Lasha Morningstar

WE ARE ONE

April 14, 2014

Chances are you will eat your dinner when you want. Go to bed when you want. Go out the door when you want. Inmates can't.

So why should we care? They broke a law, maybe many laws. They deserve to be there. Really?

Take a look at who they are, especially the aboriginal people. They make up 23 per cent of inmates in the federal prisons. At the Remand Centre, that number climbs to 70 per cent. Yet aboriginal people make up only 1.4 per cent of the nation's population.

With the final leg of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fresh in people's minds, perhaps one can cast their mind back and listen to the voices of the First Nations. Granted, the focus of the commission was on the horror of the residential schools. Those who have been silent for decades stood up and spoke of their pain, what was done to them, how it still impacts them today.

That impact is a good part of why the jails are disproportionately filled by aboriginal, Metis and Inuit people.

Certainly there are people who should be in jail, kept away from society because they are, to put it bluntly, dangerous.

But what about the others who tumble into the prison system? What about those poor souls whose only crime is to have an untreated mental illness? With the health care system focusing on dumping them out into the community, the untreated Canadian is usually without work, sufficient financial support and/or medical follow up.

Some centres have mental health courts that deal with crimes deemed to be the result of the offender's mental illness. Sentencing takes that factor into consideration and the accused is usually linked to community support and resources.

JAILING THE POOR

The poor, the disenfranchised fill our cells. By the way, those cells cost $110,000 a year each, twice that for women. Think too about the children involved. Unless there are stable relatives, the innocent little ones end up in the foster care system. Who knows what happens to them then?

Give a thought about the others in the system – the guards. Too often they are portrayed as brutes. But think of what they must deal with each and every day. Broken people. Desperate people. And people who are straight out evil. The guards' provincial wages have been frozen for the last four years and now the province is are going after their pensions.

Resources in jail? Few. Often the facilities don't meet the demand and inmates rail about overcrowding. Chances of being retrained depend on what is offered.

Why should we care? To put it bluntly, these inmates will at some point, come back into the community, your city, maybe your street. Wouldn't you rather have them treated, able to work?

TOUGH ON CRIME

The battle cry, at least amongst the federal politicians, is to be tough on crime.

One can understand the mothers of MADD carrying rage in their hearts when their child is killed by a drunk driver. They want stiffer sentences for drunk driving and that makes sense.

Also, when one hands over tuition fees for university, a front page newspaper story shouting that prisoners are earning their degrees – for free – in prison can provoke an almost primal reaction.

We must give our heads a shake. I'd rather they be hitting the books than be meeting up with prison gang members. An investment in their education means they'll have a fighting chance once they are back in society.

Some prisons are evolving, stepping past the traditional. Several are allowing prisoners to take rescue dogs, dogs that have been abused and neglected (often like themselves) and work with them and a trainer.

Once graduation day hits and the dogs are happy and well trained, the inmates know they have saved a dog's life, redeemed them, so they can go into an adoptive home.

So easy to forget about people in prison, isn't it, unless you have someone behind bars?

POPE FRANCIS

Pope Francis hasn't forgotten. He washed the feet of a dozen prisoners, including young women, at a youth detention centre in Rome as part of a Holy Thursday Mass last year.

The pontiff poured water over the young offenders' feet, wiped them with a white towel and kissed them. His actions show us what is healing, forgiving.

The next time a get tough on crime slogan is hollered by some vote-seeking politician tackle them and demand to know exactly what they mean. Do they want to heal broken inmates or pay millions of dollars to cage them and turn them out enculturated in crime, maybe even part of a gang.

Jails are there. Prisoners are there. They are our fellow men and women and must not be forgotten.

(Lasha Morningstar lasha@wcr.ab.ca)