Do Prisons Really Help?



                                         by Kenneth Bagnell


      One of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers, France’s Michel Foucault, put his finger right on it when he said: “Prison is a recruitment center for the army of crime…” True. You’d think that with all the criminologists we have — who try their very best to change imprisonment from its centuries old attitude of raw punishment – but only hear the habitual story: lock ‘em up and throw the key away. That’s why we read more and more about the almost endless line of repeaters. Not surprisingly, Canada’s record is not much better than the US crude and callous attitude to penology. Hence the percentage of returnees is still non-productive for themselves and frustrating for those who believe they have a positive future if only they were trained for it. It’s as if the Ottawa overseeing group puts it as a recording that’s played for years: “the reconviction rates found in this study in Canada, compare favorably to other countries that have used a similar methodology. For example, England and Wales have reported a 50 percent reconviction rate for adult male inmates, and 45 percent for adult female inmates released from prisons in 1995….” So?  Yawn. As I said, the statements are quite strongly defensive for whatever reason, and thereby don’t aim at practical and progressive polices that are reasonably promising for the rehabilitation of many inmates.

       This has been recognized for years by psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, teachers, clergy and ordinary citizens who see through this vapidity  by the direct penal overseers. These men and women believe current policy and practice are not truly part of the answer but clearly part of the problem.  Over and over the major media outlets have said that and virtually nothing happens that is positive, practical and renewing of the inmate’s life. There are clear reasons why this should be corrected.  Members of the Correctional Service know this and have told journalists off the record – they don’t want to be fired – but they cannot get through to the civic leadership to actually help create the practical solutions: jobs in the technical field, instructive teaching in being cooperative, learning to handle disputes and so on and on. Instead they curse the system and come out cynical, broken or filled forever with despair. I’ve seen this, at least in part, because some years ago I was a weekly prison visitor assigned by the senior warden to three inmates, one by one, in a glassed encased room.  In three instances I received, once they were released, hand written letters saying “Thanks, what you said, what you did, have improved my life with family and work.” (We no longer live in that town, Whitby, Ontario. But I just may go back to being a penal visitor elsewhere.)

    In any case, my reasonable degree of study in psychology, in mental hospital and penal institutions, has for obvious reasons given me experience and modest insight listening and commenting — deliberating casually –with the inmates brought to me. For one thing, I do listen more than I talk, nodding, reflecting and, in time above all else, replying softly. Once I had a man who, time and again, told me he wanted to committee suicide, but before I ended our session he had thought again, nodding. Authoritative therapy is not therapy. Another observation I’ve made has to do, not with the prison guards –- today’s guards seem to avoid appearing authoritative –- whereas years ago they didn’t. Once, back in the1960s, when I was visiting the Maritimes’ Dorchester Penitentiary, a guard laughed and told me boldly that the day before he took a bottle of pop from an inmate smashed it at his feet and told him to sweep it up. Wasn’t that smart? Wasn’t it instructive? Overtime my now lifetime observations suggest that at that time in its history, the guard staff should have been disciplined or fired.

      I’ve come to feel that the prison staff in a penitentiary should have the backbone to, persuade others to join him, and then to speak up collectively to the senior administration that inmates are being verbally abused. They are – but out of sight of the top overseers. (I saw it years ago in Kingston Penitentiary doing research for a magazine piece. A teenager could speak up in opposition to such. Chances are he she would be absolutely in the right. Giving an inmate a dressing down for a not serious matter is driving him deeper into being a trouble maker! Hence the institutions — and the police forces! — could do with some moderately socially educated men and women on the custodial staff!

      Another ancient and highly destructive practice is the notorious solitary confinement. (In Canada it’s softened by naming it “segregation.”) But like it or not Canada means solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, and to keep your interest, we are not thought well of in the UN on this matter. (To the UN keeping a man locked up for 23 hours a day is defined as a form of torture.) Aren’t we progressive? This, at least in the US, can go on for months and I needn’t bother mentioning how destructive it is for the inmate. I recall once in a major penitentiary where I was visiting when they brought a man to me and he was in tears. Surely to God, the wardens in these places know – yes know! –  this kind of treatment is, for certain, making the inmate more dangerous than accommodating. An American psychologist noted this a year or ago in Los Angeles County and after examining several such cases, came back shaking his head, later speaking up: “I was asked to tour the facility and testify as a psychiatric expert in a lawsuit… a large portion of those locked up privately were suffering from serious mental illness… with crowding there was more violence, more psychiatric breakdown and more suicide….” In the US some inmates have been in solitary confinement for eight full years. How can a man come back from that with his mental health?

      Directly or indirectly, properly or improperly, imprisonment is morally necessary, after all, at times, imprisonment is necessary even if some see it as immoral. Bertrand Russell, who meditated on this would probably slowly agree with it. For after all, years ago, he once said, “One should respect public opinion insofar as it is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of a time in prison but anything that goes beyond virtually submission is accepting tyranny.” Solitary confinement is exactly that. Canada has it –- it’s still out of control — but at least there’s hope: Canadian scholars are studying why Canada has to have it and if it can justified being retained. They might keep in mind a view of the great Nelson Mandela: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” You know something? He’s absolutely right.



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