Chapter 7: Three Prisons Viruses: Disrespect, Idleness and Detachment

Three viruses always infect corrections. We should pay attention to them, because they are always going to be there. No matter what area you move into, they have an impact.


The first of these is disrespect. I mean disrespect in its broadest definition: not only how we treat offenders, but also how we treat each other as employees, and how the organization treats its members who are carrying out the jobs. It means how we treat the public, in terms of accountability to the public, and how we treat victims who suffer the pain and consequences of crime.

We have had varying degrees of success in dealing with disrespect, which often had to do with poor behaviour and poor treatment of offenders, and poor treatment of fellow employees. I can remember my early days in corrections, walking through places like the B.C. Penitentiary and observing what I thought was rather disrespectful behaviour among officers toward each other. It was really quite disturbing. It was not a model I would hold up as one of excellence. They all survived somehow; you work out a system because you all have to survive, but it was not what we would consider by any standards a respectful environment in which to work.

We weren't terribly aware or concerned about human rights issues — not nearly as much as we are now. I can remember debates about the subject, especially in my early years in corrections. The concern was that inmates would eventually get away with murder, everything would be inmate rights-oriented, and everybody else would be forgotten. It had to do with general respect, which has always been difficult. Although we don't see the same levels of disrespect now that we did previously, because of policies on harassment and better organizational structures, we still see vestiges of it in our staff relations and conflict in the union-management area. There are some good examples of labour-management relations, which I think are improving. Along with human rights goes respect for the rule of law. We have to be much more diligent in the professional ways that we account for what we do. Underneath it all, if we are not careful and prudent, callousness in letting the dark side of disrespect overtake us can surface very quickly.

The area that is more troubling to me now is the disrespect that I see coming from some political positions being taken. Certainly, the demand for harsher and crueler treatment suggests we're moving back to an era of disrespect. I'm greatly concerned that the media generally have taken a fairly dramatic shift from their stance in the 1970s. Then, they were very critical of us for our abusive behaviour. Now, they are extremely critical of leniency in the organization. Some of it is misdirected, because our priority is to change human behaviour, which is probably the most difficult task that anybody could tackle. To do it in the context of perpetual punishment and brutality simply doesn't work.

You want to make sure that there is a balance to things. When I say we treat people respectfully, it doesn't mean that we ignore their criminal behaviour, or treat them as though nothing happened or that what they did was somehow an honourable thing. That's not what we're talking about — it's quite the opposite. Treating people respectfully is holding them to account for what they did and the troubles they caused, trying to bring some redress to those who suffered the consequences of their behaviour, and at the same time, changing their behaviour. That is what I would define as a respectful way of conducting our business. Politics drives how things eventually evolve — the whole future of public policy. I find it somewhat troubling because in some ways it seems like a move back toward a meaner and more brutal society. We've forgotten how demeaning it is and what an impact it has on the general public. We have a society that allows us to treat other human beings poorly, for whatever reason. Some politicians say that we don't concern ourselves with public safety issues, but that is what we are all about. The safest thing we can do is to change people's behaviour patterns. There are classes of offenders, and some of them are outrageous criminals. The best we can do is contain them.

Canada has come a long way in actually directing an offender's behaviour. From some of the research we are involved in, I am absolutely convinced that we can be extremely effective — not 100 per cent, but we have had a major impact on our recidivism rate. We have a more sophisticated organization and higher technology, and we can now monitor those things that have been difficult to measure. On the other hand, while we can help offenders change their own behaviour extensively, it's always a matter of degree. For certain individuals, a dramatic change would be that they could be contained in a medium-security institution for the rest of their lives. Whether they would be safe to go anywhere near the community is a separate question. Nevertheless, we can in fact help the majority of our offenders become law-abiding citizens. It strikes me from the evidence I have seen in the last five years at Ferndale Institution that the possibilities are fairly dramatic.

We are able to help people reduce their criminal activity in significant ways. Just the other day, I received a postcard from a fellow who was my first parolee in 1973, and who is currently living in the community. He's an older gentleman now, of course. He was one of literally thousands of people with whom I have had contact over the years, who have dissolved into the general community at large and are normal citizens. These people are never going to be the subject of media attention because they have quit committing other offences and they don't stick out like a sore thumb. I know that the media's job is to report the exception; these people are not the exception, and they don't become so obvious.

I believe we could reduce the prison population in Canada substantially, probably reducing the risk to society. There is a discernable shift throughout the system. From my own experience in minimum security, the obvious expectation is that corrections should have a much higher success rate. Generally speaking, we have made a dramatic improvement right across the board in the number of inmates who are likely to reoffend. We estimate that 70 per cent of our entire current population would not reoffend after release — our national average. In a previous era, if we had 40 per cent, we would be lucky.

You are going to have fewer released from maximum-security institutions because they are lifers and more dangerous, but if you take the whole group of people who are sitting in prison today and looked at them 10 years from now, after some kind of release, our best guess is that about 70 per cent would become law-abiding citizens, or at least won't reoffend.

I haven't had a good look at what other jurisdictions do. In many cases, they just don't keep that kind of data. It's hard to make comparisons because we define crime differently. The best comparisons are with western European countries, yet their criminal codes and what they define as crime are quite different in many places. For example, they may handle sex offences under their equivalent of the Mental Health Act, as opposed to the Criminal Code. The United States has a fragmented correctional system because every state has its own — 50 different correctional systems. The American federal prison system is relatively small, dealing only with federal offences such as cross-border crime or offences specifically against the federal government. If you defraud your social-security cheque, you'll land up as a federal inmate, but if you kill your wife, you will land up in the state system. In the United States, the state system is much closer to our federal system.


One of the killers of corrections is idleness. It has to do with how we have organized prisons over the past 200 years. The architecture and security systems that we have in place do not allow an effective use of time. Too much of an offender's time is spent sitting around and doing nothing. Very few offenders in North America actually do a meaningful day of work. Chain gangs are still operating in the southern United States. I don't mean sending a road gang out with a brushcutter and clearing the side of the road. It's physically active but it's not the kind of productive work that ultimately has much merit, replicating what a person is expected to do in society.

It's the curse of all wardens: to organize their institutions in a way that they can keep people productively occupied. You are restricted by time and space. There are only so many things you can do. Innovative work programs — such as our industrial programs — are very difficult to run. On the one hand, you have to be careful not to be viewed as having slave labour and not to compete with private-sector businesses, and on the other hand, you must have business practices that are appropriate and workable. So it is a terrific challenge to defeat idleness. One of the advantages of minimum-security facilities is that we are able to structure and organize ourselves in a way that we can occupy peoples' time much more productively. In medium- and maximum-security institutions, however, making productive use of offenders' time is amazingly difficult. And I mean all aspects of time, including productive leisure time. There are only so many things that you can let people do. So what happens? Guys sit down in the weight room pumping iron, and it becomes your major leisure activity. That's not my idea of good socialization among people. It's not constructive, people just hanging around with each other engaged in non-productive discussion about future criminal behaviour. It's a very difficult challenge to get around.

Employment, to me, is absolutely crucial. I believe in programming, and I have been an advocate of good programming for many years. But programming only has value if it is related to real-life experience. Unless someone involved in a training, learning or rehabilitation program actually practices what he learns, then it's of no merit. You can go to a school of journalism all your life, but if you never write an essay, you're not going to learn anything. That's very true in corrections. If people aren't living as we expect normal human beings to live — to do their cooking, to look after themselves, to work productively at a job where they are accountable for what they do, or get fired if they don't do a good job — all the programming you do for that individual is of marginal value. It's not one or the other. Some of my corrections critics, such as politicians, will say that inmates shouldn't be doing these kinds of projects — they should be doing programs to deal with their substance abuse. Yet you can only spend so many hours a day dealing with substance abuse. You've actually got to do something with the remainder of the time that replicates normal living. For me and particularly for my colleagues at a minimum-security institution, it's hugely important; all of us do whatever we can to create work opportunities.

If work is meaningful and productive, I never have trouble finding people to do it, even dirty work. Some of the jobs are not particularly good jobs. It is industrial work that includes park construction and trail building. In British Columbia, in the middle of winter, this is not the most pleasant experience because you labour in the cold and rain and muck under very adverse weather conditions. It's difficult work, chasing down the highway for days on end, cleaning the medians on the freeway, clearing brush and controlling ragweed. Most of us wouldn't choose to do that as an occupation, but I've never had problems finding people wanting to do it because it's productive work. They happily do it because they know that at the end of the day they will have produced something of value and merit. But if I ask people to break rocks for the sake of breaking rocks I'm not going to have too many takers. Some will even happily shovel manure because we have a herd of cattle coming. As an old farm boy, for the last five years, I thought this was something we could do successfully, so it's a dream come true for me.

The other side of meaningful work is having diverse work opportunities. People assume that everybody does the same thing, and that's not true. One of the models I try to adopt is to have a variety of work options to maximize inmates' gifts and skills. Whether they are mechanical or administrative, there are work opportunities that exist in all those areas. A number of people who wind up in prison for whatever reason are gifted — artists, for example. We allow them to work their craft for commercial and other purposes as community-service initiatives. We run construction crews who do all kinds of work in the community for volunteer organizations.


By "detachment" I mean the habit of organizations — particularly corrections — to become too internalized, secretive and private, not wanting the public or others to know what goes on. Historically, it was a very secret society. Very few people in Canada had a clue about what went on behind the walls of B.C. Penitentiary, and even today have very little understanding of what really goes on inside our correctional facilities. Although this has changed with the advent of citizens' advisory committees, and more access generally to the media, public organizations and groups, the habit still lurks underneath of wanting to be a very private organization, of saying that we'll do our own thing and nobody can tell us what to do.

It has been a challenge for us to work hard at being open and accountable. The trouble is that we have been secretive for so long that when we make efforts to be open and accountable, it is often viewed as manipulative: somehow the straight goods aren't coming across — we're an organization full of conspiracies. Conspiracies, of course, take more ability and intelligence than we've ever been able to muster. Nonetheless, the view persists among administrators and correctional workers that what we do is nobody else's business. We tend to wonder why others should be concerned with how we handle ourselves.

In most cases, offenders will be going back to their families and their connections in the community, so to divorce them from the community is not a good thing. Anything we can do that reinforces community connections is important, as much as it is very difficult to maintain. There are so many publics with vested interests, often in conflict with each other. One group does not necessarily concur with what another organization believes to be true, and you're often caught in the middle of trying to mediate between competing values and competing interests.

We suffer from nimbyism — not in my backyard — in an extreme form in our business. To try to open a halfway house or some kind of community-based resource anywhere, even in industrial areas, becomes an almost impossible task. The community simply does not want to have any sense of responsibility for dealing with criminal behaviour. It just hopes that somebody else will take it and bury it and make sure that nobody has to deal with it, but that's not how it is. We're dealing with human beings who still have stakes in the community, and eventually will have to be part of that community. Even in our practice of community corrections, it's a very difficult job to get good support and co-operation from community groups.

Detachment is one of the more difficult viruses that keeps coming up and attacking what we do because, ultimately, we're only effective if we establish a good base of community support in everything from programming to providing employment. One of the ways we try to deal with it in a place like Ferndale is to establish a number of partnerships with various groups and organizations. Our motto — Partners in Corrections — continually reinforces the idea that what we do has some community impact. The more we get involved with projects and initiatives, and obtain advice from the community, the more knowledgeable it becomes about what our role and responsibilities are. The community can also give us good advice and direction about how we can do our job better.

As an old Warden in this business, I find that the three viruses of disrespect, idleness and detachment are the issues that always haunt what we do. I think it's probably the same for my colleagues. We struggle all the time to try to avoid the obvious ridicule and negative view that people have of corrections, and to try to help them understand that what we do is crucial to the overall health of our society.

I have often thought that Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment should be required reading for everyone in society — a classic novel that really explores the nature of punishment in society, and how we deal with crime and its impact generally on society. Some of the old classics have a lot to teach us. I think I am fortunate that my education has been extremely eclectic: everything from English literature to anthropology to philosophy to theology. Having an eclectic academic experience has given me a somewhat broader view of who we are and what we do, not just a totally focussed view of our profession as unique and special. Corrections is broad, and we have to develop a good understanding of where we sit in the overall scheme of Canadian society. Most of my colleagues and I are all from similar backgrounds, and we all want to make a contribution to the quality of life in Canada. We're not here to torment innocent people. This need not to be detached but rather to be very attached to what goes on is critically important for us, and should guide us in many of our public policies in the future.