National Post

Thursday, January 14, 1999

Turning bad men into monster
Prison culture isn't just about "them," says a new book. It's about us

Jeannie Marshall
National Post


Chris Seward, The Associated Press / Inmates pass the time in Louisburg, N.C.: "The product of imprisonment is a person who will require more imprisonment in future," says author David Cayley.

Locking up criminals in prison makes life safer for the rest of us. Or so we assume. But a new book by writer and broadcaster David Cayley concludes that the huge increase in prison populations in most industrialized countries is a threat to civilized society and to our personal safety.

In The Expanding Prison: The Crisis in Crime and Punishment and the Search for Alternatives, which began as a 10-part series for CBC Radio, Cayley describes what's going wrong in prisons, and explores some fairly radical alternatives.

His Sense of Urgency Comes From the Belief That Prisons as They Exist Now Serve to Nurture and Reinforce Criminal Conduct Rather Than Deter and Rehabilitate Such Behaviour. "In a Vicious Circle, the Institution Intended to Make Society Safer Actually Makes It More Dangerous. the Product of Imprisonment Is a Person Who Will Require More Imprisonment in Future," Writes Cayley.

Jim Cavanaugh, the president of a non-denominational ministry at the Kingston Penitentiary and a former prisoner, described to Cayley what prison was like for him. He was sent to a federal prison in New Brunswick for a series of car thefts when he was 15. On the way to prison, a police officer told him that the other inmates would "use him as a woman." "The first prisoner that did stroke my hair and say, 'You're a cute kid,' and that, I smashed him in the head with a chair.. . . I poked another guy with a wire that I had made to a point at one end," says Cavanaugh.

During his time in prison, Cavanaugh met criminals who taught him how to crack safes and how to pull off an armed robbery. During a robbery in Montreal, Cavanaugh shot and wounded a police officer.

He ended up in a maximum-security prison where he killed a fellow prisoner he caught sexually abusing another young inmate. "When I reflect that this man had a messed-up life, like I did, I think it was unfortunate that we locked horns. Due to my anger and his anger, we got into that altercation and I killed him."

Cavanaugh had a spiritual crisis after this, became a Christian, and started trying to help other inmates. He is convinced that the brutalizing effects of prison life more often create hardened criminals than rehabilitated ones.

But isolating prisoners from each other has created problems of its own. Pelican Bay opened in California in 1991 and was touted as a "state-of-the-art" prison. Inmates would be completely isolated with almost no contact with guards or other prisoners. They would spend 2212 hours a day in concrete, windowless cells. They would eat in their cells and only be allowed out to shower alone and for brief periods of exercise in a small yard enclosed in concrete with a metal screen on top. "Pelican Bay is an example of the recurring fantasy in American corrections of the 'supermax': the perfect, no-touch security machine for managing difficult people," writes Cayley.


We put moose hunters who shoot out of season into the process geared to deal with Paul Bernardo.


After two years in existence, prisoners had filed hundreds of lawsuits over the conditions, and a U.S. court judge found that Pelican Bay was producing "madness in the inmates and brutality in the guards." Prisoners were storing up their faeces to throw them at the guards, guards were throwing bags of urine at the inmates. Evidence was given that prisoners were shackled, repeatedly beaten with batons, kicked, their teeth knocked out, their jaws fractured, and their heads bashed into walls and floors.

The judge found the guards' conduct towards the prisoners shocking and inhumane and ruled that Pelican Bay was in violation of the U.S. Constitution. A United Nations human rights investigator confirmed the judge's findings.

Cayley cites several studies that show that the more prisoners are removed from guards, the easier it is for those guards to see them as subhuman and to treat them with increasing brutality. Yet new prisons, much like Pelican Bay, are still being built in the United States.

Cayley also writes about the emergence of gang violence in the United States as a product of prison life. He quotes U.S. criminologist Jerry Miller saying that the meaningless violence of drive-by shootings and the structure of gangs is simply prison culture moved to the street. "It has to do with status, it has to do with respect in front of your peers. You learn not to open your mouth and say anything unless you are willing to deliver in violence," says Miller. "You don't have a reputation in many large cities unless you've been to prison. You certainly can't be a gang leader unless you've done time."

Obviously, there are tremendously violent people in prison, but throwing everyone who breaks the law into this system just perpetuates the violence, says Cayley. People who spend time in prison only become more brutal and more dangerous. But rather than trying to keep more people out of prison in the first place and reducing our reliance on imprisonment for all manner of crimes, many countries are simply building more prisons to warehouse the problem.

"I believe that this continuing increase presents a real threat to the decency and civility of the countries in which it is occurring.. . . Prisons, by definition, are totalitarian institutions. As they take a more prominent part in social control, they acclimatize the societies that rely on them to this totalitarian mode of maintaining order," writes Cayley.

For many people who break the law, prison is just too extreme a measure. Cayley quotes an assistant Crown attorney in Ontario who points out that we "put moose hunters who shoot out of season into the process geared to deal with Paul Bernardo."

As bad as prison may be for society, finding effective alternatives is no simple task. The Canadian judicial system has shown some willingness to try alternatives with mixed results and mixed reception from the public.

There have been sentencing circles in aboriginal communities, attempts at restorative justice, as well as victim-offender mediation. Cayley offers examples that show situations when these alternative measures work -- and when they don't.

In one example of how community efforts can work, Cayley cites the example of Wray Budreo, a paedophile who had served his full sentence in the Kingston penitentiary, but was greeted with outrage and hounded by reporters and protesters when he tried to settle in Peterborough, Ont.

Budreo fled to Toronto where a Correctional Service of Canada chaplain, Hugh Kierkegaard, established a "circle of support" for him. Kierkegaard believed that a person like Budreo was more likely to reoffend if he was isolated and banished from the community. If he was made to feel part of something, was the thinking, he would be less likely to do harm.

Members of the community now stay in regular contact with Budreo and, since 1994, he has not reoffended.

Ultimately, Cayley cautions against making any one alternative the answer, but believes alternatives must at least be considered. Politicians take note: " . . . any sustained revolution in criminal justice will demand considerable intellectual courage, social imagination, and political leadership."

Copyright Southam Inc.