Imprisonment: First resort to far too many of our social problems

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 are 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 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 divert 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.

Written by David Myers
B.A. M.C.A. in Criminology

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