The 2nd Place Prize Winner of the 2015 AIMS Essay Contest is…

Congratulations Meagan Campbell!!! 

2nd Place, $750 Prize Winner
of the AIMSonCampus 2015 Essay Contest

This year’s essay contest brought many creative submissions analyzing the deepest issues affecting Atlantic Canada. Students were asked to write both a policy report and an op-ed on any issues they felt could “right the sinking ship” that is our region. Enter Meagan Campbell.

Meagan, a Journalism student at the University of King’s College, dedicated both her essays to a seriously under-reported story in our region: The lack of prison programs in Nova Scotia’s criminal justice system, programs that promise to improve living conditions and reduce recidivism. Criminal justice reform is on everyone’s lips in recent months, particularly as US policy makers consider paths to reducing their enormous prison population.  Meagan shows that Atlantic Canada isn’t exempt from these national debates. Digging into the evidence from criminology, she argues letting prisoners do work is a win-win — the province is able to employ idle resources, and the quality of life for the average inmate is greatly improved, both during and following their sentence:  

ns prison

“It’s getting ridiculous, Captain. We’re all locked down even when it has nothing to do with our range.” This is one of 348 complaints scrawled in ten months last year by prisoners at Nova Scotia’s largest jail. More than half of them report being wrongfully confined to their cells, without programming or exercise, for up to nearly a week at a time. Beyond knocking the prisoners’ health, these programless lock-a-thons hurt the economy and community of Nova Scotia at large. And so, if the province wants to bolster productivity, we must bolster it too in the lives of the handcuffed.

Formal written complaints demonstrate that Nova Scotian inmates are consistently locked down. During lock-downs, prisoners eat in their cells and never glimpse the library, gym, classrooms or outdoors. “My lungs hurt from not getting fresh air.” “This is not right.” “It’s been four days since we got showers.” “This is causing a lot of us to be depressed.” One declares a hunger strike until they see change; another declares war on a captain officer. Lock-downs can be used as individual punishment, but with more violence and fewer staff members last year, guards locked down everyone for up to five days in a row. “It’s unfortunate,” says Sean Kelly, Director of Correctional Services for the province. “We realize it’s important to give people something to do in the course of the day.” But the word, ‘important’ is tremendously understated.

After shedding their orange jumpsuits, released prisoners have a choice for change of clothes: work uniforms or burglar masks. If they have spent their incarcerations in education programs and vocational training, substance abuse treatment and counseling, they are better equipped to find jobs, to contribute to a provincial economy that lost 5000 working-aged citizens last year. But if cell-constricted inmates have gotten depressed in the head and asthmatic in the lungs, they are set up to steal from that economy and land back in jail.

60 per cent of inmates are recidivists, with the most common offense being theft. In this spiral of barbed wire, offenders accumulate criminal records that make them decreasingly able to get jobs, scare away potential immigrants who prioritize community safety, and cost the province more than $200 each per day.

If we guarantee programs for prisoners, we also enable them to be productive during their sentences. Inmates across Canada build roads, tend land, sort mail, clean. In Winnipeg, prisoners fill sandbags to prevent flooding; in Nova Scotia, they formerly trained dogs from the pound to become seeing eye guides or adoptable pets. This is not enforcing slavery, as if it were chaining inmates to electricity-generating treadmills. Rather, they can have the chance to work for privileges or to reduce their sentences. Industry programs help prisoners help the province rather than just costing it, while also building work experience that makes them more employable upon release.

Even if we thought prisoners should be confined to cells, provincial legislation says we aren’t allowed. The act governing jail practices mandates officers ensure every offender works or participates in programs—and accommodate to prevent exceptions. While violence spiked and staff shrunk last year, neither can erase legislated duty. There’s a modest hope that new staff increases will be used to run programs and renovate security systems that can prevent lock-down-provoking violence.

Nova Scotia cannot afford to have idle prisoners any longer, both due to the cost of incarceration and all the lost potential. This scarcely mentions the grimness of being locked in a cell itself, in some cases alone. As Kelly himself admits, “I’m claustrophobic. I’d hate it.”

By Meagan Campbell

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