Canada's ‘Open Prisons’: Hybridisation and the Role of Halfway Houses in Penal Scholarship and Practice

Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
The Howard Journal Vol59 No 4. December 2020 DOI: 10.1111/hojo.12365
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 381–399
Canada’s ‘Open Prisons’:
Hybridisation and the Role of
Halfway Houses in Penal Scholarship
and Practice
Assistant Professor, University of Winnipeg, Canada
Abstract: This article analyses the role, form, and function of halfway houses (often
referred to as re-entry centres) in contemporary Canadian punishment. Building on
studies of Nordic ‘penal exceptionalism’ and open prisons, I argue that criminologists
can usefully study and conceive of halfway houses as a form of open prison. Thinking of
halfway houses as open prisons (rather than re-entry centres or post-prison institutions), I
suggest, is not only more reflective of these houses’ workings and dynamics but is also
more productive. Conceptually,it positions halfway houses in opposition to walled prisons,
thereby redirectingattention from the post-prison stage to how halfway houses could present
a real existing alternative to closed or walled prisons.
Keywords: halfway houses; open prisons; penal reform; prisoner re-entry
Contemporary prisons have been described as human ‘warehouses’ that
process and physically sequester – rather than rehabilitate or help – large
numbers of people, mostly from poor and racialised communities (for
example, Irwin 2005; Wacquant 2001, 2009). Internationally, studies
have highlighted the despair and pains of imprisonment (for example,
Ricciardelli 2014) as well as the prison’s harmful effects on people’s
socio-economic lives and citizenship post release (for example, Liebling
and Maruna 2005; Miller and Stuart 2017; Western 2018). Prisoners
themselves frequently describe prison life as boring, isolating, and de-
pressing (Steinmetz, Schaefer and Green 2017), as well as marked by fear,
threat, and vulnerability (for example, Frois 2016; Ricciardelli 2014; Toch
1977). As stated by Irwin and Owen (2005): ‘the harm of the contemporary
prison creates human beings that are less equipped to deal with post-
release realities’ (p.115). The many harms associated with imprisonment
have spurred research and broader discussion on prison reform and
proposed alternatives that range from more reformist and piecemeal
solutions targeted at specific aspects of incarceration (for example, the use
2020 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
The Howard Journal Vol59 No 4. December 2020
ISSN 2059-1098, pp. 381–399
of segregation), to more comprehensive or radical approaches that include
the eradication of prisons and other forms of containment (for example,
Brown and Schept 2017; Carrier and Pich´
e 2015; Pich´
e and Larson 2010).
In the broad context of prison reform, the Nordic penal systems have
been singled out by some scholars as exemplary models of progressive and
humane punishment (see, for example, Nelken 2009; Pratt 2008a), es-
pecially when compared with prisons and penal policy in other Western
countries. In this article, I bring existing work on Nordic open prisons into
conversation with a different national setting and penal institution, notably
Canadian halfway houses. I note that these two penal institutions have been
conceptualised in disparate ways and have elicited different research, de-
spite their structural and ideological similarities. In particular, while the
former have been viewed by many as representing examples of humane
(even exceptional) prisons or the ‘trademark’ of Nordic ‘penal exceptional-
ism’ (for example, Fransen 2017; Pratt 2008a; but see below), the latter
tend to be described as defective post-prison treatment institutions (see, for
example, Caputo 2014). I argue that the hybridity of punishment that
has been discussed in the context of various other (community-based) pe-
nal sanctions and/or interventions (for example, Gowan and Whethstone
2012; McKim 2017) has not received the same level and depth of recogni-
tion in relation to halfway house living. I then ask what can be learned by
reconceptualising Canadian halfway houses as a form of open prison. I con-
sider the implications of such a reconceptualisation for penal scholarship as
well as for practice, arguing that by positioning halfway houses in opposi-
tion to walled prisons, attention is redirected from the post-prison or re-
entry stage to viewing halfway houses as a real existing alternative to more
closed/secure prisons. Overall, I conclude that the term ‘open prison’ is
more reflective of the actual workings of Canadian halfway houses as well
as more productive for both theory and practice.
This article offers a primarily discursive and prescriptive examination of
halfway houses that is illuminated by interview data. I conducted in-depth
interviews with 27 halfway house residents (nine female, 18 male), re-
cruited from four halfway house facilities in a north-western Canadian
city. These individuals ranged in age from 21 to 66 years, with an average
age of 37 years. Five interviewees had been convicted of violent crimes,
such as second-degree murder and assault; 17 of non-violent non-sexual
crimes, such as drug trafficking, manufacturing, and possession; and five
of sex-related offences, such as sexual assault. When asked about their
race/ethnicity, 16 interviewees said they identified as white, one as Asian,
and ten as Indigenous. I asked resident interviewees a broad range of ques-
tions about their time in prison, their experiences with halfway houses
and non-profit agencies, the challenges of re-entry and how they navi-
gated these challenges, and their conceptions of rehabilitation, freedom,
and punishment (among other things). I also conducted interviews with
15 halfway house workers about their perceptions and experiences of their
2020 The Howard League and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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