A Meeting of the Task Force On Prison Reform



Harold Pitt -- a social worker who works with parolees

Dr. Alan Morton -- a criminologist with a psychoanalytical background

Dr. Mary Purcell -- a criminologist with a background in sociology

John Tom -- chief of a Cree reserve in Saskatchewan

Beth Kowalchuk -- a prisoner-rights activist representing a coalition of liberal religious organizations

Grace Anderson -- a representative of a coalition of conservative churches

Peter Carr -- a businessman representing a group called Victims of Violence

Frieda Herzog -- author of the best seller, A Nation of Jailers

Anna Fong -- a schoolteacher representing a group called In-house Educators

Sam Faraday -- a representative of the union of prison guards


(Harold Pitt has been asked to chair the first meeting. He has already introduced the members and has just finished presenting an overview of crime and prison statistics in the country.)

HAROLD: I guess we had better get started on determining our agenda. The agenda is crucial because it will focus us in the direction we want to go as we work on our task.

PETER: I guess you mean that we've got to begin by thinking about priorities, so we won't just wander all over the place. I'm for that.

FRIEDA: Just what is our task, as you see it?

HAROLD: Well, first of all, I'd guess we're expected to register what the statistics on rates of crime and recidivism have revealed. There appears to be general agreement among competent observers that our prison system is overburdened and ineffective. And then, I think we're expected to come up with some answers as to why this is the case. Finally, we'll be wasting our time and the taxpayer's money if we don't offer some suggestions for reform.

FRIEDA: Do you really think that this government wants our answers -- and would pay any attention to them if they got them? Nonsense! The capitalist system couldn't get along without its prisons. My book shows how it needs them for its casualties and losers -- all those people who can't compete in this dog- eat-dog society. And we all go along with it because it's simply a lot easier to build prisons and lock people up than to change the economic conditions that put them there in the first place.

MARY: Are you including in the sins of our system the wholesale glorification of violence and dishonesty in the media? It's what our children eat and drink from the time they can crawl.

ALAN: If you were right in your rather sweeping indictment, Frieda, what would that particular definition of the problem suggest as a solution?

FRIEDA: To start with -- a guaranteed income for everyone that would be set considerably above the official poverty level. Most people who commit crimes do so because of poverty and exploitation by the rich.

PETER: How could we possibly finance that, given the size of our annual deficit and massive public debt -- combined with our overwhelming expectations for universal entitlements and the fact that people don't seem willing to pay more taxes?

FRIEDA: We could begin by closing down half of our prisons.

SAM: God help our women and children then!

MARY: We seem already to have launched on our task, Harold. How about considering Frieda's analysis of the problem and the suggestions for reform that would follow from it as the first of a number of alternatives to be studied in the months ahead?

BETH: Great! I agree with much of what Frieda says.

HAROLD: That seems like a good way to proceed. Any questions on either the analysis of the problem or the reform proposal as presented by Frieda?

PETER: Well I've got lots. For starters, how do we decide which prisoners get out and which crimes no longer warrant prison sentences?

SAM: If we jail only half as many, there will be thousands of criminals back on the streets almost as soon as they've been caught.

ALAN: What will the police think about that? Will it affect the way they do their job? Not to mention whether they can continue to do it at all.

ANNA: How will we reach these freed criminals to rehabilitate them?

SAM: Rehabilitate? My arse! How the devil will we keep them from going right on robbing banks and shooting people?

GRACE: How about punishment for their wrongdoing? To deter others from imitating their behavior, if for no other reason.

MARY: And don't we have a duty to protect the vulnerable members of society - the ones most likely to become victims -- and to maintain some semblance of respect for the law?

BETH: Would there be some form of parole and how would it be administered? Maybe you could give us an opinion on that, Harold.

HAROLD: I shudder to think of the sheer numbers of parole officers that would be required, and I wonder what the incentive would be for criminals to straighten out, if we couldn't at least hold out the threat of incarceration.

FRIEDA: You all seem to have missed the point completely. Society simply wouldn't be creating the criminals any more. A generous guaranteed income for all, whether or not we work at jobs, would ensure that people could live cooperatively rather than competitively. People wouldn't learn from childhood that they have to "get" others by any means available, before they "get" them first. That's what our materialistic capitalist society teaches. Those on the bottom have no means available to them within the law, because it was set up by and for the winners.

ALAN: Although I might accept your initial premise, I'm not sure that we would all agree that humans can be changed overnight merely by changing one aspect of their total social environment. And what about all those people already corrupted by their childhood experiences? They require years of analysis. How would a wholesale emptying the jails help? Wouldn't the destructive behavior of seasoned criminals counteract the benefits to be reaped by society through universal financial security?

HAROLD: Have you any idea how much of a guaranteed income security blanket would be necessary to satisfy the needs of the untreated cocain addict put back on the streets?

SAM: And why should I work my tail off to provide it for him? I'd be a fool not to take it easy on the dole myself.

BETH: What do you think, Chief Tom? Too often it is your people who get caught in the poverty trap and end up in jail, through no real fault of their own.

JOHN: For a long time my people have got paid some kind of guaranteed income by government. I think it is not the answer. Maybe it took away their pride in themselves. Our young men and women need management of their own lands and good jobs created by their own capital -- not more handouts from the white man for doing nothing.

FRIEDA: But my plan would give them all that too. In a cooperative socialist economy native peoples would feel much more at home. They would not turn to crime simply because they are made to feel like misfits.

BETH: No native should ever be locked away in a white man's prison. In imposing such a sentence on an Indian youth we are committing a far greater crime than whatever it may have been that he was driven to do.

JOHN: My people want our own police force and our own justice system. Then many of those who are filling your jails would be looked after in their own communities. We have better ways of straightening them out, such as sentencing circles and healing circles and even banishment to the wilderness.

PETER: But what if they commit crimes in our communities and then go back to your community for refuge?

SAM: Yes. And what about smuggling drugs and guns across these new borders? Who would be responsible?

HAROLD: It might be a good idea if we tried to deal with the specific concerns raised about Frieda's proposal.

MARY: One problem I have with it is that, although a totally new society might indeed produce totally new human beings, we have no way of predicting with any confidence what these new humans might be like. We might discover that we had leaped entirely in the wrong direction, and it would be very difficult to reverse. Nor have we the means to launch such a revolution. Given our mandate, and the nature of democracy, we can only proceed one step at a time.

FRIEDA: Well, I have just suggested such a step. You can scarcely consider a guaranteed annual income to be revolutionary.

MARY: Fine. You also said that your proposed step would both require and justify a wholesale emptying of prisons. Let's go back and look at that.

HAROLD; That's a good idea. A lot of legitimate concerns were raised. Could we deal with Peter's question first? What criterion could be used to determine which crime warrants a prison sentence and which does not?

ALAN: What about violence to persons, as opposed to property, and what about victimless crimes?

PETER: I'd be willing to consider some form of retribution where nonviolent crimes were concerned. But the possibility of imprisonment would have to be retained, to be there as a threat if the conditions weren't lived up to. My chief worry is about the safety of all those potential victims out there. Our organization is not out to punish people, but to deter them.

GRACE: You're surely not suggesting that convicted criminals should get off scot free? At the very least we should insist on evidence of some sort of conversion to Christian beliefs and some sign of repentance or remorse. Without just punishment few sinners change their ways.

SAM: I'd say that paying back what they stole or rebuilding what they wrecked would be pretty damn good punishment for some of these spoiled kids who get off with a tap on the hand today.

ANNA: If you only knew the kind of homes some of them come from. It is simply not their fault. How can you blame a child whose parents are never home, if he grows up aggressive and full of resentment? He is punished in the first place by drawing a lousy family or else a lousy neighborhood, and then we punish him some more for behaving in the only way that he can if he is to survive.

MARY: How about an incentive system in prison to reward socially productive behavior, rather than punishment?

ALAN: I think we have to get away from the entire idea of guilt and blame. Prisons based on the idea of punishment are creating criminals, rather than curing them. I would like to see all our prisons turned into treatment centers, and, regardless of the nature of the crime, no one released until he has undergone appropriate therapy.

BETH: That would be wonderful, but I think it should be on a volunteer basis. No inmate should be forced to undergo treatment -- nor participate in an incentive system such as Mary suggested. Why should a person lose his civil rights just because he happens to be in jail?

SAM: Well I'll be damned! And all this time I thought that was the whole idea of jailing guilty people! These guys lost their civil rights the moment they committed their crime, as far as I am concerned! What is a jail sentence anyway, if not the ultimate violation of civil rights?

GRACE: And what about our rights to safe streets?

PETER: I always assumed that our entire justice system was based on the idea of individual guilt and accountability for one's actions. You are a pillar of the system, Dr. Morton. It gives you your bread and butter. Are you telling us that you don't believe in it?

ALAN: Of course I believe in the goals of the justice system. But I also believe that those goals can be better achieved by understanding the basic human needs and protecting the rights of the prisoners. My motto has always been: "Speak to the king in a man and the king will answer." Although I don't agree with Beth that they should have the right to refuse treatment, for the simple reason that the confusion which has caused them to go wrong in the first place inevitably blinds them to their own best interests.

ANNA: As I understand Alan's position, he is opting for compulsory programs for those who would be considered to have committed crimes punishable by imprisonment: programs aimed at rehabilitation. I second that, but I think that holistic education is better than either therapy or the type of conditioning through reinforcement that Mary has suggested. Psychoanalysis is often ineffective, invariably long-term and necessarily individual -- and therefore extremely costly. And conditioning implies control by those doing the educating.

MARY: I would have thought that any change-inducing program would imply control by someone. Would you rather have the direction and means of change in the hands of the most powerful of the inmates? It appears to me that we already have far too much of that kind of prisonization going on. Also, while I have the floor, I would like to suggest an important distinction. Beth and Alan have talked about basic rights of prisoners, and I agree that even those who have committed dreadful crimes share certain human rights that should never be lost sight of. No one should ever be treated so as to deny or destroy his or her dignity as a human being. But who ever said that basic human rights are the same as civil rights?

HAROLD: I agree that we all need to define our terms more clearly. But to get back to Frieda's specific proposal. Could we first establish whether we've agreed that nonviolent perpetrators of victimless crimes could be better handled outside of the prison system?

MARY: I believe this to be the case. But only under a very specific set of conditions. And, by the way, there are no victimless crimes. The distinction is between crimes affecting immediately identifiable victims and those with long-term effects on the fabric of the society in which all of us must live. Every crime victimizes all of us.

JOHN: For me too, for my people, it is the conditions that are important. We must be free to take our troubled and troubling young people back to the reserve and to keep them there, against their will if necessary. We would have to be able to impose a strict discipline, to teach them the culture of our fathers, and to punish them in our own way. To make them unlearn their bad habits the punishment may sometime have to be harsh. They could not just be free to return to the city streets.

BETH: I'm sure that you know what is best for your own people, and the rest of us have no right to interfere. But for the majority culture, it is a different matter. I am suspicious of your proposal, Mary. And, regardless of your definitions, the situation you suggest sounds to me like a curtailment of civil rights.

MARY: It is. I agree with Sam in that a person indicted for a crime -- even a nonviolent one -- has by definition acted irresponsibly toward his society and has thereby forfeited certain rights, although not the essential human right to be treated with dignity and common human decency. Civil rights, however, go hand in hand with civic responsibility. Where the second has been denied by the individual, the first must be denied by society, in similar measure, until the behavior changes. Human society could not work otherwise.

HAROLD: Perhaps we could hear more about the conditions you deem necessary for the rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders, Mary.

MARY: The conditions are that we would use the technical means now available, and already well-tested, to keep track of indicted persons. They would have a small monitored computer locked to the wrist or ankle which would register all movements. They would be restricted to the home and workplace (which might well involve the job of making reparations to victims) and would have to report regularly to their parole officers.

BETH: Why that is dehumanizing ! What could it possibly accomplish?

MARY: Wherever it has been used it has been in the form of a controlled experiment, aimed at accomplishing the rehabilitation of the individual concerned. So far the evidence indicates a remarkably low rate of recidivism.

ALAN: More minimum security treatment centers with marital (and equivalent) privileges and a homelike atmosphere is a much more humanistic way to go. That direction has the benefit of allowing for closely monitored therapy sessions. I noticed that you did not include therapy in your conditions, Mary.

MARY: That is because I am not convinced of its effectiveness. I would be interested in comparing a control group of randomly selected offenders in the the type of treatment center you suggest with an experimental group undergoing the conditions I have specified. Surely that is how we, as criminologists, should proceed.

HAROLD: This sounds like the type of proposal that our committee might possibly put forward.

BETH: I, for one, would never support such a move. Experimenting with human beings smacks of fascism.

FRIEDA: We don't need any pseudo-scientific experiment. We already know the answer. If we don't change the economic system, neither Alan's nor Mary's suggestion will make a bit of difference in the long run. They are only patching up the symptoms of the disease.

ALAN: I also think that such an experiment would be a waste of time. Mary's experimental group might show up the best in terms of recidivism over five years or so, but their underlying psychological problems would not have been resolved. They would have merely repressed their destructive tendencies.

SAM: Well, what the hell! Isn't that what we're after? If they had been a bit more repressed in the first place, maybe the police wouldn't have had to haul them in!

ANNA: It isn't a question of repression or the need for artificially imposed discipline. It's about the absence of love in these people's lives. That has been their problem all along. I think we should establish humanistic educational programs, both in-house and outside, for those allowed their tentative freedom: programs that would teach them to trust and love again.

PETER: I like Mary's suggestion. It would give us some solid answers and it's a lot less expensive than the long-term direction favored by Alan.

SAM: And a lot less dangerous than turning them loose and telling them we love them no matter what they do.

GRACE: I might agree if one of the requirements was that they would have to attend church regularly.

SAM: Our jails are full right now of church-goers -- so long as they are being watched, and as long as they think that's one of the ways to get an easy ride inside and a fast exit. I can never see that it does them much good, but they sure learn how to manipulate the visiting preachers and do-gooders.

HAROLD: We seem to have two possible procedures to compare in a controlled way, Mary. Yours and Alan's -- but Alan, Beth and Frieda seem to be against proceeding in an experimental way. Where do we go from here?

PETER: How about you, Chief Tom?

JOHN: Mary's idea sounds good. It's like I was saying we want to do on our Reserves.

ANNA: I'm willing to give it a try. But governments would have to invest in a lot more parole officers and community education, or it wouldn't work. And I would insist on the inclusion of a third alternative: a holistic and humanistic educational approach.

MARY: Why not record the proposal for a controlled experiment in community- based rehabilitation for nonviolent offenders and put it aside for later work? Then we could proceed by looking at the issue of what to do with violent criminals -- those who must be isolated from society.

BETH: Who are we to say that they must be isolated?

FRIEDA: Why, we're the mouthpieces of the establishment, of course. This task force is beginning to sound more and more like an attempt at whitewash and delay. Calling for more studies is an old technique.

BETH: I have to agree. Everybody knows what the problem is. Prisons are nothing more than schools for crime. They are violent places that breed more violence.

PETER: If that is the case, who are the teachers? Who is in control?

MARY: Good question! Who determines the nature of the learning environment in our prisons?

SAM: It sure as hell ain't the guards. Half the time we end up just fighting for our lives.

MARY: Anna, you're a teacher. Don't educational programs have to have an objective, a controlled environment designed to provide the type of experience most likely to further that objective, and some means to evaluate effectiveness?

ANNA: That's not my idea of education. I believe that you just have to remove society's artificial restrictions so that people are free to develop in their own way. All they need is a loving, permissive environment. Prisoners are no different from anyone else. Your idea of education sounds more like manipulation to me.

FRIEDA: And it's just so typical of this bureaucratic, manipulative society! I explain it all in my book.

BETH: I understand perfectly, Frieda. We are all jailers!

SAM: Then we're all doing a damn poor job of it, by the look of what's going on around us!

MARY: What I was trying to get at was, if it is true that our current prisons are operating as superbly effective schools -- effective, that is, in teaching criminal behavior -- shouldn't we be looking very closely at the kind of activity and values being rewarded and thus perpetuated in them right now? And shouldn't we be asking what it is about the prison environment that is furthering violence and inhibiting rehabilitation?

GRACE: They are Godless, that's the whole trouble. It's secularism running wild throughout society. We no longer have any sense of sin.

ALAN: What if the problem is with what the inmates bring with them -- the unresolved emotional issues from childhood, and perhaps even, as Jung says, from the race memory of humanity?

PETER: In that case you're simply saying that the problem with the jail as a learning environment is the kind of people who are part and parcel of it.

SAM: Don't I know it! If it weren't for the inmates, my life would be a bed of roses.

BETH: Do we have to call them inmates?

MARY: I'm afraid Alan's also saying that nothing can change until each prisoner undergoes many years of dream work and psychoanalysis and even then he can never be seen to be cured. Meanwhile, however, the poison from the prison environment in which each must survive will have been seeping in -- counteracting the efforts of people like Alan. And if, by some miracle, an individual withstands those poisonous influences and becomes emotionally healthy, then, by definition, he is ready to leave. This means that his expensively acquired virtue and wisdom will immediately be lost to his fellows, and the prison social environment will be just as bad as ever.

JOHN: I see what you mean. When I talk about getting our youth back to the Reserve I'm really thinking of getting them into an environment we can control. An environment where good ways of living will be taught -- not the ways of the city street and the ways of the white man's rotten jails.

BETH: Of course you're absolutely right, Chief Tom. A controlled environment that teaches the old ways is the only thing for native people. But Mary wants to impose the values of the majority culture. That is entirely different. After all, we still do respect human rights -- even those of prisoners. Of course I'm not referring to your people, Chief Tom. I understand that your culture has different values.

PETER: Just a minute here, Beth. Aren't you being just a little bit racist with your distinctions here? Why is a minority culture necessarily good while the majority one is always bad? As I see it, anyone in the business of rehabilitating criminals has a desirable end in view for that person, in terms of a change in his values and behavior -- whether she or he is a teacher, priest, psychoanalyst, sociologist, or (sorry, John) Indian chief.

SAM: They'd damn well better have, or they've no right to take their pay.

PETER: And we, the society that hires them, had better know what those ends are.

GRACE: I'm beginning to think that too many of them don't even know that they are changing people. Educating violent criminals by love! Teaching God's love, maybe, but there's not much chance of these modern criminologists exposing prisoners to the Bible.

SAM: It's more likely to be pornographic films.

GRACE: Far too many of our so-called experts are teaching the wrong things. SAM: I hear that some are even secular humanists.

MARY: Be that as it may, could we look seriously at four propositions? Sam, it would help if you could be serious as well. One, the prison environment, while not everything, does in fact exert a powerful influence over members of the closed prison society, in the direction of increasing violence. Two, the prison environment is that aspect of the prisoner's learning situation that is most capable of being changed. Three, the goal of rehabilitation requires a change in the criminal from a violent to nonviolent behavior pattern. And four, control of the learning environment must be wrested from the powerful leaders of the inmate society if new, nonviolent ways of relating are to be encouraged.

SAM: Well, seriously, we've been saying that for years, but prison officials like to take the easy road -- for them. In the long run, of course, the more they let the bully boys take control the harder it is for us.

BETH: I object to the term "bully boys". I want to say right now that I have fought for years for more participatory democracy in prisons. The problem is too little control by the prisoners, not too much!

FRIEDA: Hear! Hear! Talk about blaming the victim. We throw them into jail against their will and then blame them for the atmosphere that inevitably results.

HAROLD: It seems we have a real difference of opinion here. Where do you stand, Alan?

ALAN: Remember, we're talking about only the most violent element here. If we're still following Frieda's plan, the rest will have been released and in some kind of monitored situation. So the idea that dangerous convicts should be in control of the learning situation doesn't make much sense, does it, unless we are actually intending to operate schools for crime?

GRACE: Of course they shouldn't be in control. Participatory democracy in a prison for violent criminals! Now I've heard everything! What other ways have we been rewarding them for anti-social behavior, I wonder?

SAM: How about no compulsory work, better food than most workers with families can afford, readily available drugs and all the violent pornography they can watch?

ANNA: What makes you think that your approach to re-educating violent prisoners would work, Mary?

MARY: That's exactly the right question to ask. Does it work, in terms of making violent people less violent; dishonest people more honest; irresponsible people more responsible? That is what we must ask of our present approach. Because our system seems so demonstrably wanting -- and Frieda has documented that -- surely we should be willing to try something else. But not just anything else. I am suggesting that we make very specific changes in the prison environment, identify the direction in which we hope to effect corresponding change in behavior, reward those changes, and evaluate results on a continuing basis. That way, we won't go too far wrong.

PETER: Suppose we do create an effective system of rehabilitation. What about those for whom it's too late? For the mass murderers of children and their ilk?

SAM: They're the real problem. If we keep them restrained with no hope of freedom forever, their lives are sheer hell and they poison the whole prison setting. If we let them go -- as the Beths and Annas and Friedas of this world seem to want us to do -- they go out to kill again.

GRACE: I maintain that if a murderer ever kills the second time he should be put to death by the state, as quickly and humanely as possible.

BETH: Why that's barbaric! I would like to hear what Chief John Tom thinks about a supposedly civilized society resorting to capital punishment.

JOHN: Well maybe if a man is so dangerous and sick he cannot be cured and he is like a mad dog among us .... We shoot mad dogs, don't we?

ANNA: But -- but -- I thought you people believed that all life is sacred.

JOHN: We do believe that life is sacred. That is why we shoot mad dogs. They destroy life.

BETH: Well I understand, Chief Tom, that you are thinking in broader terms of nature's way. You are closer to nature than we; it is different in your case. But our tradition adheres to the principle of the ultimate worth and essential equality of all human beings.

PETER: That still doesn't justify a refusal to sacrifice a particularly dangerous and life-destroying human life for the safety and welfare of a large number of innocent and productive lives that are placed at risk merely because he continues to live.

FRIEDA: Just who are you to make such a value judgment about who is fit to live and who isn't? Are you God?

PETER: Not God. Just a human being endowed with the ability to make moral choices. Just a father who saw his daughter's young life snuffed out by a killer who had already killed twice before and was out on parole. That's why I organized Victims of Violence.

HAROLD: We understand where you're coming from, Peter, and we do sympathize. I'd like to hear from the professionals on this question of what to do about the incorrigible murderer.

ALAN: I can't condone capital punishment -- not because of what it does to the guilty, but because of its effects on society as a whole. And there is no evidence that it operates as a deterrent.

MARY: I consider that the jury is still out on both counts. If I become convinced by the evidence that the social cost of keeping such people alive is simply too great to be borne without grave long-term moral consequences for our culture, then I will opt for the return of capital punishment. For me the real issue is deterrence, and there I disagree with Alan. We have no compelling evidence either way as yet, because punishment for serious crimes has been administered so inconsistently and variably. This means that reliable research has simply not been done. A number of American jurisdictions, similar on all other relevant causal variables, are now going one way or the other on the issue, and community policing has been stepped up considerably, making the apprehension of the guilty parties more likely. We may be able, eventually, to gather more reliable comparative data.

BETH: You will never convince me that taking life is warranted in any situation.

GRACE: What about abortion?

BETH: Well, of course, that's totally different. Fetuses are not human beings.

MARY: If, at some stage in the development of members of our species, we can have something called pre-human beings, could we not also envisage the possibility of de-humanized beings, who, similarly, do not have the concept of inherent human worth attached to them?

ANNA: That is dangerous. It could open the door to a wholesale devaluation of life.

GRACE: That is exactly our argument about abortion.

PETER: Maybe the term "punishment" is confusing the issue here. We can never know if the death penalty is functioning effectively as punishment because the person who was supposed to learn from it is dead. But if we think in terms of deterrence, we look at the aversive effect of a virtual guarantee of death if one murders more than once. We have never really had that.

MARY: I suggest that we leave this question until we have a new and closer look at the evidence that is becoming available now that we have, for the first time, numerous jurisdictions around the world who have opted for one side or the other and are, I hope, gathering data.

HAROLD: We have come a long way already, I think. We have the vague outlines of a proposal for studies concerning the treatment of nonviolent criminals outside prison; for the restructure and control of prison environments for violent inmates with the objective of changing their behavior in specific, desirable directions, and for the possible deterrence effect of the death penalty -- where there is a high probability of its application to a narrowly specified class of particularly horrific and socially destructive crimes. How about calling it a day?

FRIEDA: I am going to insist on a recorded vote on all this.


A handout by Pat Duffy Hutcheon to promote discussion on the subject at a meeting of the Humanist Discussion Group at the Vancouver Unitarian Church.