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In a Direct Line - Photo by Ulli Diemer

Make the Don a Museum of Horrors

By Ulli Diemer
Seven News, December 17, 1977



Unless something happens soon, the old part of the Don Jail will be torn down early in the new year. That is the fate the man in charge, Tory Correctional Services Minister Frank Drea, has in mind for it, and he has made it clear that he intends to have his way no matter who protests. The Don, Drea & Co. inform us, is a horrible place with horrible memories which no one would want to preserve.

Now, no doubt one should be grateful for the government's newly-revealed attitude to the old jail, even if the horror it represents took more than a century to dawn on the government that operates it, and even if Mr. Drea, with the self-righteousness of a new convert, is now posturing as the man who all on his own figured out how dreadful the Don is. It's true, of course, that numerous cabinet ministers - and convicts - have been born and have died since this particular jail was first condemned, but then, as we know, the wheels of justice (and government) do tend to grind a trifle slowly at times.

Despite Mr. Drea's humanitarian pronouncements, however, there is a lobby that is trying to have the building preserved, not as a jail, but as a historic-monument. The historical lobby argues the jail is worth preserving , and is floating various suggestions about how the place could be used; for example, as a community centre, restaurant, etc.

Certainly the old building has some architectural features that make it worth preserving, but frankly, it would make a third-rate community centre. In fact, it would make a third-rate almost-anything. Most of these proposals for adapting the jail are unfortunately just so much silly nonsense seeming to come from a determination to dream up some kind of use which would justify preserving the Don, rather than from any clear thinking about what a community centre, for example, should be like. If we can't do any better than that, we might as well let Mr. Drea plant his tulips on the site and just cart off a few gargoyles and arches to a museum.

But there is one use for which the Don is eminently suited: a museum of judicial horror. Many of us flock to the wax museums that show bizarre and unusual cases of crime and perversity - let us now have a museum that shows us the bizarre but usual, state-imposed crimes and perversities that have passed, and continue to pass, for "correctional services" in Canada and other "civilised" countries. For the true horror of the Don is not the ancient, decrepit, but guiltless building on Gerrard Street, but rather the philosophy it represents, the philosophy that continues, little changed, to dominate the prisons the inmates of the Don will be moved to by the humanitarian Mr. Drea.

For while the ball-and-chain and the cat-o'-nine-tails may be gone from most prisons, the spirit that conceived them is still alive and well in the men who run the jails. The idea - the reality - of punishment and revenge still dominates every second of prison life, all the propaganda about "rehabilitation" and "correction" notwithstanding.

When the bureaucrat's fancy social-worky phrases come at us like last week's snow-storms, it's sometimes easy to forget - if we know at all - what prisons are really like, what life in them is like, and what prisons do to the people in them.

They are, and remain, despite the now fashionable name "correctional institution", jails. Prisons. Where your 'home' is maybe nine feet long, six feet wide, and eight feet high, with walls and floors of concrete and steel bars for a door, furnished with a narrow metal cot, a lumpy mattress, a table, and toilet. Where you see your family a couple of times a month if you're lucky, maybe 30 minutes at a time. Where you never have a privacy. Where the threat of violence is always present, where everything is geared to reminding you that you have no rights at all.

For most prisoners, "rehabilitation" in such a place is - has to be - a joke. All of your time is spent in a criminal sub-culture with no motivation, nothing to live for, with just total, universal oppression. Is it any wonder that all "correctional" institutions teach most cons is the correct way to be a criminal?

Rare is the convict who doesn't leave prison convinced that his experience just represented society's revenge on him, and who isn't prepared to revenge himself on society again in turn, if he thinks he can get away with it.

Given these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that 70% to 80% of prisoners wind up back in jail, that riots are breaking out more and more frequently in Canada's prisons.

If any of this is ever to change, something more is needed than good intentions, social-work jargon, and tinkering with reforms. What is needed is an entirely different understanding of crime that recognizes that the causes of crime are to be found in the pressures of our society, and that the cure has to involve wholesale social change.

What we also have to realize is that prison is not generally an appropriate way of dealing with the crimes against property that make up so much of the judicial courtload, or for dealing with people who are mentally ill. Canada is one of the most jail-happy countries in the western world, with a special predilection for putting the poor, and racial minorities, such as native people, in prison for relatively minor offenses.

The fact is that at present prison is not so much a last-resort line of defense of society against truly violent people, but a form of social control, backing up the school and the factory.

In any society, it is true, there will probably need to be a system for keeping those who are truly a threat to others out of circulation. But this necessity in no way implies that those subjected to this treatment should be brutalized as they are now. This virtually guarantees that those subjected to it will emerge more anti-social than they entered it. Loss of freedom is all the punishment that should ever be needed. Within the prison, the objective must be to encourage the prisoner's positive tendencies, not to feed his hatred of society by acts that confirm it.

Unfortunately, many people don't see it that way. They're looking for an eye for an eye, and they're getting it, more than they realize. For them, and for all of us, a museum of prison horrors is just the thing that is needed. Let's bring out the old medieval torture devices, the dungeons, and the strait-jackets and chains of the modern era, the electric chairs and the nooses. Let's have some cells where tourists can be locked up for a while, just to see what it's like. Let's get some wax figures depicting prison life as it was in 1867, as it is in 1977. If enough of us visited such a museum maybe we'd demand sweeping changes in the penal system. And then we wouldn't have to argue about what to do with future Don Jails, because there wouldn't be any.

Published in Seven News, December 17, 1977


Ulli Diemer
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