Three casually said words that betray our humanity: "Lock 'em up."
Rates of violent crime have been falling steadily in both Canada and the U.S. Yet Stephen Harper is determined to build more prisons, at great taxpayer expense, pandering to Canadians who believe the opposite of the truth, believe that crime rates are rising and our citizens are less safe than they are.
The U.S., meanwhile, continues its long distinction of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the largest prison population, at about 2 million inmates. As there are provincial and federal prisons, there are state and federal prisons, with the federal institutions being safer and better in both countries. State prisons are state-financed, and with more than half of the 50 states stuggling with budget crises, there is scant funding for upgrading prisons with inhumane conditions. California's 33 adult prisons, designed to hold about 80,000 prisoners, now hold about 145,000. The California Supreme Court recently ruled that more than 30,000 inmates must be released or transferred to other facilities or states in order to prevent "needless suffering and death."
The majority of U.S. prison inmates are people of colour, despite African Americans accounting for only 12% of the population, and Hispanics just 13%. The "innovation" of the "three-strikes-and-you're out" practice has had the wholly predictable consequence of incarcerating, sometimes for decades, people guilty of the most minor offences - shoplifting, assault charges arising from a bar fight, a milk-store or gas-station robbery without a weapon. We are not talking here about pedophiles and other types of crime where - whether as classes of crime or "unreachable" individuals - who commit the most heinous crimes and are found incapable of reform. Nor are we talking of serial murders and assassins like Clifford Olson, John Hinckley or Timothy McVeigh. We are talking about thousands of people arrested each year for simple illicit-drug possession, as a prime example of inflated prison populations, often in neighbourhoods - increasingly suburban as well as inner-city - in which the drug industry is the sole economic mainstay of a community that is as neglected by the larger society as the prison population.
Incarceration as it is practiced in both Canada and the U.S. is a social abomination. There is the frankly unaffordable cost to taxpayers, which varies by jurisdiction but runs about $100,000 per prisoner per year. Ironically, hard-working, law-abiding Americans must pay for their healthcare; while the state is obliged to provided "free" every form of healthcare required by those whose liberty it has taken.
Incarceration even for petty offenses is, as I believe Barack Obama has been the only prominent elected official in the U.S. or Canada to say, a means of effectively "criminalizing" offenders who have been "put away" (what a telling expression) for even a few months. Survival skills are required in prison, of course, not least an inmate's usually failed efforts at preventing himself from becoming a victim of buggery. Inmates are degraded as humans, to some degree permanently, as their self-esteem is away and a sense of powerlessness and futility takes last hold. This gives rise to the inevitably high rate of repeat offences.
There are alternatives, community service for minor offences being among the most obvious and effective. The assignment to troubled young men of color - and that is mostly who we imprison - of social workers rather than mere parole officers, whose task is to connect an offender to educational and work opportunities is a key to rebuilding self-worth that encourages offenders to be transformed into social contibutors. This is costly, but in the long run far less costly than warehousing like animals at a zoo people we'd rather forget the existence of, the ironic distinction being that we like animals and enjoy visiting the zoo.
Reuters photographer Lucy Nicholson has this photo essay on prisoners at the California Institution for Men at Chino:
More photos here.