Don Head Correctional Canada

Correctional Service of Canada: when one of the best systems faces major challenges

// Interview: Don Head

Commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada


JT: What makes the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) so outstanding?

DH: We maximise learning and innovation opportunities through collaboration with internal and external partners. Regular and open consultations are held with federal, provincial, territorial, and international partners to ensure that information and best practices are shared among the various jurisdictions, thus contributing to effective communications within the Canadian criminal justice system and amongst international corrections partners.

Engagement, diplomacy, innovation, openness and flexibility are our five guiding principles, meaning that CSC builds and maintains key partnerships with domestic and international partners and stakeholders with whom it works in a sensitive and effective manner.

In the field of innovation, we modernise processes, programs and policy that align with Government of Canada priorities and we operate in a transparent and culturally sensitive manner that respects diversity. And finally, our Service responds to evolving priorities, by balancing programming and policy against the availability of resources.

Our correctional programs, psychological and chaplaincy services, as well as thorough social, education and employment programmes are internationally recognised as we continue to conduct and share research to help support operational practices, procedures, policy, and programming.
All CSC’s activities support and promote the rule of law, respect for human rights, and an overarching policy framework.

Engagement, diplomacy, innovation, openness and flexibility are our five guiding principles.

JT: How is the CSC cooperating with correctional systems of other countries?

DH: We host delegations interested in learning more about our policies, programs, and operations each year. Delegations generally combine an itinerary of policy discussions at our National Headquarters (NHQ) with field visits to operational sites of interest.

We engage in various technical assistance projects with international partners, ranging from information sharing, policy and operational reform, to peace and support initiatives.

Memoranda of Understanding are currently signed with many countries including Bahamas, Benin, Bermuda, England and Wales, France, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Mexico, Namibia, The Netherlands, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad & Tobago as well as the Department of Justice of the United States of America.

We deploy staff to help with projects in other countries; such has included taking part in multilateral projects on criminal justice and security sector reform. Some key activities that Canada contributed to include the delivery of several United Nations Prison and Probation Officer Pre-deployment Courses (UNPriPOC) in various countries (the UNPriPOC is the only UN accredited pre-deployment training for corrections officers); the contribution to the development of the UN Prison Incident Management Training and Handbook; a gender workshop in Rwanda; the participation in the launch and promotion of the revised Mandela Rules; the deployment of a team of experts to Haiti, in 2017, on a secondment with MINUSTAH, the UN mission there; the development and launch of a training curriculum – targeting developing and post-conflict countries – for the Effective Practices for Gender Responsive Treatment of Women Prisoners; and, presentations and outreach at various international conferences.

Furthermore, we have a longstanding history of cooperating in the stabilisation and reconstruction of foreign criminal justice systems. We develop international partnerships to strengthen public safety and enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of correctional services and policy.

In collaboration with organisations such as the United Nations, we continue to work towards overall improvement and ongoing co-operation among the three pillars of the criminal justice system – police, courts, and corrections.

JT: What are the challenges that you acknowledge in the Canadian corrections?

DH: No correctional systems is free of issues; at CSC we recognise a few challenges, the most important being indigenous offenders, women offenders, administrative segregation, mental health – both of the offender population and of correctional staff – and the use of technology to introduce contraband.

Challenge: indigenous offenders

Addressing the issue of their over-representation within all areas of the criminal justice system requires a major and systemic re-thinking of how we respond to their needs before they run into conflict with the law. Governments alone will not be able to resolve this issue without the involvement and support of communities.

Issues related to education, health care, housing, and employment are key, and, from a correctional perspective, community support and opportunities must be in place to allow offenders to build on the gains they make while participating in interventions and programs.

Indigenous offenders make up a significant and growing proportion of offenders in custody, representing over a quarter of those incarcerated in federal institutions across the country. Such overrepresentation is even more acute amongst women offenders, where more than a third of the incarcerated population is Indigenous.

We have been at the forefront of improving the way Indigenous Peoples are engaged in the design, development and delivery of correctional services. Our policies require that, in any decision related to the management of Indigenous offenders, staff consider the impact of their social history, evaluate culturally responsive or restorative options, and determine whether an alternative decision would respond to the rehabilitative needs of the offender.

We have a strategic plan for aboriginal corrections that establishes a framework to provide First Nations, Métis and Inuit offenders with a continuum of care that respects traditions and culture. We count on the collaboration and engagement of Indigenous Peoples, therefore, the National and the Regional Aboriginal Advisory Committees provide advice and guidance to CSC on policies and practices. In addition, CSC engages the services of Elders to provide spiritual and cultural services to Indigenous offenders.

Despite the progress made to date, there are still significant reintegration gaps for Indigenous offenders, when compared to the rest of the offender population. While the number of Indigenous Canadians receiving federal sentences is beyond our control, our organisation’s work can ultimately impact the length of time they remain under our care, by focusing on their successful rehabilitation and reintegration through a more robust approach.

As part of a new strategy to significantly improve results for Indigenous offenders, we have recently developed the National Indigenous Plan with the objective of streamlining existing resources, strengthening case management practices, and ensuring that Indigenous offenders who wish to follow a transitional path will have access to more intensive cultural and spiritual interventions and programs.

We have recently established seven Aboriginal Intervention Centres across the country, where offenders will receive programs and interventions earlier in their sentence and will begin the preparation for conditional release well in advance of their first parole eligibility date.


Commissioner Don Head delivering remarks to staff
© Correctional Service of Canada

Challenge: women offenders

Another challenge has to do with addressing the needs of specific populations such as women with mental health issues, women from diverse ethnocultural backgrounds, those with low cognitive functioning, women classified as maximum security and women with children who are reintegrating the community.

Areas of specific challenge include population growth and resulting pressures; employment opportunities for women in our institutions and in the community; ensuring we have the right number of beds in the right places for women in the community; developing partnerships with community psychiatric hospitals to increase acute care beds; and finding safe, reliable and affordable child care, housing and transportation for women upon reintegration.

Women offenders comprise a small (5.8%) and unique subset of the total federal offender population and have diverse needs that may impact their response to interventions and reintegration, thus, CSC has developed a correctional environment and implemented several interventions, services, and training opportunities that are specifically designed for them.

The women offender population has increased over the last several years: at the end of 2016-2017 there were a total of 1,331 (692 in custody, 639 under supervision in the community); indigenous women offenders represented approximately 31% of the total women federal offender population, including approximately 37% of those incarcerated and approximately 25% of those on some form of conditional release.

The general demographics indicate that women offenders tend to be poor, young, uneducated, and lacking in employment skills. Approximately 59.1% of women in federal facilities are primarily incarcerated for a violent offence, and, compared to the average Canadian, women offenders have a higher incidence of substance abuse and mental health problems, being also more likely to have a history of physical and/or sexual abuse.

CSC provides correctional programs specifically directed at women, targeting an array of problematic behaviours that lead to crime by considering their social, economic, and cultural situation in society; the importance of relationships in their lives; their unique pathways into crime; and their more prevalent experiences of trauma, victimisation, mental health problems, low self-esteem, and parenting responsibilities.

Furthermore, we have developed, and continue to develop, short- and long-term options to ensure safe and supportive accommodations and interventions and we provide the opportunity for them to develop employment skills through vocational and on-the-job skills training.

Of note, women offenders are getting conditional releases sooner in their sentences compared to previous years. In addition, the percentage of who successfully reach the end of their sentences without returning to custody is at the highest percentage in the past decade.

The median percentage of the sentence being served before the first release is 36%, the lowest it has been in the last five years and the percentage of those reaching the end of their sentence without readmission is 64%.

Challenge: administrative segregation

We have been scrutinised for it, however, administrative segregation is provided for by legislation as a measure to ensure the safety of staff, visitors and inmates. It is not a form of punishment and an inmate must always be released from segregation at the earliest appropriate time.

The purpose of administrative segregation is to manage risk: the risk that the individual is posing to staff or other inmates, the risk of jeopardizing an investigation, or the risk to personal safety that the individual is facing from other inmates.

We have determined that there is a continuing need for administrative segregation as a correctional tool. However, we also recognise the need to integrate evolving best practices into its policy, so we made changes to the internal policy on administrative segregation, which took effect on August 1, 2017. Those changes enhance the system and meet the revised UN Standards Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules).

With such changes, we will continue to ensure that administrative segregation is only used for the shortest period of time necessary, when there are no reasonable and safe alternatives; ensure that administrative segregation occurs only when specific legal requirements are met and that restrictions are based on the least restrictive requirements to meet the objectives of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act; ensure a fair, reasonable and transparent decision-making process based on a review of all relevant information, and contribute to the safety of staff and inmates and to the security of the institution.

Under the new policy, inmates with certain characteristics (seriously mentally ill, actively engaging in self-injury, or suicidal) will not be admitted to administrative segregation. Furthermore, unless exceptional circumstances exist, that is, an immediate situation which endangers the life, safety or health of inmates, staff, visitors, or the security of the institution, inmates who are either pregnant or mobility impaired or under palliative care will not be admitted to administrative segregation.

All inmates admitted to and maintained in administrative segregation will be provided with their personal property items related to hygiene, religion and spirituality, medical care and non-electronic personal items immediately upon admission; their remaining personal property items within 24 hours of admission; the opportunity to be out of their cell for a minimum of two hours daily; the opportunity to shower each day, including weekends and holidays (this time is not included in the minimum two hours out of the inmate’s cell).

No correctional system is free of issues and at CSC we recognise a few.

Challenge: mental health of offenders

Another challenge that we recognise is the growing impact of mental health needs on the offender population, and the need for collaboration with partners in the criminal justice, social and health care systems to properly address their complex needs. Hence, we engage external experts, as required, to assist in the assessment, treatment, and management of mentally ill offenders.

To address this health challenge within the system, we have an integrated Mental Health Strategy; we provide mental health assessments and mental health interventions, including treatment. Staff training and oversight is also part of our approach. Mental health services are provided by qualified mental health professionals and we have Treatment Centres in each of our five regions where we provide treatment and support to those offenders with the most acute mental health needs.

We have numerous policies and procedures in place to assist with the management of inmates with complex mental health needs. For example, in 2010 we established regional committees to assist institutions in the management and provision of services for offenders with complex mental health needs, including self-injurious and suicidal behaviour. In 2013, a National Complex Mental Health Committee was also established, and meetings occur monthly between regional and national health counterparts.

Challenge: mental health of frontline prison staff

The mental well-being of CSC’s staff is also a major concern. Working in a correctional environment is challenging itself, and employees can experience things that aren’t easy to deal with.

As part of their duties, our staff may be witness to stressful and traumatic events, including death and violence and, consequently, may be more vulnerable to developing certain mental health issues, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

I’ve had colleagues – friends – who were never the same after a difficult incident at work. I started as a correctional officer in the 1970s, and the support that an organisation offered an employee who may have witnessed something tragic was quite limited; sometimes no support was offered at all.

Things are better today, but far from perfect. We still have work to do in supporting our staff who are dealing with a workplace mental health injury, as well as their families; because it affects everyone at home. We recognise that more needs to be done, and we’re doing it.

We have implemented a training module called the “Road to Mental Readiness” as part of our focus on employee mental resilience. It was first pioneered by the Department of National Defense for its staff, and has since been adapted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada for use by first-responder personnel.

This is leading-edge training that has already been delivered with success by various municipal police forces across Canada, and I have made it known that it is a priority to have all staff and management equipped with the tools and knowledge presented in this module.

Our Critical Incident Stress Management Program (CISM) also focuses on providing support, assistance and follow-up services to individuals who have been involved in critical incidents.

Employees directly involved in critical incidents are quickly identified by management and offered support through the local CISM team. Counselling is also available to employees through CSC’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

We provide online tools and resources as a single-window approach to support staff, and have a Return to Work program designed to assist employees, who are injured or ill, successfully return to work, when they are ready to do so.

We consistently reinforce the need for managers to be receptive and responsive to the needs of staff when they bring PTSD issues forward. I personally initiated a steering committee in 2015 to look at workplace mental health to further strengthen our approach to providing a healthy and safe work environment for employees.

So, as an organisation, we continue to work with our staff and union representatives to address the issue of stress and mental health in the workplace, including the challenges posed by PTSD.

Challenge: the use of technology to introduce contraband

And the last but not the least challenge that is currently posed to CSC is the use of technology to introduce contraband. There have been reported sightings of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” over CSC facilities, as well as seizures of contraband introduced by such means.

There are operational measures that involve staff intervention to address this issue, including searching procedures of the area where drone activity is suspected.

We have a number of tools available that are used to prevent the flow of drugs into our institutions. These include searches of offenders, visitors, buildings and cells using non-intrusive search tools including ion scanners and detector dogs.

We also have strict policies concerning contraband and unauthorised activities. Furthermore, CSC is exploring detection concepts with provincial correctional jurisdictions to address the potential of illegal activity using UAV or drones.

We regularly review the use of innovative security tools to enhance its capacity to limit security incidents and prevent security breaches. Preventing and reducing the number of contraband items and illicit substances in correctional institutions is a priority for CSC, so we work closely with law enforcement and federal regulatory partners to identify individuals and organisations that attempt to use drones to introduce contraband or interrupt institutional routines.

JT: On the moment of your retirement, what message would you like to leave?

DH: I’m retiring in February 2018 after a 40-year career working in the public service, specifically in correctional services.

I have worked with thousands of staff who make up a world-class correctional service. It has been a privilege and an honour to not only work with such a professional group but also to have had the opportunity to lead the Correctional Service of Canada for the last ten years as the Commissioner.

As I get ready to transition to the next phase of my life, I offer these three simple pieces of advice to all correctional employees: take care of those we have a legal responsibility for; take care of each other; and take care of yourselves.


Don Head began his federal public service career as a correctional officer in 1978. Until 1995 he’s held various operational and managerial positions. In 1995, he joined the Yukon Justice Department as Superintendent of one correctional centre, and then as the Director of Territorial Probation and Correctional Services. In 1998, he moved to the Saskatchewan Provincial Department of Corrections and Public Safety as Assistant Deputy Minister. In 2002, he rejoined the Correctional Service of Canada as Senior Deputy Commissioner, a position he held until he was appointed Commissioner, in June 2008. 

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