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(Continued from here.)

bleeding hearts cropped for web

(When I was having my website made, I sent the designer a number of photos of flowers in our garden. I thought this one had a particular symbolism when it comes to me. Maybe I was thinking of this very post.)

In my last entry, I wrote this:

When I first started to write these entries, I hadn’t intended to include so much detail about the robbery. I intended to mention it, in passing, to provide myself with some credibility when I began to write about how the justice system works and when eventually, someone would assert, “That’s easy for you to say; nothing like this has ever happened to you.” I needed to show that, even as a “victim of crime,” I was capable of looking at the justice system with an objective eye.

This is the part — part five — I was thinking about from the beginning.

I was thinking about prisons. I’ve been thinking about them even more than usual, every time anyone in the Harper government talks smugly about being “tough on crime”. Their planned policy is to build more prisons, put more and more people inside, keep slashing resources until conditions become even more deplorable than they are now and then announce their privatization strategy. They will then turn over the whole operation to some sleazy business outfit and prisoners will become the latest unfortunates to be sacrificed on the altar of profit.

I can’t resist, right here, pointing out the kind of corruption that can result in a system where prisons are privately owned.

As scandals from Wall Street to Washington roil the public trust, the justice system in Luzerne County, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s struggling coal country, has also fallen prey to corruption. The county has been rocked by a kickback scandal involving two elected judges who essentially jailed kids for cash. Many of the children had appeared before judges without a lawyer.

Prisons are already places of anger and despair, of rage and violence. More and more prisons will not make us safer; on the contrary, they will release even greater numbers of people who have no vested interest in the society which has isolated and brutalized them.

It is so unimaginative and so barbaric to keep confining people to these violent spaces that I believe it is high time we started to look for humane, workable and effective ways to deal with miscreants so they can truly be incorporated back into a meaningful role in our communities.

Yes, there are people who should be in prison — those people who are a danger to others must be isolated but even they should be treated with human dignity.

But others . . . For example, the day Garth Drabinsky was sentenced to prison, I asked myself, in all seriousness, “Who is going to benefit from this prison sentence? Drabinsky isn’t, nor are the people he defrauded. Nor is greater society. Then who?”

The answer is no one, of course. Just as no one will benefit from the prison sentences doled out to all the other criminals who stole money from their companies, their clients, their customers — including the highest profile Canadian among them, Conrad Black.

Which is not to say there shouldn’t be retribution. It seems that Conrad Black is showing himself, in prison, to be a gifted teacher. He’s enjoying it and learning humility and humanity while teaching people who have never had his vast advantages. Why shouldn’t he have been sentenced to that? To have been sent to a community where he’s needed, to live among the people there, to work for minimum wage at a job that will produce positives, not negatives, in all directions?

Conrad Black and Garth Drabinsky are the privileged and white-collar versions of the petty criminal we deal with on a daily basis.

The young man who robbed me grew up in a large chaotic family in the North End of Halifax. My husband’s aunt is a retired teacher who taught him and remembers the whole family. The parents in that family did — as all parents do — the best they could given the resources, both personal and monetary, they had to work with. But the children had little structure and no disciplined direction to shape their behaviour. The attractions of street culture, with its dangerous underside, seem much more attractive under those circumstances.

We failed that boy long before he robbed my house — and all the other houses. We’ve known for so long the significance of early childhood development and its importance in influencing “everything from behaviour to mental and physical health” — according to Dr. Fraser Mustard, who did ground-breaking research on the subject years ago.

Starting with our young children is only a beginning — but an essential beginning. But we seem to have no imagination about how to deal with those who are already grown up and are offenders against the law. We pay lip service to rehabilitation but don’t really demand that the system follow through. In fact, often after a mob scene at a courthouse where an accused is being brought to trial (and which makes me turn cringing away from the TV), we are content to throw people into prison and never give them another thought. We treat people in prisons as less than animals, all the while making jokes about on one hand, the sexual violence inside and, on the other hand, the enviable life the prisoners are living in the entirely fictional lap of luxury .

It is an awful thing to lock up non-violent offenders, to feed their anger and nurture their alienation and minimize their humanity. They will, without doubt, find a community in prison and they will get out — and yes, they’re going to get out — much more dangerous than when they went in. This is so true that it’s pretty much a cliché and yet too many people put this certain knowledge aside and allow the Harper government to use misinformation and false assurances of security to push ahead with their tough-on-crime agenda.

A study has been done which looks carefully at the roadmap the government is following as it pursues its wrongheaded path. The report on this study is eye-opening and worth reading and I recommend it.

I would like to think there is another more compassionate and more effective way of dealing with lawbreakers.

One Response

  1. #1
    marilee pitttman` 

    Sharon, I read with interest your account of the robbery you experienced first hand. I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the trend to focus on the victim’s statement. As a lawyer I found them so infuriating. Seldom were they as candid and honest as your piece. Often times they were exaggerated bald faced vengeance, with a hope the offender would be whip-lashed in public and hanged. There was almost no way to cross examine the veracity of the statements. And they did carry a lot of weight.
    I couldn’t agree with you more about the prison system and Harper’s agenda. I always maintained that putting young persons in custody was providing them with a training ground for a criminal career. The prisons are filled with the mentally ill, alcoholics and victims of physical and sexual abuse. There is little or no help for these problems. It is a revolving door.
    What amazes me is that the statistics show year after year that crime is on the decrease, and yet the cry for stiffer sentences is louder and stronger each year. It is irresponsible for the government to foster such fear mongering to obtain votes.
    I admire your clear headedness while under siege and the compassion you have shown to the offender. As you have said it took its toll on you. It is a big heart that doesn’t extract a pound of flesh.

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