I have been watching closely all the letters and now the vote on a correctional institute in our area. Having just finished reading Jeffrey Archer’s Prison Diaries I feel much more educated as to how these places are run. It’s not a pretty picture.
Archer’s research is always meticulous and I wondered at first if he placed himself in this situation simply to be able to critique the system. But no, he was falsely convicted of perjury, and finally released. The huge amounts of red tape took two years, during which time he was incarcerated in three jails — he calls the three resulting volumes Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. I acquired the third book from the library first, so read it first. I found it hard to take, but nothing like the horror of the other two.
Incarcerating for crime is thought to serve two purposes — it punishes the act itself, and it protects the public. Archer concluded that about 30 per cent of the prisoners should not have been there — and the other 70 per cent were hardened criminals who would exit through the “revolving door” and soon be back. It seemed to me that drug use and trafficking were the worst results of the system. A youngster jailed for a minor “pot” problem could be turned into a heroin addict in days. Access to drugs seemed taken for granted by the prison hierarchy.
Archer decided to set himself a number of hours each day to write down what he had seen and learned. Sometimes he went back to the storyteller to make sure of details, and he never told anything without permission. If a prisoner wished, his name was changed.
Surprisingly, he was given a large amount of freedom to write down facts, even though they seemed harmful to some prisoners. His fellow-offenders seemed to have faith in him, and often unburdened themselves. He became an unofficial “Listener”. Listeners were specially chosen from the prison population to help hear the often desperate stories some needed to tell — and to prevent attempted suicide. Archer himself attributed his comparative well-being to the constant supportive mail he received — great piles of it — and to the loving support of his family and close friends. Comparatively, he knew he was blessed. He found many lonely souls among his fellow inmates.
He confirmed what I have long believed — that our prison system is obsolete.
I never thought I would quote Conrad Black, but had to agree with his assessment of the system in a recent article, that prisons should be “repair shops — not garbage dumps.”
I wish I could hear Harper, so keen on “getting tough on crime”, suggest something similar. I fear he is still clinging to the old idea of “lock em up and forget em”. Crime, which has been steadily decreasing, I fear will increase during his majority regime.
Instead of building new prisons, we need to address the problems of youth violence, of mental health difficulties, of homelessness, of family dysfunction. We need more trained persons addressing these areas, not more prison guards.
And I fear for our youth. Why would anyone take a knife to a bush party?
Since council has suggested that we who oppose a prison provide another answer to valley unemployment, this is my view. Create a National Okanagan Desert Park — from Vernon to Osoyoos. No one can apply to live in such parks without a job and a place to live. The oldies — like myself — would gradually be replaced by young families, headed by park workers. Gated retirement communities would be replaced by family homes.
And it is amazing how much work would be required — starting with hiking trails dotted with primitive campsites. Parks have been created around communities before — consider Prince Albert. There would be changes — but surely healthful changes. There would be resistance. But I believe it could be accomplished. And parks are hugely popular. People would flock to this — our only Canadian desert.
And who knows? Maybe this idea would help prevent the need for prisons.
Dodi Morrison is a retired educator and freelance Penticton writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.