Last time I was in prison I remember thinking to myself, “This sure reminds me of high school.” This was mostly because of the way the prison was structured like a school: there were various buildings connected by paths and even nice little areas with a tree or two and a bench to sit on.
The visiting areas were set up a lot like a school cafeteria, but apparently all the tables had microphones in them to monitor conversation. I also had to go through some sort of metal detector to reach the visiting area and had to leave my keys at the front. For the most part it was easy to forget where you were, as long as you couldn’t see the razor-wire fence from where you were sitting.
I was the one visiting, in case you were starting to wonder where that introduction was going.
Honestly, I was glad this particular person ended up in jail. But having a person in your life go through the penal system forces you to open your eyes to the many flaws within it. (Out of an effort towards privacy I will refer to this particular person as ___ for the rest of the article).
There are a few things that I’ve learned about ___’s experience that I’d like to share with you, in addition to what I learned in a fantastic Sociology/Criminology class I took with Professor Melissa Munn. Munn created and runs The Penal Press, a website that preserves newsletters produced by inmates in various Canadian institutions. If you’d like to be slapped in the face with many of the tragic reasons men and women end up in prison I suggest you peruse just a few of the entries.
Before you start thinking that I believe people who commit crime shouldn’t be punished for their actions let me assure you that that is not the case. While I do believe that individuals who hurt others need consequences, I don’t think our penal system is doing the job it’s supposed to-
-so for today’s Shame Day I decided to share some of the terrible things about our Justice System (particularly our prisons) that I learned through my class with Munn and ___’s personal experience.
1) The Correlation Between Increasing Numbers of Prisons and an Increase in Crime.
In his law paper on this subject Martin H. Pritican attempts “to catalog all of the crime-causing, or ‘criminogenic,’ effects of incarceration”. In other words, he is exploring the ways prison often acts as a school for criminals to learn from one another. Some of the areas Pritican explores include the detrimental effect of separating an individual from their community and locking them up with other criminals.
While I was enrolled in the above mentioned Sociology/Criminology class, the government of Canada was also pushing through an omnibus bill that would, among other things, increase minimum sentencing for young offenders. My teacher insisted that she, like many other criminologists, was doing everything she could to protest the bill because of the mountain of evidence that showed how locking up youth would lead to a higher rates of recidivism (re-offending) in the future. In the months before the bill was passed the state of Texas even offered us a warning, insisting that they had tried those harsher methods and it had only increased the number of prisons and amount of crime happening.
2) The Rate of Special Needs in Prison
In my Shame Day post on How I Met Your Mother and FASD I shared this fact sheet by the John Howard society that explores the rate of FASD in prison. When I spoke to ___ about his experience in prison, he insisted that the rate of special needs in prison appeared to be a lot higher than he had read in any study. He also told me that his cell mate had both autism and OCD. While ___ was willing to respect the routines that allowed his cellmate to feel safe in his environment, that is no guarantee that his next cellmate would be equally respectful, which brings me to my next point.
There is no reason to double-bunk criminals other than to save on money. And we all know what the results of double bunking can be.
I think it’s a little too easy for people to overlook sexual assault in prison because it is happening to people we somehow deem no longer worthy of protection, but considering what I just shared above, who do we think is being raped here? “Hardened” or “evil” criminals? Because I’m pretty sure that young, inexperienced criminals or offenders with special needs are more likely to suffer from this arrangement.
4) Abuse of Power
When asked about his prison guards ___ remarked that they were “sadistic” and clearly enjoyed their position of power. While I think it is important to be wary of his rather one-sided perspective, ___’s sentiment is not completely unfounded. One of the most important Canadian cases we explored in Munn’s sociology class was the Kingston night raid on April 26, 1994. On that date “an all-male Institutional Emergency Response Team (IERT) storming the cells of sleeping inmates at a women’s prison. The men then shackled the defenceless women, forced them to the floor and stripped them naked. They did this one woman at a time, stopping periodically for meal and smoke breaks. From beginning to end, the raid lasted six hours.” After the event gained media attention an official government report was filed outlining what led up to the events of April 26th.
5) Segregation (aka Solitary Confinement)
Both before and after being strip searched and undergoing a body cavity search, the majority of the women involved in the Kingston event were placed in segregation. The video below, while based on facts from the states, will still give you an idea of what I’m talking about when I refer to segregation.
The case here in Canada that really drew attention to the problem with segregation was the suicide of Ashley Smith. Smith was still a teenager when she was first incarcerated. Often placed in segregation, Smith took to strangling herself in order to get attention (and, I imagine, to get out of segregation). According to The 5th Estate, before her final successful strangulation guards were told not to enter her cell “if she was still breathing”. You can see clips of Ashley leading up to her death taken from prison video footage below. She is clearly agitated by segregation and the accompanying discipline (Taser, pepper-spray).
The issues I’ve include above are examples of why I believe we need to lower our incarceration rates and streamline minor criminals (especially youth) into restorative justice programs and therapies other than prison. How do we do that? Well, when it comes to politics we can’t let bills like the C-10 Omnibus bill slip by us in the future. I’m also a big believer in accountability, and as Gordon reminded us in his article on Cop Watch getting video of justice staff can cut down on incidents of violence considerably. But I think it also depends on a fundamental shift in our mentality towards criminals. While I do believe there are some people in the world who just need to be locked up somewhere without a key, the majority of “criminals” are people just like you and me who started out, and then ended up, in really crappy circumstances. As long as we continue to think of prisoners as “others” we help to feed into the cycle of recidivism.