Magazine article New Internationalist

What You Learn in Prison: Kevin Marron Spent Several Years Investigating Life in Canada's Prisons. What He Found Is Not Encouraging

Magazine article New Internationalist

What You Learn in Prison: Kevin Marron Spent Several Years Investigating Life in Canada's Prisons. What He Found Is Not Encouraging

Article excerpt

A SEMI - RECLUSE in her highrise apartment, tormented by memories of friends who slashed and hanged themselves in prison cells, Theresa Ann Glaremin feels like a refugee from a war zone. Like the displaced Bosnian people whom she has seen on television, Glaremin has lived for years with anger, pain, cruelty and violence. She too has lost her place in the world. Her eight years in Canada's notorious Prison for Women have taught her fear of everyday life, disrespect for authority and a profound distrust in the values that society is supposed to espouse.

I can't forget the things that happened in there. I'll never be free,' the 46 - year - old woman tells me, as she struggles to control a panic attack that leaves her trembling, sobbing and gasping for breath.

Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate as well as punish. Judges often send offenders to jail to 'learn a lesson'. But few of the lessons learned in prison are positive, and most prisoners return to society in worse shape than when they went in.

Not that the majority were in good shape to begin with. My investigation of Canada's so - called correctional system introduced me to prisoners who had grown up with family violence, sexual abuse, mental - health problems, alcoholism, drug dependency, unemployment, and the cultural and social deprivation of aboriginal communities. Prison perpetuated and entrenched their problems, deepening their feelings of hopelessness and rage.

Prison stripped away my culture, my morals and my social class,' says Glaremin, who maintains she is innocent of the manslaughter of which she was convicted, a crime that occurred in the context of domestic violence. Now legally free, but mostly withdrawn into her private world, Glaremin tries to work through her pain by writing poetry, drama and songs. But, she exclaims, 'I don't know what I have to do so I can live in this world without fear'.

Many male prisoners are also afraid of the world, but respond with anger and aggression rather than withdrawal. The lessons they learned in prison have made them dangerous as well as dysfunctional.


Prisoners in tense and overcrowded penitentiaries live in an environment where a knife to the throat or a metal pipe to the back of the head is a socially appropriate response to an insult or indiscretion. People may be attacked for looking someone in the eye, glancing into someone else's cell or, as in one case described to me, taking too long in the shower. Prisoners must be ready to defend themselves at all times and failure to retaliate will likely be exploited as a sign of weakness.

This culture of violence and fear very quickly teaches prisoners how to fashion lethal weapons out of toothbrushes, ball - point pens, chair legs and other household objects. The best way to earn respect in prison is to act with extreme violence and get in the first blow. If that blow happens to be a stab in the back, so much the better, since prisoners will tell you that there is no such thing as a fair fight in jail. Ex - offenders sometimes find themselves instinctively reaching for a weapon when jostled on the street or insulted by someone at a bar.

Prisoners learn intolerance and cruelty in an environment where sex offenders, informants and prisoners with mental - health problems are persecuted. Some prisoners learn to enjoy violence and the status that brutality and ruthlessness can earn in jail. A prisoner at one maximum - security penitentiary recalls a buzz of eager anticipation in his cellblock whenever a killing was expected. 'I used to look forward to it. We would have a lockdown and the police would come in. It was entertaining.'

Others learn to look the other way, condoning violence or ignoring it, sinking into apathy or indifference. One former prisoner confesses that she used to get mad when there was a fight or another woman slashed herself, because the noise of people screaming would drown out the soap operas on her television. …

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