Jail: If Not For Rehabilitation, Then What For?

A criminal is someone who has committed an act that is somehow detrimental to society. These acts include, but are not limited to, stealing a sandwich from 7-Eleven, setting a house on fire, rape, fraud, drug trafficking and not wearing a seat belt while driving a motor vehicle. Of course, things such as divorce, envy and binge drinking can also be harmful to society, but the Canadian government has yet to make these acts illegal.

When the committed crime is serious enough, the logic behind incarcerating the perpetrator, then, is twofold: (1) To prevent her from further damaging society, and (2) to punish her for the crime she has committed. In our country, we believe that if a person does wrong to society, we as a society have permission to do wrong to this person by revoking her freedom and putting her in jail — though we call this second wrong a right because that’s how we understand justice.

In Canada, approximately 90% of female convicts and 85% of male convicts receive a sentence of six months or less. Although this isn’t a massive amount of time, there is certainly a Great Hope attached to this period of incarceration. The Hope is that after the criminal has suffered to the same extent she has caused society to suffer, she will never again choose to damage society. She will be reformed, rehabilitated, reborn. While in prison, she will have undergone a transformation of character from someone who steals 7-Eleven sandwiches to someone who buys 7-Eleven sandwiches, or perhaps purchases the ingredients at a grocery store and assembles them at home.

Despite her ethnicity, socioeconomic status, family background and all the other infinitely complex influences that indicate whether she is likely to return to jail or not, the idea is that she will leave prison a law-abiding citizen, never to return. That’s why jails are sometimes called correctional facilities, aren’t they? They facilitate correction.

So when the Canadian Medical Association Journal recently published an article arguing that the Conservative government’s Safe Streets and Communities Act, which increases mandatory minimum sentences and alters eligibility for conditional sentences, will cause more mental and physical degradation to detainees, thus lowering their chances of reintegration while simultaneously raising their chances of becoming repeat offenders, we should not be pleased. Without the Great Hope accompanying the vast majority of criminals behinds bars, what’s the point?

Canadian prisons are already overcrowded. In fact, the CBC reported that Canada’s prison population has never been higher, with 15,097 inmates as of July 31. Without additional jails — which, contrary to popular opinion, the Conservatives are not building, but closing — prisoners have had to settle for a bunk buddy. Sometimes that means two people passing the day in a cell with less than five square metres of space. It’s estimated that 20% of Canada’s prison population currently live with another person in a room designed for one.

Instead of building new prisons, however, the Conservatives plan to spend $600 million over the next few years on renovating existing correctional facilities to accommodate a total of 2,700 additional cells — meaning 2,700 more than the present prison system was intended to accommodate. With more prisoners comes more drain on the guards, counselors, nurses, educators, bench press equipment and whatever other resources are made available. Violence seems inevitable.

“We’re seeing an increase in the use of force, an increase in assaults, an increase in sick leave and stress leave among staff, we’re seeing an increase in lockdowns and exceptional searches,” Howard Sapers, Canada’s ombudsman for prisoners, told the CBC in late August. “Putting two inmates in a single cell means an inevitable loss of privacy and dignity, and increases the potential for tension and violence. It’s a practice that’s contrary to staff and inmate safety.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that incidents of self-harm — slashing, burning, banging, choking — amongst federal prisoners have more than tripled in the last five years, with most incidents occurring in regions where overcrowding, violence and gang affiliations are a problem.

In the CMAJ article, written by faculty of law members Adelina Iftene and Allan Manson at Queen’s University, the authors warn that the Safe Streets Act will generate more prisoners serving longer sentences, which will translate into more violence, more hardship and more outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as HIV, amongst the prison population.

“From both an ethical and public safety perspective, one needs to consider a simple fact,” wrote Iftene and Manson in their report. “The intrinsic difficulties of reintegration after a period of incarceration should not be compounded by physical and mental health challenges.”

It’s true: some criminals are far worse than serial sandwich thieves. Some may be beyond redemption, such as the Calgary man who was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for repeatedly raping his teenage daughter at knifepoint, assaulting his wife, threatening to kill his entire family and torturing the family’s dogs with a stun gun. For people like that, the Great Hope may pose no threat to their black, black souls.

But for most people in Canada, if doing a stint of six months or less at a correctional facility greatly diminishes their ability to stay on the right side of the law upon release, why should we even release them? If convicts come out of the system worse than when they entered it, isn’t a repeat offense quite likely to occur? Without the Great Hope of rehabilitation present, what do we expect will happen?

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Paul Hiebert is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Ballast.