COVID-19 in prisons got our attention. Manitoba has quietly been home to the highest incarceration rates in the country, with a grossly disproportionate number of Indigenous people behind bars. And Canada has one of the highest prison rates in the world. Members of our UM community who’ve witnessed a broken system are pushing for change and greater empathy—but is society ready?
photo above: David Milgaard
WN: The entire issue of the above is given to the continuing tragedy of those behind the walls in Canada’s prisons. Much of this website is taken with the horror of (Canadian/worldwide) prisons. One of the recent posts is: Houses of hate: How Canada’s prison system is broken. I also recently put up: Restorative Justice: Peacemaking Not Warmaking; Transformative Justice: Penal Abolitionism Not Prison Reform, written for a British periodical described in the post: The Kenarchy Journal, Volume 2. My piece especially highlights penal abolitionism.
It’s appallingly apparent that the “hacks and educated screws” (guards and psychologists–back in the day I began working in the system, 1974) of a bygone era cannot exercise “power over” without profoundly doing violence to their keep. The exceptions in my experience prove the rule. Just as one cannot teach people how to fly an aeroplane from a submarine; similarly one cannot train a person how to live in “normal” society from inside a prison, one can no less tinker with the human psyche in a domination system of absolute power over the kept–the very signature of the carceral state–and expect anything good for the kept or society to come of it. Exceptions again prove the rule . . .
I also began publishing in 2018 a series on Justice That Transforms. Several more are in the works. They are collected writings since 1974. Most point in the same direction as above.
This entire magazine issue highlighted in excerpts below is outstanding! Brief, pointed, incisive, hopeful.
The lead piece, also in the photo above, is about a good friend, David Milgaard, victim of a Canadian criminal justice system horribly gone wrong! Too frequently, sadly enough. If you click on his name, you will find more on this website, including an interview David and I did together for an International Restorative Justice Symposium, August, 2020.
Please read on and learn.
The other persons highlighted in the magazine and their work are also inspiring and challenging of our Canadian criminal justice system. Such is the case–and often more brutally so–worldwide, not least immediately to our south.
David Milgaard says the word “free” with intention, as though it might just float away. In a deliberate yet delicate cadence, the 68-year-old former prisoner is reading poetry over the phone from his townhouse in Cochrane, Alberta.
He recites: “It is in a lament of time, trusted like a given home, an open pleasant place, with a fire and a love of the people that live there, that I choose to remain free.”
“I like that one,” he says.
The poem is about his family and trying to stay close to all that is good, when the world viewed him as a killer.
“I needed that just to keep my head up and move forward, and feel cared for by a sense of morality that I held on to.”He wrote A Candled Home from inside Ontario’s maximum-security Millhaven Institution while serving a life sentence for a rape and murder he didn’t commit. Easily Canada’s most recognizable name among those wrongfully imprisoned, Milgaard says he was never actually able to achieve any kind of freedom within his own mind during the 23 years he spent behind bars—not when people believed he was capable of something so horrific. As fellow poet Gord Downie famously sang in “Wheat Kings,” the Tragically Hip’s homage to Milgaard, “No one’s interested in something you didn’t do.”
It felt like walking on the moon.
Winnipeg-born Milgaard was incarcerated at 17 and emerged at 39, bewildered by a simple trip to the grocery store. He remembers trying to buy flowers for his mother, Joyce, a recognizable face on the news and her son’s greatest ally, but leaving empty-handed. “It felt like walking on the moon,” he says.
Today Milgaard doesn’t dwell on the judicial missteps that linked him to the 1969 death of 20-year-old nursing assistant Gail Miller in Saskatoon. Once freed, with help from a team of lawyers that included University of Manitoba alumnus David Asper [BA/80], Milgaard made it his mission to help others unjustly incarcerated. Last year, both he and Asper—now the acting dean of UM’s Faculty of Law—were named recipients of UM honorary degrees, celebrating their work in this area.
Milgaard not only advocates for those wrongfully convicted, he brings his unique voice to push for a rethinking of prison systems in Canada—a conversation gaining momentum, given the brighter spotlight COVID-19 has cast on inequities.
Milgaard says we need to look to more progressive justice models used elsewhere in the world—yet cautions none are without flaws. He points to Japan’s merciful leniency approach, offering those convicted with the opportunity for reform by surrounding them with love and support of family. If they don’t respond, a prison term comes next—one that is especially cruel and torturous and not something Milgaard condones. But the intent behind their lenient approach makes sense, he says: Prisoners wanting to change should be given the tools to succeed.It’s amazing, if you think about it. There are people in Japan who have committed horrendous crimes and they have never spent a single day in jail. Hard to believe, but it’s true,” he says.1
We’re people—all of us—who dream, who want to love others and to care for others. You know, the people that we’re talking about, that are sitting inside cages right now as I say that, they dream and want to love others and to care for others. There is no real difference between them and us.
Milgaard believes restorative justice measures in Canada—where the perpetrator and victim sit across from one another to reconcile—need greater attention since they, too, put the onus on the offender to take responsibility for change. He also likes that it’s an approach that’s peacemaking, rather than war-making.
Please click on: David Milgaard: Freedom
- David is referring to research and writings by Dr. John O’Haley (at the time professor of law and of East Asian studies at the University of Washington.) in the 1990s; for instance: Victim‐offender mediation: Lessons from the Japanese experience; and Apology and Pardon: Learning From Japan. But studies such as: The Benevolent Paternalism of Japanese Criminal Justice, also point to a dark side, as briefly does David, that tempers some of O’Haley’s claims.[↩]