Sunday, May 30, 2010
Canada's inhumane prison plan
In the past two years, as regular readers in this space would know, thanks to my gracious hosts in the U.S. government, I have had what could be called extensive hands-on experience of the American correctional system. I have been tutoring and teaching fellow prisoners in English, and in U.S. history. And some of them have taught me how to read music, play the piano, keep fit, diet sensibly and assimilate some local folkways, while I have been fighting my way through the courts toward a just disposition of the few remaining (unfounded) charges that bedevil me. The fact that all my life any definition of Canada's virtue and distinctiveness has prominently included references to civility and decency explains my alarm and outrage at finally reading the three-year-old report on the Correctional Service of Canada, misleadingly titled "A Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety."
As so often in other fields, this document seeks to import to Canada much of the worst of American practice, and none of the best, unless Canada now idealizes gratuitous official severity.
I have not succumbed to an inverse Stockholm Syndrome, and become an apologist for the convicted community. But I disbelieve even more fervently than I did before my sojourn among them, in the Manichaean process of baiting, dehumanization and stigmatization promoted by the Roadmap, and similarly inspired correctional nostrums.
In my present abode, I have met many rather dodgy people, but none whose ethics I consider inferior to some prosecutors and judges I have encountered in the last few years. And I have met many fine, as well as some mediocre and poor correctional officers, but few who rise above the level of benign non-skilled labour, profoundly under qualified to practise untrammeled social engineering on those entrusted to them.
I believe, civilly and theologically, in the confession and repentance of wrongdoing; in the prosecution and punishment of crime, and in a maximum reasonable effort by the state to protect the public, especially from threats to person and property. But I also believe that everyone has rights, including the unborn, demented, incurably ill, military adversaries and the criminal, and that the rights of those whose entitlements are for any reason circumscribed, are not inferior for being narrower, and should be as great as they practically can be, without violating the rights of others.
This Roadmap--which was released in 2007, and which the Harper government began officially responding to in its budget in 2008, setting out a five-year plan -- turns the humane traditions of Canada upside down. It implicitly assumes that all who are convicted are guilty and have no remaining claim to decency from the state, and that treating confinees accordingly is in the interest of the legally unexceptionable majority.
The Roadmap does not mention prisoners' rights, beyond basic food, shelter, clothing and medical care, and assumes that they are probably not recoverable for society and that the longer they are imprisoned, the better it is for society. Almost no distinction is made between violent and non-violent offenders.
Of course, great caution must be shown in the reintegration into society of violent criminals. But the objective of the penal system must be to return those capable of functioning licitly in society as quickly as practical, allowing also for straight punitive or retributive penalties, but not for mindless vengeance. The whole system must be guided by the fact that the treatment of the accused and confined has been recognized by ethicists and cultural historians for centuries as one of the hallmarks of civilized society.
The Roadmap holds that anything beyond the necessities for physical survival must be "earned." Traditionally, the punishment is supposed to be the imprisonment itself, not the additional oppressions of that regime, and the proverbial debt to society is paid when the sentence has been served; it does not continue as a permanent Sisyphean burden. In the interests of eliminating illegal drugs in prison, the authors of the Roadmap want all visits to be glass-segregated, no physical contact. This is just a pretext to assist in the destruction of families and friendships.
The importation of contraband by prisoners' visitors can be stopped by strip-searching the prisoners before they leave the visitors centre, as happens to us here, unless the prison staff, who have the unfathomable delight of inspecting us au naturel, are on the take, which is, of course, the problem, as correctional officers in many
prisons are frequently caught smuggling, and aren't well enough trained to command higher salaries to make them more resistant to temptation. It is a problem, but it will not be solved by targeting unoffending relatives of inmates. The Roadmap also has naively exaggerated confidence in certain types of scanning devices.
It also recommends unspecified concentration on generating employment skills, which is sensible, except that it is specifically foreseen that they will shoulder aside other programs of more general education, substance abuse avoidance and behavioural adaptation.
I am no hemophiliac bleeding heart, but non-violent people can sometimes be helped to abandon illicit practices by some of these programs. No useful purposes will be served by cranking back into the world unreconstructed sociopaths who can fix an air conditioner or unclog a drain. The Roadmap even asks for research to be undertaken that will support this recommendation, an inversion of the usual sequence in the determination of policy.
There is a demand for investment of over $1-billion in new and larger prisons, (an insane extravagance), and for sharply longer sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, and "earned parole" in place of supervised release after two-thirds of the sentence, in the absence of misconduct that would militate against such comparative liberality. In practice, this means imprisonment at the pleasure of the carceral establishment for the maximum time possible. (Prisoners cost $40,000 per year to keep.) All of these draconian measures have been tried and have failed in the United States.
As Michael Jackson and Graham Stewart point out in their excellent essay in the current Literary Review of Canada, "Fear-Driven Policy," this plan would fall especially heavily on native people, who already comprise nearly seven times the percentage of imprisoned Canadians than they do of the whole population.
The Roadmap is the self-serving work of reactionary, authoritarian palookas, what we might have expected 40 years ago from a committee of southern U.S. police chiefs. It is counter-intuitive and contra-historical: The crime rate has been declining for years, and there is no evidence cited to support any of the repression that is requested. It appears to defy a number of Supreme Court decisions, and is an affront, at least to the spirit of the Charter of Rights.
The Canada I remember and look forward to returning to should do exactly the opposite. Prison is an antiquarian and absurd treatment of nonviolent law-breakers. It only continues because it has.
The whole concept of prison should be terminated, except for violent criminals and chronic non-violent recidivists, and replaced by closely supervised pro bono or subsistence-paid work by bonded convicts in the fields of their specialty. Swindlers and embezzlers, hackers and sleazy telemarketers are capable people and they should serve their sentences by contributing honest work to government-insured employers.
Canada would save a billion dollars annually in prison costs and the employers of the penitent-workers would save $2-billion annually, a tremendous shot in the arm to national productivity. Many of the prisons could be recon-figured as assisted housing for the homeless and slum-dwellers. Canada would again be a model of the innovative public policy pursuit of institutionalized decency and social reform.
The principle that the rape of the rights of the least is an assault on the rights of all is attributed to Jesus Christ and is at the core of Judeo-Christian civilization and the rule of law in both common and civil law jurisdictions. And it is not just a tradition; there are several million Canadians in families that have bitter memories of personal or close relatives' encounters with the vagaries of justice. They aren't a visible bloc, but this is not a political free lunch.
It is painful for me to write that with this garrote of a blueprint, the government I generally support is flirting with moral and political catastrophe. My respect for the Prime Minister prevents me from being any more explicit here about the implications of failure to reconsider the government's course on this issue.
The Roadmap is a bad plan to take Canada to a destination it should not wish to reach.
Really great article and I couldn't agree more with the author! The tough on crime policies have been proven in the United States to be an expensive failure and only cost taxpayers more money. Mandatory minimum sentences result in prison overcrowding leading to increased levels of violence. They also treat all crimes as if they are equal, when really, they are all very different and need to be treated as such. Because of mandatory sentencing, many non-violent offenders are sentenced too harshly. As a result of mandatory minimum sentences and the elimination of double time credit, judges are left with virtually ZERO discretion in considering all of the circumstances surrounding an offender and their crime. It has been proven through research that imprisoning more people for longer periods does not reduce, deter, or prevent future crime. In fact, longer prison sentences have actually been shown to increase the rates and chances of an individual re-offending and reduce the likelihood that an offender can be successfully reintegrated into society. This is due to the fact that prisons are negative environments with negative influences and they fail to facilitate and encourage rehabilitation and reform. Prison does not change offenders' behaviour or thinking. Prison for non violent offenders often makes them better and more hardened criminals due to the influence of the prison subculture, gangs, drugs, and pro-criminal behaviours and attitudes. Spending more time in prison can make an offender "institutionalized" where they become unable to function in the outside world because of the influence of the prison subculture, having had little rehabilitation and have become dependent upon others. They learn no problem solving skills, life skills, coping skills, risk management, independence or decision making skills. They are also released from prison with little assistance in finding housing, employment, continuing on the path of rehabilitation, resources and programs, therefore, making them more likely to resort back to a criminal lifestyle.
Prison in itself and the loss of freedom, is the punishment. Offenders should not be further punished once admitted to prison. That means, they should not be deprived of their rights as Canadian citizens. I advocate for more prisoners' rights, because I believe prisons are harsh, inhumane and cruel environments and they have negative impacts on offenders, especially if they have a mental illness or are Aboriginal, and offenders' families.
I believe that prison should only be used as a last resort and that only the most dangerous offenders, those who actually pose a threat to the safety of society, should be held in a secure facility (not necessarily prison). I believe that our courts need to rely less on imprisonment and more on addressing the root causes and contributing social and economic factors to crime through community based sanctions and programming. Judges also need to have more discretion when deciding upon a sentence and they should be free to consider all of the mitigating circumstances of an offenders' life and not be bound by mandatory minimum sentences or the restrictions on double time credit.
Imprisoning more people for longer periods does not make our societies safer, as prisons fail to address the root causes of crime and the offenders' behaviour. They merely remove an individual from the community for a period of time. We have to remember that the large majority of offenders will be released back into our communities eventually and failing to address why they committed a crime and working to improve that deficit, is not in society's best interests, as prisoners will be released with little assistance and little rehabilitation and are more likely to re-offend. We need to care about the conditions of prisons and about how prisoners are treated, because they will be released among us.