The world behind prison walls

May 3 1982

The world behind prison walls

May 3 1982

The world behind prison walls


In his 26 years as a prison psychiatrist, Dr. George D. Scott has worked with every type of criminal from schizophrenic killers to petty break-and-enter artists. His experiences in Kingston area prisons, chiefly Kingston Penitentiary, have led him to some controversial conclusions about how offenders should be dealt with in our society. Now semiretired and living outside Kingston with his wife, Jane, and three of his eight children, Scott, 66, maintains a small private practice and acts as a consultant to Millhaven Penitentiary. He also continues to teach psychiatry at Queen’s University medical school and is now writing a novel about a great-great-aunt who was sentenced to life in jail for murdering her husband. His latest book, Inmate: The Casebook Revelations of a Canadian Penitentiary Psychiatrist, was published by Prentice-Hall Canada Inc., in March. A gentle, lively and amusing man, Scott was interviewed in Kingston by Maclean’s editor Barbara Righton.

'If a kid has proven that he's been in trouble often enough,then the minimum sentence should be five years'

Maclean’s: How can prison be made more humane?

Scott: I’m not a reformist. I’m more interested in readjustment to society. When a man comes into prison, his first 90 days are the worst; when a man leaves prison, his last 90 days are the worst. When he leaves prison and enters society for the first time in 10 years, he’s got to learn all his adjustments all over again. I see it in tragic ways. I see a chap about to leave penitentiary and he’ll say, ‘You know doc, I haven’t got a chance. I haven’t got a job and haven’t got any people. I’ve got $220.1 know I’ll be coming back.’ And so the reform is not in changing the structure of prison. Our prisoners are modestly humanized; they have certain privileges, visiting rights. But when it comes to letting them out, this is when a socially disabled person has to be helped. This is where the person who has capabilities has to receive subsidization for at least six months—or what-

ever is necessary to get him going.

Maclean’s: Who will hire an ex-convict anyway?

Scott: Nobody, because they haven’t got any training. They have no skills, limited motivation. They function at a low mental level, not mentally retarded, but awful stupid. Often they cannot apply their intelligence because there’s so much emotion going on. Just like scared rabbits.

Maclean’s: Can’t more be done to rehabilitate within the prisons?

Scott: Rehabilitation is a word that society created. They’ve never really habilitated the majority of these people. What happens is they develop an inherent matured judgment in that they don’t like the life that they’ve had. They gradually edge back into society in some role because they’ve done their time, they aren’t feeling sorry for themselves, they aren’t socially rebellious because their rebellion has burned out. Maclean’s: Are there people who can’t be reformed?

Scott: Only a small percentage. The men that I have known have slowly gotten over it after 40 years of age. The flagrantly antisocial characteristics just die down, the way age affects your teeth or your vision. The truly dangerous offender withers with age. There are very few people over 70 in jail.

Maclean’s: What about that fellow who just went back into prison, Canada's oldest perpetual offender?

Scott: If a guy’s been in jail for 40 years, it’s his world, and quite a nice world. Older people in prison do very well. They’re treated kindly by the other inmates. If I went into jail now, I’d be treated fairly because the inmates do respect older people, they leave them alone.

Maclean’s: What can be done to prevent the revolving door syndrome in young offenders?

Scott: First, I have to say, that prisons are an absolute necessity to controlling people. No matter what efforts are made to retrain them, you cannot retrain a person who does not want to be retrained. The youngsters who come into prison are going to be recidivistic regardless of what you do for them. Therefore the minimum sentence should be five years in our federal system. If a kid has proven on the street that he’s been in trouble often enough, then the minimum sentence should be five years. It’s best that he save society and himself a lot of trouble by coming into jail and not expecting to get out in 18 months. A minimum five-year sentence to my mind is psychologically pure.

Maclean’s: Why five years?

Scott: They have time to think about all the laughs they’re not having, the girls they don’t meet and the drugs they don’t smoke. When a kid has been disturbed from the age of 8 to the age of 16, he’s been in institutions, has been socially rebellious and emotionally mismanaged. Brutal as it sounds, a short period in a penitentiary has to be reconsidered into a longer period so that he has time to live in a consistent environment and decide whether he likes it or not. Being in jail a year and a half is nothing. A five-year stretch is really difficult to accept.

Maclean’s: So what can prison do for the inmate?

Scott: Prison is a place where people have to learn to grow up, that’s what it is. And growing up is growing up emotionally, it’s the social acceptance. If we take the amount of income tax that any inmate has ever paid in 40 years of his life, we will find that he has never paid one cent, he’s never usually contributed anything to

his country in any way, shape or form. He’s been socially supported from the age of 12.

Maclean’s: How long does that growing up take?

Scott: I believe strongly that it takes 10 years in jail, 10 solid years and I’m only speaking emotionally—not legally.

Maclean’s: You have said that after 10 years in prison, an inmate should have the opportunity to kill himself Why?

Scott: If society wants its retribution, the guy’s had 10 years’ loss of freedom, either let him out or let him shoot himself. But I would favor that he should be allowed to shoot himself if he knows he has 10 years more.

Maclean’s: I can't see it happening.

Scott: Our society has yet to come to the point where we’ll put the gun down in front of the guy and say ‘If you don’t want to face this 25-year sentence you’re quite at liberty to shoot yourself.’ The conditions would be a medical examination before, a psychiatric examination to assure you’re in your right mind, and we have to be absolutely sure that in 10 years you’ll be in the same state of mind you are now.

Maclean’s: How many prisoners would take the option if they had it?

Scott: You see the trick to this, where it

breaks down, is that I’ve been in jail 10 years. I’m used to being in jail so I don’t mind staying another 10 years. I don’t have to put up with gas expenses and a wife who is yapping or my kids who are getting in trouble. I don’t pay taxes. I can become socially quite dignified because I’m an old con and I’m doing something “heavy” and I have my own house and I have a good job and people leave me alone. I don’t have any worries. Maclean’s: Do you believe in capital punishment?

Scott: No. It isn’t a deterrent. I’m not a statistical genius, but I don’t see how it could be a deterrent when, without question, at least 85 per cent of offences are impulse-oriented. I would say that most people who come to jail have no

(If society wants retribution, the guy's had 10 years'loss of freedom, either let him out or let him shoot himself'

idea the day before the offence is committed. Now it might be if I get enough booze in my system, I know I’m going to get in my car and steal a bunch of radios, but not the night before. Maclean’s: What about the criminals that you see on feature films, the mastermind that plans the perfect crime and carries it through?

Scott: They are rare. I suppose in all the years I’ve worked in prisons I only knew one guy. I don’t know anything about real organized criminals. We aren’t privy to their secrets. When one of their members comes into jail, they stay away from psychiatrists. They have nothing to do with anybody who’s going to interfere with their particular way of making a living.

Maclean’s: Are prisoners ever beaten by guards?

Scott: I would say it’s absolutely impossible because the other inmates would make such a howl about it, legitimately, they would come forward and give evidence, and the inmates have ¿11 sorts of rights. It would be to my mind a sick officer who individually decides he’s going to attack an inmate. Now, we have records of 14 officers who have died in the past 10 years in the prison system. We do not have any records that any officers have murdered an inmate and we may have had one inmate who was killed in the process of an uprising. Not one person has ever said to me, “How about the officers, do they ever get hurt?” When I say that 14 officers were murdered, people don’t want to even hear that. ;£?