COMMENTARY: ‘Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of our social problems’ (Angela Davis)

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COMMENTARY: ‘Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of our social problems’ (Angela Davis)

The purpose of this piece is to educate Saint Lucians who are not familiar with the impact corrective interventions, more specifically incarceration, has on prisoners. By the end of this article, I hope readers begin to consider avenues other than the prison to address criminal behaviour.

When a violent crime occurs in the nation, the public response is for a more punitive approach towards offenders.  Many Saint Lucians argue that those who engage in criminal acts, particularly violent crime, should receive lengthy prison sentences under the most austere conditions.  The popular belief is that prisoners “have it too easy” at the Bordelais Correctional Facility, considering the abhorrent acts some of them committed.

For many Saint Lucians, the prison should be an institution that administers punishment and is devoid of the luxuries afforded to law-abiding citizens.  The presumption is that incarcerating transgressors of the law under severe conditions for extended periods of time should inflict just enough physical and mental discomfort to reform the prisoner and deter him or her from committing future offences. That type of logic presumes that the offender would not wish to experience such harsh conditions again.

The reality of the situation is that prison compounds do not mirror the facilities at hotels, neither are prisoners on vacation.  In fact, a visit to some of the prison facilities in the Caribbean region will quickly dispel that perception.  Many Saint Lucians have been led to believe implementing sanctions that are more punitive deters violent crime.  However, this notion creates a false sense of security as research shows communities of people are less safe when punitive sanctions are utilized against criminal wrongdoers.

There are three major detriments to solely relying on lengthy and punitive custodial sanctions to correct criminal behaviour.

First, by solely focusing on punishing the offender, we actually hinder the reformation, rehabilitation and ultimately the reintegration of criminalized persons into the community.  Upon release, former prisoners are ill equipped to face the rigors and responsibilities of living day to day, which is one of the reasons why most reoffend.

They come from an environment that is isolated from the rest of society and does not resemble the collective norms and values law-abiding citizens utilize to maintain order within their respective communities.  In addition to being deprived of their liberty, prisoners are stripped of their autonomy, lack privacy and are under constant surveillance.  Communication with the outside world – interactions with family, friends, spouses, legal aid and spiritual counsel – is limited to strict schedules. In some instances, prisoners are denied some of these interactions based on the conditions of their sentence that came about due to the seriousness of their crime.

There is scholarly consensus that these circumstances are detrimental to a prisoner’s mental and physical well-being.  Researchers who study prison culture argue that in order to retain some semblance of self-governance and control in their daily lives, prisoners develop a subculture that promulgates codes of violence.  Their findings indicate prisoners often navigate a minefield of physical assault, sexual victimization and exploitation in an effort to survive the prison environment.  Placing criminal wrongdoers in a harsh environment for lengthy periods does not adequately address criminal behaviour.

The expectation of reforming and rehabilitating prisoners is unattainable in an environment designed to dehumanize them.  Punishment and rehabilitation are contradictory philosophies of corrective intervention and they cannot be implemented simultaneously.  Holding a criminalized person accountable for their actions does not necessarily translate into more punishment.  The unfortunate truth is that without equipping criminalized persons with the knowledge and skills necessary to function and contribute to society in addition to addressing their social problems and behavioural infractions, those who leave prison will come out far worse than when they went in.

Second, punitive prison sanctions do nothing to enhance public safety but rather, revictimize survivors of violent crime, create new victims of crime and further exacerbate the crime rate.  The initial victims of the codes of violence are the prisoners themselves.  Some may find it hard to see a prisoner as a victim by virtue of their crimes.  However, that logic contributes to the dehumanization of criminalized persons.  The current punishments imposed on prisoners do not include being victimized by another prisoner and neither should it be encouraged.

As community members, if we deem a prisoner unworthy of victim status when they are treated in an inhumane fashion, we fail demonstrate what constitutes as acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.  Thus, when the codes of violence can no longer be contained by the prison, it spills out into our communities and this puts survivors of crime and the rest of the public at the risk of being (re)victimized.

Furthermore, the stigma of being an ex-prisoner places additional social and economic impediments on criminalized persons as employers and landlords maybe apprehensive about conducting business with an individual who has a criminal record.  It therefore comes as no surprise when reports indicate there are high recidivism rates among offenders, which contributes to the overall crime rate.  Advocating for more punitive sanctions is simply demanding more of the same.

Third, a reliance on punitive sanctions is an expensive investment, fiscally and socially.  According to the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report in 2012, the Bordelais Correctional Facility was operating over capacity with 568 prisoners housed in a compound built for 500 inmates.  Moreover, the report highlighted 232 of these prisoners were on remand awaiting trial.  The overcrowding at Bordelais would make it difficult to deliver the programs they have to prisoners who need them in a successful fashion.

More importantly, the courts should not burden the facility by not processing these remand cases.  Details on the cost to taxpayers are not publicly available. Thus, one can reasonably assume taxpayer dollars were primarily used for maintaining order within the facility at the expense of rehabilitating prisoners.  This ultimately puts the tax paying public at risk of criminal victimization.

In addition to providing government with the funds necessary to run the country, Saint Lucians are also paying with their lives.  Survivors of crime are often the forgotten parties when seeking solutions to deviant behaviour.  The physical, mental and economic cost to those directly affected by violent crime is a lifetime sentence of coping.  The culture of imprisonment does nothing to help survivors of crime cope with the trauma they and their families are forced to endure.

The current strategies are too offender focused leaving one to ask, where are the services to address the needs of victims?  After all, they are the ones directly impacted by violent crime.  We cannot be blinded by the need to punish the offender to the extent that we abandon those they wronged.  The utilization of corporal punishment for hundreds of years has failed to curtail deviant behaviour.

Crime is a complex phenomenon that requires multiple solutions; we cannot rely on a “one size fits them all” approach if the objective of the criminal justice system is to reform and reintegrate criminalized persons back into the community.  We need more services that are vital to the rehabilitation and reintegration of criminalized persons.  Some of these services include psychological evaluations and counselling, risk assessment tools, treatment programs for drug and alcohol addictions and sexual offences.

In addition to the provision of these services, our elected officials should consider establishing ombudsmen for corrections and survivors of crime.  These ombudsmen would address the needs of crime victims and evaluate our corrective interventions strategies, particularly its impacts and where improvements can be made.  Furthermore, we should also consider alternative forms of justice that diverts non-violent offenders from custodial sentences.

Community-Based Residential Facilities is one suggestion.  These facilities can be operated by not-for-profit organizations that are government funded.  Moreover, these facilities could prove to be vital to youth who should not come in contact with violent offenders.  Criminal behaviour is learned and should not be facilitated by housing youth in the same vicinity with those convicted of serious offences.

In conclusion, it must be emphasised that the prison was not originally designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate criminalized persons back into the community.  It was meant to inflict physical and mental discomfort in the hope of reforming the criminal wrongdoer.  However, after hundreds of years of implementation, the prison system has been unsuccessful at preventing and deterring criminal behaviour in the long-term.

We must ensure our corrective intervention strategies do not compromise public safety; rehabilitating the offender ultimately protects victims and the public and restores the transgressor to a law-abiding state.

Most Saint Lucians will agree they would prefer the offender to return to society a reformed individual.  It is time to develop and implement strategies that will achieve this objective.

By David Myers, BA, MCA in criminology

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Statistics show that during the time of LBJ's (Great Society) and forward that there was adequate sums of money channeled into the prison system for developmental programs. Budgets were not reduced under Ronald Reagan administration; however there was an increase in incarcerations primarily due to the drug war. On the state level there has been funding issues in some states, however, not all states were negatively impacted during the period of the 70’s and 80’s. Yet, we have discovered that crime even increased among ex-state prisoners in those states! See 1995 or 1996 Congressional Quarterly (CQ) for the figures.

    America and some European countries have gradually stepped up to face the menace that is violent crime. In Texas, the fastest growing industry is prison construction…I am not sure if shale business has overtaken it. If one studies the history of penal systems, they are constantly changing throughout the centuries. We have returned to a point where violent criminals are being housed on a large scale as was done at an earlier period. As of this minute, California is experiencing overcrowding because they never prepared themselves for an influx of prisoners -thanks to a severe budget crisis that lasted many years.

    Coming to St. Lucia. There is strong public opinion to put and keep the violent criminals behind bars; and that conviction comes across social and economic lines. Why is the public fed up? Well, many of them have experienced periods when there was order and peacefulness. Couples could walk the streets without physical fear…this is their gold standard. Caribbean governments have limited financial resources to attend to pressing economic issues that they are facing. The government of St. Lucia with its massive debt must prioritize and address immediate concerns. There is housing, employment, and a long list of threatening problems facing the island. Expending funds on those violent cons do not rate very high in the order of precedence. St. Lucia is doing like most other places, sending them away for a long time so they will return when they are older, slower and hopefully smarter.

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    • Like I said you cannot call it rehabilitation if it's implemented in a retributive framework. Statistics do not tell the entire story and certainly can be manipulated to suit your argument. Budgets were reduced under Johnson since there was the claim rehabilitation wasn't working.

      Budgets were reduced under Reagan. He implemented severe austerity measures along with Thatcher in Britain. They were the ones that championed neo-liberal policies, which essentially gut every social service provided by government. You couple that with the drug war and that's what led to their prison population increase.

      In terms of Saint Lucia, if more of the same keeps happening be prepared for more crime. It actually costs less to administer corrective intervention in the community rather than prison. They are not returning older, slower and smarter and quite frankly that's committing social capital punishment. That view is short sited and doesn't benefit anyone.

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  2. Guest, maybe concerns about the victim's physical security is a reason why he may want to see the criminal behind bars. In the 60s-70s America experimented with benevolent programs for its prisons. Oops! During that time crime skyrocketed. Not only America experienced this setback in reforming...the stats are online. Since the introduction of "three strikes," crime has been on the decline (see stats on FBI homepage). Once we understand that not everyone can be saved...because some people are not interested in being saved. Lock the violent criminals up because it is mainly the poor who are affected by their crap. The rich guys are hiding behind their home securities and pontificating fron their ivory towers.

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    • The reason why rehabilitative efforts failed in the 60s-70s is due lack of funding and these initiatives being performed within a retributive framework. Thus you can't really claim rehabilitation was being practiced.

      During this period North America, particularly the US was experiencing social, political and economic revolution. The welfare state was on the verge of collapse, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and the advent of neo-liberal economics was gaining traction. Crime sky rocketed because the state removed itself from social society by withdrawing social and economic benefits. White America feared that Blacks had an avenue to climb the socio-economic ladder, which threatened their dominance.

      High crime was attributed to the protests and riots of the Civil Rights Movement, which paved the way for the "Nothing Works" argument and rise of the prison industrial complex. Crime rates continued to soar well into the 90s and then tapered off. Rehabilitation was never given a chance so you can't claim individuals cannot be reformed.

      Three Strikes is the worst piece of legislation in the history of the state of California, which is evidenced presently by their overcrowded prisons. They can't sustain the influx of prisoners and have been asked by the federal government to reduce their prison populations. The reason for this mass influx is that 3 strikes also targets non-violent crimes. This in turn creates unnecessary impediments when returning to the community. Most re-offend contributing to high recidivism rates. More importantly, 3 strikes never has and never will prevent violent crime from occurring.

      As result of relying on prisons the US now has prison population of 2.2 million with an additional 5.2 million on some type of government surveillance. They have nothing to show for it but high recidivism rates, contributing to social and economic instability in urban areas and basically profiting off prisoners through the introduction of private prisons. More money is spent on punishment than on education. That's bad investment and a recipe for disaster. The US in now starting to look more into rehabilitation and alternative ways to address criminal behaviour. One size fits them all does not work.

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    • Poule Foo, if you did indeed read the entire article, it is recommended that you do so again, as sadly, you seem to have failed to get the message thereof!

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  3. Perhaps if you seal an individual's criminal history so that employers cannot access it, the stigma doesn't have to be inevitable. While some survivors may feel at ease with their attacker(s) being incapacitated, it still begs the question, how does their attacker(s) incarceration address their needs?

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  4. "The culture of imprisonment does nothing to help survivors of crime cope with the trauma they and their families are forced to endure."
    I would think that those survivors generally feel a little more at ease knowing that the person who caused them harm etc. can no longer do the same to them or anyone else, at least for a while.
    That said, in an economy where the human resource supply outweighs the demand, stigma seems inevitable. Any company would choose a non-criminal/past criminal over someone with a violent, dishonest or disorderly past. It would be near impossible to change this logic.
    I do however agree that the idea of "put them in prison and forget about them" is not the best. Rehabilitation is definitely a solution to help decrease the number of repeat offenders. Now to put that into action....

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