Pizzas, Street Parlours and Prisons

Arnie (not his real name) was a regular visitor at the little church I pastored. I often welcomed him into the church boardroom which functioned as a vistor’s parlour where I would offer him a cup of tea or coffee and something to eat…sometimes it was a slice of pizza leftover from an earlier committee lunch meeting.

picnic pizza

But Arnie rarely had an appetite for food. His suffering was too great, intense and immediate to enjoy the simple pleasure of food. What he wanted was whatever money I could spare so that he could go to the liquor store. He needed the alcohol to numb the unrelenting pain.

Then, without warning, a week passed and then another with no sign of Arnie. I wondered what had become of him.  He had talked about wanting to go back home to his people’s First Nation Reservation in Saskatchewan, and so I hoped against hope that he had finally got his “ducks in a row” in order to make his dream come true. But I also I feared the worse. You see, Arnie was homeless and it was getting cold at night. I imagined him lying dead in an alleyway after succumbing to hypothermia or worse yet, beat up and left for dead in a ditch. I finally called the RCMP to put in a missing person report. The officer informed me–with a prejudicial tone and sarcastic edge that shredded any remaining vestiges of my idealized hero’s image of the RCMP–that Arnie was staying warm and dry at a regional correctional centre at taxpayers’ expense. The officer assumed I shared his jaded view, that Arnie was not one of “us” but rather a free loading criminal who belonged to the world of “them.” But to me, Arnie was a friend, a child of God, and I was simply relieved to learn that he was alive and relatively safe.

I would eventually see Arnie again, at his request. This time, however it was me who came knocking on his door, or rather his warden’s door at the correctional centre. Had Arnie been at his home in Saskatchewan I’m sure he would have taken great pride in saying, “Welcome to my parlour,” or something equivalent. Instead, with his head down, a prison guard ushered him into a visitor’s cubicle very similar to the one pictured below.


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Recently, Vic Toews, the Minister of Public Safety–in response to the public outcry over his knee jerk reaction to cancel takeout pizza food orders to prison–defended his decision by saying that he wants to ensure that prisons act as a deterrent. He’s afraid that prisoners once released will commit further crimes in order to come back to the warm pizza parlour atmosphere of prison. I kid you not, this is what he said:

A primary goal of any correctional system is to ensure that prisons are places no one wants to go to and to which no one would want to return. That’s why we feel it’s not in the public interest to provide pizza parties to criminals. —Globe and Mail, January 5, 2013

Vic Toews is right to be concerned about recidivism ratesBut it’s not the pizza parties that keep some coming back. Arnie taught me that something much more basic is at stake.  In our visit, Arnie admitted that he deliberately got himself arrested in order to have shelter and safety during the wet and cold west coast winter. And he is not an isolated case. It’s not the pizza that keeps repeat offenders coming back, but a respite from the streets – especially in winter.

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Whether or not they get “coddled” by the occasional pizza or chicken takeout dinner will make not an iota of difference to these repeat offenders. Even restrictive regimes become tolerable for the sake of shelter from the elements.

In the government’s eyes, the world is simple: there are “bad” people (those who have broken the law), and there are “good” people (everyone else).  —Edward Greenspan and Anthony N. Doob

Our government–through its “tough on crime” agenda” wants us to view all offenders through the lens of uncomplicated evil provided by the Paul Bernardos of this world.  But as Daniel Baird points out in Rough Justice, “…petty thefts, street-level disputes and drunken episodes do not exactly involve big-time evil,” but they are the crimes that “most often get punished because these are the cheapest and easiest to prosecute. This weights the brunt of the justice system against the poor, the underprivileged and minorities.”

Rather than giving us a picture of uncomplicated evil, Aboriginal inmates–who continue to be over-represented in Canada’s correctional system (27% in provincial custody and 20% in federal custody) illustrate the complicated sources of crime. All share a background of childhood deprivation and trauma characterized by parental absence, severe poverty and physical and sexual abuse.

Using language such as “ordinary Canadians” versus “criminals” Vic Toews makes it all too easy for us to cast our punitive gaze solely on the offender rather than seeing “the offender in relationship to Canadian society of which he or she is a troubled part,” as Baird rightly points out. It was not always so. Back in 1971,  Eldon M. Wooliams, the justice critic for the Progressive Conservative party recognized that crime is a community problem and the community needs to participate in the solution.

 …crime is not just a sordid happening but rather a result of human behaviour brought about by our economic and social conditions which we have failed to change.

 ….crime is not only the fault of the prisoner but the fault of society as well. Everyone is born as clean as a white piece of paper. It is society that creates the environment which leads to crime.

You can read more excerpts from Wooliams speech here.

Last Friday, in his announcement of legislation that would make it tougher for high risk offenders with mental illness to get unescorted day passes, Prime Minister Harper spoke of the unbalances in the justice system when it focuses solely on the rights of the person convicted of the crime while ignoring the rights of victims. While I support our government’s desire to make the justice system more equitable, I pray that its field of vision continues to expand beyond the “offender – victim” dichotomy to encompass the responsibility Canadian society bears in creating the conditions, such as poverty and homelessness, that contribute to incarceration in the first place–especially among our aboriginal citizen population–and to work towards solutions to eliminate them.

Other links of interest:

Mr. Toews Doesn’t Understand Prisons

The Ethics of Pizza, Prison and Punishment

Aboriginal Incarceration in Canada A National Shame

The Justice System and Aboriginal People