GENERAL ARTICLES

SCHOOLS FOR CROOKS

RALPH ALLEN May 15 1946
GENERAL ARTICLES

SCHOOLS FOR CROOKS

RALPH ALLEN May 15 1946

SCHOOLS FOR CROOKS

After six weeks of investigation this writer reports: Canada’s antique lockups do not correct crime — they help it to grow!

GENERAL ARTICLES

RALPH ALLEN

THE LAST time anybody took the trouble to count, Edgar Bedard had been in the police courts 45 times and in jail 39 times. When

Maurice Gagnon drew his three-year term for burglary he was starting his 60th sentence in jails and prisons. In one 25-year period, an indefatigable confidence man and bandit known to the police of Montreal as The Great Gregory achieved the substantial distinction of serving 13 sentences which officially totalled 25 years and 25 days.

What do the case histories of the Edgar Bedards and the Great Gregories mean to anyone who isn’t a policeman, a judge or a writer of detective fiction? What do they mean to you?

They mean that a hefty chunk of the $22 millions you and other taxpayers shell out each year to apprehend and correct lawbreakers is really going to waste. They mean that the penal system of this country has failed in the most important function of any penal system—the reduction of crime.

In any given year the great bulk of serious crime in

Canada is committed by men who have committed crimes before, who have been caught and sentenced and served prison terms and acquired no more respect for the law than they had when the cycle began. Three out of every four men in Canadian penitentiaries today have served at least one pre-war jail sentence, and it is thanks largely to them that since the beginning of the century the increase in indictable crime in Canada has outstripped the increase in population by more than five to one.

Briefly, this is the platform on which a handful of jurists, police officers, editors and private citizens have been campaigning for prison reform since long before Canada became a nation. Their arguments have been

among the most powerful and least influential in this country’s social history.

They can still be boiled down to the same demand that thoughtful Canadians were making in the days of John A. Macdonald: Why is it that our prison system, designed to terminate criminal careers, has the demonstrable effect of lengthening and enlarging them?

The answer lies in the prisons themselves, in the antique chaos of 164 reformatories, jails and penitentiaries from which 10-20,000 lawbreakers emerge each year to break more laws. The things that happen to any given lawbreaker in a Canadian prison will vary with his own behavior and with the prison to which he

is committed. To avoid

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overstating the case, let us try to find out only about the average prisoner, and let us use only official sources. According to official record this is what happens to the general run of prisoners in the general run of Canadian prisons:

“They have only half an hour of daily exercise in the open air, spend 16 out of 24 hours in a poorly ventilated cell, and in winter a large proportion of their remaining time in stuffy and overheated shops, so that they are practically deprived of exercise, sunshine and fresh air . . . The prisoners have no choice of associates, but are compelled to converse with neighbors who are often unsympathetic or worse.

“They do not receive any newspapers and are therefore not aware of what is going on in the world. They have no varied social or mental contacts to keep their minds active, and are thrown almost entirely into introspection and brooding, subject to a constant craving for freedom, a furious hatred of all restraints, and a hunger for bodily and spiritual necessities . . .

“They have an utter lack of responsibility, with no need to care about food, clothing, shelter, a job or planning a day’s work, but are given orders and a daily task to perform until finally they lose all initiative, physical and mental alertness and are left with senses atrophied from disuse . . .

“The guards often treat them with apathy, or even brutality, and do not try to help or encourage them, believing that an officer’s duty is merely to see that the prisoners obey the rules and that they do not try to escape.

“The result of all this is that when a prisoner comes out of prison, after the first thrill of freedom, he relapses into habitual lethargy and becomes enveloped in a thick shell of apathy. He is badly handicapped in his efforts at rehabilitation. He wanders aimlessly in the midst of the sharp rivalry and feverish activity of the free world.”

Those are the words of one of the most distinguished and painstaking Royal Commissions ever appointed in Canada—The Archambault Commission of 1936-38. Its 418-page report is still gathering dust and only half a dozen of its 88 recommendations have been brought into effect. One recommendation, for the appointment of a three-man commission to operate the penitentiaries, was authorized by the Penitentiaries Act of 1939. No action resulted immediately, due to the war’s intervention, but last month the first commissioner was named—Maj-Gen. Ralph B. Gibson, Toronto lawyer and former vice-chief of staff, Canadian Army.

To what extent the new commissioner or commissioners will be empowered to implement the recommended reforms remains to be seen. In the meantime Canada, one of the youngest nations of the world, is still maintaining one of the civilized world’s most outmoded penal systems, and paying for it in skyrocketing crime rates.

The human structure of Canada’s criminal population is something like the structure of an atom. On its fringes is a largely negative mass of whirling particles, caught in its orbit—the delinquents of all ages and the basically honest people who have made one “slip.” From time to time some of these satellites overcome the tenuous magnetism which binds them to the main core, or nucleus, and disappear; in the more straightforward metaphor of the cop, they decide to go straight.

The nucleus of the criminal population is different. Its charge is positive, and breaking it down is a major operation. On the basis of recent statistics, 65-70,000 Canadians will serve penal terms of one kind or another this year. From 57-58,000 will do short stretches in jails, 9,000 will be in reformatories and training schools, serving sentences of less than two years, and another 3,000 will be serving sentences of two years and up in the Federal penitentiaries.

It is in the last two categories that society will be at. grips with its real enemies. As usual, society will finish a poor second. During the year about 9,000 exoffenders will be released from the provincial and Federal institutions, and, either this year, next year or the year after that, most of them will commit new crimes. In short, the nucleus of the criminal population will be at least as large and at least as dangerous at the end of the year as it was in the beginning—and, more significantly, it will consist largely of the same people.

All this despite that fact that we’ve had the nucleus isolated in a steel-barred laboratory, and have had the legal authority to conduct any experiments which we may see fit to conduct. And despite the fact that the successful pattern for such experiments is readily available to us in the experience of other countries.

For no matter how loudly the so-called realists

deride the so-called

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Schools for Crooks

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sentimentalists, the manner in which men are treated while they’re in prisons has a direct and verifiable bearing on the likelihood of their going straight after discharge. Between the wars Canada’s rate of serious crime multiplied itself three times, Britain’s rate of serious crime dropped to one quarter the previous figure.

In 1942 the 41 million people of England and Wales committed 47,000 indictable crimes; in the same year Canada’s 11 million people committed 46,723. Reducing the two systems to their essentials, one stresses humanity and reform and gets results, the other stresses custody and punishment and doesn’t get results.

The English penal system and its shining ornament, Borstal, is based on nothing more mystical than this one simple fact: The critical years in the life of any criminal are between 16—when he no longer qualifies for special treatment and segregation as a delinquent— and the early twenties, when he’s close to full maturity and boyhood tendencies are likely to be either broken or confirmed.

Unless he has demonstrated hopelessly vicious morality or defective mentality, the average English lawbreaker between 16 and 23 goes to a Borstal institution for a term of three years. Length of sentence is not based on the nature of his crime but on the well-supported theory that it takes three years to do what Borstal aims to do—to turn one kind of human being into another kind of human being.

Borstal inmates are divided into small groups according to previous record and social background, and routine and surroundings vary with different institutions. But the fundamentals stressed in all cases are: 1. work and recreation, with coercion and confinement soft-pedalled as much as possible; 2. postdischarge supervision and aid.

More than four Borstal graduates out of every five go straight. That Canada offers ripe field for this kind of penology is attested by the last official report of the superintendent of penitentiaries, which showed that half the 3,000 men in Canadian pens were under 24. In 1943, 17,013 Canadians in age group 16-24 were convicted of various offenses, most of them serious.

You do not need to leave this continent, however, to study prison methods which seem just as startling, when compared with our own, as do the British. Recently this writer spent six weeks studying prisons and prison reform in North America. One of my early ports of call was the United States Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma. One of my late ones was the Canadian Federal Penitentiary at Kingston, Ont.

On the surface El Reno was plain ridiculous. Viewed from the Oklahoma City highway, it might have been any

modern Midwestern college. Its low yellow-brick buildings lay spick-andspan on landscaped grounds and its two thicknesses of ordinary wide-mesh fence looked no more substantial than the beginnings of an early spring dust storm coming in from the West. From the inside the institutional motif was still highly subdued. Only one inmate in every four lived in a cell—and most of those were new arrivals who hadn’t yet been screenéd and classified. The others lived in spacious dormitories or, if their behavior was especially good, private rooms from which the locks had been ostentatiously removed.

At meal hours 1,000 m^n sat down and ate as conversationally as in any army mess, in a high-ceiling hall decorated with bright, convict-painted murals. Between meals some of them worked in the prison shops for up to a dollar a day and others studied trades like plumbing, welding and electricity under conditions which prompted the State Governor recently to describe El Reno’s trade-training facilities as the best in Oklahoma.

During the rest of the day they were free to participate in a sports program whose props ranged all the way from domino sets and checkerboards to four full-sized baseball diamonds and an upto-date gymnasium. After supper four men out of every five took regular schoolroom classes supervised by teachers from nearby El Reno High School, or boned up on correspondence courses in one or more of 80 subjects.

The inmates had their own band, took part in their own concerts, and were shown an average of two movies a week during the months when outdoor sports were restricted by weather. They could go to church on Sundays if

t ey wanted to, but they didn’t have to go. They had their own canteen, at which they could buy cigarettes and candy. They could draw one book a day from a well-stocked library. They could subscribe to their home-town newspapers and to any magazine that wasn’t obviously slanted toward gangsterism or sex.

They wrote, published and read their own bimonthly magazine, and it was a dull issue that didn’t have at least one article analyzing crime statistics and indicating in no uncertain terms where society has loused up its dealings with the criminal. And there was one touch straight out of the Big Rock Candy Mountain—a stack of Bull Durham tobacco and cigarette papers in every dormitory, from which every convict could help himself as often as he chose.

How Does It Work?

I spent my first half day at El Reno getting up enough courage to ask the warden one simple question. It’s the kind of question, I believe, that any reasonably law-abiding citizen would have wanted to ask in the same circumstances, and finally I did ask it.

“What the devil goes on here, anyway?”

The warden is a former F.B.I. man named Clark Schilder. He smiled encouragingly.

“Things aren’t much different here than they are outside,” I said. I tried my best to make it sound like a compliment, but Schilder must have caught the note of accusation too.

“That’s the way we try to make it,” he said. “All these boys are going out again some day. They’ll go into a world where men have to live together. They’ll have to work and play and get along with other people. Basically, they’re all here now because they’ve already tried to do that and failed. How can we help them if we isolate them from normal relationships, separate them from the conditions they’ve got to learn to accept before they can hope to be good citizens?”

We stood in the compound for a while, silently inspecting the thin meshwire fence and the tidy, vulnerablelooking dormitories. Now and then two or three prisoners walked past and, more rarely, an unarmed guard. Schilder intercepted the next remark before it was out.

“Yes,” he said, “we do take chances

here.” And then he said a much stranger thing.

“It’s our job to take chances here,” he said. “Just locking a man up doesn’t solve anything. You can make good prisoners that way, but not good civilians.”

In reality the El Reno conception of penology is rooted in things far less spectacular than deliberately sabotaged Yale locks and bottomless stacks of free tobacco. During the first month of any inmate’s stay there, a complete report of his background is prepared. He is interviewed by a psychiatrist; his detailed job, criminal and educational histories are compiled, and field social workers visit his family and try to find out what kind of home he came from and how he started to go wrong.

When this information is ready the prisoner sits down at a long table and talks to the classification board, which consists of the warden, the institution’s Protestant and Roman Catholic chaplains, the psychiatrist, the chief medical officer, one of the prison’s four fulltime parole officers, and the supervisor of education and the industrial counsellor, both of whom hold university degrees and have had specialized training in handling prisoners. The board and the prisoner agree on a definite postrelease plan and decide how it can best be served by the prison’s extensive vocational and educational facilities and fitted in with its work program.

El Reno has been handling young Federal prisoners on this basis for 12 years. And, according to the one yardstick that counts more than all others put together, the system works. It turns criminals into respecters of the law.

Recently the institution made a check of 1,000 graduates who had been discharged at least five years ago. Only 200 had been in trouble with the law since their restoration to freedom. The other 800—four out of five—had gone straight and were still going straight.

To compare this phenomenally high average of reformations with the phenomenally low average of reformations attained in Canadian penitentiaries would not be strictly fair. El Reno is what penologists call a “classified” institution—a prison to which young and potentially salvageable criminals are sent to receive the kind of treatment and training which seems likeliest to benefit their particular class.

We Don’t Classify

You couldn’t, for instance, compare El Reno with Kingston or with any of the six other Federal penitentiaries in Canada. That’s precisely our trouble— apart from juveniles we don’t classify criminals at all.

In Canada any male who is over 16 and is sentenced to two years imprisonment or more automatically goes to the nearest penitentiary. Thus it is possible for an 18-year-old boy serving a first term for unlawful entry to spend two of the most highly formative years of his life as the immediate and constant next-door neighbor of a 50year-old sex pervert doing his sixth stretch in lockup.

In the Canadian prison system there is neither classification by institutions nor classification within institutions. Once a lawbreaker passes the age at which he is entitled to be treated as a juvenile delinquent, the Canadian penal system ceases to recognize that he is an individual, or to worry about how he will react to any given set of companions or to any given set of conditions.

Sure, he’ll be out again someday. Sure, he’ll maybe be a harder and more bitter man than when he came in, and maybe he’ll even have learned a few

new techniques. But that’s what the police are for! If he slips, it’s the police’s job to catch him and send him back again.

I was the first reporter in nearly 10 years to be allowed a relatively unrestricted tour of any Canadian penitentiary. During my visit to Kingston I acquired material for a few moderately instructive nightmares—the strapping table standing in the keepers’ hall; five certified lunatics gibbering and whimpering in their cells and destined to stay there until they have finished “paying their debts to society”; a sullen hate-saturated convict lying on a blanket in his underwear and blinking forth his hatred from the twilight of the “hole”; a handful of pallid men walking the bull pen in a feverish circle, wringing what they could from their half hour of daylight; another man waiting to die in a century-old hospital that had neither plumbing, natural light, nor any but the most primitive ventilation.

Eight Years, and No Change

But beyond these standard fragments of mid-Victorian prison atmosphere, Kingston didn’t offer any revelations that hadn’t been officially before Canada and its Parliament for the best part of a decade. Most of the things the Archambault Commission said of Canadian penitentiaries generally in 1938 were still true last month of Kingston, at least . . .

“Clean, but the ventilation and heating systems are inadequate . . . Classification, in so far as it exists, is unscientific and without practical effect.

... Old recidivists (repeaters) and incorrigibles are in daily contact with the more reformable prisoners, and as repeatedly admitted by officers of the institutions, no real attempt is made at reformation . . .

“Education is neither satisfactory nor in accordance with the regulations. Libraries are fairly well provided with books and magazines, but the censorship is often inadequate or puerile ...

“Work is insufficient . . . Generally, trades are not taught ... as a rule competitive games are prohibited. A few concerts are given by outside artists, but the inmates are not allowed to take part in these. Writing and visiting privileges are too restricted, and the visiting cages are gruesome and humiliating relics of the past . . .

“The personnel of the penitentiaries is not properly trained. Approximately 95% of the guards had no knowledge or training in penology when they first entered the service, and although a slight attempt has been made to train them after they were engaged, such training has been neither adequate nor satisfactory.”

The Canadian penitentiaries are old physically and older morally. They were built in an age when the segregation of prisoners according to their potential capacity for reform was little more than a pamphleteer’s dream, and the idea of teaching convicts an honest trade and encouraging them to make use of it after their discharge was the semiexclusive property of Punch cartoonists.

Prisons then were designed to be lockups and meant to be lockups and nothing more. And working in lockups, pas they have for generations, it’s small wonder the great majority of Canadian I prison officials are suffering from lockup ».mentalitythe firm conviction that, in «pite of all this fancy talk about reipiabilitation, the keeper’s job is to put prisoners in their cells and see that they :«tay there until their sentences have fpptpired.

{^According to the men -who have ' studied Canadian prisons most closely, and with the most independent minds,

we’ll never get very far with the tough job of reclaiming convicts until we put the administration of prisons on a new human basis. There are guards in Kingston so ill-equipped for the task of handling men that the warden dare not let them work outside the sentry towers. They can shoot straight, and that’s their only qualification for a job that, at its best, calls for the understanding of a missionary, the firmness of a sergeant major, and the intuitive common sense of a good diplomat.

The Archambault Commission noted, with profound dismay, that a guard in a Canadian penitentiary in 1938 received lower wages than a Toronto street cleaner. Since then the scale of pay has been raised slightly, but it’s still wretchedly low, and the working conditions are depressing.

In emphasizing the antiquity and general shoddiness of Canadian prisons as forcibly as they do, the advocates of prison reform have unwittingly caused the public to shy away from an issue which, to put it mildly, has never been close to the heart of the taxpayer. The impression has got abroad that promoting the Canadian penal system into the 20th century would be one of the most expensive public works projects in the history of the country. This isn’t true.

The spirit of the Archambault report, most experts agree, can be reduced from 85 points to three, none of staggering cost. These are:

1. Centralized control — the concentration of Canada’s mass of municipal and district jails, juvenile homes, provincial reformatories and jail farms and Federal penitentiaries under a single Federal authority.

2. Classification of institutions—with special emphasis on a new type of prison to take care of men who are too old to be sent to juvenile institutions but too young to be thrown into association with the kind of convicts they meet elsewhere.

3. Rehabilitation — An increase in the present meagre rates of pay (five cents a day in penitentiaries, and most of that spent on tobacco), so that a three-year man will have a chance to walk out the gate with something more than a handshake from the warden, a prison-made suit and $14 in cash. State aid to the prisoners’ welfare societies, which now operate on charity and small provincial grants but get no financial help from the Dominion.

Tough on Incorrigibles

Implicit in these minimum requirements, of course, is a more intelligent program of education and trade training and a heightened effort within the prisons to remind the prisoner that he’s still a human being. These things needn’t be expensive in themselves. As a start on the physical face lifting of Canada’s penal system, even the most demanding prison reformers would gladly settle for two new institutions— one reformatory for young postdelinquents, patterned after Borstal or El Reno, and one maximum-security prison for incorrigibles, patterned after Alcatraz.

Incidentally, the very men who are often accused of misguided softness toward the prison population view the incorrigibles with considerably more asperity than their “realistic” critics. Students of penology almost unanimously advocated for Canada some variation of the New York State Baumes law, enacted in 1926, which provides a life term for a fourth conviction on charge of a rmed felony. When a convict has repeatedly rejected his chance to go straight, they would simply throw the key away.

To implement the irreducible mini-

mum of prison reform in all parts of Canada would cost the taxpayers considerably less than it is costing them to build one new military hospital at Sunny brook Farm, near Toronto. No one has ever guessed what it would cost to shoot the works, but in a recent parliamentary speech, Senator Gerry McGeer estimated that all 88 recommendations of the Archambault Report could be put into effect for between $10 and $25 millions—less than the country spends on crime prevention

in a single year under the slovenly and uneconomic methods prevailing now.

In the meantime we’ll probably continue to have pretty good luck at catching criminals and terrible luck at curing them. And if you get knocked over the head for your pay cheque some dark night, you’ll still be able to solace yourself with the reflection that the man who did it has probably been knocking other people over the head for so many years that he’s as good at his trade as anybody in the world.