Residing at the Regional Treatment Centre, a federal penitentiary in Abbotsford, B.C., I am reminded daily of my social identity as a prisoner: living in a cell, interacting with prison staff, obeying the institution’s rules and routines. After a while, it is easy to fall into the motions of a mundane institutional life where I know myself simply as a number, and prison staff merely as uniforms.
In prison, inmates and staff alike are vulnerable to turning into pathological versions of ourselves.
In here, you’re either a prisoner or a guard. Social roles and labels dictate behaviours. That’s the power of the prison. Too often I have seen fellow inmates degenerate into passive victims or resentful system bashers. Too often I have seen correctional officers devolve into tyrants or sadists.
The Conservative Party’s “tough-on-crime” approach, I believe, supports this pathology. This past year, for example, Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews announced his government would be spending over $77 million in prison expansion projects in B.C. alone, and little emphasis is being put on rehabilitative programs. This will only increase the overcrowded prison population. As Minister Toews so toughly put it, “public safety first; rehabilitation second.”
Under this “transformation agenda,” if we can call it that, inmates will be made to feel as though they’re warehoused cattle, while prison guards will be required to exercise power over a greater number of inmates. Clearly, in this condition, humans deform into objects.
Contrary to this political approach, I believe the true source of positive and genuine transformation is relational. Transformation occurs in relationships built and maintained between prisoners and their families, friends, volunteers, and staff who are in the system, but not of it.
Transformation occurs when inmates treat each other and staff as people who belong to their own families and are trying their best under the circumstances. It occurs when each of us looks beyond our social roles and labels – be it “con” or “guard” – and respects the person. At the end of the day, when the final cell door shuts and the last count is done, we are all just people temporarily imprisoned.
And let us not forget that every morning we are capable of rising above the dark night of prison. We do this by reaffirming our unique selves and transforming our lives one day at a time, one relationship at a time.
After all, a smile and a respectful attitude are a lot cheaper than supersized prisons. The latter is costing us billions of dollars. The former will only cost us our biases and prejudices.