Imprisonment has become the response of first resort for far too many of our social problems

By David Myers,

B.A., M.C.A. in Criminology

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 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 to 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.

officials should consider establishing ombudsmen for corrections and survivors of crime.


(Continues in next weekend STAR)

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