given the heightened risk of the virus spreading through close quarters. (He wears a mask urging we “Free All Prisoners.”)
We’re people—all of us—who dream, who want to love others and to care for others. You know, the people that we’re talking about, that are sitting inside cages right now as I say that, they dream and want to love others and to care for others. There is no real difference between them and us.
Milgaard says we need to look to more progressive justice models used elsewhere in the world—yet cautions none are without flaws. He points to Japan’s merciful leniency approach, offering those convicted with the opportunity for reform by surrounding them with love and support of family. If they don’t respond, a prison term comes next—one that is especially cruel and torturous and not something Milgaard condones. But the intent behind their lenient approach makes sense, he says: Prisoners wanting to change should be given the tools to succeed.
“It’s amazing, if you think about it. There are people in Japan who have committed horrendous crimes and they have never spent a single day in jail. Hard to believe, but it’s true,” he says.
Milgaard believes restorative justice measures in Canada—where the perpetrator and victim sit across from one another to reconcile—need greater attention since they, too, put the onus on the offender to take responsibility for change. He also likes that it’s an approach that’s peacemaking, rather than war-making.
“When these men have a chance to let that feeling go about what they’ve done wrong, share such a remorse for it, they will make up their own minds not to do wrong again. And this is the way of reformation. They will take that criminality that they have and they will beat it—they will become free.”
Howard Davidson, a sociologist and retired UM extended education professor, who spent years teaching in some of the toughest prisons in Canada and the U.S., founded the groundbreaking Journal of Prisoners on Prisons more than 30 years ago.
He launched the publication with Canadian convict-turned-criminology professor Bob Gaucher. The peer-reviewed, prisoner-written journal features incarcerated voices from across North America, and as far away as Ireland and South Africa.
The very first volumes unlocked a door for inmates to speak out about prison conditions and health issues—from aging behind bars, to abuse, to solitary confinement. Research on these issues, to be effective in any real way, requires these first-hand perspectives, says Davidson.
“We published it with the aim that it would actually be picked up in the universities, that academics would start to get their students to read prisoners’ analyses of crime and punishment,” he says.
But it was an uphill battle.
“Unfortunately, a lot of professors talk the talk, but not walk the walk. So, they’re interested in talking about marginalized voices but when you actually present an opportunity to get those voices heard in the classroom, that’s not always so easily done. Nonetheless, the journal I think has accomplished a great deal for the people who have written in it and the people who have read it.”
Just as interesting as what the prisoners chose to write about was what they wouldn’t. Racism and the politics of prisons and gangs were always verboten. These “hugely powerful entities within the prisons,” notes Davidson, were especially prominent at the American institutions in which he taught, including Massachusetts Correctional Institution. “Negative findings like that, as a sociologist, were always really important.”
Time spent with inmates proved to be some of Davidson’s most rewarding teaching experiences. “Where else would you want to teach a course in sociology of deviance? They were fantastic,” he says.
But throughout his career he could see an overwhelmed infrastructure that was never conducive to effective learning. While there’s always going to be people who we need to keep imprisoned for the safety of society, it’s a far lower number than those behind bars today, says Davidson.
Change may be coming. In response to the recent pandemic, Manitoba’s adult jail population dropped by 30 per cent. A 2019 Statistics Canada Report revealed that Manitoba had the highest incarceration rate in the country—231 adults per 100,000—and roughly three quarters of the inmates are Indigenous, despite this group making up only 15 per cent of the population. The province has held this position for highest incarceration rates since at least 2006. Canada’s rate—at 114 per 100,000—is among the highest in the developed world, lower than the U.S., but much higher than all of western Europe, according to The John Howard Society of Canada.
“So as long as you’re dealing with that kind of a situation, the amount of reform that you can do within the prison itself is pretty minimal,” says Davidson. “You have to basically bring the population down to those people who actually need to be incarcerated…. Prisons may have been a good idea in the 18th century when the penitentiary concept was created but they’re not a very good idea in the 21st century.”
Racism is a huge factor in how society thinks about the role of prisons, he says. “High rates of imprisonment and the function of prisons are defined by the nature of racism in the particular country.”
Where someone fits in socio-economically may also determine how open they are to rethinking the punitive model. People with secure jobs, who are educated and don’t see themselves as racist may be more open to conversations about reduced sentencing and decriminalization. “Criminality is often abstract for them. Their homes are not being robbed; dope isn’t being sold on the corner,” says Davidson.
Whereas, for people living in high-crime neighbourhoods, the impact is less abstract. “It happens in your face, it falls in your lap and it happens to and by people you know. In short, our attitudes about crime and punishment are affected by our socio-economic position, the immediate environment in which we live, and our perceptions influenced by media and political considerations.”
In both Canada and the United States, jail time can be spared if offenders can afford to pay a fine, which suggests their freedom isn’t a threat and unfairly targets an already marginalized group, argues Davidson. “If you want to bring about change, you don’t really start at the level of prison. By the time you get to the prison, you’re already dealing with the worst of what’s already happened.”
We need to study how the social system “has created this monster.” But maybe it’s easier to not think about it? “Prisoners are definitely forgotten in our society. That’s what prisons are all about to a big extent, to make sure that people are forgotten about in our society,” he says. “They fall off the map. They disappear. They go to prison, which means they go off to the netherworld.”
As a doctor at Brisbane Correctional Centre in Queensland, Australia, Dr. Heather Parker [MD/79] got a glimpse into a world that up until then had been a mystery to her. Despite a varied career—as an aviation medical examiner, a medical journalist and a physician-pilot, who would fly herself to remote areas to hold women’s health clinics—she says the institutional role took some getting used to.
It was a strange feeling, she says, knowing the man who mopped your office had murdered his wife. But through her interactions with patients she grew familiar with their day-to-day lives and challenges. She recalls reports of rape and how inmates would feign knee pain in order to get particular bandages to use as tourniquets to inject drugs.
“There were lots of request for opiates,” says Parker, who is now retired. “A significant number of inmates had mental-health issues like schizophrenia or had intellectual disabilities. Many made an appointment simply to alleviate the boredom of their day.”
Parker was also a medical practitioner on the South Queensland Parole Board, one of 10 members. The role demanded a challenging balance of skepticism, support of the prisoner’s rehabilitation and protection of the community. Any decision could have a heartbreaking outcome.
“I still remember a young violent sex offender who preyed on young boys as well as girls. He was accompanied by a psychologist and chaplain who pleaded his case and offered to live with him and supervise him closely. He was granted parole and almost immediately raped and murdered another young girl,” says Parker.
It was clear to her then—and now, three decades later—that more resources should be funneled into prevention to address the root causes leading to criminal behaviour. “Putting more resources into preventing people from entering the prison system is needed—addressing such problems as poverty, homelessness, a lack of education, second and third-generation unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, proper medical care—especially for Indigenous Australians.”
As in Manitoba, the number of people incarcerated in Australia draws heavily from Indigenous communities. According to the Australian Law Reform Commission, only two per cent of the population is Indigenous yet members of this group make up 27 per cent of the adult prison population.
It’s the prison within a prison. When human rights lawyer Isha Khan [BA/94] would walk through solitary confinement units she’d sometimes see eyes peeking out from the narrow slots where inmates would receive their meals.
“They’d be crouched down looking through because somebody was walking by and nobody had walked down the hallway for quite a while. I found that really hard,” says Khan.
She was among a dozen lawyers across Canada assigned by the Minister of Public Safety in 2019 to review cases where people have been segregated from the general prison population. The initiative was in response to earlier findings that this isolation tool discriminated against those with mental health issues as well as Indigenous inmates. More recently, the pandemic created even more instances of segregation in Manitoba as inmates were isolated when cases surged.
Khan would ask offenders: How are you doing? How often are you getting outside? When was the last time you had any human interaction (beyond the delivery of your food through a hole in the door)?
She quickly unearthed a pervasive lack of resources—or thought—given to meeting inmates’ needs. Often, the offenders were young, Indigenous and reported as having a history of mental illness.
It’s our country’s shame—it should be…. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Why is this happening?’ We’re not looking at the systems that perpetuate it.
Some prisoners hadn’t been outside in days (in one case, it was as simple a fix as securing a jacket). One was still in segregation and shackled for an incident at another prison four years earlier. Some hadn’t had mental health assessments since their intake—as far back as six years—with no follow-up assessment or care. “Why hadn’t that status changed?” asks Khan, who admits she only got a glimpse into the system but it was enough to identify glaring gaps.
Some inmates told her they weren’t allowed to have books; others were told their only prized possessions—their family photos—were lost when transferring from one prison to the next. There was little access to spiritual care from rabbis, Elders or imams, when it could have been doable at least by phone or Zoom.
“Sometimes they were so forthcoming and they would say at the end of it, ‘You’re the first person who ever wanted to listen to this, you know?’ Was I the first person? I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t, maybe they talked to several people but the fact that they had to say that meant that they hadn’t felt heard. And they definitely didn’t feel like they had been listened to.”
Khan made recommendations for improved access to mental health and spiritual support, including more Indigenous-centred programming. She could see positive steps already being taken in this area. Speaking with Elders was not only benefitting Indigenous inmates but those of other backgrounds who were given the opportunity.
But without the tools to manage their anger, some inmates told Khan they’d rather ride out their sentence in segregation so as not to risk pushing back their release date. “They would say, ‘I know if I go back into general population something is going to happen.’ There were a lot of people who seemed young and hurt and didn’t have the tools to go back into the community and I thought it would be really great if we could use this time to give them those tools.”
Khan says that among human rights circles, Canada’s prison system is seen as “one of the country’s most significant human-rights issues that we need to address.
“But when you talk to the general public there’s often complete apathy. There’s huge work we can do in terms of our awareness and education about these issues so that our judicial system will catch up.”
It was her belief that dialogue sparks understanding and change that prompted her last year to take the post as CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
“We need to remember that these people are human beings; they have a story. They had something that went wrong. Sometimes they made a bad choice, sometimes the choice was imposed on them. Sometimes there were various other layers to it,” she says.
Khan heard first-hand how complex these stories are. One inmate explained how his sister had been missing for days and he was sent by his mom to find her, only to search in a house frequented by drug dealers and have a weapon pulled on him.
“It’s our country’s shame—it should be…. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Why is this happening?’ We’re not looking at the systems that perpetuate it,” she says. “It’s just so pervasive, right? We don’t care about the people who we’ve kind of put away. We don’t see them and we don’t need to see them and we don’t need to deal with those issues. But we do care about crime, right? And we do care about safety and so there’s something broken in terms of the public attention to those issues.”
But are we ready for a new conversation?
“There are pockets of people who are, but I don’t think the general public is—but that doesn’t mean you don’t do it. I actually don’t know if they will ever be ready because of how our whole penal system is, what’s it’s based on, where it comes from. To undo that, it won’t be incremental. I actually think it has to be completely up-ended but there’s risk and money and all those things that go with that. And a whole lot of thought is required.”
Carry on the Conversation. What changes do you want to see to Canada’s judicial systems?
Tell us in the comments below.
Aside from the work we should be doing to deal with poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, etc. in our communities, I’d like to see us treat periods of incarceration not as an opportunity for punishment, but rather as an opportunity for investment. People incarcerated are a captive audience: we could tie achievements in learning and socializing to earlier parole and release dates. If those jailed spent time learning and achieving goals every day, the whole environment of a prison could change for the better. Providing each individual with skills and knowledge and better tools for handling their emotions, like anger, would give them a chance to reenter the free world, from a place of solid support, with an opportunity to find work and build good relationships with others. We should always be thinking of how we can invest in our human society.
I would like to see incarcerated persons treated as humans with value. The pandemic of COVID 19 has proven a challenge mentally for ‘free’ citizens, imagine the isolation that some prisoners feel only being out of their 4×8 home (where they have to eat, sleep AND go to the bathroom) for only 2 hours per day. TWO HOURS. Please have our members of government take notice of the inhumanity that Canadians face within our own borders. People need connection to thrive. We ALL need. Onnection.
What is so tragic to hear is about prisoners who have mental health issues and are not receiving it. If the goal of prison is to keep society safe and create reform, then why aren’t we providing the services to create the reform needed? It truly sounds like we are just creating sicker, more depraved humans.