Friday, September 27, 2013

Closing of Kingston Penitentiary

In a few days Kingston Penitentiary will close. Originally constructed in 1833–1834 it is one of the oldest prisons in continuous use in the world.  The current federal government has been harshly criticized by many, including myself, for its approach to criminal justice but in closing Kingston Penitentiary the government has taken a step long over due. Dirty, rundown and decrepit the Kingston Penitentiary is dangerous for both guards and prisoners. Rehabilitation is not a likely outcome from time served in Kingston Penitentiary. Whatever it's replacement prisoners will see an improvement. 

But Kingston Penitentiary was not all that unusual in Canada. 

Conditions at many of our federal and provincial institutions are a scandal. 

The Toronto or Don Jail, for example, is designed to hold no more than 550 prisoners but has an average prisoner load of about 620. The Don lacks adequate visitor facilities, exercise areas, telephones, lawyer meeting rooms, showers, or even laundry facilities. The prison I am most familiar with, Baffin Correctional Centre, often resorts to triple bunking - three prisoners in a cell designed for one - and its facilities are grossly overwhelmed. The gymnasium has long been turned into extra space for beds.  Prison overcrowding is not limited to these facilities - almost every Canadian jail is bursting at the seams. 

The problem with Canadian prisons is not the staff.  In general I have found prison staff to be accommodating and fair; and when problems emerge they can almost always be traced to one or two staff being faced with overwhelming numbers of prisoners. 

This is not an issue of coddling criminals. Suggesting that prisons meet basic standards hardly suggests prisoners are getting a soft ride. And failing to meet such standards means that rehabilitation programs cannot work and guards and prison workers are put at risk of physical harm. 

It does not need to be this way. Other nations have managed to have a system where rehabilitation is promoted in prison. 

In Israel, for example, most prisoners have the right to free university education financed by prison authorities. Rehabilitation and reintegration are viable goals for Israeli inmates. When Israeli prisons become overcrowded Israel's Administrative Release Law requires prisoners be released to relieve that overcrowding -- something that happens regularly. In the United States courts have reviewed prison conditions and ordered the imposition of monitors and release of prisoners where overcrowding exists. In Canada when there are too many prisoners for a prison all that happens is more people are crammed into smaller space. 

Those who are convicted are in prison for a reason. Humane and reasonable punishment is part of our criminal system. However prison is not properly a place of torment; it is properly a place of correction. As Psalm 69:33 says:

For the Lord hears the needy and does not despise his own people who are prisoners.

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