Pubdate: Sat, 29 May 2010
Source: National Post (Canada)
Page: Front
Copyright: 2010 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Conrad Black
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


In the past two years, as regular readers in this space would know, 
thanks to my gracious hosts in the U.S. government, I have had what 
could be called extensive hands-on experience of the American 
correctional system. I have been tutoring and teaching fellow 
prisoners in English, and in U.S. history. And some of them have 
taught me how to read music, play the piano, keep fit, diet sensibly 
and assimilate some local folkways, while I have been fighting my way 
through the courts toward a just disposition of the few remaining 
(unfounded) charges that bedevil me. The fact that all my life any 
definition of Canada's virtue and distinctiveness has prominently 
included references to civility and decency explains my alarm and 
outrage at finally reading the three-year-old report on the 
Correctional Service of Canada, misleadingly titled "A Roadmap to 
Strengthening Public Safety."

As so often in other fields, this document seeks to import to Canada 
much of the worst of American practice, and none of the best, unless 
Canada now idealizes gratuitous official severity.

I have not succumbed to an inverse Stockholm Syndrome, and become an 
apologist for the convicted community. But I disbelieve even more 
fervently than I did before my sojourn among them, in the Manichaean 
process of baiting, dehumanization and stigmatization promoted by the 
Roadmap, and similarly inspired correctional nostrums.

In my present abode, I have met many rather dodgy people, but none 
whose ethics I consider inferior to some prosecutors and judges I 
have encountered in the last few years. And I have met many fine, as 
well as some mediocre and poor correctional officers, but few who 
rise above the level of benign non-skilled labour, profoundly under 
qualified to practise untrammeled social engineering on those 
entrusted to them.

I believe, civilly and theologically, in the confession and 
repentance of wrongdoing; in the prosecution and punishment of crime, 
and in a maximum reasonable effort by the state to protect the 
public, especially from threats to person and property. But I also 
believe that everyone has rights, including the unborn, demented, 
incurably ill, military adversaries and the criminal, and that the 
rights of those whose entitlements are for any reason circumscribed, 
are not inferior for being narrower, and should be as great as they 
practically can be, without violating the rights of others.

This Roadmap--which was released in 2007, and which the Harper 
government began officially responding to in its budget in 2008, 
setting out a five-year plan -- turns the humane traditions of Canada 
upside down. It implicitly assumes that all who are convicted are 
guilty and have no remaining claim to decency from the state, and 
that treating confinees accordingly is in the interest of the legally 
unexceptionable majority.

The Roadmap does not mention prisoners' rights, beyond basic food, 
shelter, clothing and medical care, and assumes that they are 
probably not recoverable for society and that the longer they are 
imprisoned, the better it is for society. Almost no distinction is 
made between violent and non-violent offenders.

Of course, great caution must be shown in the reintegration into 
society of violent criminals. But the objective of the penal system 
must be to return those capable of functioning licitly in society as 
quickly as practical, allowing also for straight punitive or 
retributive penalties, but not for mindless vengeance. The whole 
system must be guided by the fact that the treatment of the accused 
and confined has been recognized by ethicists and cultural historians 
for centuries as one of the hallmarks of civilized society.

The Roadmap holds that anything beyond the necessities for physical 
survival must be "earned." Traditionally, the punishment is supposed 
to be the imprisonment itself, not the additional oppressions of that 
regime, and the proverbial debt to society is paid when the sentence 
has been served; it does not continue as a permanent Sisyphean 
burden. In the interests of eliminating illegal drugs in prison, the 
authors of the Roadmap want all visits to be glass-segregated, no 
physical contact. This is just a pretext to assist in the destruction 
of families and friendships.

The importation of contraband by prisoners' visitors can be stopped 
by strip-searching the prisoners before they leave the visitors 
centre, as happens to us here, unless the prison staff, who have the 
unfathomable delight of inspecting us au naturel, are on the take, 
which is, of course, the problem, as correctional officers in many 
prisons are frequently caught smuggling, and aren't well enough 
trained to command higher salaries to make them more resistant to 
temptation. It is a problem, but it will not be solved by targeting 
unoffending relatives of inmates. The Roadmap also has naively 
exaggerated confidence in certain types of scanning devices.

It also recommends unspecified concentration on generating employment 
skills, which is sensible, except that it is specifically foreseen 
that they will shoulder aside other programs of more general 
education, substance abuse avoidance and behavioural adaptation.

I am no hemophiliac bleeding heart, but non-violent people can 
sometimes be helped to abandon illicit practices by some of these 
programs. No useful purposes will be served by cranking back into the 
world unreconstructed sociopaths who can fix an air conditioner or 
unclog a drain. The Roadmap even asks for research to be undertaken 
that will support this recommendation, an inversion of the usual 
sequence in the determination of policy.

There is a demand for investment of over $1-billion in new and larger 
prisons, (an insane extravagance), and for sharply longer sentences, 
mandatory minimum sentences, and "earned parole" in place of 
supervised release after two-thirds of the sentence, in the absence 
of misconduct that would militate against such comparative 
liberality. In practice, this means imprisonment at the pleasure of 
the carceral establishment for the maximum time possible. (Prisoners 
cost $40,000 per year to keep.) All of these draconian measures have 
been tried and have failed in the United States.

As Michael Jackson and Graham Stewart point out in their excellent 
essay in the current Literary Review of Canada, "Fear-Driven Policy," 
this plan would fall especially heavily on native people, who already 
comprise nearly seven times the percentage of imprisoned Canadians 
than they do of the whole population.

The Roadmap is the self-serving work of reactionary, authoritarian 
palookas, what we might have expected 40 years ago from a committee 
of southern U.S. police chiefs. It is counter-intuitive and 
contra-historical: The crime rate has been declining for years, and 
there is no evidence cited to support any of the repression that is 
requested. It appears to defy a number of Supreme Court decisions, 
and is an affront, at least to the spirit of the Charter of Rights.

The Canada I remember and look forward to returning to should do 
exactly the opposite. Prison is an antiquarian and absurd treatment 
of nonviolent law-breakers. It only continues because it has.

The whole concept of prison should be terminated, except for violent 
criminals and chronic non-violent recidivists, and replaced by 
closely supervised pro bono or subsistence-paid work by bonded 
convicts in the fields of their specialty. Swindlers and embezzlers, 
hackers and sleazy telemarketers are capable people and they should 
serve their sentences by contributing honest work to 
government-insured employers.

Canada would save a billion dollars annually in prison costs and the 
employers of the penitent-workers would save $2-billion annually, a 
tremendous shot in the arm to national productivity. Many of the 
prisons could be recon-figured as assisted housing for the homeless 
and slum-dwellers. Canada would again be a model of the innovative 
public policy pursuit of institutionalized decency and social reform.

The principle that the rape of the rights of the least is an assault 
on the rights of all is attributed to Jesus Christ and is at the core 
of Judeo-Christian civilization and the rule of law in both common 
and civil law jurisdictions. And it is not just a tradition; there 
are several million Canadians in families that have bitter memories 
of personal or close relatives' encounters with the vagaries of 
justice. They aren't a visible bloc, but this is not a political free lunch.

It is painful for me to write that with this garrote of a blueprint, 
the government I generally support is flirting with moral and 
political catastrophe. My respect for the Prime Minister prevents me 
from being any more explicit here about the implications of failure 
to reconsider the government's course on this issue.

The Roadmap is a bad plan to take Canada to a destination it should 
not wish to reach.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom