When Omar Khadr Gets Out

The divide in opinion about Omar Khadr is wide and deep and it will not be closed by any words written in a newspaper. But there are two things – one fact and one hope – which we should be able to agree on.

The fact: He is in Canada and he will be released, sooner or later.

The hope: When he is free, he will have nothing to do with violent Islamists or other criminals.

For now, set aside what happened that awful day in Afghanistan, how Khadr was treated by American officials, the legal process he was subjected to, the sentence, the repatriation. It’s all in the past. We can argue about it, endlessly, but we can change nothing.

But we can change the future. So what will we do now to make it more likely that our hope for Omar Khadr is realized?

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews got things started by releasing a statement that characterized Khadr as a remorseless terrorist. Why? Was it a political sop to conservatives angered by the decision to permit Khadr to serve his sentence here? I don’t know. Criminal lawyers were shocked. They worry Toews’ statement could taint future proceedings within the prison sys-tem and the parole board, which are supposed to be free of political interference.

But whatever the motive, Toews’ statement was misguided.

For years, Khadr has been vilified. Some would say justly so, others not. But that’s the past. Further vilification will not help Omar Khadr – a 26-year-old who hasn’t experienced a day of normal life since he was a child – become a law-abiding person. In fact, if we were deter-mined to make it as hard as possible for Khadr to become an ordinary guy who goes to work, pays his taxes, and stays out of trouble, a relentless campaign of public vilification like that being waged by certain journalists would be a splendid idea.

But that is not our goal. And it is reprehensible for the public safety minister to heap yet more opprobrium on the bonfire.

Please note, this isn’t about being sympathetic to Omar Khadr. It’s about our self-interest. Yours and mine. However we feel about Omar Khadr, he will return to the com-munity some day. The only question is: What shape will he be in and what circumstances will he en-counter?

As unusual as Khadr’s case is, that question applies to almost everyone in prison. They come back, sooner or later. Even in the very few jurisdictions that have capital punishment and life-with-no-chance-of-parole sentences, like the United States, almost all prisoners eventually return to live amongst us.

One possible response to this basic fact is to say that the prisoner’s punishment is the removal of his freedom for whatever period is deemed to be just, and during that period the correctional system will do whatever it can to make it more likely that the prisoner will stay on the straight and narrow after he or she is released.

That means “hard time” is used as little as possible. Locking a man in a cell and telling him when to get up, where to go, what to do, when to eat, when to return to the cell, and when to sleep, is a great way of turning that man into a vegetable. It’s called “institutionalization.” And when you’re dealing with people who, in so many cases, struggled to lead a normal life even before they were sent to prison – thanks to mental illness, addictions, child abuse, broken families, illiteracy and other pathologies – it’s particularly crippling.

This is why correctional systems in most Western countries, including Canada’s until recently, embraced the idea that prisons should be designed, as much as possible, to get prisoners ready for life on the outside. Inmates live and work with others, do domestic chores, have work and other responsibilities, ac-cess to recreation, and a degree of freedom within the facility. And they are given help for the pathologies that plague them. In this way, “institutionalization” is minimized and, just maybe, old and destructive habits are replaced with some-thing that will serve everyone better when the inmate is released.

Toews and the government he works for have never accepted that approach. They are slowly replacing it with a philosophy whose full expression is evident in the United States.

In the misleadingly named “tough-on-crime” view, the loss of liberty is not a sufficient punishment. The prison environment it-self should be punitive.

So-called “Club Feds” are replaced by guards, walls, cells, and commands. Family visits are restricted or eliminated, along with work furloughs, day parole, and parole. More time in tougher prisons is the goal.

Mostly, advocates do this because piling up punishment feels good. But if pressed, they will defend it by claiming that it makes prison so awful that would-be criminals, and ex-cons, will be “scared straight.” Unfortunately, there’s no real evidence that works. In fact, the evidence suggests this approach turns prisons into crime schools and gang recruitment centres, makes hard men harder, and ensures that ex-cons are thoroughly messed up when they return to our communities.

I saw the logical culmination of piling punishment on punishment some years ago, when I visited Pelican Bay, California’s terrifying supermax prison.

Inmates are kept in concrete boxes 23 hours a day. For one hour, they are allowed into a tiny, barren yard with high walls. There are no windows. Doors are opened and closed remotely, ensuring that prisoners are kept in near-total isolation from all human contact.

Every now and then, a prisoner’s sentence expires. After years locked in this living hell, the inmate is walked outside, given a bus ticket, and told he is free: It’s impossible to imagine a system better designed to produce twisted men incapable of living peacefully among us.

That is what can happen when the desire to punish is not re-strained by the knowledge that the prisoner will one day return.

It would be good if we didn’t make that mistake with Omar Khadr. It would be better if we stopped making it in our correctional system.