Look past the prison, to the person

While it’s not wrong to be interested in the corrections field, our interest often wrongly stems from a romanticizing of prisons with little genuine regard for inmates and their personal lives and experiences. 

In my second year at Queen’s, I joined a club that allowed me to tutor an inmate for a couple of hours a week at a correctional facility in the Kingston community. I thought it would offer me the chance to explore an unknown environment and interact with individuals I usually wouldn’t encounter. 

I was probably in my third week of tutoring when one of my learners turned to me and thanked me for my patience and shared that he was excited to be graduating that upcoming summer.  

In that moment, I realized just how dangerous it was for me to think of that work as a personal opportunity, and an exciting one at that. In doing so, I failed to pay attention to who actually mattered — the individuals I was there to help. 

Friends of mine have asked me questions about what I saw in the facility and if it was anything like the television show Beyond Scared Straight. They asked what my learners were charged with, often prompting me in hushed tones to give them the dirty details.  

Inmates spend extended amounts of time within the walls of correctional facilities and often grapple with shifts in lifestyle, having to navigate through the personal journey they’re supposed to experience.  

While it’s important to pay attention to these institutions, it’s easy to place our idealized images over a realistic picture of the Canadian correctional system and, most importantly, those within it. 

Similar issues exist close to home, at the Kingston Penitentiary in particular. Advertised as an educational opportunity that encourages openness with the community, tours of the Kingston Pen can veer into toxic territory where money is made from perpetuating the thrilling experience of prison in ignorance of how it’s others’ reality.  

At one point, people lived in the cell units, ate in the dining areas, and were held in the solitary confinement quarters — taking zoo-like guided tours trivializes and commercializes their experiences.  

Learning about issues that persist in prisons and complicate rehabilitative efforts is a step in the right direction. But important lessons can get lost in translation when we romanticize incarcerated populations for our own satisfaction. 

Arththy is The Journal’s Opinions Editor. She’s a third-year English major. 

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