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Prisons fail to correct – criminologist

Punishment for crime is an essential component of our civilisation. But do the punishments currently in place actually make society safer? We talked to Rosemary Ricciardelli, criminology coordinator at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and associate scientific director at the Canadian Institute of Public Safety Research and Treatment.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Rosemary Ricciardelli, criminology coordinator at Memorial University of Newfoundland, associate scientific director at the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment. Rose, great to have you with us on our show today. Welcome.

Rosemary Ricciardelli: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

SS: All right. So, as a researcher of incarceration, tell me, what do we have prisons for? I mean, do we as a society have prisons in order to punish people for breaking the law, or maybe isolate dangerous people, or correcting people, deterring others from breaking the law? What is it? Which one is it? 

RR: Prison serves a variety of purposes. But in its ideal form – there is no ideal form – so that's just a… But in essence, the punishment shouldn't be your time incarcerated. The punishment is being removed from society and removed from all of your belongings, your loved ones, and serving out a period of time where you're away from everyone. And prison itself should not be punitive in nature, the idea of going to prison, that removal from life is the punishment for the different transgressions that result in incarceration. 

SS: Right, but, the word ‘prison’ isn't used that much these days, right? I know, in Canada, United States, they say ‘correctional facilities’ or ‘correctional officers’, etc. Where do we get this idea that prison can correct people and what exactly it is supposed to correct? 

RR: I think, when we look at the corrective nature, the rehabilitative nature of prison, I think every prison service wants to be rehabilitative in nature. I think that's an underpinning. Prison, at least in Canada, correctional services are very much – they fluctuate in terms of what they offer, based on basically whoever's governing, whatever government is in power. So we'll see if we have like, for example, in the past, under the conservative Harper government, we saw a vast change in prisons where a lot of funding was cut, programming was cut. Then with the more Liberal government, we will see more benefits and more programmes being perhaps not introduced but reinstated in the institutions. So we do see that sort of change. I don't know if that answers your question there.

SS: Yes and no. First of all, more often than not, those who spend a long term in prison, I don't know, let's say 10 years or something, have a hard time going back to normal life. Is there a contradiction between having a goal to correct antisocial behaviour, and then in order to do it, cram people with other antisocial people for years on end? I mean, who would be able to learn anything about normal life in these circumstances?

RR: Well, yeah. And that's one of the big challenges. So prison, most terms inside, basically… So if you get sentenced to 10 years, for example, you're eligible for parole in Canada after a third of the sentence and after two thirds, it’s statutory release. So the majority of people are not going away for these extensive periods of time, which then begs the question, why are we incarcerating if someone's only going away for a couple months or a couple of weeks at a time, etc.? We're removing them from life, but we're not doing anything, it's not a period of time where there can be treatment or interventions or rehabilitation, because it's so short, and then you have other individuals who do go away for longer periods of time. And the idea is to be corrected. But I think that's a fallacy in our institutions. Because when you're confining anyone in these long term living circumstances, it is really difficult to implement programming and to work with people towards change, and also we have to recall that prisoners have very complex needs. Many have very complex needs. We see brain injuries, we see mental health disorders, adverse childhood events, addiction. There's a full scope of needs that have to be addressed as well, for people to successfully reintegrate. So the prison itself, and the challenge with the prison itself is how does it meet these directives. 

SS: Well, I mean, researchers found out that prison life can and often does lead to negative personality changes. For instance, emotional numbing, inability to trust others. I even heard this term – ‘prisonisation’. Can there be an incarceration system that doesn’t lead to these effects, what do you think?

RR: ‘Prisonisation’ is a very old term, it was coined down in 1933 by Clemmer. And it was the idea that you get socialised into the prison, understanding the realities and basically the informal cultures that govern prison life, because prison is a society within itself. In all forms, it's between the staff and the correctional officers working there, and the treatment staff and everyone in there, plus the prisoners, it's got its own social structures, its own underpinnings both the formal and the informal, very much like what you would see in society. The reality is that the structure itself, as much as it's intended for rehabilitation, isn't designed in a way that allows people the opportunities to, you know, engage in the treatment or engage in the processes that they require in order to move forward and reintegrate in a positive manner. So there seems to be a disconnect between the objectives of the institution and what actually comes from it. And we do see significant change in personalities. I've had many people tell me that in their presentation of self while inside, where there's an obligation or an interest in presenting as tough, that becomes over time ingrained in them, and they tend to have a different type of persona, a different type of presentation after the time. Particularly, for individuals who have spent long periods of time incarcerated, we tend to see changes in behaviours, and you see the mark of imprisonment on those individuals, from lack of eye contact to… One of the big things you can tell, because dental care is very poor in the institutions, at least in Canada, so you can see markings in a different way on individuals. 

SS: But I'm also thinking, on the other hand, for instance, if prisonisation is essentially people adapting to a very bad environment, what stops them from readapting to normal life once they're out? 

RR: Well, I think everyone tries to adapt, but it's exceptionally difficult to, once released. If there's a break in your employment, many people have never been in the labour market prior to their incarceration, especially people who go in in their youth. If you think of what that means to going in, you know, early adulthood, those are one the apprentices and these main opportunities to learn skills are happening in society,so they're removed from that. People who do have skills, those skills can wear out because they're not being used when in prison. So it makes re-entry increasingly difficult. Social networks, another thing they deplete when a person is in prison, they don't have the same connections in the outside world. And many times during re-entry, you can't connect with other persons who have been incarcerated or have a criminal record as a condition of your release. So we see a variety of factors that impact individuals, and they're not set up for success post-release as a result.

SS: Right, because statistics also show that longer and harsher sentences cause greater personality changes in prisoners and increase the risk of actually them turning to crime again...  

RR: It’s not actually completely correct. I have seen many persons who go and have longer sentences. When it comes to a point when they are no longer… people age out of criminality, right. Like, we see ageing out happening all the time, both among youth and among older individuals. And I wouldn't say that a long prison term would generally be tied to higher rates –

SS: Long and harsher. 

RR: But even a harsher prison term – I wouldn't actually affiliate with a higher chance of recidivism. I haven't seen stats, the data that actually makes that correlation that succinctly.

SS: Right, because while I was doing research for this interview, I came across one of the statistics that may not be true, so that made me think that on one hand, a really bad action calls for severe punishment, and it should and that's justice, but that a severe punishment leaves very little chance for a true rehabilitation of the offender. I guess my question is leading up to what I was saying, what is still the priority for our prison system?

RR: I think right now, it's keeping Covid out of the institutions, to be honest. But I think the priority wants to be in many cases, they want to be rehabilitative. They want to provide a venue or a space in which people can recognise the consequences of their actions and then move forward in ways that are pro-social. It's just that's not the actual case of what tends to happen.

SS: And then I guess, like there's the public reaction, because if the prison system starts to truly care about the rehabilitation of criminals, what will the public say? Because you have someone who does something horrid, and then we give them hot soup and therapy for taxpayers’ money. Surely most societies wouldn't agree to that. 

RR: I think that's the biggest challenge, like, the penal practice in any country or any space is very reflective of how the public views individuals. So if you're living in a society that villainises individuals and ensures that criminalised persons remain criminalised, it's very difficult to create a supportive environment for re-entry. And that's one of the things, if we're looking at a person who commits a crime and we don't look at the context of the situation, and everything else happening there, then we don't have a rehabilitative lens, as a society, that is going to be a barrier to their re-entry. They're not going to have opportunities, they're going to be limited in who they can interact with, and it's going to be increasingly challenging. 

SS: I just want to continue a little bit with the societal line if we're trying to understand whether prisons are or should be a tool for retribution or rehabilitation. But isn't the idea of rehabilitation of a criminal in itself a bit forward? I mean, surely the perpetrator isn't the victim here, right? So really, they're not the ones needing rehabilitation, are they? 

RR: Yeah, I think if I hear you correctly, as you're saying, when we look at a perpetrator of a criminal act, how do we get the sympathy for viewing that person as also a victim and in need of rehabilitation. And the reality is, when you look at prisoners, a colleague of mine who was doing research in Alberta province here, she found upwards, beyond 90% of the persons incarcerated, experienced adverse childhood events. If you look at the leading condition, I guess, like health condition, impacting persons who are incarcerated in our federal system, it’s brain injuries. So if you have an individual with a brain injury that has led in and is tied to their criminality, I think society has to recognise that it's much more complex. People's behaviours are not necessarily reflective of what they want to do, they often don't have intent, many times, there are moments. And if we can do more for these individuals to be preventative of future incidents, I think, our society would benefit because they could be law-abiding citizens who are contributing to the labour market and the economy.

SS: Right. Rehabilitating someone who got lost or committed a crime once out of desperation, sounds very compassionate. But you know, a lot of people who end up in prison are not interested in becoming better. And what I mean is that I hear you, when you say, when we look into these people's history, we usually see that they don't have a good childhood and they had problems growing up. But then you also have a lot of people who have problems in childhood and growing up, but they don't end up being criminals. Do you know what I mean? 

RR: Yes. 

SS: So a lot of people – my point is that they're just not interested in becoming better, and the state is basically keeping them away from us. From a cynical, realistic point of view — and I'm playing devil's advocate here — isn't it too naive to think that hardened criminals will sincerely change if you treat them nice? 

RR: I believe everyone has the potential for desistance. And it's not just about treating them kindly or being nice. It's that lens of understanding that allows us to understand what are the sort of risk factors and preventative factors around an individual's criminal behaviours. And I see this all the time, I'm not an abolitionist, I don't believe in abolishing prisons, I believe that we should change the form and function of prison, but there are certain individuals who do need to remain in prison because they pose a risk to our society. But they are select, they are a smaller number than what we house in our institutions now. There comes a time, I've talked to many what you would call ‘a hardened criminal’, who over a period of time get to a point where they're not interested in that lifestyle anymore. And that's where the foundation and the ability to change comes from. Not everyone's going to be ready right away. In a short sentence, someone going and being put inside for two months, what's that really gonna do? It's spending taxpayer dollars. They're not getting treatment, because they're not even in long enough for a treatment programme. So what are we doing by that kind of incarceration? 

SS: Then, of course, we also have prisons, like in Norway, like, you have a maximum security joint, it looks more like a nice low key hotel rather than a prison and inmates have privacy and are allowed to make music and study and cook their own food, etc. I mean, you look at Breivik, you know, who's committed one of the most horrid crimes and he's living his life quietly, writing his manifestos out of prison and putting them out in the internet. And the maximum prison sentence in Norway is, I believe, 21 years, and it has the lowest reoffending rate in the world. Do you think maybe Norway way is a viable scenario for prisoners elsewhere?

RR: I think the Norwegian prison– So Norway still has maximum security institutions, not all of their institutions are sort of the image of the Norwegian prison that we see. They still have maximum security institutions that are, you know, cells and bars and everything else. They also have a more of a– Norway as a society is also more embracive of persons and recognises that society has a role in the actions underpinning criminality, and is more receptive to persons during re-entry. There are advantages and really great things in the Norwegian system but there are also downfalls. There's debt, that prisoners leave prison with debt, there's a lack of focus on the re-entry processes. They have high sentencing rates and less community sentences, like, there are challenges with that system as well. It's not as exceptional as perhaps it's presented. If we look at the Canadian system, our minimum security federal institutions have no perimeter, they have no fence, there are a bunch of townhouses. And I've had people tell me that in movement from a maximum to a medium to a minimum, it's at that medium where the security is gone and we don't have the same threat and risk for victimisation, that they're actually able to come to terms and deal with the incidents that resulted in their incarceration. There's a lot of anxiety and a lot of feelings that emerge and they're able to actually take the time to deal with that part of their sentencing and experience. 

SS: And then you have countries like the United States, and there is a strong opinion there that death sentence or putting someone away for life are needed for deterring serious criminals. Do you think it's a valid point?

RR: I don't think prison is a deterrent in any way. And I think the literature supports that it's not. The other thing that I would question there is, if an individual committed a crime, so let’s take an individual who committed a crime at 20 – in 20 years, later, when that individual is 40, are you still punishing the person who committed the crime? Or is the person being punished for something that they were a completely different person at the time? When does it expire? When are a person's actions no longer what we need to judge them for on an everyday basis? So if we think of ourselves, now, I can think back to things I did in my 20s, I wouldn't want to be known for that, right? In our 20s, in our teens, at all points in time, circumstances can evolve, and with prisoners, with any criminalised person, that one act determines who they are moving forward, and we hold them... So someone could commit a crime at 20 and they can be 65, and we still look at them as that 20-year-old who committed x-crime. When does it expire? What is the process? When can a person identify or show change? 

SS: But if I know that the consequences of committing a crime will be soft, that I'm not in real danger, wouldn't I be more predisposed to actually going through with the crime? 

RR: The research does suggest that punishments don't serve as deterrence because the other thing is that most people don't view themselves as following in that trajectory, and most crimes are not planned with intent. 

SS: You know, the BLM protests sort of breathed new life into the prison abolition movement. And you said that you don't believe in the idea but the movement’s main goal is to find alternatives to imprisonment and punishment. What could they be? 

RR: I agree with that. I agree with the movement’s goals of finding alternatives to punishment, and not just punishment alternatives to the whole carceral entity. I just would not advocate for the pure abolition of prisons.a

SS: But what could the alternatives be, realistically speaking? 

RR: I think there's a lot we can do with decarceration. There's a lot we can do with not holding people in prison who did not commit violent offences and don't pose a threat to society. We can release them and house them in different contexts. There's no need for intermittent sentences, people who only serve weekends. If they can be in society all week, why do they need to be in prison on weekends? There's other types of monitors, a lot of front-end and back-end sentencing that can be done. Front-end being released on bail, alternatives to the entire punitive system like treatment courts, angle to treatment programs instead of incarceration, there's a variety of different structures in place that we could use instead of the punitive turn towards imprisonment. And then on the back end, if people do serve time in prison, we need to do more to invest in their reintegration. And that includes investing in the person supporting the reintegration so that they have the capabilities and are in a state where they're able to do that with the needed resources. 

SS: And also, we do understand that criminal behaviour is often rooted in poverty and abuse in childhood, like you brought up, all kinds of things. Taken this, can there even be another concept of justice that does not revolve around retribution? 

RR: I take issue a little bit with this tie between poverty and incarceration or criminality, because one of the things is there are many people who live in degrees of poverty who don't turn to crime. And there are many very affluent– Like white-collar crime is a huge portion of what happens. But again, it's non-violence. So it doesn't result in the same prison sentences. So I think it's complicated to make those kinds of correlations, I think you have to be a bit cautious in doing that. Because if you look at that, and you actually talk to people and hear their stories of what resulted in criminalised behaviour, you know, sometimes it's just lifestyle and it's cyclical, it can be learned. Other times, it can be something that happens, an event, or it can be moved to emotions and certain things, there's a lot of different reasons that people engage in those behaviours. And I think if we try to overly direct and make a correlation between poverty and crime, we don't see the bigger picture and it also falsely paints individuals who are experiencing poverty as susceptible to criminality. And I don't think that's the case.  

SS: Right. But the question was, do you think there can ever be another concept of justice that doesn't necessarily revolve around retribution? Or is retribution the only concept of justice that is viable? 

RR: I think there is, I think the restorative justice practices show you that we don't need retribution in order to have justice. So restorative practices, even that notion of bringing together a victim and an offender for mediation, it provides a different space in order to look at how to move forward, and I think these kinds of alternatives will really serve people well, because I don't think most people want to see persons being forever penalised for a specific action. But it's complicated because with prisons, you have to balance the needs and the desires of the victims and make sure that that's compensated and recognised, but you also have to look at the person who did the offending and figure out, you know, what's leading there, what challenges are there and how to move that forward. 

SS: All right. Rosemary, thanks a lot for this wonderful talk and for this insight, for your thoughts. All the best of luck with everything.  

RR: Perfect. Thank you. 

SS: Have a great day. 

RR: You too. Take care.

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