What are the different types of prison sentences?


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In Alberta, and throughout Canada, prison sentences are served in a provincial jail, a federal penitentiary, or the community under strict supervisions through a conditional sentence order (often called “house arrest”). Alberta also has several remand centers, which are essentially provincial jails for people who have not yet had their trial or sentencing, and have not been granted bail. 

What is the difference between provincial and federal prison?

Alberta has both provincial jails and federal penitentiaries. Prison sentences that are less than two years are served in provincial jail. Prison sentences that are two years or longer are served in federal penitentiaries.

In Alberta, Correctional Services Canada has responsibility for federal penitentiaries and Correctional Services of the Alberta Ministry of Justice has responsibility for provincial jails. Federal prisons and provincial jails have different programs available to inmates, and different parole decision makers.

Who decides who gets parole in Alberta?

Parole allows offenders to serve part of their sentence in the community under supervision and with conditions. 

For federal prison sentences, the Parole Board of Canada decides who is eligible for parole, who gets parole and when, and what the terms of parole are. 

For provincial jail sentences, the Alberta Parole Board decides who is eligible for parole, who gets parole and when, and what the terms of parole are. The Alberta Parole Board has been operating only since February 2021. It employs community probation officers and provincial correctional centre caseworkers to supervise people who are granted parole from a provincial jail.

When is the earliest you can get parole?

Every case is different. Some offenders are not granted parole at all. Just because you are eligible for parole, does not mean you will automatically get parole. Parolee eligibility is about the earliest date that your release could possibly happen on. Most offenders may apply to be released on parole after serving one third of their sentence, but that does not mean they will receive it.

Most offenders are eligible to receive statutory release after serving two thirds of their sentence. Statutory release is different from parole because it is usually automatic and not up to the parole board. Statutory release is similar to parole because it is still considered serving a prison sentence in the community and involves following certain conditions or having to return to prison.

Many offenders serving federal sentences are granted parole after serving approximately one third of their sentence.

What is day parole?

There are two types of federal parole: day parole and full parole. Most federal inmates are eligible to apply for full parole after serving one third of their sentence, and are eligible to apply for day parole either six months after their sentence starts or six months before they are eligible to apply for full parole, whichever is later.

With day parole, you normally must return to prison or a certain residential facility each night. With full parole, you serve the rest of your sentence in the community, but you are supervised, either by Correctional Services Canada directly, or by a non-profit aftercare agency like the John Howard Society, the Elizabeth Fry Society, or the Salvation army, and you must continue to follow conditions imposed by the Parole Board of Canada.

Where is prison in Alberta?

Alberta has eight provincial jails and remand centres:

  • Calgary Correctional Centre
  • Calgary Remand Centre
  • Edmonton Remand Centre
  • Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre
  • Lethbridge Correctional Centre
  • Medicine Hat Remand Centre
  • Peace River Correctional Centre
  • Red Deer Remand Centre

There are also seven federal penitentiaries in Alberta:

  • Bowden Institution and Annex (Innisfail) (medium/minimum security)
  • Drumheller Institution (medium/minimum security)
  • Edmonton Institution (maximum security)
  • Edmonton Institution for Women (multi-level security)
  • Grand Cache Institution (medium/minimum security)
  • Grierson Institution (Edmonton) (minimum security)
  • Pê Sâkâstêw Centre (Mâskwâcîs) (minimum)

What is the difference between minimum, medium, and maximum level security federal prisons in Alberta?

Alberta’s federal penitentiaries include minimum, medium, and maximum level security prisons. According to Correctional Services of Canada, the difference between these institutions are as follows:

Maximum security institutions are the most restrictive since they house individuals who pose the greatest risk of escape and hence the greatest danger to society. The buildings are surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, correctional officers are armed and posted in towers or other strategic surveillance locations. Also, the schedules that govern an inmate’s day-to-day routine are stricter. 

In medium security institutions, while the site is fenced as well, the rules are less restrictive. Officers are not armed, although weapons are available – under lock and key – in specific locations. Daily life is much like that in maximum security penitentiaries.

Finally, the minimum-security institutions play a very important role in the process for returning offenders to the community. These penitentiaries are often like small communities where inmates live in living units (houses) in groups of seven or eight. There is no barbed wired fence and there are no armed officers since inmates in these institutions have been deemed very low risk. The routine of minimum-security inmates is less restrictive. They can organize their schedule according to the activities they are required to participate in, and often are responsible for their own meals. This creates a sense of responsibility and prepares them for life in the community.

Most of Alberta’s federal penitentiaries have multiple security levels.

Which is better: federal prison or provincial jail?

Many people assume that federal penitentiaries are worse than provincial jails. This may be because federal penitentiaries are used for longer sentences and, typically, more serious crimes. It may also be because TV shows about American TV shows and movies make federal prison out to be much worse than state jail. This is not the case in real life – at least not in Alberta. 

I sometimes have clients who are planning to enter a guilty plea and are looking at a sentence right around two years in length. For these clients, whether I argue for a two-year sentence or two years less a day sentence comes down to whether they would rather go to a provincial jail or federal institution. A two-year sentence would be served in a federal institution, and a sentence of two years less a day would be served in a provincial jail. This decision will always depend on the client and their circumstances, but my clients almost always choose federal. From what I have seen, the programming available at federal institutions tends to be better, and my clients are often released on parole after serving about one third of their sentence, rather than being released on statutory release after serving two thirds of their sentence in a provincial jail.