Take freedom from prisoners, but give them dignity

I’ve been to prison a couple of times in my life; once in Canada, once in the United States.

Both times, I walked in – and out – according to my own volition. I was free to enter, and free to leave. But I still felt the barb of the coiled wire fence. Each time a reinforced steel door slammed shut, I cringed.

I could feel the distance of my freedom, as if I’d left it outside the prison walls, while I subjected myself to a temporary incarceration inside.


Prison is not pleasant, even for visitors. I have had a taste only of its physical confines, and I can’t begin to imagine what the emotional and spiritual confines are like for actual prisoners, those men and women who have no choice when it comes to walking in or walking out.

Their freedom has been taken from them. That is the price they pay for crime, for behaving in a manner that is anti-social, harmful, often even hateful towards other members of our shared society.

Criminals should be imprisoned as a consequence of the crimes they commit. But while they are inside, every conceivable effort should be made towards their rehabilitation. Even as they are subjected to punishment, they ought to be treated with dignity, offered hope that they might just turn their lives around when they are back on the outside.

Recently, news reports coming out of Canada’s prison system leave me wondering if dignity and hope are being stripped from prisoners, along with their freedom.

The most blatant story is that of Ashley Smith, the New Brunswick teenager who killed herself in prison while guards watched on close-circuit TV. An inquest is revealing the harsh indignities she suffered, including being duct-taped to a seat in a plane, her head shrouded in two hoods.

The less blatant story is that of the diminishing role of prison chaplains, resulting from a curious federal government budget cut this fall cancelling the contracts of 100 part-time chaplains.

The government cited budget savings as its key reason for the action. Left on the cutting room floor, however, was a significant number of chaplains representing faiths other than Christian.

After the cuts, all but two full-time prison chaplains are Christian.  Prior to the cuts, 20 of the part-time chaplains came from faith groups other than Christian, including Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, and Jewish.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has stated that the 72 Christian chaplains, two non-Christian chaplains and a host of volunteers, should be able to adequately serve the needs of prisoners.

There are more than 15,000 prisoners serving time in Canada. Chaplains are not the only people providing service to these prisoners. But the decreasing numbers of chaplains, along with their diminishing diversity, cannot be a good sign for prisoner rehabilitation.  It does not suggest that those making such policies are concerned for prisoner dignity.

Both times I visited a prison it was at the invitation of a Christian minister, both in fact, my brothers-in-law. One volunteers in a medium security prison in upper New York State on a weekly basis; the other works full-time in chaplaincy with Corrections Canada.

I went along on their prison visits simply as someone from the outside who was willing to engage in conversation with prisoners. I remember being nervous, not just because of the imposing walls of the prison, of being locked inside. More, I was nervous about the conversations. Would I be able to chat comfortably with men who were serving time for murder, rape and robbery?

Both visits surprised me. Conversations proved easy, the men seemed grateful for the company. I left feeling grateful myself for having met them. Seeing them in person, talking about everyday things, like where they were born, what they liked to eat (never why they were in prison) humanized the prisoners I met, and every prisoner I have not met.

I do not begin to understand the complexities and stresses of prison, not for the prisoners, nor for their keepers. I am not so naïve to think that prisoners are easily rehabilitated; that many of them won’t use every opportunity to manipulate and continue to harm.

But I am a firm believer in the power of humanity; the deep well of dignity; the possibility that the right person, at the right moment, can trigger a change in another human being. And that such change can lead to a better life, one lived outside prison walls; one lived in freedom.

I would prefer that our federal government increase, rather than decrease the money it allocates to prisons. But please don’t just put the money into building cells and hiring guards. Put more money into hiring chaplains of all faiths, into hiring social workers and psychologists, teachers and counsellors.

I’m not advocating that prison be easy. As long as there are coiled barbed wire fences and reinforced steel doors that lock from the outside it will never be that. But I am advocating that prison be a place of hope; that once time is served, a prisoner might leave a better person than he was when he entered.

Lynda is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. This blog imprints itself on newsprint every Friday in the Moncton Times & Transcript. Contact me at lmacgibbon@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon.






8 thoughts on “Take freedom from prisoners, but give them dignity

  1. Definitely promoting discussion here. A lot of prisoners leave prison worse off than when they entered. If chaplains can be a part of something positive in a prisoners experience perhaps recivitism would decline.

  2. I would like to participate in a prison visitation ministry someday. I think it would be interesting to have that perspective. And, yes, I agree we need to do more to rehabilitate criminals.

  3. I did bi-weekly prison ministry through chaplaincy with a music/drama group for a couple of years. It wears you out emotionally, but it showed me a lot about human nature. We judge by appearances, but you just never know who’s going to experience change and who isn’t. They need more spiritual advisers, not less…and more wise and mature volunteers, too.

    1. Rhonda, your ministry through Burning Bush was visionary and courageous. It amazes me as I think back on it how much you guys did…buying the place in Dorchester. You should write about those days!

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