“Every man is better for a period of work under the open sky.”
— Henry Ford (1863-1947) American industrialist
We’ve all seen old American movies with chain gangs — groups of downtrodden inmates dressed in dowdy striped jumpsuits, shackled together at the ankles and shuffling awkwardly through the dust on the side of the road.
The idea was to have convicts perform useful toil instead of lolling about in jail cells all day long.
But there was an element of degradation, as well. It’s one thing to be thrown into jail for something you’ve done, and quite another to have all the world learn of your transgressions by parading you along the side of the road. Chain gangs were all about public humiliation, and we’re well clear of them here, though they’re still used in some parts.
In Phoenix, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio has made a name for himself for chaining inmates together, making them wear pink shirts and vertically striped pants (oh, the horror) and working them seven days a week.
“The intent is humiliation of the inmates and political grandstanding for the public,” said Marc Mauer in an article on CNN.com in 2003. He’s with a Washington think-tank called the Sentencing Project which favours less reliance on jail time in the justice system.
“It makes the sheriff look tough and that’s all it does.”
Still, if comments about justice stories on local media websites are anything to go by, there are plenty of people out there who would not have a problem with the public shaming of inmates, and who are fond of railing on about cushy jails where convicts laze about watching “Oprah” and getting fat on their three square meals a day, courtesy of the taxpayers.
But perhaps there’s a happy medium between chain gangs and inmates performing public service.
In Red Deer, Alta., a partnership between the City of Red Deer and the Red Deer Remand Centre sees supervised groups of low-risk inmates performing community work like clearing brush from walking trails, removing graffiti from public buildings and picking up trash.
Now, we’re not talking about child molesters wandering at large through city parks, mingling freely with daycare kids on field trips. Far from it.
Nor are we talking about humiliation or intimidation or enforced heavy labour.
In Red Deer, the inmates who work outside are medically fit, nonviolent people serving intermittent sentences, who carry out their tasks under strict supervision. Participation is strictly voluntary.
“Our adult correctional facilities have had intermittent community services programs for many years,” said Michelle Davio, a spokeswoman for the Solicitor General and Public Security in Alberta.
“Some of the work inmates have done in Alberta communities as part of the program include highway cleanup, snow removal for seniors, painting, and the construction of a wildlife rehabilitation facility.”
Davio said the response from inmates and the public has been positive, and she sees community service as a means of helping inmates feel good about themselves.
“The program helps inmates develop a sense of community by returning something positive to the community,” she told The Telegram.
Remand centre inmates remove invasive weeds along the Waskasoo Creek corridor near Red Deer, Alta. in this recent photo. — Photo by The Canadian Press/Red Deer Advocate
“An example of this sense of goodwill occurred last summer when crews spent several weekends cleaning graffiti from several businesses in the town of Innisfail. The business owners appreciated the hard work provided to them and the offenders were proud of their accomplishments and were always enthusiastic about returning to that project.”
At the Multnomah County Inverness Jail in Portland, Ore., the inmate work crew unit prides itself on “teaching basic work ethics, labour skills, and social responsibility to facilitate the reintegration of inmates to the community,” according to the county sheriff’s office website.
“(There are) 14 crews of eight inmates each, who do everything from laundry to landscaping, litter removal to illegal dumpsite cleanup, painting to carpentry, janitorial services to graffiti removal. The inmates perform both contracted work and community service. The work performed by the inmates is usually work that wouldn’t otherwise get done due to tight budgets and, well, because no one else wants to do it.”
In this province, the Department of Justice has several programs that allow inmates to interact with the outside world.
“For example, at the Bishop’s Falls Correctional Centre … inmates have constructed picnic tables that were donated to the Let Them Be Kids project that saw two playgrounds built in Bishop’s Falls this summer,” Justice Minister Felix Collins said in an e-mailed statement.
“Inmates at (Bishop’s Falls) also have a community garden project ongoing in which they plant and care for several different vegetable crops throughout the year and donate their harvest to local food banks. Inmates at the Labrador Correctional Centre also participate in similar programs that allow them to offer something back to the community.”
Those are worthwhile projects to be sure, but perhaps there’s room for expansion.
Perhaps it’s time to think of creative ways to harness the energies and talents of low-risk inmates for even greater good, by letting them get out into the fresh air and open sky and make a tangible contribution to their communities.
No one says serving time has to be a passive experience, and a well-organized community service program might foster confidence and a sense of self-satisfaction among inmates who otherwise might spend their days just killing time.
If you could spend your day inside a noisy, crowded, dreary facility where one day blends into the next, or be outside watching the seasons change and seeing the real difference your efforts were making, which would you choose?
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by e-mail