The Joy of the Jailer

Posted on September 27, 2012


Is it really such innocent fun?

Let’s build more prisons, Stephen Harper says.  Let’s pass more laws to fill those prisons.

People like locking other people up.  There are whole television franchises concerned with the issue of whether the felon of the week gets his.

There oughta be a law, we say.

We’ve been taught to think of jail as a solution, as an end point, as something to be desired.

We put the guy in jail.  Problem solved.

We’ve been taught to be happy in that scene where the jailhouse key turns in the lock, when the felon stands at the front of his cell, hands on the handlebars, feeling defeated and dismayed.  Oh goody.

And if it works for other felons, let’s use it for children too.

For the moment let’s assume that everybody who goes to jail deserves it more than people who don’t go to jail.  That means, since more people of colour go to jail than White people, that people of colour must deserve to go to jail more than White people.

But gee, doesn’t that assumption make us racist?

Let us forget that at every step of the process, from police, prosecutors, lawyers, judges, and so on, the dominant people running the system are White males.  That can’t possibly contribute to us locking up more Aboriginal people, more Hispanics, more African-American people than White people.  The notion that people consider outsiders dangerous, and treat them as dangerous because of it, doesn’t apply to White males who are more rational than that.

Oops, but isn’t that idea kind of racist, too?

But I’m getting sidetracked.  We were assuming that everybody we locked up deserved to be there.  Let’s assume that.

We locked the guy up.  That’s the end of it, according to the story on the television show.  It isn’t the end of it in real life, however, which always has another episode.  After awhile we have to let the guy out.

Reformed and ready to get on with his life.

(Not!  Just thought I’d put it in there to give us all a laugh.)

Bitter, angry, violent, more like.  If their chances were tough before he or she went into jail, you can be assured they are tougher getting out.  Ex-inmates now have a prison record and an attitude to make things worse in their lives, meaning that, if their old life sent them to prison once, their new life will send them back double quick.

Not a problem, we say, taking it in our stride.  That just means we were right in the first place.  That guy or chick deserved to be in prison.  Too bad we can’t keep people like them off the streets forever, we say.

Except we’ve just glossed over some important new players in the story, the new victims.  Every new imprisonment requires a new victim, unless of course, it’s a victimless crime.

Prisons make the people locked up in them more violent.  They turn nonviolent offenders into violent offenders.  They make people more likely to return to antisocial behaviour than sentencing alternatives which bypass jail.

So our good fun in locking people up, of creating a revolving door, sociologically self-sustaining corrections system, has the immediate and long-term effect of creating more victims.  That is because people are made victims who wouldn’t have been victims if alternative measures were used in the first place.  They are essentially victims manufactured by the lock-em-up mentality.  And some of our fresh crop of victims are victims of violent crimes by criminals who didn’t used to be violent.  Not so good.

And what about locking up children?  What’s good for the goose is good for the gosling, right?  Well, a Toronto study found that children who went to juvenile jail were 7 times more likely to go to prison as adults than children who were dealt with using alternative measures.  Gee.  And children of colour were far more likely to receive the most severe punishments, up to and including imprisonment, than White children.  Double gee.

Imprisonment is the most costly way we have of dealing with crime.  Alternative measures are cheaper.  It is applied unevenly to the disadvantage of people of colour.  It creates more victims because it is ineffective in preventing sanctioned behaviour.  It raises the number of victims of violent crimes by actually creating violent criminals out of nonviolent ones.

Imprisonment is a brutal and primitive way of dealing with social issues that have better and more effective solutions.

Maybe we shouldn’t be getting so much fun out of it.

And maybe that scene where we slam the jail door on the felon’s face isn’t a happy ending after all.


In related matters, Aboriginal women in the prison system: