Friday Meditation: Harry Critchley

A much smarter man than I once told me that education—and particularly education in the liberal arts—represents an opportunity for people to come together in dialogue with one another so as to learn to know, love and live fully within the world. However, what I want to talk about now is the opposite of that: the profound suffering and alienation experienced by those who feel cut off from or hurt by the world and for whom there is little to no possibility of anything like a life of dialogue with others.

I’m here today as the founder and director of the Burnside Prison Education Program, a Dalhousie program which offers free courses in the Arts and Social Sciences for men and women at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside, Nova Scotia. We’re one of two university-affiliated correctional education program in the country and all our instructors are faculty and graduate students working here in Halifax. We’re in our second year of operation now and offer about twelve to fifteen courses per year at the correctional facility. We’re also working with the Department of Justice and Literacy NS right now to develop a literacy tutoring program to help meet the needs of the large numbers of incarcerated men and women with limited reading skills.

You’ve likely guessed that I’m here to talk about prisons, and particularly the potentially transformative power of liberal arts education in prison. I should say that I understand the prison system can be a topic that many of us would prefer simply never to have to think about. Angela Davis writes that prisons are intimately tied up with and yet disconnected from our daily lives. We take them for granted as a grim yet necessary control mechanism on society, but are often afraid to face the realities they produce. As a result, we fail to come to terms with the possibility that anyone, ourselves included, could end up there, and instead reserve such a fate for ‘others,’ or even just for ‘evildoers.’

However, we can’t afford to continue along this track. Canadian society has been ravaged by over a decade of draconian “tough on crime” policies, which have contributed to a dramatic growth in the overall prison population and record high incarceration rates amongst Indigenous people, women, and African-Canadians.

Here in Nova Scotia, inmate overcrowding and chronic understaffing have led to a serious spike in violent incidents, with assaults—especially those on staff—increasing dramatically in recent years. Between 2010 and 2015, there were 8,500 reported cases of the use of solitary confinement in this province. Conditions for women incarcerated in the provincial system are especially bad. A combination of high security conditions and a lack of programming have led to the phenomenon of ‘pleading up.’ Many women actively request longer sentences so they can be sent to the federal women’s prison in Truro, where inmates have more frequent access to their families, better counselling and work training programs, and less restricted living quarters. You may also have heard recently about Fliss Cramman, who —despite living in Canada since she was eight—is currently on the docket for deportation, and who was also only un-shackled from her hospital bed at Dartmouth General after the intervention of our provincial Justice Minister, Diana Whalen.

What I want to argue today is that the policies of mass incarceration and all that they entail— systemic racism and sexism, the criminalization of mental health and, more generally, the false division between ‘criminals’ and ‘victims’—threaten to undermine the very conditions under which our world can be something we share together. From the inside looking out through the bars, they cast the world in a brutal, alienating light, as that by which one is judged, but of which one has no part. From the outside looking in on the prison, they represent a black mark on our society—that in which one is implicated, but of which one wants no part.

However, it is my conviction that, despite all this, we can still reconstitute our common world and that the liberal arts can and perhaps must play a role on this. So, I know I’ve already said a lot, but I’d like to end quickly with a story that I think exemplifies what I’m getting at here.

Last year we offered a seminar at Burnside on Sophocles’s Philoctetes with Dr. Eli Diamond of Dalhousie’s Classics department. The play tells the story of a Greek archer, who, en route to Troy, is abandoned by his comrades on a deserted island after contracting a terrible illness. Ten years later, the Greeks return to the island, heeding a prophecy that the Trojan war will never end without Philoctetes’s return to battle. During our discussion of the play, one of the older men in the class asked to read a passage that had resonated with him:

This man was born nobility,
From a house second to none.
Now he has lost everything,
Alone without a friend in the world,
Living among the beasts in the wilds—
Miserable, hungry, and desperate,
Suffering incurable, endless agony.
The only answer to his hopeless cries
Is the perpetual call of Echo,
Far, far away in the distance.

He commented simply: “That is us. He could be describing life in here.” Many of the other students felt the same and acknowledged that they too often felt they had no one to turn to.

Philoctetes’s hatred and desire for revenge lead him to totally reject the possibility of communion with the world and with others—a radical, life-denying skepticism reflected in the rocky crags and barren landscape of Philoctetes’s island prison. The fluorescent lights, stale air, and very walls of our own prisons here in Canada likewise seem haunted by a deep, and oftentimes suffocating sadness. Despite the daily realities of overcrowding, and even double bunking in segregation cells, this sadness can and often does harden into a overwhelming sense of isolation—what Kierkegaard calls a “demonic despair” that rages against all of existence.

That this despair can be generated within and even perpetuated by the institutions that structure our common way of life—and so produce a kind of radical marginalization that calls into question the very possibility that this life could be something ‘common’—was a persistent concern for the Greeks. This isn’t something that we’ve left behind, however—we might think of Adam Capay, for instance, rotting away in solitary without even so much as a trial for four years in the Thunder Bay District Jail.

Reforming our public perception of prisons means changing how we think about the people in them. This does not mean exempting people from the things they have done, but simply affording them the basic dignity Hannah Arendt calls “the right to have rights”—the right to appear and be counted as one amongst many and to have one’s thoughts and opinions recognized as meaningful within our public discourse.

When ten men in orange jumpsuits shuffle into a cramped room to discuss Homer’s Odyssey or a poem by Audre Lorde, each reveals aspects of the world the others could not have imagined. There’s an old Latin saying I’ve always liked: amare et sapere vix deo conceditur — even a god finds its difficult to love and to be wise. Though often extremely painful, the revelation I’m talking about here is vital if we are to affirm the world in the fullness of its delights and sorrows, and so reestablish it as something shared between people who both do harm and are harmed, but who never lose the ability to start anew.