Access to Information / Advocacy / Mike Larsen / prisoners' rights

Access to Information: A Guide for Canadian Prisoners

Access to Information: A Guide for Canadian Prisoners

By Mike Larsen

In Canada, there is a small but growing group of criminologists and sociologists conducting research on matters related to the carceral (broadly defined) using access to information (ATI) mechanisms. Federal and provincial ATI laws have been around for some time now, and they are often utilized by social scientists – mostly historians – interested in archival methods and the ‘history of the present’. What distinguishes our network of researchers is a sustained two-pronged approach to ATI mechanisms: on the one hand, we use them systematically to seek out substantive information about the ‘back stage’ of carceral and security practices, and on the other hand, we study these mechanisms themselves as sites of information gatekeeping, ‘message discipline’, and the politics of secrecy and transparency. Justin Piché’s work with Tackling the Politics of Crime and Punishment is a good example of the ATI research coming out of this group.

Criminal justice systems are engaged in pervasive and persistent practices of information production. Officials draft, revise, and disseminate policy in conjunction with political bodies. ‘Best practices’ are debated and circulated. Statistics are created, compiled, and mobilized. Situations arise, are described and defined according to the perspectives of institutions, and are thereby rendered amenable to management. Public Relations offices work to manage communications and shape public perceptions in accordance with official positions. Much of the day-to-day work of front-line personnel within the system is ‘information work’. They draft reports, take photographs and videos, fill out checklists and forms, provide expert opinions and access and modify vast databases. In so doing, they collaborate with other workers within the system, and information is exchanged, co-produced, and otherwise used. The individuals who are processed through this system – by the police, the courts, prisons, and social services – are the subjects of constant assessment, examination, explanation and evaluation. They have records, files, cases and numbers. From the perspective of the system, they are in many ways reducible to these things.

Much of this official information is not made readily available. Instead, it circulates internally within the system, and constitutes a vast textual ‘back stage’. Gaining access to government documents can offer invaluable insights into the politics, practices, and ways of thinking that govern the various components of the criminal justice system. Similarly, gaining access to personal information files can allow an individual to learn about his or her official ‘data double’ – the bundle of information that represents a person within the system.

Technically, anyone in Canada can make use of ATI mechanisms as part of a ‘quasi-constitutional’ right to request access to government records. Most of the regular requesters – journalists, lawyers, and academics – that I have encountered have learned how to navigate the complexities of Canada’s various ATI regimes through lengthy processes of trial-and-error. We are often approached for advice by community organizations, other researchers, and concerned citizens who are interested in filing ATI requests but unfamiliar with the process. Common questions relate to effective request wording, how to negotiate with government ATI analysts seeking clarifications or adjustments to the scope of a request, what sorts of documents to seek, and how to file appeals and complaints regarding delays, redactions, or denial of information.

Questions along these lines – particularly from current and former prisoners and prison justice groups working in the community – prompted me to write the Canadian Prisoner Access to Information Guide, which is available free for download from my site, at

Contents of the Guide:
1. Introduction
2. The Canadian access regime
3. Exemptions and extensions
4. Before filing: A checklist
5. The process
6. Request wording and types of records
7. Federal and Provincial addresses and information
8. Contact Information

The purpose of the guide is to provide background information, a discussion of procedures and ‘best practices’, resources (addresses, phone numbers, and information about the federal, provincial and territorial ATI / FOI regimes) and commentary for new requesters, with a focus on prisoners interested in seeking information about carceral practices. The current version (1.0) will be revised based on feedback (which is most welcome) in what I hope will be an ongoing dialogue.

Why prepare a guide for prisoners? Two reasons. First, because while Canada’s ATI laws themselves (particularly the federal Access to Information Act) are notoriously dated and out-of-touch with the information age, the resources one needs to use them effectively tend to be located online. Figuring out how to prepare a request, where to send it, how much it costs, and what sorts of information are available or excluded without access to the Internet would be difficult, in some cases prohibitively so. Prisoners, who are generally unable to access the Internet, are at a comparative disadvantage here. The guide does not fully compensate for this, but it does provide the basics, as well as a list of numbers to call for assistance.

The second reason is because as a prison justice advocate and Co-managing Editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, I am a supporter of prison writing and prisoner research. Readers of the JPP will know that some of the most insightful and effective analysis and commentary on the socio-politics of incarceration comes from writers on the inside. JPP authors are consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to predicting the impact of policy shifts-in-progress, critiquing the logics and discourses of control and exclusion, and, of course, giving voice to the lived realities of the prison. It is my hope that this guide will be of interest and use to Canadian prisoner researchers and writers, and will allow them to further incorporate the ‘back stage texts’ of the carceral system into their analyses.

In sum, I think there’s a good argument to be made that:

1. ATI mechanisms have tremendous potential as tools for critical research on prisons, the carceral, and security and social control practices.
2. Sustained and effective use of ATI mechanisms requires both knowledge of the ATIP process and some knowledge (the more, the better) of the organizations or practices being studied.
3. Prisoners, by virtue of their position within the system, have a unique perspective on carceral practices, and have considerable experiential knowledge of the everyday routines and applied policies of the prison.

– Mike Larsen, 2011

Mike Larsen is a PhD Candidate in Sociology based at the York Centre for International and Security Studies, and the Co-Managing Editor of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. He can be reached at



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