What is the goal of prison officially supposed to be? To protect the public? To rehabilitate the criminal? Retribution? Are there any stats about whether it actually works for anything?
Wow, heavy question; there might as well have been a picture of an anvil attached to your email. Nonetheless, it’s a valid one, so let’s get to it.
First a history lesson: According to a Correctional Service Canada document entitled, History of the Canadian Correctional System, before prisons existed, most crimes were “meted out in public” and “physical pain and humiliation were preferred forms of punishment.” So, if you did something real bad, you’d get whipped or branded in public or put in a pillory (a wooden frame that your legs and arms stick out of) so that people could walk by and point at you. Imagine your ex walked by with her new boyfriend? Mortifying!
It was the Philadelphia Quakers who introduced the penitentiary as another, more humane way to punish people. (They didn’t just invent oatmeal!) The Quakers believed it was possible to make offenders “penitent” (who smells a word origin for “penitentiary”?!) through isolation, religious contemplation and by later providing them with work opportunities and labour training.
So, that’s where the idea of prison (and rehabilitation in prison) was first born. But forget these Quakery ancestors of ours, what’s happening in corrections now? OK, OK Reader, relax.
Fraser McVie spent over 35 years in various senior level positions in Correction Service Canada (CSC). When posed your multi-layered question, McVie was quick to ix-nay one part of it.
“The answer is yes to the first two, no to the retribution thing,” he said. “Our legal system isn’t based on retribution, it’s based on punishment.”
McVie points out the inertia that could ensue from a system based on retribution.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; that doesn’t get anybody anywhere,” McVie said. “Two merciless beatings doesn’t somehow erase the first one.” If only that worked!
So, no to retribution, but yes to protecting the public, yes to rehabilitation and yes to something else:
“[A sentence is designed] to act as a punishment, but also to act as a deterrent to others who may wish to commit similar crimes,” McVie explained.
Monkey see punishment, monkey doesn’t do.
So, this rehabilitation stuff, does it work or what?
“CSC tries to provide programs to people to reduce future offending,” says Anthony Doob, Professor of Criminology at the University of Toronto. “And largely, if you look at the rate of re-offending people who are coming out of Canada’s prisons, their rates are relatively low.”
Doob pointed out that from 2010 to 2011, 75 per cent of the 1389 federal prisoners who completed their parole didn’t commit any crimes while on parole.
Well great! So we can fix the badies in prison and then all will be well! Unfortunately, no.
Doob sobers us up by reminding us that corrections can try to change the way in which people respond to things that happen in the community, like providing addictions counselling or anger management, but they can’t change the communities.
“If they’re going back [home] and they have all the same friends and all the same challenges, like not being able to find jobs, well, the system isn’t perfect,” he said.
Maybe you can take the criminal out of the neighbourhood, but you can’t take the neighbourhood out of the criminal? Freedom might be ‘nice,’ but that doesn’t mean that life after prison is a piece of cake.
Catherine Latimer is the Excutive Director of the John Howard Society, an organization that helps offenders reintegrate into the outside world. She says there is a huge prejudice against people who have a criminal record.
“It’s very difficult for people to come back after a prison experience,” Latimer said.
It seems, dear Reader, that while a prison uniform might be black and white, the answer to your five part question is not. Corrections is a complicated world, perhaps because it centers around human beings, the most complicated mammal, at least, emotionally.