Cages within Cages: An Essay by Chester Abbotsbury

He’d always had problems on Parole, in handling the newfound freedom and
responsibility, as well as in trying to immediately fit into a society he’d
never really felt a part of. While he has often worked towards enormous
amounts of success in his life by any measure – academic, lengths of
sobriety, social network building, and overall health and wellbeing -  it
only takes a few drinks in a time of stress to start a downward spiral that
lands him back inside.

Our system of incarceration, with it’s multi-billion dollar budget equating
to $550 in taxes for each Canadian, a staff-to-prisoner ratio of about 1:1,
and International award-winning programming, is supposed to help people
like this man sort out their past traumas and learn new skills while it
gives them the space to do so, away from the pressures of late-stage
colonial capitalism.

The fact that 80-90% of men, and 70-80% of women incarcerates make multiple
trips through it tells a different story. Maybe it’s not working.

Few prisoners arrive in a vacuum. Most have histories of economic
marginalization, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and undiagnosed and
untreated mental health and neurodiversity conditions. While clinical
Psychologists are made available and one-size-fits-most programming
encourages prisoners to be open and expressive in talking about and
analysing their past, present, and future selves and circumstances, doing
so while in a cage is not conducive to progress here.

Prisoners fear that health professionals, PO’s, and programming staff will
use admissions against them in Public Safety Risk Assessments, keeping them
in longer. Many of them have understandable reservation about trusting or
working with “the man” and mainstream, colonial social structures and
institutions in general.

Further to that, incarceration and spending time surrounded by others in
crisis, many of whom know only fear, anger, and violence as means of
sorting out their problems (and I do not include only the prisoners who
inhabit the prison in this), is bound to be traumatic.

Normal support structures such as friends and family are kept at arm’s
length, and many forms of meaningful human contact are stigmatized and
shunned within the criminal and prison cultures. So how does one get
through what I’ve described as the most trauma-inducing, as opposed to
reducing, experiences someone can experience during peacetime?

We support each other while we’re inside. And it’s a mostly wonderful,
respectful, and loving phenomenon. The problem, and here I get back around
to the experiences of the gentleman I began to describe to you, is that the
system cuts you off from this vital support network upon parole release.
For many, this is the only true support they have ever known.

You would think that a system predicated on fostering empathy and
pro-social outcomes would not cut you off from those who sympathize with
you, and upon whom you have leaned, and been leaned upon, during a
difficult phase of incarceration.

I know the man I describe. I’ve seen him at his absolute best. I know who
he truly is, and who he can aspire and work to be. I also know that during
his most difficult times, since we were released, I’ve not been allowed
contact with him. And knowing him, I don’t have to wonder if having more
familiar supports, with whom he could be open without fear of judgement,
people who had been in his shoes, would have made a difference, had the
system only allowed it. It’s yet one more injustice inherent in how we
treat the clients of our systems of “justice.”

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