Beyond the cell

Barbara Kay, National Post
· Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010

In one of those neat coincidences that bring a gleam to a columnist's eye, the news cycle last month brought us Conrad Black's release on bail from an American prison, his editor's suggestion that he write a book about necessary reforms to the U.S. criminal justice system and as well our government's announcement that it plans to expand the $5.1-billion dollar a year prison system to the tune of $9.5-billion a year, financing new prisons and tougher sentencing. The government's lame justification for the expansion is the "alarming statistic" that 34% of crime goes unreported, a figure dredged up from a 2004 StatsCan report (that also found 94% of Canadians feel safe).

A number of commentators pointed out the obvious impossibility of tenanting real, costly prisons with virtual, and therefore unconvicted, criminals. But even if there were prisoners to stock the facilities with, inquiring minds should want to know how such decisions are made. Is that one statistic really the basis for such an enormous expenditure? Did the government consult recent studies by penologists and criminologists? If so, let's see them. Why must public debate on the subject emerge in a post-fait accompli spirit of frustration and futility?

I hope Conrad Black will write that book, and I hope somebody knowledgable will write a book on necessary reforms to the Canadian system. Crime is going down in Canada -- real crime, that is -- and has been for some time. We should be spending less on incarceration, not more. As Terence Corcoran noted in his Aug. 7 Post column, "extreme law enforcement" on "low-level providers of services [such as marijuana, sex and gambling] that have willing buyers" is ineffective.

It is past time to distinguish between anti-social thou-shalt-not criminals, so to speak, who rape, kidnap, murder and assault, and normal people who are simple lawbreakers, like bookies or casual sellers of marijuana. These so-called criminals are not inherently wicked or pathological or anti-social, but are criminals because the government says they are.

We should be decriminalizing behaviours that do no harm to society, as well as "crimes" that are in fact only a matter of civil delinquency, such as often-bankrupt fathers' non-payment of support. The imprisonment of these men for up to 90 days -- that is, incarceration for the "crime" of poverty -- is a retrograde abuse of state power reminiscent of the WorkHouse in Dickens' novels.

Vast numbers of the prison population are drug addicts who steal to support their habit. They will not be improved by incarceration. They should be sentenced by drug courts to forced rehabilitation. Credible research shows that when addicts, willingly or not, are sequestered in dedicated rehabilitation centres for long-term behaviour modification, the results are startlingly positive. A majority of graduates of the program stay clean, and of them a majority become economically productive citizens.

If intelligent sentencing that avoids incarceration works, we should use it. Let's look around at alternatives. For example, in Texas, of all places, with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, there is a program called Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL), which began in 1991. Repeat offenders of even serious crimes like armed robbery and assault are made to attend reading groups with texts like To Kill a Mockingbird and John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and The Old Man and the Sea -- books that make one think about justice and civic reciprocity and moral fibre -- used as the basis for discussion. Of the 597 who completed the course in Brazoria County between 1997 and 2008, only 6% had their probations revoked. Of the first cohort, only 19% re-offended as compared to 42% of a control group. This form of rehabilitation costs $500 a year as against incarceration at $30,000.

For a Canadian example of a similar strategy, Sue Reynolds of Mississauga teaches creative writing to mostly women prisoners in remand in our "superjails" -- U.S.-style megaprisons housing 1,200 prisoners. She has worked with about 400 prisoners over the past six years, and although she has no studies to document her success, she has amassed good anecdotal support for the benefits of her volunteer program. One of her poetry-writing students some years ago, "Jane," was a heavy alcohol and crack cocaine user who conceded she would probably die on the streets. She had been the "guest" -- as Conrad Black might say -- of 25 penal institutions. Jane contacted Sue to let her know she had been clean and out of jail for three years. Sue reports Jane asked her: "What do you think it means that I write poetry late at night?" Sue asked her what she would normally be doing. "Using" was the answer. This anecdote makes me wonder what effect the teachings and role modelling of Conrad Black has had on his students at Coleman Prison. I hope he will keep in touch with them for the sake of that putative book.

Research shows that most people like the idea of rehabilitation, but there will always be those who consider programs like CLTL the product of a bleeding-heart imagination. I'm no bleeding heart, but for low-impact serial offenders, I'm all in favour of intelligent, creative experimentation. If looking at "liberal" options can help us save money and return supposed human wreckage to their families and their communities as contributing members rather than as emotional and financial drains on everyone, what does it hurt to try?