Wearing Shame

Jonathan McLeod

October 24, 2012 | 19 Comments

In the previous post about the increase in the rate of self-harm among inmates, I wrote that this is “a great shame that we all wear”, without elaborating. In the comments, Peter pushed back:

Thanks for dropping in to give us a heads-up about the shame and responsibility we all bear for this, Jonathan. I can hardly wait for you to tell us why.

“Hear, O Israel, thou hast sinned. I’m too busy to tell you how right now, but I’ll get back to you.”

First off, gold. Pure gold.

I wrote that line knowing that it was a tad provocative and a tad unfair. Initially, I was about to write that it was a shame for which we were all responsible, but I backed away from that wording. Clearly, we are not each individually responsible. I am certainly not one to conflate the fault of governments and public servants with the fault of individuals. It’s not really our fault.

But it is still a shame that we wear. It is a failing of  this government – especially considering their adoration for more and bigger prisons even as their correctional policies are out-of-whack with current research – and it is a failing of all the individual actors who could ameliorate the situation but don’t. Those people are responsible, but it will still fall back on us.

Societies are judged on a little of different things. The way that a society treats its inmates says a lot about the society, in general. So if we are just going to let this sort of thing happen, then we eventually become complicit. If we do nothing in response to this, if we do not hold our politicians’ feet to the fire on this, then we’re accomplices. Until we start doing something to address this matter, the shame that our government has brought upon us is something that our society will continue to wear. That this tragedy falls disproportionately on the Aboriginal population, a population whose treatment in Canada has been historically quite wretched, only magnifies this shame.

So, I tend to agree with the spirit of Peter’s comment. I don’t mean to blame Canadians for this. I just think this is something that Canadian society wears until we try to fix it.


19 Responses to “Wearing Shame”

  1. balbulican
    October 26th, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    Every era looks back on preceding eras and wonders: “There were good people back then, smart people, moral people. How did they live with that monstrous evil?”

    Slavery, or the denial of equal rights to women or other races, or the press gang, or the caste system, or debtors prisons – things so obviously wrong now, things that society then was apparently oblivious to.

    And when you put aside your smugness at our progress, the question occurs – what are we doing NOW that will make the future shudder?

    I personally think it’s our prisons. We know that rehabilitation and re-entry CAN work, but it’s hard, expensive, and our understanding of the process is still rudimentary. So we lock people up and ruin thousands of lives because we can’t be bothered to commit the resources and social energy required to get it right.


  2. Peter
    October 28th, 2012 @ 7:33 am

    I agree with balb, but via a different route. Rehabilitation is certainly possible and to be encouraged, but I am very sceptical that it is a “process” we can learn or professionally train people to administer with increasingly successful results. There are things that obviously work against it, but the magic formula that will deliver it? Nor do I, like most of the population, have difficulty with the notion that punishment for crime is and should be primarily just that–punishment. Indeed, one of the reasons this issue produces millions of words and little action is that the debate almost always descends into wars of first principle between rehabilitation and retribution advocates. As there isn’t much of a political constituency truly engaged in the question, everyone soon moves on to other issues and nothing gets done.

    Punishment doesn’t mean a license to commit barbarism and our prisons are truly barbaric places. The loss of freedom is supposed to be the primary punishment, but there seems to be a lot of people out there who think it’s important to make the hellhole more and more hellish. There is no justification for making prisoners live in constant fear of assault or rape, or for the appalling overcrowding in 18th century conditions or for denying employment or training opportunities. You would think modern technology would have led to a whole host of potential alternatives, but apparently not.

    Back to mental health. Jonathan, we can always bash the Cons over this or that programme cut, but I’m not sure this issue can be separated from a wider and more worrisome context–what are we doing generally about treating and caring for the mentally afflicted? If we are talking about prisoners who are chronically disturbed, then the question arises about what they are even doing there in the first place, an issue even Toews claims to be disturbed by and is linked to a legal and social services regime that has almost nothing to do with the feds (not even prisoners serving two years or less are a federal responsibility). Not enough money is going into this, but that’s not the only issue. A few decades ago, in response to lobbying by advocates for the mentally ill, major legal changes were introduced that make it much more difficult to institutionalaize and treat the afflicted without their cooperation. So a lot are on the streets unmedicated (or into alternative medications)and that’s not too far from the world of serious crime.

    Federal prisons are violent, dangerous places with the majority of inmates trying to scam the system somehow and I’m not sure it’s realisitic to expect guards and administrators to turn into nurses on a dime. As with prison conditions generally, there are too many anecdotes, stereotypes and sweeping generalities in public discussions about this. I think we should park that deliciously self-flagellating sense of shame, roll up our sleeves and put in the time to do some very hard work leading to very difficult and subtle choices. We aren’t going to solve the problem, so let’s set our sights on improvement.


    Jonathan McLeod Reply:

    I might have a couple of quibbles, Peter, but I’m probably about 98% in agreement with you here.


  3. R. Mowat
    October 30th, 2012 @ 5:16 pm

    We do remember that people go to prison for committing serious crimes, right? Against other people – some of whom will receive no assistance or rehabilitation for them to move on with their lives. I can’t find myself having much sympathy for the convict.

    But if you want a more statistically-based argument suggesting the status quo isn’t very terrible, consider the following points.

    The population of federal prisons are not first time offenders. They have encountered the judicial system on multiple occasions and have been provided many opportunities to adjust their behaviour. A 2005 study* indicates 86% of inmate have been previously incarcerated. Most of them are there for violent offences. Prison is not the first step – it is a final step for particularly hard cases.

    And consider that 40% of all federal convicts serving sentences are actually not incarcerated in a prison, but are serving in the community.

    Recidivism is on the decline.

    “As a proportion of all convictions, released federal offenders re-admitted with a new conviction were responsible for about one percent of criminal convictions in Canada.”

    These stats seem to indicate that the criminal justice system is not a complete failure, but rather is doing not so badly.

    * http://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/text/rsrch/safe_return2005/sr2005-eng.shtml


  4. Peter
    October 31st, 2012 @ 5:27 am

    Mr. Mowat, it strikes me that your argument is very similar to the one the left trotted out ad nauseum in response to the Cons’ crime bills. Over and over, with a sniffy disdain for popular opinion and popular perception, we saw claims that “statistics” showed crime rates were declining nationally, the implication being there was no need to do anything because our legal system was obviously “working”. Leaving aside issues of distortions in the stats themselves, I remember shaking my head and thinking “What possible meaning could such an argument have for a resident in a high crime urban area worried about their kids on the streets and in school? Do they really think he/she will be comforted knowing national crime stats are down led by a sharp drop in non-violent crime in the Maritimes?” Only someone living in comfort and safety could make such an argument.

    I agree with you that prison advocates tend to portray very dangerous dudes as “victims” (as opposed to “brutal” prison guards)needing therapy as opposed to punishment. But there comes a point where our treatment of prisoners isn’t about them, it’s about us and our values. We wouldn’t defend pulling out their finger nails because they were contemptible scum or because a few years of doing so coincided with encouraging statistics, would we? Likewise with dangerous conditions or denial of basic medical care–it really isn’t about them and it really isn’t about what works.


    Jonathan McLeod Reply:

    “But there comes a point where our treatment of prisoners isn’t about them, it’s about us and our values.”



  5. Robin Mowat
    October 31st, 2012 @ 10:22 am

    I must admit I found a modicum of joy in making those statistical points, for the ironic impact you suggest.

    I am not content with the status quo, but I am trying to set the context for what the reality actually is. That reality is not pulling-off fingernails, nor is it the denial of basic medical treatment.

    It makes perfect sense that prison staff consider self harm incidents primarily security concerns. If inmates are cutting themselves with contraband knives, they could just as easily be stabbing their roommate. We have seen what can happen when the guards lose control of a prison. It quickly impacts the safety of all inmates.


    Jonathan McLeod Reply:

    Well, the knife (or cigarette or whatever it is) could be considered a security issue, but the act of self-harm should not be. It’s a distinction that needs to be made within our prisons.


    Peter Reply:

    With respect, Jonathan, such ipso facto sweeping distinctions aren’t going to take you far. I think you have to inquire into the reason for the self-mutilation more closely and with an open mind that is grounded in an appreciation of nature of the characters we are talking about.

    Number one, the criminal law standard for mental health defences is high, but over in the civil world, the caring professions have been expanding the definition of mental and emotional affliction exponentially and with an obvious professional interest in so doing. DSM-1V is over four times the thickness of the first edition in the 50s. Are you talking about a delusional schizophrenic or someone suffering from a situational depression aggravated by fibromyalgia? You may think it makes no difference, but you won’t get far in your reform efforts (or your call for a nation-wide sense of shame) if you hold to that line.

    Number two, what do you think will happen when the word gets out in a maximum security pentientiary that the mere act of self-cutting will result in a treatment programme and possibly a transfer out of the place?


  6. R. Mowat
    October 31st, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    The report itself is available here: http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/rpt/annrpt/annrpt20112012-eng.aspx

    It’s clear there is room for improvement, but it also seems clear that things are moving in the right direction.


  7. Joel
    November 2nd, 2012 @ 12:40 am

    For the last couple centuries, at least, most Western prisons seem to have been nasty places. There has been an ongoing succession, decade after decade, of scandals, journalistic exposes, shocked citizens, commissions of inquiry, plans for reform, and on and on and on. There is nothing new under the sun, and nothing new in the prisons. The reforms try to fix up the “problems,” but they don’t change anything fundamental–people always decide that they still want prisons to aim at the traditional objectives: give criminals some punishment, prevent them from offending again for the time being, and try to make them into good boys and girls.

    Why do we keep doing the same thing over and over again? Why not abolish the prison system? There is a prison abolition movement, you know. It’s high time that bloggers start discussing that option seriously.


    R. Mowat Reply:

    I can understand that some convicted criminal may not need to be placed into a prison.

    However, I cannot see how you could abolish all prisons.

    Where do you put the few hundred to few thousand violent offenders? Where do you put Clifford Olson?

    Of course, if we had capital punishment, then I guess we maybe could get rid of prisons – I’m guessing no one will agree with me on that point :)


    Joel Reply:

    Well, admittedly, even “prison abolitionists” don’t actually want to abolish all prisons. I’m not sure what they currently argue, but I believe the most prominent Canadian abolitionist advocates of a couple decades ago suggested that we could make do with just a single prison for the 5 percent of prisoners who truly pose a threat due to their violent inclinations. The idea was that perhaps 80 percent of current inmates could be released immediately, while about 15 percent might need to get “medical, economic, and social care” in some kind of institution (not prisons, of course, oh no-no-no) for a time before being set at liberty. In other words, the prison-abolition concept wasn’t quite so radical as the label connotes (quite hard, when you get right down to it, to let go of incarceration of one type or another, whatever name you want to give it), but the concept would seem to have suggested, among other things, that 1) we should try to dispense with the basic idea of having a prison system, and 2) no one should be incarcerated for a property offence, or for other kinds of nonviolent offences. Prison abolitionists would probably argue that many of those in prison for violent offences are not in fact dangerous (e.g. many people convicted of murder probably aren’t dangerous now, because they’ve already killed the one person they wanted to kill, and perhaps the experience shook them enough to remove their interest in further violence).

    As you might guess, I don’t actually buy the prison-abolition idea myself (I’m a reactionary), or at least not in the way that the abolitionists would like, and I was raising it partly to bait the thread. But I would sincerely like to see bloggers, journalists, and so forth actually discuss the option of prison abolition. There are a number of academic penal abolitionists around the world, and there have been a few extremely dedicated, hardworking activists for prison abolition in Canada in recent decades. One of the most active, hardworking public critics of the Canadian penal system in recent years is a penal abolitionist, I believe (or I think he might prefer the term “penal minimalist”). But I virtually never hear the idea even mentioned in mainstream public discourse, either in the media or in the blogosphere, even in periods of prolific criticism of government penal policy in general or of specific scandals like the Ashley Smith case. I assume that most of the public just hasn’t heard of the prison-abolition idea, or at least not enough for it to stick in their minds.

    Anyway, public discussion of criminal-justice problems would be vastly more interesting, and probably more productive, if there were some real discussion of the possibility of prison abolition. It would help to get us thinking about actual alternative possibilities instead of continuing to assume that the present system is just the natural course of things (imprisonment as we know it is a pretty recent invention, historically speaking). And perhaps it would help us to think more clearly about what we would be genuinely interested in changing and what parts of the status quo we actually agree with, come to think of it. As it is, our discussions are just repetitive middle-class exercises in acting sorrowful and scandalized and shocked-shocked-shocked! about those horrible things and why-don’t-they-give-these-people-the-help-they-need-instead-of-being-so-brutal-because-we’re-a-civilized-people-after-all. It’s all very much like what our parents and grandparents and Great Uncle Fred’s said on the various occasions when their newspapers got to talking about the same sorts of nastiness that have been typical of prisons for generation after generation. The middle-class handwringing may be cathartic, but we’ve seen this movie again and again and the odds are that it’ll look the same again the next time we watch it, because the ingredients aren’t changing. Maybe if we talked about just demolishing the prisons it would get us to dig into our assumptions and options a little more thoughtfully than we’re prone to.


    Peter Reply:

    Joel, I think it’s a terrific idea, but I have little confidence in bloggers being able to get past insulting cant on this one. I’m not sure I’d have that much more confidence in a secret conclave of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal. The two sides (right and left, punishment and rehabilitation) aren’t just squaring off over policy options, they are divided over human nature and the very meaning of justice. When facing off, they see in their adversaries not just differing opinions, but a kind of moral inversion. On the one side, you have your Old Testament sadists and on the other those who side with the wicked over the righteous.

    Over at Dawg’s, the Ashley Smith atrocity has given everyone an opening to be shocked and appalled yet again (how deep can the humanity and compassion of someone who is dependably outraged twenty times a day about completely different things run?) and haul out their favourite stereotypes about confused, vulnerable teens and the prevalence of sociopathy among prison guards. No one seems really interested in how to bring the individuals who abused her to justice and it would be a braver man than I who dared even raise the issue of how she got there or why she was such trouble. A particularly amusing comment came from a professor who intimated there is some genetic or other chronic flaw in prison guards that attracts them to the job so they can get their jollies beating people up for no reason, along with soldiers, police officers and–get this–mall security. Mall security? How could he have forgotten to mention theatre ushers, who famously only take their jobs to act out their subliminal urge to stifle our freedom of speech? It got downright cute when a couple mentioned they actually knew prison guards who “appeared” normal. Clever chaps, those sociopaths.

    The point is that, while the punishment brigade certainly does let vindictiveness over whelm them all too often, the progressive reformers really can’t bring themselves to admit that punishment and justice should even be in the equation (unless it’s someone like Conrad Black). That’s just so pre-Enlightenment and ill-befits a “civilized” society. Prisoners need treatment and compassion and that is that. Our host wants us all to feel ashamed about what is going on in our prisone, but how ashamed does he feel about this?

    By chance I happen to be reading a book of essays by British novelist Howard Jacobson. He’s a Mordecai Richler type, at home with the artsy left and scathingly critical of establishment philistines and moral prudes, but simply too bright and thoughtful not to attack shibboleths from his side. One essay addresses this very issue and is one of the most artful takedowns of liberal orthodoxy I’ve ever seen. He’s writing about the widely-publized distress of the widow of a schoolheadmaster who was knifed while breaking up a fight when his murderer was realeased after twleve years and efforts to deport him to his home country (Italy) failed. I will give you the best parts in the comment below.


    Joel Reply:

    I agree with your second paragraph in spades. And I think you’re quite right that these crime-and-punishment debates are about basic moral disagreements (or worldviews, or cosmologies, or something) rather than about policy. The main reason I wish people would bring prison abolition into the discussion is not because it’s a compelling policy option (though I think it would improve or at least enliven even pure policy debates), but rather because it might get some liberal-ish sorts to stop and think a smidgen more about what their moral views in this area really are. Or at least it might give us another chance to watch them refuse to give up a tough, tangible punishment (imprisonment), all the while insisting that their motive is utilitarian rather than retributive. It’s the frustration with the utterly unoriginal cant that makes one want to hear someone propose an even slightly radical tangible step that might represent an actual change in the current system.

    Anyway, I suppose if I really wanted to raise the point I should have been saying so over at Dawg’s rather than preaching to the converted here on Jonathan’s thread. To be fair, quite a few leftish sorts do have some appreciation for the retributive side of the argument (Dawg himself being an obvious example). But those who don’t also don’t have the decency to be radical. So many liberals in leftist clothing …


    Peter Reply:

    To be fair, quite a few leftish sorts do have some appreciation for the retributive side of the argument

    At times, yes. With things like sexual assault they can bay like a medieval mob, but for the most part it’s a somewhat grudging concession to get them out of radical determinism. It’s a bit like when they say things like: “Of course Israel has the right to defend itself.” Just not the way Israel happens to be defending itself at any given moment.

    I think there is an aesthetic/artistic side to this. A dangerous dude charged with a violent crime may evince much anger and little sympathy until he is convicted and sent to prison, at which point he starts to take on the aura of a victim in the minds of the reformers. The plight of the prisoner has inspired lots of novelists and screenwriters. Not so much his victims. Lonely or strange women fall in love with prisoners via letters, but not, I think, with the people whose lives are forever scarred by what he did.

  8. Peter
    November 4th, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    ” ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’, saith the Lord. We forget sometimes that that was more a bargain than a threat. If we restrained the vengefulness instrinsic to our natures, He’d take care of the justice side of things on our behalf. In this way, God fulfils the same function civil society entrusts to the judiciary. He does the dirty work with which we, in our boiling wrath, cannot be entrusted.”

    “That, if course, is if he notices or remembers. Of all God’s promises this is the one we find hardest to forgive Him breaking. And when at last enough crimes go unavenged, we become unbelievers. Thus our disappointment in God becomes the model for our disappointment for the judiciary. We might not like a hanging judge, but a judge who cannot bring himself to hang at all we feel betrays us. And that is because we’ve ceded anger to him and when he does not adequately honour the outraged morality of which our anger is, so to speak, the spokeperson, it is left without a voice.”

    “The problem with a liberal society…is that it can fail to take account how dearly we attach oursleves to our anger, how many of our frustrations in an unjust world it speaks for, and how reluctantly we part with it.”

    “There is no doubt that the legal and liberalist arguments for Chindamo’s staying here have been made. A good prison system must rehabilitate; a just society allows the criminal to pay his debt; Chindamo is a citizen of the EU and free to move within it; Chindamo’s staying violates no one’s rights. All reasonable and true, but an objection still remains: such reasoning doesn’t stop another killing on another day, and is cruelly deaf to the blood that crieth from the ground. A liberal conscience is a fine thing, but a liberal conscience isn’t all we are made of.”…

    “It’s hard to believe that what really matters to Philip Lawrence’s widow is the country in which the boy who widowed her will spend the rest of his life. At the heart of this is question of whether Learco Chindamo should have any life left to spend. ‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ ‘Then repay!’ saith we back.”…

    “Mrs Lawrence feels that someone has broken his promise to her. Someone has. We were all promised when we plumped for a more civilized society and abolished the death penalty that soft sentencing would not be the consequence. Play about with the tariffs and you play about with the value of the life the killer took. It is not querulous of Mrs Lawrence to ask, ‘What about our rights?’ A profound disordering of things takes place when we feel that the dead, and those who must go on living in the icy shadow of the dead, are not given justice, for justice is all the dead ask at any time, and when the dead are the murdered dead their unanswerable cries are terrible, not onlt for those who loved them, but for all of us. Any unrequitted crime unsettles us. An unrequited murder deranges us.”…

    “That liberal society to which we all aspire demeans us when it disavows the force of human feeling which its liberalism cannot contain. The popular press with seize on the distress of Mrs. Lawrence and the parents of Rhys Jones, and in the process whip the old gods into fury; but we make a grave mistake if we consign this to the “gutter press” and call it mischief. The old gods speak for sacred necessities and will be heard.”

    –Howard Jacobson
    Vengeance is Mine
    –from: Whatever it is, I don’t like it
    –Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2011, p 288-291
    –originally published in the (left-wing) Independant


  9. R. Mowat
    November 5th, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    I’m happy to discuss abolition too, but I’m not sure why people are so unhappy with the prison system. Is it the concept of confinement? Is it the segregation from the community? Is it the imagined horrors that lay within?


    Peter Reply:

    Well no, it’s because prison has become a place of terror and abuse, which wasn’t the original idea, although I admit that I don’t know enough to distinguish the American and Canadian situations.


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