• 07/04/15 - - "Prison is not good for people"

    - - "Prison is not good for people"

    By Andrew Duffy, Ottawa Citizen

    Few people have more experience with the prison system than Peter Collins, which makes his critique of the system, if not unbiased, at least well informed.

     

    “I’ve been in prison for more than 30 years and I’m sure of one thing: prison is not good for people,” he says.

    Collins has done time at Millhaven, Ste-Anne-des-Plaines, Joyceville and Bath. He has spent three years in two super-maximum security special handling units and long stretches in solitary confinement, including one six-month stint after he was falsely accused of a 1994 inmate murder at Joyceville. Another prisoner was arrested last year in that cold case based on new DNA evidence.

     

    Collins says most people emerge from their prison experience more frustrated, unstable and dangerous than when they went in.

    The whole notion of the prison system as an instrument of rehabilitation is a dangerous myth, he says. Squeezing people — many of them with serious mental health and addiction issues — into violent, punitive institutions is no way to produce better citizens.

     

    “If you put people in these places and expect somehow that they come out a better person, it’s only because you’ve read some idealized version of what the prison system is doing. You haven’t been inside one,” he says. “Prisons shred a person’s humanity.”

     

    The truth, he says, is that any rehabilitation is an accidental byproduct of a system designed to punish: “I don’t think we do believe in rehabilitation. And I don’t think that the people who work in these places do. It’s certainly not what they do here.”

     

    Collins is the kind of prisoner that the Conservative government wants to keep behind bars for 35 years or more through legislation that would extend life sentences for Canada’s worst criminals.

     

    Collins believes it would be more honest of politicians to re-introduce capital punishment since a 35 year sentence will, in many cases, amount to death by prison. “If there’s no mercy left, if you believe no one can be saved or made better, or there’s no ability to forgive, if the country is good with that, then I guess that legislation will stand,” he says.

    Suffering from advanced bladder cancer, Collins insists he has no vested interest in the debate since he’ll likely be dead before anything changes.

     

    But, for what it’s worth, he offered three ideas for constructive prison reform:

    • Reserve prisons for those who have committed violent crimes;

    • Set for prisoners concrete benchmarks en route to parole that are not open to interpretation by the parole board;

    • Make prison officials accountable for decisions that lead to inmate abuse, such as that seen in the case of Ashley Smith, a teenager who killed herself after years in solitary confinement.

     

    Collins concedes that some people will not want to hear his ideas.

    “But surely,” he says, “there’s some expertise there after 30 years because I’ve been paying attention. I’m not wrong on everything I say, I’m quite sure.”



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