In the spring of 1982 I was 15 years old, living in a small city in B.C. Like many teenagers, I was preoccupied with motorcycles, girls, rock music, and dressing to impress my peers. Mostly I was unaware of something happening that spring that would have considerable influence on my future life. On April 17th Queen Elizabeth II and the Prime Minister of Canada signed a document that included the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or “The Charter”. Though it meant little to me at the time, the Charter is a Canadian legal document that would have a greater effect on my life than any other. Two short years later, I would enter British Columbia’s infamous Oakalla prison. From then until today, I am ashamed to concede that I have spent over 22 years inside of prisons just like this one (Matsqui). In that time, I have learned more about human indignity than many would think possible for an educated person living in one of the most “civilized” nations on earth. Though I could not know it at the time, my entrance into Oakalla began a long search for human dignity.
My dictionary defines dignity as, ‘the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.’ By that definition, human dignity involves the way I view myself, the way others deal with me, and the way I view and treat others. While it is true that many things can affect the way I feel about myself, it is equally true that the way others treat me plays a large role in my everyday sense of personal value. I have been thinking a lot about that lately. Especially have I been thinking about it in light of the Charter. More than any other Canadian legal document, the Charter gives voice not only to how Canadians must treat each other, but more importantly, how we should view, or feel about each other.
It would be unrealistically biased of me to be so critical of the “Roadmap” report and not present an alternative. Yet, I freely admit that any alternative I could present would only be one more theory in a long line of theories presented by those seeking a utopian society. The truth is, crime is ugly. In every form, it is an assault on the human dignity of another. I know of which I speak.
In 1983, I began my all out assault on dignity. It began with a breach of financial trust, and ended 12 years later with the ultimate indignity – when I deprived another human being of his right to life. Yet, as implausible as it may sound, I now know that during that time I was desperately seeking “worth, honor, and esteem.” You will recall that this is how the dictionary defined “dignity”. How did a person searching so desperately for dignity become so undignified?
I have thought about that question for many years now. The conclusion I’ve reached is that even though we are born with dignity, the world we are born into is full of indignity. How else can we explain the global epidemic of sexual slavery, child molestation, family violence, drug addiction and alcoholism, war, violent crime, starvation and poverty, environmental destruction and gross economic injustice? We may be born innocent, but it doesn’t remain that way for long. If dignity is a human birthright, then the world we are born into is a thief relentlessly seeking to steal it away. When dignity is first taken from us, we feel “indignant”. Without correction, our base response is to take dignity from others in an attempt to retrieve our own. Logically, this “tit-for-tat” model of conflict resolution is the wrong response. It only creates a firestorm of people robbing dignity from others. Yet it is the model we continue to follow into adulthood – often without second thought. What it creates is a life cycle of indignity as the pendulum swings between losing and taking dignity.
Lawmakers know this well. In April of 1945, in an endorsement of the Charter of the newly formed United Nations Organization, U.S. President Harry Truman publicly stated: “We must build a new world—a far better world—one in which the eternal dignity of man is respected.” It is this attempt to validate “eternal dignity” for all that drives lawmakers to draft codes such as the Charter. …
As stated earlier, I am in prison because of committing one of the greatest indignities known to man. I forcibly took away another person’s dignity. His right to “worth, honor, and esteem”. His right to life. In doing so, I likewise gave up my own human dignity. Notice, I did not say I gave up my right to dignity. .. Rather, in my case, I threw away my own dignity. At that time, Canadian society was forced to decide how to respond. Was revenge the right model? By killing me, they could enact upon me the same indignity I had enacted on my victim. Though I wouldn’t learn anything from the experience, perhaps it would teach the rest of society that taking away the dignity of another would be met with a forcible and severe removal of their dignity. Or, perhaps, as is the case in some societies, it would be better to publicly torture and maim me. That way revenge could be satisfied as my dignity is taken away on a repeated and daily basis. In the end, Canadian society chose the moral high road. Perhaps this course was chosen on the perception that a person born into a world with so much indignity is not solely responsible for treating others with indignity. So, it was decided that in my case – and the cases of thousands of other Canadian citizens – Canadian society would attempt to teach us how to treat others with dignity….But how could this best be accomplished on such a large scale? In 1986, it was decided to create a new body of law that would – amongst other things – “promote the dignity and fair treatment of inmates”.
This new body of law would take 6 years to create, span the mandate of two separate governments, and involve the labours of hundreds of lawmakers, social workers, International partners, university professors, CSC staff, lawyers, and community liaisons. The working papers alone for this project cover 2 years and 481 pages of summary reports. I know, I’ve read all of them. The final result was the CCRA – The Corrections and Conditional Release Act and the accompanying Regulations.
The rationale behind this legislation is easily understood. Stripping a person of dignity is often more brutal than inflicting physical blows. It is devastating to the human spirit. A devastated, dehumanized human spirit is a dangerous thing. When humans become dehumanized, they tend to act inhumanely. This was the lesson learned painfully through the events in B.C. Pen, Millhaven, Archambault, and Kingston Penitentiary in the 1970’s and early 80’s. Some in the CSC today choose to irresponsibly forget that those lessons were paid for with the blood of both prisoners and Correctional Officers. A more pleasant lesson CSC has both learned and preached since that time is that when accorded greater dignity, human inclination is to conduct oneself, and treat others more humanely. In the 20 years since the creation of CSC’s Mission and the subsequent inception of the CCRA, incidents of prison violence in general, violent recidivism by parolees, and violent crime committed by successful beneficiaries of CSC correctional programming have reduced dramatically.
Written By: Oakalla