Jail more about incarceration than reform

By Pat Watson Thursday April 24 2014 in Opinion
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Rubin “Hurricane” Carter died at his home in Toronto over the weekend. He was 76 and the reports are that prostate cancer ended his life. Carter was a boxer who spent almost 20 years in prison accused of three murders in New Jersey in 1966. The convictions were quashed in 1985 as the result of relentless and committed work by a group of Canadians who believed in his innocence.


Following his release from prison, Carter moved to Canada and helped to form the non-profit Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), part of the worldwide innocence network. He was executive director from 1993 to 2004.


It is hard for most of us to imagine the possibility of being found guilty of some horrible crime like murder, then put in prison while being innocent of the crime, but the very fact of the existence of organizations like AIDWYC means there are such persons in prison today.


With the heavy bent that the current federal government has placed on punishment and extended incarceration, the likelihood of incarceration for people who did not commit crimes they are accused of will increase.


Prisons are filled with people who have had lives that were built on poor foundations. The rate of drug use and drug abuse among those who are incarcerated should tell us something about how much substance abuse is involved in antisocial and criminal behaviour.


The low rate of literacy among those who are members of prison society should also be an indication of how that also contributes to narrowing the choices for those who eventually end up there.


A matter of great concern is that so much of what is supposed to happen in prisons actually doesn’t. That is, they should be places for rehabilitation and restoration to healthy human behaviour with the aim to allow those who are there a new lease on life once they have shown that they have learned a new way of coping.


There are some in prisons who, by their violent and antisocial behaviour, have earned their place there. But, that does not mean that all are irredeemable. It can be an easy idea to consider the answer to be, ‘lock them up and throw away the key’.


On the other hand, it is actually more cost effective within prisons and throughout society as a whole to place more emphasis on rehabilitation.


One other matter that cries out is the racialization of the incarcerated. Relative to their representative populations outside of prisons, groups such as aboriginals and Black people, Black men in particular, are over represented in Canadian prisons. And, we know the awful statistics in the United States where nearly half of the more than two million in prisons are Black men. Moreover, Blacks and Hispanics make up close to 60 per cent of the U.S. prison population. Here in Canada, in Saskatchewan, the majority of the incarcerated are aboriginal people.


It is easy to think of those who are sent to jail as just bad guys. But that is too simple an interpretation. As it was during that almost 20-year period for Carter, there are far too many who should not be imprisoned in the first place.


No one wishes to be the target of a criminal assault and there is a lot of grief for those who have suffered from these terrible acts, but is creating a system that is hell on earth to hold convicts the best answer we can come up with?

A note on curse words going public…


Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and now Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri are getting heat for letting out a top-level, four-letter expletive to the crowds at events involving sports. For Trudeau, it was a fundraising boxing event, and in the case of Ujiri over the weekend it was the Raptors’ first playoff game, where he issued a blast at the opposing Brooklyn Nets. Both individuals were called out and made some kind of apology, but really, isn’t the shock value gone? There is no point arguing about the decline of public behaviour as this and other expletives have become commonplace. All that is missing now is for the 88-year-old Queen of England and the Pope to let one fly in public.

Pat Watson is the author of the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.

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