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Is Justice Lean and Mean?

Aboriginal day is always a day of mixed feelings for me. I fondly remember all of the “pow wows” and “celebrations” we held in the various prison environments where I worked over the years.  A more difficult aspect is that the faces of many missing and murdered women reside poignantly in my consciousness. For some of them, their DNA was all that remained after the crime. Many times inside, I had grieved and hurt with them as I listened to their life stories. Where was society when they were young and vulnerable? Many stories indicated racism, abuse, abandonment, adoption, addiction, dysfunctional families and communities, of lives spiraling out of control on urban streets. The stories, lives, and deaths of First Nations people, overrepresented in Canada’s prisons, have shaped my hermeneutic of seeing life from the side of the oppressed and marginalized. It still amazes me that Canada’s “founding fathers” could only see only two founding “races.” Aboriginal peoples, unassimilated, just did not count I guess. Prisons over the past century in Canada have been part of addressing the collateral damage of forced and legislated assimilation. Perhaps the founders of our country and of “Corrections,” as people of their time, were blind to this injustice; but, we of the 21st century may not continue to participate in their short-sightedness if not blatant racist or classist injustice. Canadian prison policy must reflect the moral wrestling of Christians along with those of all faiths, to seriously look at Canadian penal policy and consider it as more than a matter of pragmatic effectiveness for public safety.

 Aboriginal Day Celebrations were easier and more meaningful for me in the 90’s and the early part of this new millennium, when Canadian Correctional policy still preferred open custody prisons  which promoted and encouraged integrated, transformational learning in normalized and therapeutic environments (dynamic security). Despite the myth that “nothing works anyway,” so we should just lock up all wrong doers for punishment and deterrence, in Canada we have for some time possessed evidence-based research and narratives that emphasize that some interventions are effective in reducing repeat offences. Educational and therapeutic supportive environments inside the prison and in the community are vital in setting prisoners, and all of us, truly free. Interestingly, many prisoners credit their arrest and incarceration as saving their lives; in a humane and firm structure of the prison, many are able to withdraw from drugs and regain their physical and mental health to a significant degree. Institutional structures are not all bad; it depends on the health of the environment within, and the social support without. Lengthy sentences mainly institutionalize people and create dependence.

Sterile, technological environments of the maximum-security type “mini-max” prisons in Canada, with many concrete walls, cells, and barriers, foster social and sensory deprivation. These do not promote the development of healthy relational life skills or encourage human bonding. In the cold, detached, and often dangerous prison environments, it is difficult to heal from pre-existing physical and mental illness, conditions often rooted in childhood abuse and neglect. Social distance in a high-tech prison institutionalizes in the “lean and mean” environment, with few opportunities to experience normalized human relationships. This is precisely the opposite of what our high-need prisoners need. They actually need to experience love from people who care, in therapeutic alliances with them. In this way new self-knowledge and life skills can be learned and experienced while incarcerated, before they are released, often to make their way on their own in society. As all of us do, they need community; perhaps they even need this life-good more than most of us. It would be immoral to deprive them of this. Yet society seems to be stuck on worn-out theories that believe prisons must be nasty places so that criminals will be deterred and will not choose to come back.  

Increased social distance between people has been connected to fostering brutality and mistreatment. Labelling human beings as mere trash to be swept off the street facilitates cruelty to those dehumanized. Also, feeling absolutely no connection to such people makes it easier to allow mistreatment and injustice to occur. Likewise, offenders who have little sense of attachment, relationship, or connection to society left, find it very easy to break into homes and commit crimes. Prisons that major in isolating socially marginal people, damage them even more by “locking them up and throwing away the key” for many years. Society is thus also distanced from its own sense of corporate responsibility to address the structural injustice implicated; the incapacitated are hidden away behind solid walls.

The other major social barrier of course is that between the primary victim and the offender. The state has taken up the primary victim role, and has come in between making healing and recovery difficult for the actual victim(s) and their families. Many prisoners shared their heartfelt desires with me to make up with their victims, to “pay back”; but, legal structures make reconciliation difficult at best. Reconciliation is a process, and, as my First Nations friends say, to have it we need walk together in a “good way,” we must look at crime and punishment in ways that restore and truly reconcile. Why would we want to do otherwise? What we do unto them we do unto Christ, and to ourselves as well. After all, The Good News insists that whatever we do (or urge our government to do), we must do it for our neighbours’ good, not for ill.  

[Image: Flickr user Donnie Nunley]

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