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The Institutional Cases: Defining the Conditions for Moral Abdication

Jen Rinaldi, Associate Professor, Legal Studies, University of Ontario, Institute of Technology

Kate Rossiter, Associate Professor, Health Studies, Wilfred Laurier University

Published April 20, 2018 by Technologies of Justice.

In a Technologies of Justice Conference session on violent custodial logics, Jen Rinaldi and Kate Rossiter present a talk titled The Institutional Cases: Defining the Conditions for Moral Abdication. The conference took place from January 26 to 27 at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.


Institutions are inherently violent, on various levels of their organization; this is the conclusion Jen Rinaldi and Kate Rossiter drew in their study of the consequences of and preconditions for violence in institutional situations. They illustrated how there are four preconditions of institutional organizations that when met, almost universally, lead to violence. Their research highlights the widespread existence of sadism within institutions, and in the cases of incorrigible or different children sent to strict training schools, abuse in those schools.

Rinaldi and Rossiter discovered that with confinement in certain kinds of institutions, this type of abhorrent treatment is almost expected by people. Recognizing that this treatment was more commonplace than previously thought, they asked, "What organizational factors foster an institutional culture in which extreme forms of violence are not only tolerated, but normalized, and at times allowed to flourish?" and "How does the organizational culture of total or residential institutions that have housed persons with disabilities allow or even nurture a culture of moral abdication, which leads to extreme forms of violence?"

Rinaldi and Rossiter looked deeper into 'The Institutional Cases:' a series of cases that have helped open the eyes of people in law and government to the violence multiple institutionalized people have suffered, as well as the organizational structures that sometimes lead to these extreme cases of violence. The researchers detailed the data gathered while investigating these cases, and showed common examples in which people were harmed. Their study shows the common conditions in which structural and organizational similarities were present and allowed these cases of violence to happen: cases in which the system was at fault, the structure was at fault, and the system was allowing or encouraging this to happen. Rinaldi and Rossiter spoke about their research and how it helps gain a clearer picture of what life in these institutions was like.

Through research, they discovered that "It’s not just a few bad apples." In fact, violence was not only possible; it was pervasive. Some of the cases and interviews included in their study were those connected to Huronia Regional Centre residents, schools for the deaf, psychiatric research institutes as well as various 'Schedule 1' facilities. The horrors committed by staff to residents in these types of institutions happened across geographic regions, time periods and populations, and the researchers saw commonalities in case law as well as interviews and talks with victims.

Rinaldi and Rossiter concluded that morality is a social and situational concept and that certain situations can create a moral disengagement. They recommended asking:

  • Does the institution understand its inherent function as one of controlling, reforming or refashioning residents? This can be characterized by actions motivated by 'punishments' or 'disciplinary measures' to produce compliance.
  • Does the institution operate under an efficiency or austerity model? Sometimes this is expressed through understaffing, little improvement in the action of care regardless of reports, lack of funding, unqualified staff and even using residents as free labour under the guise of 'vocational training.'
  • Is the institution socially and physically isolated?
  • Are residents of the institution socially mistrusted or despised? Social forms of contempt are exemplified through dehumanizing forms of bodily control within institutional settings.

These four circumstances are institutional preconditions that can cause a cognitive shift, which could allow moral compasses to be turned off, allowing institutional violence to flourish. When this happens, it may be even worse for victims, since in many cases victims are blamed for bringing this upon themselves, and are treated as inhuman or less-than-human by those around them. Rinaldi and Rossiter expressed the need to look back on and study these cases so we learn from them and create structures that do not mimic our history of abuse.