prisonsShould our prison system be about punishment about rehabilitation? Years ago when my wife and I thought of coming to Canada, we looked at the country, its people and its government as a shining light of humanitarian values. Canada cared about its people. Canada had a good safety net for its poor. In the world, the reputation of Canada was unequaled. Canada was for peace. Canada cared about the poor of the world.

I didn’t know much about the Canadian justice system then, but I assumed it would be like everything else Canadian – fair, helping people and above reproach.

These days I feel like the most foolish of men. I believed a lie. The only hope I have is in the Canadian people themselves. It wasn’t a majority that elected Mr. Harper and his conservatives, in fact it was just one-third of them. Harper punishing inmates instead of reforming them is not Canadian.

Perhaps this is a philosophical discussion, but I think it’s at the heart of the Conservative Government’s approach to prisons and criminal justice. Their idea is to punish people, not rehabilitate them. I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s comment:  “Distrust Nietszeeveryone in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.”

Should prisons be about punishment or about rehabilitation?

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  1. James Inglis says:

    The Conservative government has been talking tough on increasing sentences and the minister responsible for corrections has been moving towards reducing what some consider unnecessary prisoner benefits, but it isn’t happening in a vacuum.

    It seems to me that people with a connection to the incarcerated believe prisoners are getting a raw deal and people with a connection to corrections believe prisoners are having it too easy, but very little protest is being heard from the public at large.

    There really hasn’t been many significant changes to sentencing in the Criminal Code under the Conservatives. The majority of sentencing options are left to the judges hearing the cases, with only very few offences having mandated minimums.

    When considering sentences, judges consider the past record of the convicted and the appropriateness of rehabilitation possibilities. A custodial sentence is usually not the result of a first offence for most offenders, but handed down when previous non-custodial attempts have failed.

    Punishment has changed in the prison system. It was not that long ago prisoners received corporal punishment for infractions of prison rules. I remember as part of a criminology class touring the Okalla Penitentiary and being shown the cold damp and dark isolation cells that were reminiscent of a dungeon. I remember being shown an nondescript room where an area of the ceiling was pointed out as the location of the trap door used in executions in the days gone by. Yes, thank goodness punishment has changed.

    Isolation, arguably in a more humane way still exists. Removal or denying of privileges exists arguably often administered in an arbitrary fashion, but let’s not ignore that opportunities for rehabilitation also exist. Your creative writing class is an example of that. There are opportunities for counselling, limited trades training and selective access to education to name just a few.

    Penitentiaries can be both physically and mentally dangerous places for inmates and I agree more needs to be done to protect those sentenced to incarceration.

    I believe we are fooling ourselves if we ever think the ultimate goal of incarceration is rehabilitation of an offender. As we have seen in Canada there been periods of the prison reform movements, but ultimately they come to an end with disappointing results.

    It is a misnomer to call it the justice system as I don’t believe justice for either party has ever been its goal. What Canada has, and I would suggest what most of the common law countries have is a simply a system of law. A system with the primary goal of punishing those who have broken laws that were created to define and maintain community morality.

    • Joanne says:

      Hi James,
      Actually, the greatest change that has happened in our correctional insitutions as a result of the current government has been a change in attitude. I recall in the 90’s that the Liberal government pushed CSC toward rehabilitation, providing funding for large scale programs, etc. Many staff took their cue from the prevailing attitudes and treated offenders like people who needed help to change. Programs and programs officers were given priority in decision-making affecting offenders.
      When the conservative government came in with their Transformation Agenda, it was not clear at forst what woudl change. What did change over time was attitude. This is a difficutl change to make known to the public, but for incarcerated offenders, it is felt daily. They are no longer treated as people, but as beings who deserve and require punishment.

  2. Joanne says:

    I believe I have made my position on punishment clear in a previous comment under “Harper Abandons Victims”; nevertheless, I wish to make one distinction. I do believe in the value of deterrence for a number of people and there is the deterrence that is mentioned by judges that demonstrates to society at large that criminal behaviour will not be tolerated and the deterrence to those who do have their freedom removed for a specified amount of time as a result of breaking a law. There is also the greater deterrence that those who are incarcerated cannot hurt people in society as long as they are incarcerated. I do not see these as akin to punishment.

    There needs to be a way to protect victims and that is the role of incarceration. To keep protecting potential victims, however, something needs to happen during incarceration to prevent future crime. In my view, punishment is not the best something that can happen, as it will often only make things worse. Instead, we need to either find a way to transform the person who did the crime to someone who no longer sees crime as an option, or we need to keep that person inside, where they cannot harm anyone again.

    The something I am referring to can fall under the rubric of rehabilitation but it can take many forms. It can be medical and psychological/psychiatirc treatment, education, vocational training, social skills training, basic living skills training, encouragement of strong and healthy relationships in a wide social network, spritual enhancement, etc. In essence, what needs to be done for many people who have committed crimes is to give them a purpose for living life as a citizen who helps, not harms others. If we did not live in such a dog-eat-dog world, we might just be able to accomplish it.

  3. In fact, as any amount of research has shown, incarceration has little or no deterrant effect (and, in fact, for many of those incarcerated, prison is not much worse and in some ways better, than their lives outside). For incarceration to work, it would have to be immediate, proportionately severe, and certain. These conditions are practically impossible to achieve (in fact, only a small proportion of crimes result in punishment of any kind, let alone incarceration) outside a vicious dictatorship that would end up punishing as many innocent people as guilty. That is why active rehabilitation is essential, and, indeed, the only way to reduce crime. And, for all that, more severe punishments seem to increase subsequent crime. There is nothine wrong, in this respect, with the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, nor the regulations under it, nor the Commissioner’s Directives that are supposed to govern the system. The problem–a huge one–is that Correctional Services of Canada ignores all that and devotes little or no effort to rehabilitation. This seems to have always been the case in most institutions, and it is getting worse because the current government and Minister Toews prefers that. The other major problems are that staff are lazy, incompetent, poorly trained (or not at all) and maliciously inclined towards inmates. These characteristics are most prevalent precisely among the staff who are supposed to be engaging in rehabilitation. Thank goodness, most criminals rehabilitate themselves, in their twenties for the short-termer, and later for persistents! For its part, CSC conceals its refusal to implements its legislation (etc.) by lying.

  4. Catana says:

    Here’s a thought that often comes to me when I’m reading accounts of prison life and articles about corruption in law — Think of an animal abused, starved, driven insane and then “put down” when it attacks someone. In essence, that describes a large segment of prison populations. It’s easier and, in the short run, cheaper to simply cage “the animals.”

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