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When we fail inmates, we fail ourselves

Penticton Western News with Alana Abramson 04 May 2018

Inmates aren’t typically the most sympathetic individuals for the general population, but by ensuring inmates are protected and provided for, we all stand to gain.

The fact is, the default setting on issues like this is apathy. One has to consciously turn a dial to try to appreciate the causes of much of the crime filling up the Okanagan Correctional Centre.

That’s particularly true if you have been a victim of property crime, which is a violating experience. I had my introduction to local property crime in October — a locker (with a lock on it) at a local gym was accessed in one way or another and identification, keys and cards stolen from it.

It’s frustrating to be sure, and the thought of someone unknown to me holding onto my identification and keys was unsettling.

That is a problem that needs addressing. But that conversation too often stops there. It’s difficult to move forward from that violation to realize that is only the periphery of a larger tragedy.

Last year, well over 1,400 people were killed by an overdose in B.C., a situation so drastic that it has led the federal government to open the door wider to the once-fringe idea of prescription heroin.

Yet, that conversation stops there, and rarely do the two issues cross paths in the public dialogue in a meaningful way.

The vast majority of comments on stories of grief-stricken families of overdose victims are a sympathetic cry for help from a community at a loss.

But a cognitive dissonance seems to kick in when considering inmates, and eyes glaze over when the conversation turns to those most entrenched in the throes of this crisis.

“People in prison tend to be less educated, have more trauma, are more likely to be poor, more likely to be Aboriginal,” said Alana Abramson, Kwantlen Polytechnic University criminology professor.

The issue goes far beyond the walls of the Okanagan Correctional Centre — or B.C. Corrections more broadly, for that matter. Solutions for B.C.’s inmates start long before they land in jail.

“I’m angry that we throw away vulnerable people,” Canadaland Commons co-host Ryan McMahon said in a recent podcast episode about solitary confinement. As he said it, the comedian’s emotions were palpable.

“I’m angry that, instead of responding with kindness and compassion in a country that is supposedly built on those principles, it’s much easier to deal with it in this way than it is to actually look at ourselves as communities and say ‘where are the gaps; how are people falling through these gaps?’”

Those comments rang familiar while working on Okanagan Incorrectional.

Crime is frequently not a product of the whim of bad people, but the result of our failure to provide for society’s most vulnerable, traumatized and poverty-stricken. Individuals for whom drugs have filled a void in their self-esteem, diminished first by trauma or poverty and second by stigma.

But beyond sympathy, there’s still reason to support inmates’ issues.

A jail is already an aggravating place to be, when people are stripped of their right to mobility. When you add violence and health care issues into the mix, and we fail to provide adequate vocational or behavioural programming, someone who may have gone in for simple property crime may leave and commit worse crimes.

“We have the most impoverished and marginalized people being warehoused together, and then not being provided the services that they require to give themselves a fair shake on the outside,” Abramson said.

“It’s a ticking time bomb.”