This is the kind of place where Ashley Smith died in 2007. It is also the kind of place where Julie Bilotta gave birth on a cement floor last year.
It’s the place where prisons send people to punish the already imprisoned.
I’m writing with pencil and paper from a solitary confinement cell in the segregation unit – the “Hole” – at the Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC), a maximum security provincial prison in Penetanguishene, Ontario. Here we spend 23.5 hours a day or more locked in an eight-by-twelve-foot cell. We are allowed nothing but one religious book and a pencil and paper, in addition to our prison-issue clothes (but no shoes) and toiletries (disposable toothbrush and toothpaste, a bar of soap, a towel). We get access to the yard – a large caged balcony – for 20 minutes a day, and a shower every second day. On alternating days we’re allowed a 20-minute phone call.
Blacks and aboriginal people are overrepresented in Ontario’s youth and adult jails, with some staggering ratios that mirror those of blacks in American jails.
A Star analysis of Ontario jail data, obtained by University of Toronto doctoral candidate Akwasi Owusu-Bempah through freedom of information requests, shows:
• In Ontario, aboriginal boys aged 12 to 17 make up 2.9 per cent of the young male population. But in Ontario youth facilities they make up nearly 15 per cent of young male admissions. In other words, there are, proportionally, five times more aboriginal boys in the young male jail population than what they represent in the general young male population.
• For black boys, the proportion of jail admissions is four times higher.
One kilometre west of the city of Prince Albert, the federal Saskatchewan Penitentiary sits on the site of a former residential school run by the Anglican Church of Canada. As in other prisons across the Prairie provinces, the 20-acre facility houses inmates predominantly of Aboriginal descent. This situation is not unique: Indigenous people represent only three per cent of Canada’s population yet account for 17 per cent of its prison population. As the last of the residential schools have shut down, penitentiaries have become the new form of containment for Indigenous people in Canada. In a 1988 study prepared for the Canadian Bar Association, Aboriginal rights advocate Michael Jackson stated: “The prison has become for many young native people the contemporary equivalent of what the Indian residential school represented for their parents.” Almost 25 years later, young Aboriginal men in Saskatchewan are now more likely to go to prison than to finish high school.
Despite the considerable attention these statistics have received, rarely do we consider them in the context of an ongoing colonial project. We must question how it is that Aboriginal people become tangled up in the justice system at all and why it is that prisons have come to be viewed, in the words of Angela Davis, as an “inevitable and permanent feature of our social lives.” How do institutions like schools, which are presented as disconnected from – or even antagonistic to – incarceration, shape a future of imprisonment for Aboriginal youth in Canada?
Philip Miller was midway through a twenty-year sentence for robbery at Sing Sing Prison in New York, with an almost spotless prison record, when he was caught with a mobile phone in his cell in April 2010. He was charged with two disciplinary violations: “possession of contraband” and also “altering state property,” since he had hidden the cell phone and charger in “a compartment carved out of the windowsill.”
Miller was brought before an internal prison disciplinary hearing and pled guilty to the two charges. But he sought to call various inmates who could attest to his good behavior and to describe what actually had happened. The hearing officer denied him his request, claiming that he, the prison officer, knew all about Miller and it wasn’t necessary to call the witnesses. Miller was found guilty of both charges and sentenced to 60 months—five years—in solitary, with a proviso that 24 months might be suspended if he incurred no further disciplinary charges. Despite the nonviolent nature of his offenses, Miller was shipped off to serve his time at Southport, the all-solitary supermax facility south of Elmira.
Continued Majority Support for Death Penalty
More Concern among Opponents about Wrongful Convictions
Public opinion about the death penalty has changed only modestly in recent years, but there continues to be far less support for the death penalty than there was in the mid-1990s.
A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted Nov. 9-14, 2011, among 2,001 adults, finds that 62% favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder while 31% are opposed. That is generally in line with polling on the death penalty over the past several years.
During the mid-1990s, when the Pew Research Center first surveyed on this issue, support for the death penalty was at a historic high point. In 1996, 78% favored capital punishment for people convicted of murder. Support for the death penalty subsequently declined, falling to 66% in 2001 and 62% in late 2005. Since then, support has mostly remained in the low-to-mid-60s, though it dipped slightly (to 58%) in October 2011.
When Gallup first asked about the death penalty in 1936, 59% registered support for the policy. This fell to an all-time low of 42% in 1966, which was the only time over the course of 75 years in which there was more opposition (47%) than support. Gallup’s trend showed that support for the death penalty grew again over the course of the 1970s and 1980s and peaked in the mid-1990s.
More Concern about Wrongful Convictions
When asked why they oppose the death penalty, 27% of opponents say it is wrong or immoral to kill someone, while an identical percentage (27%) cite concerns about flaws in the justice system and the possibility that innocent people could be put to death.
In a Gallup survey 20 years ago, when just 18% opposed the death penalty, a much higher percentage of death penalty opponents (41%) cited moral considerations and there were far fewer mentions of problems with the justice system or wrongful executions (11%).
The majority of Americans who support the death penalty today offer largely the same reasons that supporters gave 20 years ago. Roughly half (53%) say the punishment fits the crime or that it is what murderers deserve. A smaller share raises concerns about the costs of keeping murderers in prison for life (15%). Relatively few death penalty supporters cite deterrence (6%) or keeping murderers from committing more crimes (5%) in explaining their position.
Racial and Partisan Differences over the Death Penalty
The death penalty continues to draw much more support from whites (68%) than from African Americans (40%). Among Hispanics, 52% favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder while 42% are opposed.
Large majorities of conservative Republicans (84%) and moderate and liberal Republicans (73%) support the death penalty, as do 64% of independents. Among Democrats, conservatives and moderates favor the death penalty by 55% to 37% while liberals oppose it by about the same margin (54% to 40%).
Majorities of major religious groups, except for black Protestants, favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. Roughly three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (77%) and white mainline Protestants (73%) support the death penalty. Somewhat fewer white Catholics (61%), Hispanic Catholics (57%) and the religiously unaffiliated (57%) favor capital punishment for convicted murderers.
Pope visits prisoners, says poor conditions amount to ‘double sentence’ : News Headlines – Catholic CulturePosted: January 17, 2012
Pope visits prisoners, says poor conditions amount to ‘double sentence’
December 19, 2011
From Our Store: The Documents of the Second Vatican Council: A Summary and Guide (eBook)
During a December 18 visit to the Rebbiba prison in northern Rome, Pope Benedict XVI told inmates that overcrowding in jails and poor conditions often mean a “double sentence” for convicted criminals.
Prisoners should be treated with dignity in all cases, and the penal system should be designed to rehabilitate criminals and help them re-enter society, the Pope said. He said that changes are need to fill the “chasm between what life in jail is really like and how it was intended by the law.”
The Pope reminded the inmates that visiting the imprisoned has always been recognized by the Church as a corporal work of mercy. He emphasized that this should mean not only dropping in on a prisoner but “making space for him in our time, in our home, in our friendships, in our laws, in our cities.” The same attitude should motivate prison officials, he said. He suggested exploring new ways of protecting society and rehabilitating criminals, including alternative sentencing and “non-custodial” terms.
After speaking to the assembled prisoners, the Holy Father took a series of questions from the group. When one inmate complained that HIV-positive prisoners are regularly addressed “aggressively” by the guards, the Pope urged him to maintain a positive attitude. “We have to endure the fact that people speak about us ‘aggressively,’” he said. “They also speak ‘aggressively’ about the Pope, yet nonetheless he perserveres.”
When another prisoner asked why he should confess his sins to a priest rather than directly to God, the Pope said that of course God would forgive any sinner who genuinely repents. “However,” he continued, “sin is not only a ‘personal’ thing, an individual account between me and God. Sin also has a social dimension. … And it is this social dimension of sin that needs to be absolved at the level of the human community, the community of the Church.”