Rehabilitating burglars

| 24/02/2009

According to a news report last week, there is a shortage of volunteers to teach Northward prisoners to read. That suggests there is something wrong with our Islands’ rehabilitation system.

There’s not much point in appealing for more volunteers if the system is flawed. Actually, I don’t know if there even is an overall rehab program. If there is one, its public relations program needs working on. We have a Probation Service and Parole Board, a halfway-house for druggies, and several components of a prisoner-education program, but are all their activities coordinated?
I remember a senior prison officer who worked with an enthusiastic troupe of regular volunteer teachers some years ago. Unfortunately he crossed swords with some political crony in the service.

What happened to him next has happened to other expats in similar circumstances. He was suspended and confined to the island for three or four years while the police and Legal Department gave him time to confess to some dubious criminal charge. He refused the option, and paid the standard penalty. (I’ve met him, and he came across as a good man. A bit too outspoken to flourish during Cayman’s current retreat from the rule of law… Well, of course.)
A friend of mine was one of his volunteer reading-coaches for three years, until 2003. She loved doing it. The interaction with caring civilians was welcomed by most of the pupils, some of whom still keep in touch.

Unfortunately, the Immigration Board of the day killed her enthusiasm stone dead by telling her (in writing, in response to her next Status application) that her “continued residence would be contrary to the public interest.”

Ah well, who knows why Immigration Boards do all the mean things they do? Maybe she withheld a Gold Star from some Board Member’s Cousin. Maybe she told Somebody’s sister’s boyfriend to stop cleaning his ears with the communal pencil. I’ve no idea. What a slap in the face for any expat, to be told that their volunteer work is not in the public interest.

Recidivism (repeatedly offending) is more of a problem here than it ought to be. We are three tiny islands. If we can’t rehabilitate our prisoners, there is no hope for the world. If our governor or his London masters were seriously interested in reducing recidivism, they would appoint a Prisoners Rehabilitation Committee modelled on the Vision-2008 Committees. This Committee could be asked to recommend a comprehensive rehab program for prisoners – including teaching them to read. That would be one good way of preparing them for civilized society again, or maybe for the first time.

It’s an old joke that all a burglar really needs to read is a few necessary signs: “Beware of the Dog”, and “These premises are protected by…” But that is wrong and unfair. Illiteracy limits his choice of jobs, and burglary is one job that doesn’t require reading skills. It is a foolish society that prefers to keep them in prison all their lives instead of making a genuine effort to reform them. Many criminals were poor scholars; some of them are dyslexic. They’re not necessarily stupid. If the FCO favours punishment without rehabilitation – especially for younger criminals – then it is doing us all a disservice.

Prison should not be only a place of punishment. In liberal theory, all but a few criminals are deemed to be capable of becoming productive members of society. That’s why even habitual criminals aren’t locked away for life, and why most of their basic human rights are recognized even during their incarceration. Prisoners lose some of their freedom of movement and freedom of expression; but they never lose (in theory) the protection of the law. They aren’t out-laws, to be killed out of hand, or turned over to thugs to be raped and beaten in prison.

Maybe my proposed Rehab Committee could comment on our islands’ entire imprisonment policy. A good place to start might be to question why consuming ganja is a felony requiring prison-time. Pot-heads aren’t normally violent people. They’re not nearly as likely as drunks to beat up their spouses or children. So why turn them into real felons by sending them to prison for training?

There is no logic in counting drugs-consumption as a crime – of any sort, any time. Making ganja legal would release a fair percentage of Northward’s inmates at a stroke. Hasten the day.
Here in Cayman we tend to look to government for the solutions to all our community’s woes. That’s a mistake. As President Reagan said, “Government can’t solve our problems: government is the problem.” Empire-building bureaucrats should never be a first resort.

Rehabilitating prisoners is too important to depend on nine-to-five government clerks. Why not turn the problem over to volunteer members of the broader community? There are plenty of us out here who would be glad to be called on. A secretariat of a few paid employees could be financed by those householders and businesses who would rather not be burgled. Criminals who aren’t rehabilitated remain criminals. They will re-offend without remorse. Is that what we want?

Northward might as well not bother washing their bedsheets when they walk out the door. The governor could set the wheels in motion by next weekend, if he had London’s approval to do it. Let’s hope he asks for it, and gets it.

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