Security in prisons


in Economics, Law, Politics, Psychology, Rants, Security

For the good of society at large, it does make sense to isolate some particularly dangerous people from the general population. At the same time, society has an obligation to manage imprisonment in a sensible way, including by avoiding the vindictive temptation to make prisons themselves Hobbesian jungles in which those who are incarcerated have no personal security, and only bad examples to follow. Rather than locking up more and more people in worse and worse conditions, we should lock up fewer and treat them better. The probable result of that is less cost and harm to society, along with a chance at genuine rehabilitation for those who do commit crimes.

Sending non-violent offenders to prison doesn’t really make any sense. This is particularly true when it comes to non-violent drug criminals: a class that includes ordinary users, but also producers and smugglers. Treating drugs as a criminal problem only makes them more problematic for society by making them a lucrative racket for organized crime groups, and by ensuring that those who operate in this business can only settle disputes through violence. As with alcohol and gambling, society should recognize that prohibition causes more harm than good and undertake a transition from a drug policy founded on criminal law to one founded on evidence-based medicine and harm reduction.

Similarly, having prisons in which inmates fear for their personal safety doesn’t make sense. Living with that kind of stress simply has to be harmful to the human mind, and likely to exacerbate whatever issues led to their imprisonment in the first place. When someone is branded with a criminal record and ‘ex-convict’ status, it already becomes hard enough for them to sustain themselves and any dependents financially in the future. Adding traumatic years of fear and violence to that can only worsen things.

Plausibly, reducing the prison population by excluding non-violent offenders could allow for more resources to be devoted to each prisoner who remains. These could allow for greater personal security, through measures like reducing over-crowding, and for genuine rehabilitation programs focused on things like addressing existing addiction problems and developing skills that are in demand in job markets.

The idea that criminals are bad people who deserve to be punished for their wickedness probably belongs in the Middle Ages. As we learn more about human psychology, we learn that people are profoundly influenced by the environments they inhabit and that people respond in predictable ways to circumstances like stress and deprivation. Rather than seeing criminals as wicked individuals who should be expelled from society to the greatest possible degree, I think it makes sense to have a bit more pragmatism and compassion and to establish systems that minimize the harmfulness of crime while giving criminals better options.

{ 104 comments… read them below or add one }

BuddyRich February 28, 2011 at 8:27 am

I agree with your stance on this issue but to play the devils advocate on this what about the victims of crimes? Absent of additional programs to support them, why should we treat criminals better than victims? Given that we have finite resources shouldnt we put the emphasis on supporting the victim?

Tristan February 28, 2011 at 9:10 am

“The idea that criminals are bad people who deserve to be punished for their wickedness probably belongs in the Middle Ages. ”

And yet, the desire for retributive rather than restorative or rehabilitative justice remains prevalent today on the right and left. I won’t expand on the right, but on the left there has recently been outcry over a Manitoba judge who did not jail a rapist when he found that “Protection of society is not advanced one iota by putting Mr. Rhodes in jail”. Public outcry that the sentence is “victim blaming” because the judge cites context to determine not guilt but appropriate sentencing in a sex-crimes case remains within a pre-modern zero-sum interpretation of moral culpability (“if your culpability is reduced, then it must be me who takes on that extra culpability!”).

It’s fair enough to say prison populations should be reduced, and prisons should not be Hobbesian nightmares – but if we can’t hold to these principles when the facts of a case outrage our moral sensibilities then we we hypocrites ourselves when we speak out against mandatory minimums for other crimes.

The fundamental issue, as I see it, is: can we overcome the retributive and punitive conception of crime, justice, and rehabilitation? Can we understand that, in any and every particular case, the question of guilt is separable from question of appropriate punishment? For the most part, given what I see as the emotional capacity of society to deal with difficult cases, it is difficult to answer this question in the affirmative.

Tristan February 28, 2011 at 9:16 am

” Given that we have finite resources shouldnt we put the emphasis on supporting the victim?”

Is this some kind of joke? Do you have any idea how expensive it is to hold someone in jail? And are you actually suggesting that society has a duty to punish offenders specifically because it makes victims feel better? Given “limited resources” we should move towards house arrest and probation for offenders who are considered low threat to society. Moreover, because prisons do not have only a rehabilitative effect but also function as criminal educational institutions, the increased likelyhood of re-offending after being released from a medium to long sentence might mean it is rational to not jail offenders even if their risk to re-offend is more than negligible, since it could produce a better overall result.

BuddyRich February 28, 2011 at 1:20 pm

No I meant that we should spend more on “rehabilitating” the victim than we do the criminal. Ie spend on programs designed around that
Though there is no reason that we cant do both. Granted most categories of crimes are victimless, certainly receational drug use crimes. I am thinking more along the lines of theft, rape, murder and assault.

Matt February 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm

You don’t mention the deterrent effect. Isn’t the threat of jail meant to make people think twice about crime?

Milan February 28, 2011 at 8:48 pm

Prison may be a deterrent, but that doesn’t justify it in a lot of cases. Someone who commits a non-violent crime, like burglary, probably doesn’t deserve to be effectively tortured by an environment with no dignity or personal security.

The punishment seems to destroy more human welfare than the crime did.

Just because a person is ‘bad’ doesn’t mean they forfeit their right to have a good life (by which I mean the right to have their utility considered, when making policy). Prisons as they exist now severely undermine the lives of their occupants. For something so harsh to be justified, I think the people probably have to be a manifest danger to others. Otherwise, prisons should operate in a way that is much more respectful of the human rights of their occupants.

. February 28, 2011 at 9:21 pm

After four lawyers fail to get an innocent man out of prison, his friend takes on the case himself. He becomes a do-it-yourself investigator. He learns to read court records, he tracks down hard-to-find witnesses, he gets the real murderer to come forward with his story. In the end, he’s able to accomplish all sorts of things the police and the professionals can’t.

BuddyRich March 1, 2011 at 7:40 am

I am not sure if you’ve ever been robbed Milan, but it is not nearly as benign an act as you make it out to be. As a victim, your personal sanctuary is violated and for a long while you doubt your own personal safety and privacy which can have a big disruptive effect on your life. I am with you on recreational drug use but violent and property crimes are a different matter.

Actions need consequences… harmless actions like smoking some pot need no consequences, ransacking someone’s house and stealing there possessions needs a reprisal of some sort. The reprisal is not for the purpose of revenge but simply to act as a deterrent to others. And with no deterrent we only have to look at countries where there is no rule of law to see the outcome.

Not all prisons are maximum security criminal re-education centers, and maybe that is the answer. More half-way houses for non-violent offenders. Rehabilitative programs, free eduction, addiction treatment programs to help those with problems and not “hard-time”.

However, and this is what I meant by my first comment, the money spent on those programs (not withstanding that it is expensive in and of itself to simply house inmates) is a bitter pill to swallow to the average law-abiding citizen. This is a typical complaint I get when I talk about this with right leaning colleagues- “why should I stump up extra tax dollars to pay for an inmate to get their undergrad when I have to pay $10K a year to do the same thing? Maybe it would be better for me to commit a small offense, get incarcerated and have the state pay my way? Not a bad plan if it wasn’t for that whole lack of freedom thing.”

I think the above example is silly but I hear it often and is why a “tough on crime” policy sells well.

Anon March 1, 2011 at 8:04 am

If there are people who see prison as their best option for living a good life, it suggests that something is badly wrong with society. For instance, being in prison might be better than being homeless, but the lesson to draw from that is that we need to do something more about homelessness – provide more social housing, for instance – rather than that we should make prison harsher to scare people away from it.

. March 1, 2011 at 8:08 am

The Correctional Service of Canada has until the end of Friday to release the file of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old woman who strangled herself in her cell at a federal prison in October 2007 as prison guards watched.

Corrections Canada had originally said it would appeal an order to release the 291-page file, which documents the 11½ months Smith spent in federal institutions between Oct. 24, 2006, and Oct. 19, 2007.

Smith, who was known to be suicidal, was in solitary confinement — and on suicide watch — when she strangled herself with a piece of cloth and died of asphyxia at the Grand Valley Institute for Women, a federal prison near Kitchener, Ont.

Guards who watched her death on a surveillance camera had been ordered not to enter her cell unless she stopped breathing.

Smith’s case prompted a probe by New Brunswick’s ombudsman and federal correctional investigator Howard Sapers. It also drew widespread criticism about how young people suffering from mental illness or severe behavioural disorders are dealt with by the prison system.

Tristan March 1, 2011 at 8:57 am

” the money spent on those programs (not withstanding that it is expensive in and of itself to simply house inmates) is a bitter pill to swallow to the average law-abiding citizen.”

Basically, every lower-security and community-based option is cheaper than the higher security alternative. There is simply no dilemma between “saving money” and “reducing torture in the prison system”.

Tristan March 1, 2011 at 10:17 am

And, if by “average law abiding citizen” you mean people born into shallower slopes of the dominance hierarchy, I don’t think they have much of a right to complain.

BuddyRich March 1, 2011 at 10:18 am


I agree. Crime is not a simple topic. We certainly should do more to treat the root causes rather than the symptoms and prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place. A big problem is the health care system and shutting down many longterm care psychiactric facilities putting many vunerable individuals out on the street.

oleh March 1, 2011 at 11:06 am

I consider criminal activity a major problem. The question is how to reduce it. We will never eliminate it. I agree that crime is not a simple topic. The thoughts below are also very simple.

I agree that putting people in prison often has negative consequences on that person. It is also very expensive to maintain. However, generally that person understood before committing the crime that prison is a potential consequence of his/her criminal action. The crime is committed in the hope that the person will not be caught.

If there was not the consequence of potential imprisonment, the deterrent of imprisonment would not exist. In general, I feel there would be be more crime.

If prison is not the place for repeat non-violent offenders, what should be the usual punishment which should be administered which would deter the criminal activity?

Also we must consider the consequences on victims and society in general.

I also agree that for the mentally ill, special consideration should be provided where the focus is on treatment rather than punishment.

BuddyRich March 1, 2011 at 11:29 am


No one in Canada (that is of sound mind) has reason to resort to criminality regardless of where one lies on the “dominance heirarchy”. Its not like anyone is Jean Valjean stealing bread for their starving sister. The people that do so, do so for selfish reasons.

I am not going to deny that it isnt easier for some and harder for others but that is hardly justification to disregard their criticisms.

Finally to add another facet to the argument. We’ve talked about violent criminals and non violent drug criminals. What about white collar criminal?. How should we treat them? Depending on the scale the fraud the victims range from a millionaire ripping off a millionaire to a con artist stealing the retirement savings of the elderly.

Milan March 1, 2011 at 11:49 am

Are there any good alternatives to prison that have deterrent power?

What about mandatory full-time community service work?

Tristan March 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm

” Its not like anyone is Jean Valjean stealing bread for their starving sister.”

If you don’t think anyone in Canada is committing crimes to fulfill basic human needs, you have a confused vision of Canada. But that isn’t even the point I was making – I was merely alluding to the fact that you are far more likely to end up engaged in criminality if you are born into a steep portion of the dominance hierarchy, i.e. south central LA, or Jane and Finch. From a position behind the veil of ignorance, you would be prudent to reduce the slope of the hierarchy in these situations, and recognize the role of the context of people’s choices in criminality.

If you don’t understand that given the right circumstances it is overwhelmingly likely that you yourself would be a criminal, or even a Nazi perpetrator of genocidal killings, you don’t know the first thing about morality, society, or yourself.

Tristan March 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm

“The people that do so, do so for selfish reasons.”

So, I suppose that you, BuddyRich, never do things for selfish reasons, and never do things that compromise the well being of others to benefit yourself? Everyone does such things all the time. And we have to, because if we allowed ourselves to constantly be mired in the sufferings of the world we’d fail at our own projects.

The fact that people who commit crimes do so for “selfish reasons” is a very poor way to separate yourself from criminals.

oleh March 1, 2011 at 11:49 pm

I would be in favour of a system in which the criminal somehow has the opportunity to pay back or lessen his/her burden to society. Maintaining jails is very expensive for society.

Milan’s suggestion of community service is one way. We generally allow that for lesser crimes. Maybe we could increase that for more serious crimes as a way to lessen the burden and help in the criminal’s rehabilitation. It must be quite soul-destroying to sit in a cell or a jail.

BuddyRich March 2, 2011 at 7:13 am


Correlation is not causation. It doesn’t matter where you live. I agree that it is easier to fall into a life of crime coming from some places, but the choice is still ultimately up to the individual. The choice to commit a crime or to go to school and work hard and leave the cycle of poverty and crime behind can still made. I have no illusions that there aren’t real barriers for some (race, gender, even “class” distinctions) but they are not impossible to overcome just harder for some than others. No one said life was easy, by choosing crime they are choosing the easy way.

However, I do not agree that you have to resort to a life of crime in Canada. If you are hungry go to a food bank. If you are homeless go to a shelter. If you are sick go to a hospital. If you are addicted to a substance, go to AA, NA or a methadone clinic. While none of these institutions are perfect they are options for people who choose to use them. Some people choose to ignore them for very good reasons (a woman in predominantly male shelters or drug abusers or the mentally ill who can no longer make rational choices) but otherwise they are all options available to everyone. Never mind Canada’s social safety net, again, while far from perfect, at least provides people a small stipend per month to provide for the basics (though in a lot of places, it won’t cover that, hence the need of a food bank and other help). Its no wonder the real solution to crime is to attack poverty.

Does using the above facilities rob one of their dignity. Perhaps. But that still doesn’t give someone the right to commit a crime upon another, at least in my opinion.

As for selfishness, you are ultimately correct, and even when I do so called “selfless” acts, at least subconsciously, I am no doubt doing it for recognition or some other perceived benefit to myself. However, in the context of committing a crime I would have more sympathy for someone stealing for survival then someone stealing my PS3 for their own enjoyment.

However to get this conversation back on topic, I am wondering if this article:

Didn’t spawn this whole conversation. It does seem to support the idea that prison isn’t right for some offenders (in this case drug crimes).

Antonia March 2, 2011 at 8:21 am

Sending non-violent offenders to prison doesn’t really make any sense.
So if an investigation is dealing with a criminal cartel involved in multiple criminal activities, including violence, and members are (by and large) aware that their criminal undertakings are part of an enterprise involving (for instance) circulation of counterfeit pharmeceuticals, defrauding the elderly of life savings, extortion, assaults and murder, only those actually directly meting out physical punishments would face jail?

Milan March 2, 2011 at 8:37 am

Jail is a really bad option. It costs a fortune, and I think it probably increases the likelihood that people will commit crimes in the future.

It seems like we should be able to do better.

Antonia March 2, 2011 at 8:41 am

having prisons in which inmates fear for their personal safety doesn’t make sense.
I agree, the situation in US superprisions where the internal environment is often effectively run by criminal gang networks is a particularly reprehensible example of poor offender management.

The idea that criminals are bad people who deserve to be punished for their wickedness probably belongs in the Middle Ages.
That is an oversimplistic view of the rationale for a prison system, and like many, I would disagree with the implication that there are no ‘bad people’ (I agree that many of those in prison are not ‘bad’). Balancing the factors of personal choice, environmental/nurturing factors, ‘nature’, occasional (sadly not as rare as we’d like) hiccups of the justice system is important gaining perspective on offender populations but the arguments for jail vary from punishment by removal of rights and autonomy, deterrence, prevention of harm to society for a period, and rehabilitation. One of the problem with many prison systems today is that the infrastructure is tugged into incoherence by people arguing for one aim over the rest. Your separation of violent crimes is rather knee-jerk – a slap on the face is violence, but providing fake medication or embezzlement of someone’s life savings can have more longterm physical harm in some circumstances (the latter particularly where the health system is largely private and the victim in their later years).

Antonia March 2, 2011 at 9:06 am

Someone who commits a non-violent crime, like burglary, probably doesn’t deserve to be effectively tortured by an environment with no dignity or personal security.
The jailing of drug users including addicts has warped the justice system and the picture of prison population and purpose (particularly within the US). Jailing users who have not committed other offences is a counter-productive, expensive and unnecessarily punitive course that has worsened jail conditions and management by vastly inflating prison populations and so costs.

Your arguments against jailing as an idea are mixed with examples of very badly run jail systems. I agree that many jails provide an appallingly poor level of personal security. The problem with many prison systems is that they fail to provide a coherent system for management and rehabilitation of offenders. Erratic funding for education and rehabilitation programmes as governments or governors shift between concepts of the purpose of jailing prisoners, or just try to avoid appearing ‘soft’ on crime are in large part to blame, and for-profit institutions don’t promote ethical and considerate treatment or management as the expenses mean their tenders are less likely to succeed and would whittle down their profit margins. I was appalled to find out that in many areas of the US as well as losing voting rights and deprevation of opportunities for any but slave-wages, prisoners are charged for their room and board, so leave the system heavily in debt for their often substandard nutrition and living conditions. Just as privatising the national support infrastructure for war means that many of those involved have a vested interest in continuing instability rather than conflict resolution, privatising prison management means that those running jails have a vested interest in large prison populations and ongoing reoffender rates – or at minimum that neither concern has an interest in reducing either ill. On the other hand ‘loss of dignity’ and civic freedoms can, depending on degree, be a proportionate sanction for actions breaching the norms of society and showing criminal disregard for the dignity and freedoms of others, and temporary or long term removal from participation in a society is a very clear indication that the behaviour engaged in was unacceptable to that society. In the absence of corporal punishment (for which I would not argue a return) a state needs alternative sanctions, whether the underlying argument is based on the coercion, punishment or reeducation or offenders. You do not seem to be proposing rehabilitative alternatives and success rates for even the best such programmes are very limited – how do you propose to deal with those who continue to injure (directly or through white-collar crimes) other citizens?

Antonia March 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

Management of criminals outside jails (instead of them or when they leave), through probation systems, community service etc, is getting more varied but again suffers badly from (often ideology-driven) funding inconsistencies. I agree that because of the incarceration of drug addicts, jails have been draining more and more funds from the justice system (and this compounds the longstanding failure to adequately invest in the vital rehabilitation and reintegration support giving both addicts and those leaving jail the best chance to avoid reoffending). Long term and repeat jail sentences are a very expensive (and ineffective) way of reducing the harm to society or individuals, compared to investment in rehab, and reintegration support (including sometimes re-homing in an new environment where factors pushing an individual back towards crime are more limited) over a shorter period of years. Inevitably there would remain a core of offenders who would not respond to redirection and I think jail should remain an option.

One of the other issues with your argument for jailing only violent criminals is that this does not address but entrenches imbalances in the system where the privileged usually risk losing less than the underprivileged, regardless of the scope of their crime. Executives making negligent or callously deliberate decisions to allow toxic industrial by-products into an environment poisoning thousands would not be guilty of violent crime, even if there was far more harm done than a drunken fight in a pub or bank robbery shoot incident, and the most underprivileged would remain disproportionately overrepresented in the jail system planned, funded and run by the privileged.

It is saddening that a well-integrated, well-thought-out prison and probation service is still so far out of reach for our ‘civilised’ societies, but badly implemented jail systems are no more a conclusive argument against the place of jails in a criminal justice system than bad implementations of democracy (and there are as many examples) are a convincing argument that democracy has no place among systems of government.

Milan March 2, 2011 at 9:38 am

There seems to be a fundamental tension between deterrence and rehabilitation. The more unpleasant prisons are, the more likely it is that inmates will leave in a worse state than they arrived.

For the sake of society at large, it seems better for them to leave in an improved state: with some personal problems addressed and new skills acquired.

Sending people to prisons of that sort would be a lot less ethically dubious.

Antonia March 2, 2011 at 10:44 am

FYI prison, offender treatment and proportionate and effective systems of sanctions are issues I’ve taken a longstanding (though intermittent and far from professional) interest before I was studying law and the philosophy of law, my brief stint (3 months) working for the probation service or encounters with people who have been on the other side of the bars or work in criminal defence.

alena March 2, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I know that some of the first nations communities are using a different system of dealing with crimes. Considering that more than 80% of prisoners in Canada are native, this is probably a good idea. In this system, the criminal faces the victim and the whole community decides on the punishment. I realize that this is a system that would not work on a large scale, but it could be used in other situations as well. I could see its merit in cases of school bullying, human rights issues, cultural issues etc. Prison sentences for young people seem particularly harsh as the offenders often come out worse. Having said that, there will still need to be a place to put people who are simply too dangerous to have around.

Milan March 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm

According to this government site, 18.5% of inmates are First Nations. They make up 2.7% of the total population.

alena March 2, 2011 at 6:20 pm

That number was proportionate to the total population. I was given the statistic at a First Nation’s conference at SFU a few weeks ago.

. March 2, 2011 at 6:37 pm

The proportion of Aboriginal inmates in correctional facilities was larger than the proportion of Aboriginal adults in the Canadian population (17% versus 2%).

Aboriginal inmates were incarcerated for assault offences more often than non-Aboriginal inmates.

Aboriginal inmates were younger on average, had less education, and were more likely to be unemployed than non-Aboriginal

Aboriginal inmates were considered higher risk to re-offend and had higher needs than non-Aboriginal inmates.

. March 2, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Correctional services expenditures totalled almost $3 billion in 2005/6, up 2% from the previous year.

Custodial services (prisons) accounted for the largest proportion (71%) of the expenditures, followed by community supervision services (14%), headquarters and central services (14%), and National Parole Board and provincial parole boards (2%).

This figure does not include policing or court costs which bring the total expenditures up to more than $10 billion for the year.

Cost of incarcerating a Federal prisoner (2004/5): $259.05 per prisoner/per day

Cost of incarcerating a Federal female prisoner (2004/5): $150,000-$250,000 per prisoner/per year

Cost of incarcerating a Federal male prisoner (2004/5): $87,665 per prisoner/per year

Cost of incarcerating a provincial prisoner (2004/5): $141.78: per prisoner/per day

The cost of alternatives such as probation, bail supervision and community supervision range from $5-$25/day.

Aboriginal Adults (2005-2006)

4% of the total canadian adult population – (2006 Census)

24% of admissions to provincial/territorial sentenced custody

18% of admissions to federal prisons

19% of admissions to remand

21% of male prisoner population

30% of female prisoner population

In Manitoba, Aboriginal people accounted for 71% of sentenced admissions in 2005/2006 (and make up 16% of the outside population), up from 58% in 1996/1997.

In Saskatchewan — Aboriginal adults make up 79% of the total prisoner population (15% of outside population)

oleh March 3, 2011 at 10:06 pm

I agree that often, maybe usually, people leaving jail are worse off than when they went in. However, the way our law works is that they require an intent to commit the crime before they are incarcerated. That is an anticipated consequence of their action. Along the way, those people generally did cause harm to themselves.

We would all be better off if less people went to jail. A starting point is for less crime to be committed. For that reason I agree let’s work on providing opportunities for those likely to commit crime. An obvious area is for members of Canada’s First Nations.

I do not think the solution necessarily in spending more money. I expect that more public money is spent per capita on members of the First Nations than the general population. A solution may lie in providing work which enhances dignity which then leads to less crime. In terms of cause, I expect that the unemployment among Canadian First Nations is a major reason for high rates of crime.

Tristan March 4, 2011 at 8:57 pm

“We would all be better off if less people went to jail. A starting point is for less crime to be committed.”

A great way to avoid personal responsibility for making positive change is to put the starting point for improvement in a court over which we have no agency.

. March 5, 2011 at 1:28 am

The man who headed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency under U.S. president George W. Bush says Canada should avoid the mistakes that caused incarceration rates to soar in his country. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who represented Arkansas in Congress and a former prosecutor who advocated a tough approach to crime, has joined other high-profile members of his party in advocating a revision of harsh U.S. justice policies.

“We have made some mistakes and I hope you can learn from those mistakes,” Mr. Hutchinson told the Commons public safety committee on Thursday.

“I am here,” he said, “because I signed on to a Right On Crime initiative, which is an initiative led by a group of conservatives in the United States who support a re-evaluation of our nation’s incarceration policies.”

The Conservative government in Canada has introduced a slate of justice bills – some of which have been passed into law – that will put more people in jail for longer periods of time. According to the Correctional Service of Canada, the federal prison population will increase by 30 per cent in coming years.

There are limited estimates for how much that expansion will cost but public safety is one of the few areas of spending expected to increase in the coming budget.

The debate around the crime bills is likely to feature prominently in campaign messaging, should a vote be held this spring, with Liberals arguing that the cost of many of the Conservative justice initiatives cannot be justified.

oleh March 5, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Regarding personal responsibility, with very few exceptions, prisoners have committed crimes that have resulted in being put in prison. This is a very small percentage regardless of where they are on the economic ladder.

In the Wikipedia entry on Prisons, there are 107 prisoners per 100,000 people- basically one in a thousand. Assuming that only 7% are from the top 50% of society of income earners, then that means about one in 500 in the lower half are in jail. I realize that portion will go up as you side down the income ladder. However, even at the lowest 10%, it is unlikely to be over 1%. Meaning that 99% at least 10% of the poorest are not in jail.

I agree with Buddy Rich, in Canada people do not have to resort to criminality to meet basic human needs. Also very few people are sentenced to jail because they were trying to meet their basic needs of shelter, food, health care or education. (Note I do not consider maintaining an illegal drug habit , a basic human need).

So I see the first personal responsibility to avoid jail falls on each person to avoid committing crimes that lead to jail.

We have an ongoing social interest to reduce crime. (at least to reduce the high costs).I see the key to that for people to have employment and also to reduce the attractiveness of committing crimes for personal gain. Jail will do so for those who are trying to acquire wealth through crime, eg. large-scale drug-traffickers and fraudsters. Their crimes may not be violent. But their crimes are deserving of effective deterrent. One effective means is to make sure that any profits from the crimes and more are seized from the person. Another is jail.

. March 6, 2011 at 2:32 am

But I have noticed something about people who’ve been in a few real fights, who’ve been injured and fought back: They tend not to see violence as a ready solution to problems. They’ve tried it, or had it tried on them, and they know its costs and its limitations.

I think that’s a really valuable perspective for a person to have.

Unfortunately, people with this perspective are much more likely to end up selling magazines door-to-door rather than, say, determining our nation’s foreign policy. They rarely govern states or run for President, or write editorial columns for the New York Times or the Washington Post, or get interviewed by Charlie Rose. Which is a shame, because it means that the people who do make policy and write editorials and get interviewed on national television tend to skew heavily toward the perspective that violence is easy, cheap, morally defensible, and loads of fun.

Tristan March 6, 2011 at 3:05 pm

“I agree with Buddy Rich, in Canada people do not have to resort to criminality to meet basic human needs.”

To give a blatant example, this isn’t remotely true for anyone addicted to costly substances. Rehab is difficult to get into, and even when it is available there are waiting lists, so you can’t be admitted quickly enough to fulfill the immediate needs for those substances. In the meantime, criminality is a reasonable option.

Your claim would only be true in a society where the rights to positive goods were enshrined in real institutions of distribution that allocated goods on the basis of need, which would include food, shelter, clothing, and access to meaningful work. We should work towards such a society, but it won’t be achieved so long as the well meaning middle class remains deluded about the effects of inequality and of the real challenges facing various marginalized and criminalized groups.

. March 7, 2011 at 7:53 pm

B.C. lawsuit challenges solitary confinement rules

From Monday’s Globe and Mail
Last updated Monday, Mar. 07, 2011 1:05AM EST

Federal law and protocols for managing prisons that enable prisoners to be held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day over extended periods of time violate Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association says.

In an effort to put an end to the practice of indefinite, long-term solitary confinement, the association filed a lawsuit late Friday on behalf of Bobby Lee Ann Worm, a 24-year old aboriginal woman from Saskatchewan, currently incarcerated in B.C.’s Fraser Valley Institution.

“Solitary confinement has been overused in Canadian prisons, and it has extreme detrimental effects on prisoners that are forced to endure it,” association lawyer Grace Pastine said in an interview.

Jean-Paul Lorieau, a spokesman for the Correctional Service of Canada, said he did not have any information about the lawsuit, he did not know whether the government had been notified of the lawsuit, and could not comment on it.

Ms. Worm, 24, was sentenced to five years in prison for assault and five armed robberies at gas station convenience stores around Regina in late 2005. She received an additional 16 months in prison for uttering threats to cause death or serious harm while in prison.

The National Parole Board refused to release Ms. Worm when she was eligible for parole. The board decided she was likely to commit an offence causing death or serious harm if she was released before serving her full sentence, which ends in October 2012.

oleh March 7, 2011 at 9:19 pm

Tristan, there are many people in jail because of comitting crimes to support their illegal drug habits. As I mentioned in my note, I do not consider illegal drugs a basic human need.

opit March 7, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Charles Dickens wrote centuries ago outlining what was then an old, old story : state contracting out of services relating to custody of children who were removed from the custody of their parents to state orphanages and work houses. Invariably, the profit motive intruded to steal funds allotted for their care and ‘raise’ children with no personal contact with an adult or sense of security or family.
They all were socially maladjusted and traumatized. Some died.
The law is a blunt instrument which should not be a method of acquiring involuntary residents for any institution devoted to the profit motive – and it is routinely used to maximize same for those who can channel business their way.
And of course, prison is crime school. This is a strange place to put people who have risked their civil standing using prohibited substances…which is state oppression to interfere with personal choice.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is made up of people who know how the system misfires. Law which makes things worse…is bad law.
There are good,compassionate people in social services…who are quite upset over the times when the system makes no sense.
People’s individual circumstances can be quite insane. I knew one woman who could have been stabilized with medication and would have been a contributing member of society : but there was no way she could get meds and afford them too. Consequently, she invariably and regularly ended up in hospital…because her system needed that little extra to keep her well.
There was no way to give it to her…so the expensive way always happened.
Lack of education, disease and mental conditions lead to crime : for survival. Yes, it’s better in Canada then the U.S.A. … but that is a low bar indeed.

Tristan March 8, 2011 at 12:44 am

“As I mentioned in my note, I do not consider illegal drugs a basic human need.”

You don’t get to decide what “a basic human need is”; it isn’t a matter of opinion. Basic needs are contextual and depends on specific facts about environmental, social, and physiological circumstances. It’s a fact, a fact that can be empirically determined although not with a high degree of precision. Because we can’t know what someone’s basic needs are to a high degree of precision, there are precautionary duties to ensure we don’t underestimate.

For example, some person might have a “basic human need” for counseling, and the proof is the serious fear held by people in positions of knowledge and authority that they will commit suicide or some other destructive act if the counselling is taken away. Or, someone might have a need for alcohol or a replacement such as valium because they are an alcoholic and going “cold turkey” would put their health in grave danger.

To assume that one can make a normative judgement about what “basic human needs” are is tantamount to claiming it is normatively justified to subject those who have for whatever reason arrived at a situation where their basic needs exceed this level can be justly subject to cruel and unusual punishment up to and including death.

Tristan March 8, 2011 at 12:49 am

Solitary confinement, incidentally, is a serious form of torture. Contact with other human beings is important for most people’s psychological well being, and there is a huge difference between willfully choosing to deprive oneself of human contact (i.e. going hiking alone) and being excluded by force from human contact (i.e. solitary confinement). This is related to how we’ve evolved totally different cognitive mechanisms for dealing with situations we go into voluntarily than for situations we find ourselves forced into.

The case of Ashley Smith is instructive if anyone is interested in learning about what kind of inhuman conditions Canada is capable of putting people through. She effectively spent all of her 11.5 months in solitary while suffering from a mental condition that meant what she needed above all was human contact.

opit March 8, 2011 at 12:55 am

And you don’t get what I’m saying : that illegal is a matter of choice of the state…and obviously poor policy when prisons are full to overflowing.
The suicide case…does not seem possible of justification on the face of it. I’m thinking of the minor who committed preventable suicide in N.B. in 2007 in particular…without invalidating any more general rule.
There are some remarkable YouTube clips about Danish justice for violent offenders that accomplish what sane law should : effectively diminish the danger to society. And…it does this by rehabilitation.

opit March 8, 2011 at 3:06 am

“Solitary confinement, incidentally, is a serious form of torture.”

Absolutely. You might be interested in Glenn Greenwald’s ( Salon ) comments on the Bradley Manning case : the alleged Wikileaks supplier of secret documents alleged with ‘aiding and abetting the enemy’ ( take that, Assange )

And of course, there is the matter of Canada’s excess of cooperation in railroading Afghans into torture in Bagram – all duly denied by our feckless ‘leader’.

And then there are the secret treaties.>Topical Index> Law

Bilateral Immunity Agreements
2002 American Service Members Protection Act
2006 Military Commissions Act

And then there is the question that this has gone on for decades and is going to be a bear to affect. Under ‘Military’, for instance, is a note on the intelligence linkup between the US and UK going back to WW I … and we’re right in there. The CBC blew some secret arrangements on the air a few years back – but I really have no idea where to find more…yet.

Milan March 8, 2011 at 7:55 am

As I mentioned in my note, I do not consider illegal drugs a basic human need.

Which drugs are illegal and which are legal is basically arbitrary.

Alcohol is more dangerous for individuals and for society at large than a lot of illegal drugs, and yet it is basically our society’s official drug and available virtually everywhere.

Drugs interact with some of the most powerful motivational centres of the mind, and in many cases can completely swamp a person’s ability to make choices that look ‘good’ from an outside perspective. People in that position need medical help. They don’t deserve to be judged and punished.

. March 8, 2011 at 8:07 am

Scientists want new drug rankings

The drug classification system in the UK is not “fit for purpose” and should be scrapped, scientists have said.

They have drawn up an alternative system which they argue more accurately reflects the harm that drugs do.

The new ranking system places alcohol and tobacco in the upper half of the league table, ahead of cannabis and several Class A drugs such as ecstasy.

The study, published in The Lancet, has been welcomed by a team reviewing drug research for the government.

The Academy of Medical Sciences group plans to put its recommendations to ministers in the autumn.

oleh March 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I also do not consider alchohol a basic human need.

The point that I picked up on from Buddy was that in Canada no one has to resort to criminality, and in particular to satisfy any basic need.

I agree that many people end up in jail becasue they committed crimes while under the influence of or to support an alcohol or drug addiction. However, their crime is not addiction.

While in jail, alcohol and drug addicts are treated with programs to wean them of the addiction. I realize that the success rate varies. However, the purpose of these programs is to treat the addiction. The success or lack of success will also depend in large part on the individual.

I agree. Let’s treat these problems. However, we should not ignore personal responsibility. Let’s one in a thousand Canadians are in jail and 5 times that number have committed crimes for whihc they would be in jail if caught. That still leaves 994 out of a 1000 who act responsibly enough not to be in jail.

Milan March 8, 2011 at 3:10 pm

I am not saying that nobody should be in prison.

Rather, I am saying that people who do not pose a physical danger to others should not be in prison, unless there is absolutely no alternative.

Second, we should see the mission of prisons as reform, not punishment.

Third, many prisons as they exist now are so cruel and unsafe that it is morally questionable to send anybody there. Prisons must respect the human rights of all inmates, including the right to personal security and the right not to be subjected to cruel or humiliating treatment.

Even the guilty deserve to have their rights respected, though we should also remain aware that many innocent people are in prison and many guilty people go free. Also, the justice system treats you much better if you are rich and white.

We should also be wary of the fact that bullies are attracted to working in prisons, and that the staff in prisons are likely to cover up any abuses that occur. Prisons must be subject to effective and independent oversight as a check against the abuse of power.

opit March 8, 2011 at 6:35 pm

“Scientists want new drug rankings”

Scientists want new drug rankings

I can’t imagine why. On the eve of a new ‘drug enforcement’ initiative designed to fill prisons they don’t have with addicts/users, etc. the government canned the scientific advisor for saying the dangers were badly overstated and misallocated.

He didn’t have much of a sense of timing…or appreciation of the precariousness of a job designed to lend a semblance of scientific basis without any desire or necessity to actually have same.

God help us. March 8, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Based on information I’ve read about “the Harper Government”, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s tactics for $2-billion federal prison-building boom is to lock away more first nation individuals…perhaps even other ethnic races…Perhaps the “Harper Government” (lately being posted as a prejudice, sexist, dishonest and racist having been caught with their pants down, on various accounts) has plans up its sleeve to lock away more people. Is that also its real reason for the funding of new Helicopters and hangars….to have resources to CONTROL the public…to keep a close watch on the people of this country? What are your REAL plans, Conservatives? You may have placed a couple individuals in minister seats who are different ethnic cultures, to keep the monkey off your back, but once Canada becomes more like “1984, then what will you do. Will these individuals join the rest of the people who are either unemployed, not caucasian, not well educated, not heterosexual, not sexist? Is your long term goal to clean up society…to create another holocaust? Is Harper another Hitler?

R.K. March 8, 2011 at 10:54 pm

“we should also remain aware that many innocent people are in prison”

Do you have evidence to support this claim?

Milan March 8, 2011 at 11:32 pm

There are several examples of people whose innocence has been proven by DNA, or proven after a long struggle undertaken by their family and supporters.

Not everyone gets that kind of assistance. There are probably a lot of falsely convicted people who lack the support they require to have their convictions appealed.

oleh March 9, 2011 at 2:41 am

Milan, what punishment do you suggest for a sophisticated white collar criminal who steals millions of dollars, either private or public monies? And in particular would serve as an effective deterrent for others?

Milan March 9, 2011 at 10:02 am

For white collar criminals, could mandatory full-time community service be an effective deterrent? It would not be appealing to work eight hours a day in a soup kitchen or cleaning parks for years on end, and it would be much cheaper for the state than incarceration.

White collar criminals could also be barred from occupying any position of financial responsibility in an organization for a set period.

Both of these seem like examples of punishments that fit the crime.

Tristan March 9, 2011 at 10:04 am

The idea that punishments for criminals serve as “deterrents” is not particularly well established. All the evidence I’ve heard, for instance, suggests that capital punishment does not decrease violent crime rates, although I can’t cite it off hand.

If a crime occurs systematically, such as fraud in the banking system, I think it is more important to concentrate on changing the incentive structures, the institutional networks, than to punish individuals. The solution to banking fraud is socialism, not putting bankers in jail. Of course, if you want to shoot some bankers as part of the revolution, I won’t stand in the way.

Tristan March 9, 2011 at 10:07 am

To be clear, revolutionary violence is not punishment because it is not atonement for past wrongs – it looks forward in an effort to construct a future free of violence. An excellent account of the difference between liberal and revolutionary violence can be found in Merleau Ponty’s “Humanism and Terror”.

Milan March 9, 2011 at 10:35 am

“Of course, if you want to shoot some bankers as part of the revolution, I won’t stand in the way.”

This is exactly the sort of pointless, unthinking, vengeful mindset which we need to move beyond. It may satisfy immediate emotional needs, but it is neither rational nor just.

Tristan March 9, 2011 at 11:31 am

Why do you read my statements out of context? The context is me saying that it is distracting to feel vengeance against individual bankers and strive for their punishment:

“I think it is more important to concentrate on changing the incentive structures, the institutional networks, than to punish individuals.”

Let the bankers go free, whatever. My point is we need institutional reform, not “making examples of people”. If institutional reform comes to revolution, then we’ll kill the bankers. If not, we won’t. I don’t really mind either way – I have no strong emotions like “vengeance” or a desire for “justice”

Tristan March 9, 2011 at 11:38 am

The fact that none of the bankers who caused the economic collapse have been held to justice is a bright red neon sign that your liberal democratic state is impotent to use its coercive force for the sake of maintaining its own well being. We live in a “time of troubles” – the aristos have usurped the crown and are draining the treasury. If liberal democracy does not rediscover itself as social democracy it will end in extreme relative inequality, fascism, and violent uprisings.

oleh March 9, 2011 at 5:33 pm

“White collar criminals could also be barred from occupying any position of financial responsibility in an organization for a set period.”

I like that idea.

Anon March 9, 2011 at 5:36 pm

Mandatory community service might actually be more of a deterrent than prison, for the sort of Master of the Universe sorts who commit the most excessive white collar crimes. They may well prefer to trade the boardroom for a cell than for a menial job helping others.

Anon March 9, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Of course, their lawyers would probably convince the judge that this would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Meanwhile, the unlucky car thief gets to spend five years fearful of being raped or killed by a fellow inmate or guard.

. March 10, 2011 at 12:20 am

Lent is the perfect time for the complicated debate to play out. It’s the season for soul-searching, for remembering that sin has caused things to break down in our world, to lament that beauty has been lost and to acknowledge that we are in great need of repair. Lent begins today, on Ash Wednesday, when the devout mark their foreheads with ashes to symbolize the reality that life is going to end and that, because of Jesus’s suffering, we can be redeemed for Heaven.

Church tradition calls for a little suffering of our own, to help us experience the emotions of Jesus. Hence the 40-day ritual of giving up something we hold dear, because suffering, it’s argued, is good for cultivating the humility needed for a spiritual rescue plan. Lent concludes Easter Sunday with the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, and because he was raised from the dead, we, too, can be lifted to new beginnings on Earth and in Heaven.

Giving lawbreakers hope of such redemption is at the core of why the Church Council on Justice and Corrections is doing its best to upset the Harper government’s “tough on crime” agenda. It’s an outrageous intrusion of the church into the state at a time when the government’s spending estimates show that combatting crime is getting the biggest cash injection of any government initiative.

The CCJC has blitzed millions of members in its pews with a “prison facts” insert for weekly church bulletins, in which it lobbies for offenders to be “maintained in our communities at a savings of 75 per cent!” This is the same group that, in 2009, received $7.4-million from the federal government to prevent crime in communities by creating “circles of support and accountability” to reduce the risk of released sex offenders reoffending. When asked at a parliamentary committee hearing whether all who rape children should go to jail, the CCJC answered: “Not necessarily.”

. March 10, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Illinois became the 16th U.S. state to abolish the death penalty Wednesday, capping a decade of debate over the fairness of capital punishment in a justice system rife with wrongful convictions.

“For me, this was a difficult decision, quite literally the choice between life and death,” Governor Pat Quinn said after signing the bill into law.

Quinn, who had long been a supporter of the death penalty, said he has determined that “our system of imposing the death penalty is inherently flawed” and that there is “no credible evidence” that capital punishment deters crime.

“Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it,” Quinn said in a statement.

Illinois helped spur a national debate in 1999 after a group of students at Northwestern University were able to prove that a death-row inmate was, in fact, innocent.

Then-governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 after four death row inmates were exonerated.

. March 15, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Conrad Black: Prisons should be repair shops, not garbage dumps

A friendly acquaintance recently was moved to publish a reply to a National Post column I wrote about crime and punishment several weeks ago. He showed me a draft of his article, which led to a sharpish and entertaining, but not very enlightening, exchange, as he defended the Conservative government’s Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety, a collection of harsh policies that I had attacked in this space as “bad, unjust and expensive.”

His draft — which, though argued in good faith, misconstrued my opinions on the subject — persuaded me that I owe readers greater clarity regarding what I object to in current government policy, and what reforms I suggest.

My greatest objections to the so-called roadmap are that it proposes to tighten the regime governing visits to prisons, and would narrow the discretion available to judges in order to make prison sentences automatically longer. I further object to the over-use of imprisonment, having been confined to a prison in the United States for 29 months, as inappropriate for many of the criminals who are sentenced to it (quite apart from the very many in the United States, and significant number in Canada, who are not actually criminals, yet have been convicted nonetheless after being bull-dozed by the unequal correlation of forces in favour of prosecutors).

I believe in the exercise of liberty by apparently responsible people up to the limit that their exercise of liberty does not compromise the right of others to the same liberty. In a statutory framework, such a principle argues that judges must have reasonable discretion to assess guilt and balance punishment with the desire to encourage, where practical, the swiftest possible successful return to normal life of convicted people who are judged to be a threat neither to society nor the physical safety of anyone.

In the case of all but the most dangerous, repulsive and sociopathic criminal acts, places of detention should aspire, if they are not just transitory holding tanks, to be repair shops and not garbage dumps. Accused people must genuinely be presumed to be innocent, and convicted people who have served their sentences must genuinely be presumed to have paid for their misconduct.

. March 18, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Drug courts
Stay out of jail clean
The best way to keep drug offenders from returning to prison

Feb 24th 2011 | GAINESVILLE, HALL COUNTY, GEORGIA | from the print edition

ONE was an intravenous drug user who had slept outdoors on a trampoline. Another was a wife and mother who started drinking at 14 and turned to meth at 49. A third was a college graduate and licensed pilot who left home for months on end. All are felons. Along with five others, at a graduation ceremony in the sanctuary of a Baptist church in north Georgia recently, all received praise and a hug from Judge Jason Deal and handshakes from both prosecution and defence lawyers.

They are among the 358 people who have “graduated” from the drug court in Hall County—one of 28 such courts across the state and roughly 2,500 around the country. Courts differ in whom they accept. Hall County’s participants cannot have more than one felony conviction, while most participants in Fulton County’s (Atlanta) drug court have committed a number. But they operate similarly.

Participants undergo intensive treatment instead of prison. Judges receive special training. Rather than simply resolving a case and sentencing the offender, they preside over teams that include prosecutors and defence lawyers, police, treatment and job-training counsellors and case workers. Participants are drug-tested often, and appear regularly before a judge, who sanctions or rewards them for their behaviour. Rewards include praise and small tokens such as sweets and gift tokens. Sanctions can range from chastisement to a brief stay in jail. They can also be more creative: a judge in Forsyth County’s juvenile court gave a teenager caught in bed with his girlfriend a week’s care of an electronic baby doll that had to be rocked, fed and changed.

. March 22, 2011 at 10:28 pm

The province has launched a review of a system that tracks violence in British Columbia jails, based on concerns that it is under-reporting the number of assaults and other violent incidents.

The review was launched after the B.C. Government Employees’ Union raised flags over ICON, or the Integrated Corrections Operations Network, which was implemented in 2008.

“B.C. Corrections has confidence in the reliability of ICON as a data-collection tool,” a ministry spokesperson said on Monday. “Despite this, we have initiated a review of ICON in response to concerns raised by the union.”

Records obtained by The Globe and Mail through a Freedom of Information request show a primarily downward trend in violence between 2004 and 2010, with both inmate assaults on staff and inmate-on-inmate violence declining year by year.

The decreases are most evident after 2008, when ICON was introduced.

jordon kessen March 30, 2011 at 1:13 pm

u are all gay

oleh April 7, 2011 at 7:46 am

Conrad Black having served 29 months in prison after a very privileged life may have a valuable perspective. In his comment set out above he suggests that prisons should be repair shops instead of garbage dumps. I agree that it would be very important that prisons provide rehabilitation as well as punishment. I expect currently the focus may be on incarceration instead of rehabilitation.

Two questions : how does one measure the effectiveness of incarceration given that there may not be an adequate control group, ie a control group of people who commit crimes and are not imprisoned? Perhaps Canada’s increased use of the conditional sentence (essentially house arrest while still allowing someone to go to work or school) will provide some measure of a control group.

Is there a country whose prison system is considered a model for rehabilitation, and if so what is it doing?

. April 7, 2011 at 8:17 am

Swedish Prison and Probation Service

The Prison and Probation Service is a part of the legal system.

The main tasks of the Prison and Probation Service are to implement prison and probation sentences, to supervise conditionally released persons, to implement instructions for community service, and to carry out pre-sentence investigations in criminal cases.

The Prison and Probation Service is also responsible for activities at remand prisons and the transport service.

Our vision is that spending time in the prison and probation system will bring about change, not simply provide secure custody. We want to encourage our clients to live a better life after serving their sentence.

During the time in prison, it is the responsibility of the Prison and Probation Service to prepare the inmate for a better life on release, through training, work and various treatment programs.

Substance abuse and criminality are closely related social factors. The Prison and Probation Service is developing validated programs to reduce recidivism and drug abuse and it has also built up treatment and motivational departments at the prisons to help clients overcome their addictions.

. May 2, 2011 at 6:12 pm

The science of justice
I think it’s time we broke for lunch…
Court rulings depend partly on when the judge last had a snack

Apr 14th 2011 | from the print edition

AROUND the world, courthouses are adorned with a statue of a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales and a sword: Justice personified. Her sword stands for the power of the court, her scales for the competing claims of the petitioners. The blindfold (a 15th-century innovation) represents the principle that justice should be blind. The law should be applied without fear or favour, with only cold reason and the facts of the case determining what happens to the accused. Lawyers, though, have long suspected that such lofty ideals are not always achieved in practice, even in well run judicial systems free from political meddling. Justice, say the cynics, is what the judge had for breakfast. Now they have proof.

A paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes how Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and his colleagues followed eight Israeli judges for ten months as they ruled on over 1,000 applications made by prisoners to parole boards. The plaintiffs were asking either to be allowed out on parole or to have the conditions of their incarceration changed. The team found that, at the start of the day, the judges granted around two-thirds of the applications before them. As the hours passed, that number fell sharply (see chart), eventually reaching zero. But clemency returned after each of two daily breaks, during which the judges retired for food. The approval rate shot back up to near its original value, before falling again as the day wore on.

. May 2, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Tackling recidivism
They all come home
Effective re-entry programmes can keep ex-prisoners out of jail

Apr 20th 2011 | BROOKLYN, BUFFALO AND EAST HARLEM | from the print edition

JEN KWONG NG was released in June after serving 20 years in a prison in upstate New York. Desperate for work, he reconnected with the old “friends” who had got him into trouble in the first place. He had just met them in the park when his phone rang. It was Harlem’s Exodus Transitional Community offering him an internship. “I told my boyz”, remembers Mr Ng, “I gotta go. I gotta go to work.”

Exodus helps ex-prisoners to get back on their feet. The numbers needing help are staggering. One in every 100 American adults is in prison or jail, one in 31 is under correctional supervision—and after their release, most will find themselves back behind bars. According to a new Pew report, 43% of American offenders are returned to state prison within three years of their release. The recidivism rate varies from state to state: 45% in Alaska and just 4.7% in Montana. But of the 301 people who completed the Exodus programme in 2010, only nine went back to prison.

Unless they are offered a good re-entry programme, prospects are bleak for those returning home. Drug and alcohol abuse is the norm, and a quarter of prisoners have mental-health problems. Few have finished high school. Many have bad work histories. And a criminal record reduces the likelihood of employment, by as much as 57% for black applicants.

. May 24, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Justices, 5-4, Tell California to Cut Prisoner Population

WASHINGTON — Conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons are so bad that they violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday, ordering the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision that broke along ideological lines, described a prison system that failed to deliver minimal care to prisoners with serious medical and mental health problems and produced “needless suffering and death.”

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. filed vigorous dissents. Justice Scalia called the order affirmed by the majority “perhaps the most radical injunction issued by a court in our nation’s history.” Justice Alito said “the majority is gambling with the safety of the people of California.”

The majority opinion included photographs of inmates crowded into open gymnasium-style rooms and what Justice Kennedy described as “telephone-booth-sized cages without toilets” used to house suicidal inmates. Suicide rates in the state’s prisons, Justice Kennedy wrote, have been 80 percent higher than the average for inmates nationwide. A lower court in the case said it was “an uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.”

Monday’s ruling in the case, Brown v. Plata, No. 09-1233, affirmed an order by a special three-judge federal court requiring state officials to reduce the prison population to 110,000, which is 137.5 percent of the system’s capacity. There have been more than 160,000 inmates in the system in recent years, and there are now more than 140,000.

Anon May 24, 2011 at 10:37 pm

That California precedent is something Canadians should consider, before they embark on a program of longer sentences and more prisoners.

Anon May 24, 2011 at 10:38 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court agrees that prison conditions can be so cruel that they justify releasing prisoners to avoid violating their rights.

. May 31, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Combating rape in prisons
Little and late
Efforts to stop the sexual abuse of prisoners are welcome but overdue

May 5th 2011 | ATLANTA | from the print edition

ON HIS last day in prison Scott Howard was sexually assaulted by his cellmate, a gang member who had assaulted him before. He explained this to the guard escorting him to his cell; she was indifferent. So, according to Mr Howard, were other guards. He was labelled a “drama queen”. Eventually he settled a lawsuit against members of the state’s corrections department, but during three years in Colorado’s prison system Mr Howard was repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution. In the time he served in federal and state prisons in Wisconsin, Florida and Texas he said he had no such problems.

Sexual abuse in prison is distressingly common: the Justice Department estimated that more than 217,000 prisoners, including at least 17,000 juveniles, were raped or sexually abused in America in 2008. A total of 12% of juvenile detainees, 4.4% of prison inmates and 3.1% of jail inmates (in American terminology, prisons hold long-term convicts; jails hold people awaiting trial or serving short sentences) surveyed between 2008 and 2009 reported being forced into sex. And that is the number of people, not incidents; most victims are abused more than once. More inmates reported being abused by staff than by other inmates. Sex between guards and inmates is illegal in all 50 states.

. June 7, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Prison overcrowding
A win for dignity
The Supreme Court orders California to make its prisons more humane

ANTHONY KENNEDY, appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan and in effect its swing vote nowadays, has for years been speaking out against the inhumane conditions inside America’s prisons. As a native of California, he has also taken an interest in that state’s particularly horrendous prison overcrowding. In Los Angeles last year, he called it “sick” that the state’s prison-guards union had sponsored a notorious ballot measure that, with other sentencing excesses, now keeps far too many Californians locked up.

So it was no surprise that Mr Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in a 5-4 decision by the court this week that orders California to reduce its prison overcrowding. Full capacity is defined as one inmate per cell, which in California currently means 80,000 prisoners. But California’s prisons have at times housed twice as many, with inmates stacked in bunk beds in gymnasiums. At the moment, the prisons are about 175% full. The court order requires that ratio to go down to a slightly less egregious 137.5% within two years.

Overcrowding has meant not only more violence but woefully inadequate health and mental care, with more deaths and suicides. “When are you going to avoid or get around people sitting in their faeces for days in a dazed state?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor testily demanded of a lawyer representing California last November. Mr Kennedy, in his opinion this week, referred to an inmate who had been held “in a cage for nearly 24 hours, standing in a pool of his own urine, unresponsive and nearly catatonic.”

More puzzling yet was the tone of the other dissent, by Antonin Scalia. Calling the proceedings “a judicial travesty”, Mr Scalia wrote that the decision will benefit inmates who “will undoubtedly be fine physical specimens who have developed intimidating muscles pumping iron in the prison gym.” That was the language of sarcasm, not dignity.

. June 22, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Too much secrecy in jails, Ontario ombudsman says
Use of force covered up, according to report
Lee Greenberg, Ottawa Citizen

A spate of cover-ups in Ontario jails is raising red flags for the provincial ombudsman.

André Marin says his office has received a number of complaints surrounding use-of-force incidents by guards where there is no corresponding report or where pages are missing from reports.

“This is not limited to one or two institutions,” Marin said at a news conference Tuesday, during which he presented his annual report. “It appears to be something that’s happening out there. And it’s giving me a tremendous amount of concern.”

Marin says jailhouse complaints to his office in the past have typically been about issues like “wilted lettuce” and “expired bread.”

This past year a number of serious complaints were filed that pointed to a “troubling” pattern, Marin said. They include several episodes where guards did not file reports after using force on inmates. Those incidents were then covered up. At one jail, a log book page matching the date of the assault had disappeared. At another, the written report conflicted with video evidence. In a third case, investigators were told an exculpatory health report did not exist when they asked to view it. “We’re very close to launching a special investigation concerning this area,” Marin said. “Use of force used to be documented, it used to be investigated. And unfortunately we’ve found some serious lapses in the system.”

. July 3, 2011 at 12:58 pm

The modern American prison system evolved as an alternative to flogging: penitentiaries were designed to “cure” prisoners of their criminality—to render them penitent—rehabilitating them into productive members of society. On this score, as on most others, it has failed. Indeed, prisons seem to cause more crime than they prevent, hardly surprising when you throw a bunch of criminals together with nothing to do and lots of time. Today roughly 2.3m people live in America’s prisons, more than live in any American city other than New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. America’s incarceration rate of 750 per 100,000 is five times the world average; roughly one in every 31 Americans—and one in every 11 African-Americans—is under some form of correctional control, whether prison, probation or parole.

. July 21, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Overcrowding, gangs causing increase Canadian prison violence: report

Canada’s prisons not as safe as they used to be; Overcrowding, gangs causing increase in violence, federal investigator reports

Canada’s prisons are becoming increasingly violent places due to overcrowding and gang activity, Canada’s correctional investigator Howard Sapers said Wednesday.

“We’re seeing more and more security incidents,” Sapers told Postmedia News. “We’re seeing more inmate injury, we’re seeing more reported assaults of inmates on inmates, and inmates on staff.

“The conditions for violence are more present, and in part, that’s got to do with more crowding,” he said.

Canada’s federal inmate population is growing faster than new prison units are being built, Sapers said, and will continue to do so despite the federal government’s plan to build more than 30 new prison units. As a result, placing two inmates in a singleinmate cell – a trend called double-bunking – is happening more often.

. August 5, 2011 at 3:58 pm

California’s criminal law
So bad, it could get better
Reformers are beginning to tackle the worst and most foolish parts

INMATES in at least 11 of California’s 33 prisons have been on hunger strike this month over inhumane conditions inside a maximum-security unit at Pelican Bay. Prisoners there are kept in total isolation for 22½ hours a day, a punishment that can lead to insanity and counts as torture, according to critics. This was just the latest reminder to the outside world of the barbarism that prevails inside the state’s prison system. In May the federal Supreme Court ruled that California must reduce its prison overcrowding to be able to provide inmates with adequate health care.

The tale of how California’s prison system deteriorated to this point spans decades. In 1977 Jerry Brown, governor then as now, signed a law introducing determinate sentencing, limiting the discretion of judges and parole boards. Politicians and voters then added hundreds of new laws, all claiming to be “tough on crime” by punishing ever more offences with prison, and making prison terms ever longer.

Most famous of these was the 1994 ballot measure called “three strikes and you’re out”. Sponsored by the prison-guards union, it requires criminals convicted a second time to get double the usual sentence, while those with a third “strike” must get 25 years to life. Other states copied California, but California’s version is still the harshest, allowing even a non-violent or trivial third strike to result in a life term. In another six ballot measures between 1978 and 2000, voters also reintroduced and expanded the death penalty.

. August 5, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Prisons in Venezuela
The fifth circle of hell
An inmates’ mutiny highlights violence and overcrowding

ON JUNE 12th a visiting day at the El Rodeo jail complex outside Caracas turned into a shoot-out between gangs. In the firefight 27 people reportedly died, and over 70 were injured. Three more were killed when National Guard troops retook the jail’s Rodeo I unit, where they found assault rifles, hand grenades, a submachine-gun and 5,000 rounds of ammunition. Facing such weaponry, the government decided that a frontal assault on the building in Rodeo II where the remaining 1,000 or so inmates were holed up would be too dangerous. Instead, it forced them out with a barrage of tear gas and a siege. After subsisting for nearly a month on little more than rainwater and sweets, most of the inmates surrendered on July 13th, although some escaped and others died trying.

The standoff at El Rodeo has drawn attention to the conditions of Venezuela’s prisons, which Hugo Chávez, the president, has famously called “the gateway to the fifth circle of hell”. When he was inaugurated in 1999—five years after the end of his own jail stint for leading an attempted coup—22,000 inmates were crammed into prisons built for 17,000. Mr Chávez promised a “humanisation” programme.

Instead, the problem has worsened on his watch. Crime has soared, increasing the courts’ caseload. A legal reform in 2005 increased the share of alleged criminals who must await trial behind bars. As a result, the prison population has swollen to over 50,000—of whom three-fifths have not even been sentenced. The interior ministry has completed just two of the 15 new jails it has promised to build by 2012, with a capacity of only 1,200 inmates. Prisoners routinely launch mass hunger strikes to demand better conditions.

doug August 9, 2011 at 7:36 am

Somebody rob me? OMG where’s the humanity!
Being a Native myself and hearing about the justice that was, I feel saddened. Living in this society with all the newcomers that have come, I hope we don’t lose who we are as Native People and learn from our past even if society thinks we are less than.

. January 25, 2012 at 12:41 pm

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say. For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.) Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.

. January 25, 2012 at 12:41 pm

“The trouble with the Bill of Rights, he argues, is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. Even clauses that Americans are taught to revere are, Stuntz maintains, unworthy of reverence: the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” was designed to protect cruel punishments—flogging and branding—that were not at that time unusual.

The obsession with due process and the cult of brutal prisons, the argument goes, share an essential impersonality. The more professionalized and procedural a system is, the more insulated we become from its real effects on real people. That’s why America is famous both for its process-driven judicial system (“The bastard got off on a technicality,” the cop-show detective fumes) and for the harshness and inhumanity of its prisons. Though all industrialized societies started sending more people to prison and fewer to the gallows in the eighteenth century, it was in Enlightenment-inspired America that the taste for long-term, profoundly depersonalized punishment became most aggravated. The inhumanity of American prisons was as much a theme for Dickens, visiting America in 1842, as the cynicism of American lawyers. His shock when he saw the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia—a “model” prison, at the time the most expensive public building ever constructed in the country, where every prisoner was kept in silent, separate confinement—still resonates”

. March 14, 2012 at 9:40 pm

There was more prison carnage in Latin America: 44 inmates in a jail in northern Mexico died during an attack by others belonging to the Zetas, a rival drugs gang. The authorities said prison officials helped the Zetas prisoners to escape, and arrested 28 guards.

. May 18, 2012 at 8:58 pm
. June 2, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Almost one in ten U.S. prisoners report being sexually victimized

WASHINGTON — Almost 1 in every 10 former state or local prisoners in America reported being sexually victimized at least once by an inmate or facility staff member in prison, according to a study released Thursday by the Justice Department.

The findings, reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the first-ever National Former Prisoners Survey, may indicate a greater problem with sexual victimization than previously thought. Surveyors found that 9.6% of former inmates said they were sexually victimized in jails, prisons and halfway houses. A somewhat similar survey of still-imprisoned convicts done by the same agency in 2008-09 found that only 4.4% of state and federal inmates said they were sexually victimized.

Milan August 13, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Does anybody know if Canada’s federal or provincial prison systems offer incentives for education?

It would seem to me that one of the best uses for time spent in prison would be in acquiring educational qualifications, ranging from high school diplomas to university degrees.

Improving one’s educational credentials could improve the odds of decent employment after prison. It would also be a relatively good way to use time while incarcerated.

It would seem to me that offering incentives like reduced sentences for those who complete degrees could be beneficial on several fronts: reducing costs and improving outcomes for prisoners. I would be curious to see if this sort of thing has been tried, and what the results were.

. August 24, 2012 at 3:47 pm

This matters because the state pays the local jailers, as well as a handful of private prison operators, just $24.39 a day for each inmate in their care. That is less than half what Louisiana spends on inmates in state-run prisons, and it is barely a third of what even relatively poor states like West Virginia spend.

And even that paltry amount of money is not all spent on prisoner care. The only way Louisiana’s local sheriffs and private-prison operators can make a profit on the per-diem payment is to skimp on costs. This means bad food, limited supervision and no vocational programmes. For a sheriff, that money is more usefully spent on more deputies, higher salaries and better equipment. Tiny Richland Parish, in the north of the state, had 60 sheriff’s deputies before the prison gold rush. Today there are 160, not to mention new shotguns, cars and bulletproof gear.

. September 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm

“We are deeply disposed to perceive people as the authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do to us, and to feel that these debts must be repaid. Often, the only compensation that seems appropriate requires that the perpetrator of a crime suffer or forfeit his life. It remains to be seem how the best system of justice would steward these impulses. Clearly, a full account of the causes of human behaviour should undermine our natural response to injustice, at least to some degree. It seems doubtful, for instance, that Diamond’s father-in-law would have suffered the same pangs of unrequited vengeance if his family had been trampled by an elephant or laid low by cholera. Similarly, we can expect that his regret would have been significantly eased if he had learned that his family’s killer lived a flawlessly moral life until a virus began ravaging his medial prefrontal cortex.

It may be that a sham form of retribution could still be moral, if it led people to behave far better than they otherwise would. Whether it is useful to emphasize the punishment of certain criminals – rather than their containment or rehabilitation – is a question for social and psychological science. But it seems quite clear that a retributive impulse, based upon the idea that each person is the free author of his thoughts and actions, rests on a cognitive and emotional illusion – and perpetuates a moral one.”

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. p.111 (harcover)

. September 22, 2012 at 7:38 pm

“[R]emember that we currently lock people away in prison for decades – or kill them – all while knowing that some percentage of the condemned must be innocent, while some percentage of those returned to our streets will be dangerous psychopaths guaranteed to reoffend. We are currently living with a system in which the occasional unlucky person gets falsely convicted of murder, suffers for years in prison in the company of terrifying predators, only to be finally executed by the state. Consider the tragic case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting fire to the family home and thereby murdering his three children. While protesting his innocence, Willingham served over a decade on death row and was finally executed. It now seems that he was almost certainly innocent – the victim of a chance electrical fire, forensic pseudoscience, and of a justice system that has no reliable means of determining when people are telling the truth.”

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape. p.135-6 (hardcover)

Bugs Bunny (WB) April 4, 2013 at 6:02 pm
Bugs Bunny (WB) April 4, 2013 at 6:02 pm

Ottawa axes rehabilitation program for prison ‘lifers’

Convicted murderers are among the ranks of federal workers losing their jobs through budget cuts.

The Globe and Mail has learned that one of the many federal programs that will be cut in its entirety is LifeLine, a program aimed at helping people with life sentences – or “lifers” – successfully re-integrate into society once they’ve been paroled.

At a starting salary of about $38,000, the program hires and trains successfully-paroled lifers to mentor other lifers who are still incarcerated or who have been recently released on parole.

“It’s too bad about the LifeLine. It helped me out a lot. It kept me out of prison,” said Peter Wozney, 44, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder when he was 16 and has been successfully paroled since August of 2009.

Mr. Wozney said he failed several times at parole – usually because of substance abuse issues – but he attributes the success of his last parole to using the LifeLine program in Windsor, Ont.

. August 26, 2013 at 4:07 pm

How a country treats its prisoners depends a lot on what the authorities think incarceration is for. Scandinavians favour rehabilitation. They see prison as a last resort, and loss of freedom arduous without extra hardship. Life for Norway’s 3,600 prisoners is quotidian—with bungalows, televisions and mini-markets—to prepare them for release. America, meanwhile, emphasises retribution. Incarceration is common. “Warehousing” aims only to keep criminals off the streets.

Campaigners can change a government’s practices, especially if they work within the system. Mr Lines says lobbying from prison doctors was the main reason for Moldova’s needle exchanges. Conversely, political opportunism often worsens conditions. Arizona’s Joe Arpaio made his reputation as “America’s toughest sheriff” by cutting liberties in local jails. Amnesty International, a lobby group, has denounced his “Tent City”: an overflow prison where inmates live under canvas.

Academics moan that policymakers shun statistics. Research shows that few prisons rehabilitate people, that recidivism is common everywhere and that harsh jail conditions may make it even more likely. Great diversity among the world’s prison systems makes it hard to detect a global trend towards leniency or toughness. But Nils Christie, a criminologist at Oslo University, worries that countries with rising social inequality may end up locking more people away. “The closer you are to others the more you think about how you treat them,” he says.

. November 28, 2013 at 7:01 pm
. February 17, 2014 at 7:06 pm
. March 4, 2014 at 6:04 pm
. April 5, 2014 at 5:37 pm
. July 1, 2014 at 1:56 pm

A City of Convicts

The statistical sleight of hand that makes the U.S. crime rate seem lower than it really is.

Imagine an American city with 2.2 million people, making it the fourth largest in the nation behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Now imagine that city is a place where residents suffer routine violence and cruelty at rates unlike anywhere else in the country, where they are raped and beaten with alarming frequency by their neighbors and even the city officials who are paid to keep them safe. Now imagine that we, as a nation, didn’t consider the vast majority of that violence to be criminal or even worth recording. That is, in effect, the state of the U.S. correctional system today.

America has become significantly safer over the past two decades, with today’s violent crime rate nearly half of what it was at the start of the 1990s. Neither report, however, takes into account what happens inside U.S. prisons, where countless crimes go unreported and the relatively few that are recorded end up largely ignored.

. June 18, 2017 at 7:17 pm

Many jails are hellish; sometimes deliberately so. In Syrian prisons, dissidents are beaten, given electric shocks, crushed in a folding board called the “flying carpet” and hanged in their thousands after two-minute “trials”. More commonly, prisons are vile because they are overcrowded and ill-managed, so the nastier inmates (and guards) can do what they please.

At some Brazilian lockups, for example, heavily outnumbered guards patrol the perimeter and allow gang bosses to impose order within. Convicts are free to run their drug empires by mobile phone. In the first two weeks of 2017, as rival gangs fought for supremacy, at least 125 inmates were killed in riots in Brazil. At one prison in Manaus, severed heads and limbs were stacked on the floor.

Worldwide, overcrowding is the norm. Prisons cost money to build, after all, and there are few votes to be won by making life easier for criminals. In 58% of the 198 countries for which there are data, prisons are more than 100% full, says the latest annual Global Prison Trends report from Penal Reform International, a think-tank. Some 40% of countries were above 120% capacity; 26% were above 150%.

. June 18, 2017 at 7:19 pm

Too many prisons make bad people worse. There is a better way

The world can learn from how Norway treats its offenders

“DO YOU want a coffee?” It is a chilly morning on the ferry to Bastoy, an island prison in Norway. Two burly ferrymen greet a visiting journalist with a hot drink. Asked if they work for a local ferry company, they reply: “No, we are prisoners.” One is serving 14 years for attempted murder. The other, nine years for “drugs and violence”. The ferry is moored and there is no one around. Either man could easily make a run for it. But neither does. Hardly anyone tries to escape from Bastoy.

It has been called the “world’s nicest prison”, but this misses the point. The rooms are pleasant enough. The inmates can wander where they like on the island, go cross-country skiing in the winter and fish in the summer. So long as they keep it tidy they can enjoy the beach (see picture). Yet what is most unusual about Bastoy is not that it treats prisoners like human beings, but that it treats them like adults.

Prisons in other parts of the world try to stop inmates from laying hands on any piece of metal that could be shaped into a weapon. Bastoy prisoners walk around with hammers, axes and chainsaws. They chop down trees for furniture, grow vegetables and raise livestock. They used to slaughter cows but Norwegian health and safety laws make this uneconomical unless done on an industrial scale.

Norway has the lowest reoffending rate in Scandinavia: two years after release, only 20% of prisoners have been reconvicted. By contrast, a study of 29 American states found a recidivism rate nearly twice as high. This is despite the fact that Norway reserves prison for hard cases, who would normally be more likely to reoffend. Its incarceration rate, at 74 per 100,000 people, is about a tenth of America’s.

Some criminals are so dangerous that they need to be locked up. But nearly all will one day be released. Consider Tore (not his real name), an inmate at Bastoy. He spent his 20s selling drugs, drinking and partying. One day, when he was high on methamphetamine and had not slept for three days, he attacked two friends with a knife, over nothing—some expensive clothes. He was arrested, charged and got into another fight while awaiting trial. He was eventually given a 14-year sentence for three attempted murders and intending to sell several kilos of hash.

For the first couple of years inside a closed prison, he was furious and blamed “everyone else” for his plight, he says. But then he took a course with a counsellor who had lived “the same life”. She talked to him about his regret for what he had done, and persuaded him that he could never touch alcohol again. It took many months. “It was like freedom,” he recalls.

At Bastoy he took a carpentry exam. He will probably be released in three years. On that day, he expects to have a job. Bastoy inmates can start working outside 18 months before they are released—the aim is to ensure that every ex-prisoner has a roof, an income and something to do. (In America some prisoners are released after long sentences with little more than clothes and a bus fare.) Eventually Tore plans to set up his own carpentry business.

. September 3, 2019 at 1:29 pm

The sheriff’s response has been to try making his jail “the best mental-health hospital” possible. He has done away with solitary confinement, a practice which has long been known to cause and worsen mental woes. (Doing so has also cut staff assaults, he says). He appointed psychologists as jail directors and hired medically trained staff in place of some guards. Inmates can take courses in yoga, chess and other activities intended to rehabilitate.

For those kept inside—the jail holds some 6,000 detainees at a time, many for three-to-six months—further diagnosis and treatment follows. Staff in a beige hospital building distinguish between 1,600 inmates, currently, who are “higher-functioning” for example with depression, 382 of “marginal stability”, perhaps with schizophrenia, and 80 who suffer the most acute psychosis. The last are the hardest to manage, let alone release safely.

Treatment includes antidepressants and other medical care, getting sober, and counselling to address low self-esteem. “We diagnose, prescribe and treat, offer therapeutic classes, hotlines for families, and have a discharge plan like a hospital,” says Mr Dart. In one cell block a psychiatrist leads 40 women in blue jail smocks in a lively, if scripted, discussion of how to seek self-forgiveness. The women read poetry, talk of betrayal and of shaking off addiction. Over half are hooked on heroin, says an official. A gaunt detainee tells how she struggles with anger, “but I don’t think I’m the same person as when I came in, I used to lash out at every little thing.”

Examples include his office helping the mayor of a depopulated, crime-ridden and poor town, Ford Heights, to fix its public lighting and water, build a baseball diamond and replace a defunct police force. Elsewhere he has clashed with banks, by refusing to evict homeowners who are behind on mortgages. He resisted even facing threats of contempt orders against him personally. He called the evictions unjust for a “thoughtful society”.

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