Law prof stands up for prisoners

UBC Law professor Michael Jackson is looking for justice.

Jackson, who has just won a national award for his work in advancing human rights and correctional practice in Canada, advocates on behalf of prisoners.

The nature of the prisoners’ crimes – from robbery to murder – has often given the public an excuse to turn a blind eye to the suffering and discrimination prisoners may face both in and out of prison: assault by guards and other inmates, long stretches in solitary confinement, intimidation and threats of vigilante justice in the community.

Jackson isn’t one to sit idly by.

“I think the idea of injustice flows in my bloodlines,” says the British-born Jackson, who was recognized in September with the Ed McIsaac Human Rights in Corrections Award, which commemorates the work and dedication of those who have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to improving corrections and protecting the human rights of the incarcerated.

His 40-year career has spanned the classroom, the penitentiary cell, Parliament, the courtroom and the printed word, with two successful books and national recognition for his contribution to public policy.

He’s just written a letter to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, with whom he taught at UBC in the 1970s, urging Ignatieff to stand up to the federal government’s attempts to undermine human rights inside prisons.

Jackson is also working on a report that refutes the Canadian government’s plan to “toughen” prison legislation, a move that he says would push the country back 30 years and “undo a whole generation of reform.”

He makes no excuses for the work that exposes him to all sorts of criminals, many of whom are themselves suffering.

“Even though I can be repelled by the actual offense someone has committed, when I agree to help someone in prison, the nature of the offense is not relevant to that,” he says.

“If they’re experiencing injustice, if I think they deserve a chance that I can help them with, then I’ll do that.”

Jackson is familiar with injustice.

As a young man in London he was the only Jewish student in his primary school and one of very few in his secondary school.
Older, bigger kids would follow him home from school, yelling
and taunting him.

“I had a very personal experience of being an outsider, being hated and despised,” he says. “The experience I had in my childhood, and the knowledge in my DNA of what happened to Jews over millennia, has made me more aware of what it’s like to be the person isolated from society.”

Still, Jackson didn’t set out to become a human rights advocate.

That interest grew during his graduate work at Yale in the 1960s, which at that point was one of the hubs for the civil rights movement in the United States.

“I got caught up in that energy – one of the great human rights movements of all time,” he says.

He came to Canada in 1970 and began teaching in the areas where human rights issues seemed most important in Canadian society: prisoners’ rights and Aboriginal rights.

It was at UBC’s law school that he made a career-changing discovery: handwritten letters from prisoners serving time in the B.C. Penitentiary, outlining their complaints and grievances. The school had received them for years, but no one had bothered to read them.

What he found was shocking. One man told of cruel and unusual conditions facing him and other prisoners. He had been in solitary confinement for two years, where he remained locked up for all but 30 minutes each day. Some prisoners were abused, tear gassed and beaten.

“It was completely inconsistent with what I thought were the prevailing conditions in Canadian prisons,” he says.

Jackson launched the first case of its kind in Canadian history, winning a declaration from the federal court that the conditions inside the penitentiary indeed constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Since then, he’s represented people from all walks of life – and people who have committed some of the worst crimes imaginable.

One is Paul Callow, who in 1987 was sentenced to 20 years in jail after pleading guilty to five counts of rape. Dubbed the “balcony rapist” because he broke into women’s apartment in Toronto by way of their balcony, Callow was released in New Westminster, B.C., after serving his full sentence.

The media flocked to the story, rousing threats of
vigilante justice and “fear mongering” about the threat posed by Callow.

“Here’s a man who committed some terrible offences
and it’s understandable that people were worried and frightened. But he has had served 20 years in prison and taken all the programs he could to improve himself,” Jackson says. “None of this was being recognized.”

Jackson began gathering information from correctional officers and prison files, eventually offering the Vancouver Province newspaper an exclusive interview with Callow. There was only one condition: the editors had to read Jackson’s report first.

The result: the newspaper changed their editorial position.

“They understood what they were writing was based upon distorted and inaccurate information from the police,” Jackson says. “They actually said this man had a right to demonstrate why he should be accepted back into society.”

In 1980, Jackson and his students helped 80 men – most of them burglars and petty thieves who were serving indefinite sentences as repeat offenders – win pardons from the federal government.

“Some of these men had never committed an act of violence in their lives, but spent, on average, longer in prison than men who had been convicted of murder,” he says.

“I thought this gave people their lives back, when they had already been punished beyond what is reasonable for the law.”

Jackson plans to keep giving people their lives back, though he says the misery he encounters can take its toll on his emotional health.

“The day I walk into a prison and don’t leave feeling outraged, I don’t feel like screaming about what I’d heard about, I’ll find something else to do,” he says.

“I need that sense of outrage to toughen me to do this work.”

Jackson’s two books, Prisoners of Isolation and Justice Behind the Walls, are available online in expanded formats at