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Prepare prisoners for fruitful freedom

 With recent disclosures about brutality litigation from inmates, and $10 million awarded by the courts in 2012 to prisoners, penal reform has risen a few rungs on the agenda of national concerns.

This week, Justice Minister Emmanuel George announced proposals to create an Inspectorate of Prisons, a “body corporate” expanding the role of investigating inmates’ complaints, now performed by the single Inspector of Prisons. With responsibility to oversee the treatment of over 3,000 men and women now incarcerated in the nation’s gaols, it is no small accomplishment that inspector Daniel Khan produced a comprehensive Report in 2012 which outlined the many shortcomings of the nation’s penal system and offered practical solutions.

Most of these recommendations have not been acted on, and it remains to be seen whether the creation of an inspectorate will add efficiency and weight to this vexed challenge. According to Minister George, a “humane environment would make restorative justice possible and lead to the transformation of prisoners, aid in their successful integration into society, and reduce the risk of reoffending”.

The thrust toward a more “humane environment” merits applause, but will not get much from the law-abiding citizenry, whose general attitude toward convicted persons is to lock them up and throw away the key. Apart from prisons already straining at double the capacity they were built for, the fact is that over 75 per cent of inmates will have served their sentences within a few years. A prison environment which is more humane is thus a crime-fighting measure, since better monitoring of abuses will help prevent petty criminals from becoming more violent ones when released.

But an inspectorate may not go far enough toward rehabilitating inmates for later “successful reintegration”. Through annual Carnival-season concerts, prison authorities encourage inmates to take such opportunities to pursue arts and music – all activities which could enhance their employability after release. But, as in the outside society, only a small number would be able to make a living from their talents.

Illustrating more constructive possibilities, Reuters this week reported India’s prison authorities’ opening a restaurant serving the public which is staffed and operated by inmates. Revenue from this enterprise goes toward prisoner welfare and vocational training. The Indian initiative recalls long-standing practices in Canada whereby prisoners manufacture vehicle licence plates, mattresses, operate greenhouses, take part in dairy and other farming, and even some food processing. 

This happens on a very small scale at the Golden Grove Prison, where inmates grow some of their own food and care for livestock. But, informed by Commonwealth and other precedents, fresh thinking is long overdue on ways and means to make this country’s prison population more prepared for later lawful living.

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