On Wednesday, November 16, approximately thirty people gathered at L’Artere Coop at a talk called “What is the true impact of punishment?” The goal of the event, according to the Facebook page, was to “consider the impact of a punishment approach and the sorts of community-based and dialog-based alternatives that some would propose to it,” and question whether incarceration truly results in perpetrators changing their ways.
The event was organised by the University of the Streets Cafe, “which aims to create welcoming spaces where diverse groups of citizens can gather to share their unique experiences and perspectives.” The Cafe is affiliated with the Office of Community Engagement at Concordia.
“Every time it’s a different theme and we try to keep them as informal as possible,” said Emma Harake, one of the University of Streets Cafe volunteers, describing the program’s discussions. “We always have a guest or two guests, depending on the topic, and someone to moderate the talk. […] Every theme also attracts different people, different age groups, different communities in the city which is very interesting to see.”
The guests that night included Jean-Marc Bougie, who was incarcerated for four years for “an economic crime,” and is now involved in his community as a meal delivery volunteer and “assists isolated and socially excluded individuals in filing tax forms and similar documents,” as well as Marie Beemans, a supporter of prisoners’ rights and an advocate for prison reform.
Between 1983 and 1986, Beemans coordinated the national campaign against the return of the death penalty. For more than twenty years, she has opened her home to federal prisoners in transition.
What is wrong with the system?
Bougie thinks that the Canadian penal system is still based on the concept of ‘an eye for an eye.’
‘‘‘An eye for an eye’ is engrained in our nature as humans,” said Bougie. “It flows in our bodies, it flows in our culture, it flows from our religion.”
However, Bougie went beyond that, saying that Canada’s penal system is still deeply flawed and needs to be reformed, especially in regards to incarceration and actual rehabilitation.
“Who here would go to a hospital where there is a big sign out front that says ‘50 per cent of you are going to get worse’?” he asked. “When you send someone to the penitentiary, it’s the same thing. The recidivism rate in Canada and the United States varies […] between 40 and 62 per cent.”
Beemans further raised concerns about the state’s role in setting an example for its citizens regarding punishment.
‘‘‘An eye for an eye’ is engrained in our nature as humans.”
“Where there is the death penalty, there is a higher homicide rate,” she explained, “because the citizen uses the same excuse as the state: ‘If the state can get rid of somebody because they are unacceptable, so can an individual.’”
Beemans explained that the same logic can be used for lesser crimes, saying that where a state seeks vengeance against its citizens, the individual feels more comfortable in fulfilling personal vendettas.
“Who here would go to a hospital where there is a big sign out front that says ‘50 per cent of you are going to get worse’?” When you send someone to the penitentiary, it’s the same thing.”
Beemans continued with additional criticism of the system, specifically with regards to its failure to provide a constructive environment where criminals can reform: “You take somebody who has acted irresponsibly, and you put them in a situation where you take away all the responsibility: what time he gets up in the morning, what time he eats […] that’s reinforcing behaviour.”
Why is the system so flawed?
As the night went on, attendees were invited to identify reasons why the current penal system often fails inmates.
“We hear of models that are more like [the system in Norway] that seem to work better,” said one attendee named Fiona. “The rates of recidivism are much lower than the ones in North America.”
“What’s the motivation for governments not to do it this way?” she continued. “[It’s because] in the U.S. a lot of these prisons are privatized, so there is a profit motive to maintain punishment as the method for attempted reformation.”
Another attendee named Laura argued that the people who maintain the current penal system have no real interest in rehabilitation.
“There’s a very real struggle for power, and struggle for control over people that society deems ‘lower-class’” she said. “They’re trying to keep that [hierarchical] system in place, especially if you look at the disproportionate inmate representation in prison, like people of colour and Indigenous folks.”
“Trying to integrate them back into society is not their intention; their intention is to keep them outside of society,” she concluded.
Bougie concurred with the idea that prisons oftentimes are used as tools to maintain racial and economic hierarchies, based on his own experiences in prison.
“Most of the people knew two or three guys in the pen [prison] when they came in,” he recalled. “Where did they first meet? Shawbridge, St. Viateur [youth detention centers].”
“They’re trying to keep that [hierarchical] system in place, especially if you look at the disproportionate inmate representation in prison, like people of colour and Indigenous folks.”
“They knew each other in the juvenile system,” he continued. “When they hit eighteen, they met up at Bordeaux [another correctional facility], and when they graduated from there, they met each other in the pen. They were like family.”
Bougie brought this up to show that this is just one example of a societal pattern in which the incarcerated become lifelong members of communities considered “outcast” by society: the majority of incarcerated individuals live in a world where everyone has either been directly or indirectly affected by the penal system.
Bougie suggested that society is failing these communities by continually putting them in situations that deny their individual worth and the worth of their peers.
“When they hit eighteen, they met up at Bordeaux [another correctional facility], and when they graduated from there, they met each other in the pen. They were like family.”
Where do we go from here?
The speakers and attendees focused their discussion on compassion as a possible solution the issue of incarceration in Canada.
One attendee referenced a study conducted in Australia that illustrated the power of sympathetic understanding in the penal system.
“[The general public] thinks that sentences are too lenient and people should be punished more, […] [but this study] discussed with [individual] jurors the cases that they had sat in and made decisions on,” the attendee said.
“In those cases, [jurors] were privy to […] all of the nuances and circumstances [of the crime, and] they thought […] the sentence was fine.”
The attendee said this illustrates how hard it is to be sympathetic toward a criminal you know nothing about: if you see that person as a human being, you might be able to recognize the potential cruelty of their punishment.
Near the end of the night’s discussion, Beemans shared a personal story: “Years ago I used to go to Macaza, which is a penitentiary for prisoners you can’t put in other prisons,” she said. “Many of the guys that are there have been in [for] thirty, forty years.
“[The general public] thinks that sentences are too lenient and people should be punished more, […] [but this study] discussed with [individual] jurors the cases that they had sat in and made decisions on.”
“There’s 270 prisoners and never more than 15 have visits,” she continued. “So I said I’ll bring a busload of volunteers and I’ll fill the chapel […] and we can fill it with guys who never have a visit.”
“These are guys who have committed the type of crime that you say is horrifying,” she pointed out. “Most of them [have] been in the system since they were little kids. Most of them will never get out.”
However, Beemans said this doesn’t mean they weren’t capable of an emotional connection.
“Most of them [have] been in the system since they were little kids. Most of them will never get out.”
“They’re still human beings and we’re their only contact with the outside world. And tears fall, you see tears at the end of [our visit],” she said.