We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

New Internationalist Issue 282


What you learn in prison
Illustration by RICHARD SLYE

Kevin Marron spent several years investigating life in Canada's prisons. What he found is not encouraging.

A semi-recluse in her highrise apartment, tormented by memories of friends who slashed and hanged themselves in prison cells, Theresa Ann Glaremin feels like a refugee from a war zone. Like the displaced Bosnian people whom she has seen on television, Glaremin has lived for years with anger, pain, cruelty and violence. She too has lost her place in the world. Her eight years in Canada's notorious Prison for Women have taught her fear of everyday life, disrespect for authority and a profound distrust in the values that society is supposed to espouse.

'I can't forget the things that happened in there. I'll never be free,' the 46-year-old woman tells me, as she struggles to control a panic attack that leaves her trembling, sobbing and gasping for breath.

Prisons are supposed to rehabilitate as well as punish. Judges often send offenders to jail to 'learn a lesson'. But few of the lessons learned in prison are positive, and most prisoners return to society in worse shape than when they went in.

Not that the majority were in good shape to begin with. My investigation of Canada's so-called correctional system introduced me to prisoners who had grown up with family violence, sexual abuse, mental-health problems, alcoholism, drug dependency, unemployment, and the cultural and social deprivation of aboriginal communities. Prison perpetuated and entrenched their problems, deepening their feelings of hopelessness and rage.

'Prison stripped away my culture, my morals and my social class,' says Glaremin, who maintains she is innocent of the manslaughter of which she was convicted, a crime that occurred in the context of domestic violence. Now legally free, but mostly withdrawn into her private world, Glaremin tries to work through her pain by writing poetry, drama and songs. But, she exclaims, 'I don't know what I have to do so I can live in this world without fear'.

Many male prisoners are also afraid of the world, but respond with anger and aggression rather than withdrawal. The lessons they learned in prison have made them dangerous as well as dysfunctional.


Prisoners in tense and overcrowded penitentiaries live in an environment where a knife to the throat or a metal pipe to the back of the head is a socially appropriate response to an insult or indiscretion. People may be attacked for looking someone in the eye, glancing into someone else's cell or, as in one case described to me, taking too long in the shower. Prisoners must be ready to defend themselves at all times and failure to retaliate will likely be exploited as a sign of weakness.
This culture of violence and fear very quickly teaches prisoners how to fashion lethal weapons out of toothbrushes, ball-point pens, chair legs and other household objects. The best way to earn respect in prison is to act with extreme violence and get in the first blow. If that blow happens to be a stab in the back, so much the better, since prisoners will tell you that there is no such thing as a fair fight in jail. Ex-offenders sometimes find themselves instinctively reaching for a weapon when jostled on the street or insulted by someone at a bar.

Prisoners learn intolerance and cruelty in an environment where sex offenders, informants and prisoners with mental-health problems are persecuted. Some prisoners learn to enjoy violence and the status that brutality and ruthlessness can earn in jail. A prisoner at one maximum-security penitentiary recalls a buzz of eager anticipation in his cellblock whenever a killing was expected. 'I used to look forward to it. We would have a lockdown and the police would come in. It was entertaining.'

Others learn to look the other way, condoning violence or ignoring it, sinking into apathy or indifference. One former prisoner confesses that she used to get mad when there was a fight or another woman slashed herself, because the noise of people screaming would drown out the soap operas on her television.


Prison life-skills programs teach prisoners how to deal with conflict in non-violent ways. But guards do not take these courses. Daily interactions with guards reinforce many prisoners' belief that violence, intimidation and force are normal ways of dealing with problems.

When a male riot squad was called into the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario, to quell a group of rebellious women, their actions were recorded on a videotape that was subsequently shown on television. The Canadian public was shocked by images of women being stripped, shackled, prodded with batons and forcibly removed from their cells by men in riot suits and helmets. But prison insiders view such gross disregard for decency and human rights as part of a continuum of injustice and abuse that inmates must learn to accept as a basic condition of their daily lives.

The notion that injustice and hypocrisy are inherent in the system encourages many prisoners to minimize their own guilt. They see themselves as victims of a legal system that does not deserve to be respected or obeyed. Some prisoners also associate the harsh or abusive treatment they receive from guards with their own past experiences as victims of abuse. Their feelings of humiliation and helplessness encourage them to respect themselves and other people less.

Theresa Glaremin tells me that she resorted to the same coping mechanisms she had learned as a child: 'I withdrew and dissociated, as I did when I was young and being raped by my brothers. I used to have faith in the system, but once the system treats you like a nothing, all the things that you used to think were precious aren't any more. I view things so differently now. I don't trust anyone in uniform.'

From guards, prisoners learn to accept humiliation and respond with docility. But many of them bottle up a simmering rage that comes out in their other everyday dealings, both inside the prison and after their release.


For a drug dealer, a prison sentence is a business opportunity. In a society that puts more drug abusers in jail than in treatment centres there will always be a demand for dope in prison. There will always be visitors, staff or tradespeople to smuggle drugs in. Prison life encourages people to use drugs more. Prisoners resort to drugs to relieve tensions and boredom. Even non-users feel pressured to indulge, so that their peers do not suspect them of being informants.

People learn to use hard drugs in prison, since urinalysis tests are more likely to detect marijuana or Valium than heroin, which metabolizes faster. Unfortunately, prison drug users learn to disregard warnings about using dirty needles. Heroin is relatively plentiful in jail, but needles are scarce and may be shared by as many as 15 prisoners on the same range.

Prisoners often return to the community with a heroin habit and a high risk of hiv infection. Their prison contacts will ensure that they have ready access to drug dealers on the street.


All prisoners must learn to deal with sex in prison. Those who try to form or maintain relationships with partners on the outside face myriad difficulties and may learn to relate in dysfunctional ways. Conjugal visits provide brief periods of intimacy, emotionally charged with tremendous pressures and expectations, but divorced from the everyday concerns of a normal relationship.

Some prisoners are victims of rape or find themselves drawn into abusive, manipulative relationships. Others choose same-sex relationships, but not necessarily for the same reasons that people might on the street. Homosexuality in jail often involves male/female role-playing by people who insist that they are heterosexuals by preference. Some prisoners learn a way of relating to others in jail that they can never find on the street. For example, Joe, a prison drag queen, explains that he found love and happiness in prison, but: 'It's hard to go out on the street and say: "I'm married. My husband's in jail. Here's my ring."'


Many people believe that tough prison sentences teach inmates discipline. But they usually have the opposite effect, making prisoners passive and lazy. In a maximum-security prison, inmates are told when to leave their cells in the morning, when to go to work and when to go to bed. Meals are served on trays. More securely controlled prisoners have the trays brought to their cells. Prisoners forget how to shop, cook, look for work and generally fend for themselves. 'Sometimes I wish I was back in that cell. It was so easy,' confides one former prisoner.

On the street, ex-offenders sometimes stand in front of doors from force of habit, forgetting that they no longer have to wait for guards to let them through. They are confused at fast-food restaurant counters because they are not used to making any choices. When confronted with a complicated form or an awkward question at an employment office, they are likely to cover their embarrassment with anger.

Some of the angriest and most dangerous prisoners spend years in super-maximum-security prisons, watched by armed guards and shackled whenever they are moved. They learn to look for security lapses and take advantage of the slightest opportunity to exchange drugs, make weapons or settle scores. Often, they feel comfortable relying on guards to keep them under control. Back on the street, they have no self-control and see countless opportunities for crime. As one heavily tattooed muscular young man explains: 'I've got a sawed-off shot gun within half an hour of getting out. I pass a bank. I see money changing hands. I say: "That's not protected. I own all that."'


Prison teaches you to be selfish and suspicious of other people. Helen, a former inmate at the Prison for Women, realized this change in herself when a neighbour knocked at her door asking if she could spare some milk. Before her long sentence, Helen lived communally, espousing ideals of peace and co-operation. Now she was asking herself: 'What's in it for me? What's her angle? Is she trying to con me?' One has to ask such questions in prison, because people are continually trying to con one another and it is dangerous to be perceived as an easy mark.

Cut off from any real community, their family ties often severed or strained, prisoners turn in on themselves, preoccupied with their own problems, grievances and plans. Deprived of real opportunities for growth and change, they remain in a state of arrested development. When Helen emerged from prison, a woman in her late thirties, she wanted to 'party', and drive fast cars. She still had the interests and desires of the younger woman she used to be. It was hard for her to relate to her contemporaries, who had careers and families, growing up in the real world.


It is perhaps somewhat paranoid to believe, as does Theresa Glaremin, that guards expect that inmates will commit more crimes and return to jail in future. Jail guards do not need to drum up more business in a world where crime is rigorously prosecuted, but poverty and other social ills ignored. It is probably more reasonable to conclude that it is in spite of the best efforts of most staff members to create a rehabilitative environment that prisons teach people to be more violent, angry, helpless and hopeless.

Whatever the motives and rationales of the jailers, the results are the same: Theresa, trembling when she sees someone in uniform, even if it is only a traffic warden; Joe, the prison drag queen, carrying a knife because he's afraid of everyone he meets on the street; Helen, suspicious of her neighbours, trying to resist the temptation to use heroin as an escape. What they learned in prison and what they forgot, the habits and attitudes they acquired, may hold them captive for the rest of their lives. Nothing will change until society learns that our system of punishment only serves to demean, impoverish and endanger us all.

Kevin Marron's exposé of Canadian prisons, The Slammer, was published by Doubleday this spring.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 [image, unknown] NI Home Page[image, unknown] Issue 282 Contents

New Internationalist issue 282 magazine cover This article is from the August 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »


Help us produce more like this

Editor Portrait Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.

Support us »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop