Finally, after a double decade of drag racing dust mites on the window sill, I’m feeling a bit of breeze blow through the Big House. Like most breezes, this one has as much to do with hot air as cold. Nary has a week passed in the last twenty where some government minion hasn’t graced their audience with a blustering assurance of “inmate accountability.” And while it’s true that most of us in the clink don’t do so well with the six-syllable nouns, general consensus is that this new buzzword has something to do with a change in prison management. Bye-bye Dr. Phil – hello Dr. Mengele.
When the Canadian government recently sunk spades on the biggest prison-building campaign since the days of Diefenbaker, the press carped loudly. Crime is lower than it’s been in thirty years they howled. What no one took note of though was the role that Canadian correctional policies played in that. Especially since 1992, Canada has been a world leader in results-driven correctional programs, parole practices that reduce incidents of criminal re-offending, and lower rates of prison violence than any of its G8 partners. Whenever a developing nation needed help implementing a prison system focused on public safety, Canada was the first name in their Rolodex. How the correctional service realized this was by adopting one simple principle: Look south. Whatever the U.S. is doing, do the opposite.
While Americans were embracing “three strikes” legislation and mandatory minimum prison sentences, Canada was curbing its bad puppies with conditional sentencing, specialized Aboriginal Courts, and electronic monitoring bracelets. When American jails were bursting at the seams with overcrowding, drugs, and gang-related violence, Corrections Canada eliminated double-bunking, implemented successful methadone treatment and urinalysis programs, and redirected the energies of First Nations gang members (the largest piece of the prison-gang pie in Canada) into specialized programs that addressed Aboriginal realities. While American prisons teemed with HIV and Hepatitis C, Canadian prisons brought in condoms, syringe-bleaching stations, and a prison tattoo program regulated by community health professionals. The result? Tens of thousand of ex-cons (the largest demographic of violent criminal offenders in any western society) coming out of prison healthy, drug-free, educated, supported, monitored, and enlightened by correctional programs. Ninety percent of those did not return to criminal activity – or at least not within five years. If all that seems good, then you’ve probably spotted the problem. It was too good.
Compared with some of Canada’s other human rights partners – like Brazil, Russia, India, or China – our prisons are pretty plush. Cable TV, basketball courts, and an inmate canteen are just the high notes. We also get fed three times a day. There are hot showers, mail, and the ever-contentious practice of inmate pay; until recently, we even had library services and access to a daily newspaper. No armed insurrection. No mass prison rapes. If you’ve never slept a night in the crowbar hotel, it may sound like too much hotels and not enough crowbar. Until you sleep here.
A few years back, a con I knew named Mike was struggling with heroin addiction. He would do O.K. for a few weeks, and then fall. One time, after he’d been on a two-day bender, I went looking for him – just in case. With addiction, you just never know when a guy is ready to say “uncle.”
I found Mike barricaded in his cage – his eighteen-inch-wide cell window covered with cardboard. His stereo screeched out something called Cannibal Corpse while, like a hunting hyena, his eyes burned at me from the depths of hell. The only thing missing was the smell of rotting meat. I laughed.
“Are you happy, Mikey?”
The answer, while slow in coming, was sure and deliberate. “Nope,” my dope-sick friend said. “But I am fkin’ comfortable.”
For the first hundred years, Canadian prison was just like every other dungeon in the world. Convicts were whipped, worked to death, hung, starved as punishment, segregated in solitary confinement for years on end, and generally treated worse than animals. And why not? Acting like animals is what brought them here. Did they deserve any better? But in the 1970’s, after an unprecedented decade of prison violence, Canadians began asking questions. Why so many murdered prison staff – hostage takings – multi-million dollar riots? What’s seems to be the problem?
“There is great deal of irony in the fact that imprisonment – the ultimate product of our system of justice – itself epitomizes injustice.” This was the salient finding of the 1977 Parliamentary Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada. It was that committee’s call for reform – a call supported by all political parties – that changed the Canadian penitentiary from a torture chamber into a place where you just might get your act together; a place where you could start to think about how to live life with accountability. It’s a truth that, in their quasi-religious zeal to reintroduce suffering to the house of detention, Canadians have all but forgotten. So I guess it’s time to get comfortable.