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The Keys that We’re Throwing Away

Thursday June 26, 2014

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

That’s what they told us in the 18th century, Your Honour. But of course, we’ve come a long way since then. Now we can include women. And Anishnabek. Especially Anishinabek.

We Canadians are a bit confused, I think, when it comes to the delicate matter of locking each other up. On the one hand, the Western ideals of liberty and freedom are held sacred in our law, at least to the extent that we like to think that we take them away only rarely, and only after every other reasonable option is exhausted.

On the other hand, as those old French philosophers realized, we seem awfully adept at putting boxes around people and situations that anger or scare us.

Chains may be in our nature, but some deep part of us also knows that imprisonment takes more from a person than just time, and confines them in more ways than the merely physical. What to make of the tension that pulls apart our values and our reality? Typical ways to deal with such stress include denial, avoidance, and justification, all of which are on open display in how Canadian society encounters its overstuffed, and distinctly Aboriginal, cellblocks.

The thinking might go like this: we only put bad people (or people who have done bad things) in jail, and there just happens to be a startling abundance of such people who are Anishinabe.

Or, even more grimly (and wrongly), jail is only really ‘bad’ if it deprives a person of a stable home, family, job, or reputation, and such treasures just happen to be in startling short supply among the Anishinabe.

Either way, that is that. It’s really not as awful as it seems, this situation that sees more Anishinabe in prison than in post-secondary schools.

This kind of thinking might let us rest a bit easier on our goose-down pillows, but it also turns our hearts away from deeper truths, and perhaps better choices. The truth is, putting a person in prison means a lot more than simply putting a body behind bars for a time.

Such truths can be delivered in facts and statistics, of course. The risk of getting infected with a life threatening disease, for example, is so much higher in prison that even one night on the inside can disqualify a person from donating their blood.

Also, mental illness is a major reason that puts people in prison (maybe 30 per cent of inmates are suffering from a diagnosed disorder; many more must be their own advocate and doctor), and the stress of living in confined close quarters only adds to the burden that neither institutions nor individuals are designed to bear.

But the truths of prison’s impacts are more powerfully told in the stories of those who live through the experience. These stories are not mine, but through this work I hear their echoes.

In the Kenora District Jail, women are kept to the left. One large room is encircled by several small chambers, each containing tables and chairs that don’t move, that aren’t even really furniture; just eruptions of rounded metal from the concrete floor.

I sit on a chrome mushroom and wait for my first client, who enters wearing a thin smile and the standard issue swampy green sweatsuit.

As we talk through troubled subjects, her hands find and play with a tiny coloured bead, which seems to me perhaps the only cheerful thing she has held in far too long.

The next young woman I meet does the same, her fingers just as eager to touch the speck of pink that has been left on the steel table.

As if this one small thing could rescue her. Our interview done, one guard ushers my client up grated metal steps beyond where I am allowed to go, while another leads me back through the armoured doors to the male wing, where many more Anishinabe are penned and waiting.

Male inmates cannot be missed, with pylon-orange jumpsuits made to mark them out as kept men.

The rooms we meet in are small and dimly lit, but at least there is no Plexiglas through which to shout, as we must do in most courthouse cells. But even sitting close, great distances remain between us. Some men tell me of their dreams, the hours in which their children are remembered, the loneliness they feel most severely in the few quiet moments of the night.

I hold these revelations tenderly, but without much power to respond in more helpful ways than a nod or soft word.

So we go on to speak of trial processes and schedules, witnesses and realistic outcomes.

We sketch out plans, mazes through the many boxes, ways how the prison might be left behind, this time, maybe forever. But so often, prisoners know better than lawyers how tightly their chains are tied, how difficult it is to break through to the peaceful, loving, healthy freedom they long for.

Most sadly, most sickly of all, one stay in prison tends to be the best predictor of return trips.

Have a question for our columnist related to law issues in northern Ontario? E-mail him at:

Simon Owen is a lawyer at Beamish and Associates in Sioux Lookout, and practices primarily in the areas of criminal defence law and community justice initiatives.

Most of the people and communities he serves are members of the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation, who continually inspire and challenge him to find justice both within and beyond (or in spite of) the Canadian court system.

Simon holds law degrees from the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia, where his thesis work focused on moral and cultural communication in sentencing.

These columns represent the personal views of the author alone, and not of any organization that he may be associated with.

Nothing in these columns should be taken as legal advice; please consult a properly instructed lawyer for any legal issues you may have.

Some names and details in these columns may be modified to protect confidentiality.

Finally, the author is not Anishinabe, and this column is not intended to explain or interpret any Anishinabe words, concepts, or principles. The author humbly apologizes for any errors or misunderstandings that he may make when referring to Indigenous ideas

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