05 May 2012

Would 42 months in prison make Harper a better Prime Minister?

I assure you that the title of this post is purely tongue-in-cheek. Heaven forbid I would want to see Stephen Harper behind bars. Nonetheless, another prominent conservative just spent 42 months in the slammer and he emerged a better man with a better sense of what prison can and cannot do for society.

Conrad Black, formerly inmate no. 18330-424 in the U.S. federal prison system, has returned to Canada by his own account “a humbler, more sensitive person.” No small admission from a man of Black's arrogance, he credits his new-found humility and sensitivity to his incarceration, particularly his association with members of society less fortunate than he.

Furthermore, he has become a critic of the American prison system and, more importantly, of the Harper government's borrowing of some its worse aspects for Canada's new criminal justice law. For example, on mandatory minimum sentences, a favourite of the Harper regime, he has this to say, “Unfortunately, like archaic cultures that clung to the belief that the Earth was flat, those who support mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes are willfully ignorant of the near universal consensus that mandatory minimum sentences are both extremely costly and ineffective ... it will be a sad legacy for Canadian conservatives if we sit quietly and ignore how U.S. society has been remarkably weakened by the same laws our government is now hell-bent on enacting.”

His overview of the American legal system is devastating: “The American justice system has become a gigantic legal cartel where there are too many laws and the legal profession is a terrible taxation on the country ... The country has become a carceral state detaining an obscene number of its own citizens, and a vastly disproportionate number of the world’s prisoners, often in conditions that are shocking especially in such a rich and generous-minded country, so proud of its humanitarian traditions.”

At times, Black's critique cuts a wider swath through American society, the society Mr. Harper seems to want to emulate. Listen to Black on the circumstances of his fellow inmates: "Many are victims of legal and social injustice, inadequately provided for by the public assistance system, and over-prosecuted and vengefully sentenced. The greater competitiveness of the world makes the failures of American education, social services and justice unaffordable, as well as repulsive. In tens of millions of undervalued human lives, as in the consumption of energy and the addiction to consumer debt, the United States pays a heavy price for an ethos afflicted by wantonness, waste and official human indifference." Strong stuff—Mr. Black has not lost his rhetorical flair.

I have never paid much attention to Conrad Black's opinions, but in this case I must concede he has inside knowledge. Literally. Now if he could only transmit some of his insight into what would make for a more humane, financially-sound penal system, to say nothing of his new-found humility and  sensitivity, to our Prime Minister, we would all benefit.

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