Monday, September 5, 2011

Prisons and Punishment: Part 2

Last week I posted about how prisons in the USA were focusing on punishment and not rehabilitation of prisoners.  This week we’ll look at a couple of programs that the American penal system could implement to improve prison conditions and recidivism rates.

Let’s look at a relatively novel idea: using cats in prison to calm inmates and maintain order.  It is an idea that is realized in Indiana State Prison.  Inmates there can request to own cats administered by the prison.  If the inmates meet certain requirements (such as a record free from animal abuse), the prison then provides them with a cat that they care and provide for.  The Assistant Superintendent of the prisons states

I know there are people out there who think the offenders shouldn’t have cats. Some people don’t want them to have TV or anything to do. But I would support this cat program at any prison. Those cats humanize the men. The cats give them unconditional love, for many of those guys, that may be the only love they have ever experienced in their lives. And the bottom line for me, is that my staff are safer because of it. Every day that none of my staff gets hurt—that’s a good day. Watching over these guys is a dangerous job. And anything that makes that job safer is good with me.

So the prisoners like the cats and so do the guards, but there are Americans out there who hate prisoners having cats.  Prison, in their minds, is to punish, punish, punish prisoners.  Having cats is absurd, never mind that everyone directly involved in the situation prefers that the prisoners can own cats.  The prisoners are happy because they get new friends that help them relax, and the guards are happy because the now calmer prisoners make their jobs safer.

I consider that a pretty tame example.  Now let’s go extreme.  In Norway, there is a prison where inmates have easy access to "knives, axes, and even chainsaws".  Why?  The prisoners there use the knives to cook in the kitchen, and the axes and chainsaws to saw logs to sell to businesses.  You see, the inmates there have real jobs with real responsibilities and live in cottages instead of jail cells.  The name of this Nordic prison is Bastoy and the warden there is Arne Kvernvik Nilsen.  His theory on prisons

Both society and the individual simply have to put aside their desire for revenge, and stop focusing on prisons as places of punishment and pain. Depriving a person of their freedom for a period of time is sufficient punishment in itself without any need whatsoever for harsh prison conditions.

Bastoy takes the opposite approach to a conventional prison where prisoners are given no responsibility, locked up, fed and treated like animals and eventually end up behaving like animals.

Here you are given personal responsibility and a job and asked to deal with all the challenges that entails. It is an arena in which the mind can heal, allowing prisoners to gain self-confidence, establish respect for themselves and in so doing respect for others too.

I’m glad to see that a focus on actually rehabilitating prisoners is being put into practice successfully: Bastoy not only has the lowest reoffending rate (recidivism is the word for those of us across the pond) in all of Europe at 16%, it is actually cheaper to run than a conventional closed prison.  This is because the prisoners of Bastoy produce their own food and fuel.  In fact, all the food at the prison including that eaten by the guards is prepared by inmates, displaying a level of trust that is nowhere to be found in America.

Compare that with this story from a few years ago in the United States.  An inmate attacked a deputy and put him in a chokehold.  Other inmates jumped up to fight off the first inmate, and are credited with saving the deputy’s life.  I’m glad the story ended this way, but I still find it sad.  That’s because it’s a newsworthy event that the other inmates saved the deputy.  It’s basically expected that they should have left the deputy to die. In contrast, in Bastoy, there has never been a violent incident.

In America, we treat our prisoners like animals and that’s what they become.  That’s a damn shame.

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