U of A research project finds unexpected resistance to extremism in Canadian prisons

The findings of the project challenge the common perception that prisoners are "bad people"

It may come as a surprise to many Canadians, but research suggests inmates in Canadian prisons believe strongly in the idea of Canadian multiculturalism, and this belief may be preventing extremism from gaining a foothold.

Research by the University of Alberta Prison Project — a study of Alberta’s prisons headed by U of A researchers Sandra Bucerius and Kevin Haggerty — indicates that the idea of Canada as a multicultural nation creates a prison culture that’s hostile to extremist ideas. 

According to Will Schultz, a sociology doctoral candidate working on the project, the study found strong themes of national pride and multicultural identity among the more than 800 prisoners they interviewed in provincial and federal prisons. 

Schultz said prisoners were often willing to stand up for the idea of Canada as a multicultural nation, to the point that some would be willing to fight those who they saw as racist or extremist. 

“There’s this flaky sort of myth of multiculturalism that we all engage in around Canada and yet just because myths aren’t necessarily true doesn’t mean they aren’t very powerful,” he explained

This tendency may be unique to Canada, a consequence of prevailing narratives surrounding national identity. 

“When you go to places like Europe, prisons often serve as this sort of support base for radical movements,” Schultz pointed out.

He added that some countries even have specific prison units to keep radicals separate from the rest of the prison population, in an effort to prevent the spread of extremist ideas. Until now, most have believed that Canadian prisons would be exactly the same.

Schultz was quick to point to the wider context that surrounds public perceptions of radicalization in prisons: the societal attitude toward prisoners. 

“[People] make a lot of fear statements,” he explained, “People are afraid that prisoners are all bad people, and they’re automatically going to join these radical groups because they’re the right people to get recruited.” 

The study’s findings regarding radicalization fly in the face of this common view of prisoners, and they’re corroborated by its other data. The project also studied offender-victim crossovers — when an offender is also a victim — and found that approximately 95 per cent of men and 97 per cent of women in prison experience physical or sexual victimization before committing a crime.

Together, this data paints a very different picture of prison than the one Schultz believes many people perceive.  

“It’s easy to to talk about prisoners as bad people, but so often 99 per cent of the time they’re sad people, and we need to look at that distinction and really start looking at what goes on with people,” Schultz said.

He also called attention to the lack of research being done on prisons in Canada, pointing out that the U of A Prison Project is one of the only studies in progress on the topic right now. For Schultz, this is a problem because there’s a lot unknown about Alberta’s correctional system, and the debate around police and correctional reform entering the mainstream also applies to corrections. 

“What the prisons tell us is that Canada is not the healthy, happy, and equal place we’d like to believe it is, because there’s some real systemic issues that are cycling on in there.”

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