Lisa Kerr, a brilliant colleague of mine at the JSD programme at NYU and soon-to-be professor at Queen’s, has recently published a fascinating article called “Contesting Expertise in Prison Law,” explaining the practical and normative importance of expertise and evidence in prisoners’ rights adjudication. I am no doubt biased, but I think it deserves to be read and thought about, both for its importance to its specific topic, and for what it can tell us about some much broader trends in Canadian law. This post is mostly a summary of the article. I will offer a critique, focusing on its relationship with these broader trends, in a separate one (hopefully tomorrow or this weekend).
Ms. Kerr’s argument, in a nutshell, is an almost Posnerian plea for judges to be attentive to facts and, in particular, to the information that various experts can provide about prisons, when they adjudicate constitutional claims brought by prisoners, as well as for lawyers to provide judges with such information. Armed with facts and expert opinion, Courts can and should stop being unduly deferential to prison administrations, which tend to cloak their imposition of unnecessarily harsh conditions on prisoners in claims of expertise. “Prisons,” Ms. Kerr writes, “do not need to be viewed as mysterious places by courts, nor as places where necessarily amateur outside intervention could trigger unknown dangers.” (74)
Looking at both Canada and the United States, Ms. Kerr traces the rise and decline of judicial willingness to intervene to protect the rights of prisoners. For a long time, she notes, inmates were effectively regarded as having lost all rights. Prisons were places where the ordinary law, including constitutional law, did not run. But beginning in the 1960s in the United States, and the 1970s in Canada, courts started intervening and imposing constitutional constraints on prison authorities. Yet the movement was reversed in the United States, with courts adopting increasingly deferential approaches to the claims by prison authorities that this or that repressive measure was necessary to ensure prison security or otherwise advance “legitimate penological goals.” (A welcome counterexample, too recent to have made it into Ms. Kerr’s article, is the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous decision this week in Holt v. Hobbs, rejecting the claims Arkansas Department of Corrections’ claim that allowing a devout Muslim inmate to wear, for religious reasons, a half-inch beard would be too dangerous.) In Canada, although one might have expected the coming into force of the Charter to spur the courts to accept prisoner claims, their “hands-off” instincts have proven remarkably resilient. Both lower courts and, on occasion, the Supreme Court have been disinclined to look into the issues of sentence administration, and preferred to treat prisons as separate universes properly subject to their own rules.
Yet there have been hopeful signs, Ms. Kerr notes. Sauvé v. Canada (Chief Electoral Officer), 2002 SCC 68,  3 S.C.R. 519), which held that prisoners could not be disenfranchised, was one case where their constitutional rights were granted the same significance as those of other citizens. And, more recently, challenges supported by sophisticated evidentiary records have succeeded, at trial level, in thwarting the prison administrators’ repressive instincts. The presence in the record of social science evidence can make it clear ― and indeed force prison authorities to acknowledge ― that the impugned decisions were made without any real justification or even thought going into the process, and that alternative, less repressive, courses of action are available. Probably the most important theoretical point Ms. Kerr makes is that
[t]he question of evidence has, in fact, been the critical dimension for claimants who experience chronic marginalization and popular resentment. This is at least partially because the evidentiary record is the means by which counsel can insist that constitutional adjudication not mirror conjecture and stereotyping from the wider culture. (76; emphasis mine.)
The practical takeaway follows immediately, and inexorably:
Counsel for prisoner claimants should continue to focus on the issue of expert evidence, notwithstanding the difficulties of doing so, and should be aware that there is an extraordinary range of expertise and literature that could bear upon future Charter claims.(76)
It is a bit ironic, of course: if you want to contest expertise (that of prison authorities), you have to counter it with more expertise (that of social scientists or even, for that matter, that “former prison administrators, and administrators from other jurisdictions” (74)). And since the government is, as Ms. Kerr acknowledges, itself well-positioned to collect and present expert evidence, it could potentially play that game too. But the end point is not tto stick it to the government ― it’s to make prisons a more human place (and, by way of consequence, those who eventually come out of them better, or at least less-worse, people!). If the government starts winning cases on the basis that its policies are actually in keeping with at least a reasonable take on the best expertise that exists in the realm of prison administration, rather than simply because courts reflexively defer to the administrators, Ms. Kerr will have succeeded, and we all will be better off.