A few days back I became embroiled in a lively lunchtime discussion centered around the Canadian government’s plan to renovate some Canadian prisons. My fellow co-workers were indignant about footing the bill, as taxpayers, for the plush accommodation the prisoners in said jails were to be receiving (bigger cells, world-class gym, wi-fi, etc…*). One co-worker even said “put them in a dungeon,” though he later retracted this statement as the conversation developed. Naturally I chimed in as I feel very strongly about prison, what its purpose should be and how that purpose should be achieved.
First of all, I reject any argument for prisons being segregated from the population. What a great world it would be indeed if we could just sweep our problems under the rug and forget about them. Concepts like the Lunar penal colony and inter-dimensional penitentiary make for great fiction but what they amount to in practice are horrors like Siberian gulags. No, that simply wouldn’t do; prisons should be located centrally and serve as a constant reminder that there is something not quite right about the world we live in as it makes monsters out of men.
Second, and related to the first point, any argument for greater austerity in the lives of prisoners related to the costs of housing them should be refuted. Prisoners are once again, our collective burden and a group we must deal with if we live in a system which creates them.
With these two points made, I feel that the purpose of prisons can be discussed. The purpose as I see it should be rehabilitation, not punishment. Now its hard to rehabilitate people who commit crimes for money (over 90% of inmates) because they will always need money and the system is set up in such a way that there often is not access to decent-paying jobs in low-income areas.
In either case, whether sicko or criminal for pay, the approach to the stated goal of rehabilitation seems clear. One is not rehabilitated by being locked away in poor conditions and deprived of human dignity. Nor are they rehabilitated by being either held in solitary or immersed in a general population which has been just as poorly socialized. It seems clear to me that these measures only serve to aggravate maladjustment and make better criminals.
In a perfect world there would be no crime.
In a slightly less perfect world, maladjusted/poorly socialized individuals would be be accepted into communities of people who live harmoniously with each other. There they could learn that they don’t need to hurt other people to get ahead and they wouldn’t have to fear for their own safety. This has been tried with notable success by the Israelis when they decided to send criminals to kibbutzim for rehabilitation.
The problem with this solution is that most people don’t want to live among criminals. We have been so individualized in our culture that we feel little kinship with or affinity to our fellow man, much less those whom society deems criminals. So we instead make them live in prisons. Well ok, but assuming we still want to rehabilitate these people (and that is the operative assumption here) we can’t really nickel & dime them on amenities. A prison sentence should be a period of growth, positive growth.
Even someone who has been sentenced to life in prison or death should be able to improve themselves every day until their demise.
Without getting too specific, the broad categories of things which I feel contribute to rehabilitation/remedial socialization would be comfortable (not decadent) accommodations, access to fitness facilities, access to education, and lots of interaction with people outside the system. Remember the goal here is not punishment but rehabilitation, but even if you do believe that there should be a punishment component remember that the prisoner is still without their liberty.
I should mention that I lack a psychology degree and I have no formal training in rehabilitation. I have spent no time in prisons** and friends of mine in law enforcement and corrections would probably disregard my ideas as idealistic and naive, citing the gravity of the crimes of the inmates. What I do have is personal experience though. And while I realize that you can’t extrapolate personal experience into general rules, it strikes me that people in similar situations would be inclined to make similar choices. For example, I have been been destitute, desperate and hopeless (albeit by choice) while hitch-hiking and travelling. These emotions tend to make you do things you would not normally do: strike yappy animals, steal, and run from police. I have done all of these things on the road, and except for that last one I am ashamed of these actions.
These experiences taught me that the wretched are prone to wretched behaviour. My whole stance on prisons is predicated on this idea and this is why I don’t believe in punishment so much as an earnest effort by the state to reform its wayward citizens.
Now of course the alternative viewpoint is that some people are just bad. Natural born killers as it were.
I refute this type of dangerous thinking because it is a bedfellow of psuedo-sciences like phrenology and eugenics. Furthermore, attributing crime to genetics/heritage is a cop-out because it allows us to glaze over structural problems which cause crime and need fixing. Such problems have no easy solution, so it is far easier to blame the individual. I think that anyone who hasn’t felt wretchedness and the cavalier attitude toward morality which it engenders can not really understand how good people can do wrong.
Basically I think we all have a capacity for evil which can be brought out by poor circumstances and a lack of socialization. If jail is to remedy criminal behaviour (which I believe it should) it must address the causes of the crime and supply the education/skills, interaction, meaningful relationships, and positive expectations the criminal has been lacking in their life.
It is much easier to preach about my beliefs however than it is to act, so I am going to look into volunteering for Corrections Services Canada so that what I write is not just so many meaningless words.
**I have a actually spent a little time in Sarpoza prison in Kandahar City, Afghanistan during a tour of duty. I was not permitted to tour the cell blocks though unless I left my rifle with security. I was unwilling to do so.