25th Trillium Award

Five Explorer Questions With Rose Ricciardelli

 
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Rose Ricciardelli knows a lot about the inner workings and failings of Canadian prisons. Coordinator of Criminology in the Department of Sociology at Memorial University, her writing is found in many academic journals and now in her first book Surviving Incarceration: Inside Canadian Prisons (Wilfrid Laurier Press).

In her book - which ties in very well with our Crime and Punishment in Kingston tour - Rose details the personal experiences of former inmates and how their criminal convictions, masculinity, and sexuality determined their social status in prison and, in consequence, their potential for victimization.

At the forefront of her work is a deep commitment to social justice and understanding, marked by her continual efforts with organizations that help people on parole find work and the RCMP B division, focusing on how youth are victimized and policed.

Open Book Explorer is delighted Rose found time to answer our Five Explorer Questions.

OBE:

How did the idea for this book come about, and how did you go about setting everything in motion to get it started?

RR:

The impetus behind this book must be credited to Ryan Chynces who was formerly an acquisition editor for Wilfrid Laurier University Press. I had originally been writing some scholarly and applied articles based on research I was conducting with formerly incarcerated men in Canadian penitentiaries when Ryan approached me about his interest in the topic.

He asked if I would be interested in publishing a manuscript with the press based on the data I had collected. Prior to this, writing a book had never really crossed my mind. However in meeting with Ryan and learning about the press? willingness to help me actualize my vision for this book, I was excited to move forward on the project.

Central to my vision was putting forth the voices of those persons I spent so much time speaking to. I wanted to capture their stories and experiences, from their perspectives, and use their voices to explain diverse aspects of federal incarceration in Canada. My intention was also to inform readers about prison; to remove the hidden aspects of prison living that are so disconnected from the realities of social living and to remind the community about what prison is, what living in prison constitutes, how money is spent in prisons, and how quickly prisoners return to the streets.

I wanted to highlight that just being sent to prison is punishment. Being in prison should not be a secondary punishment atop being disconnected from all a person cares about or has in his or her life. The conditions of confinement are penalizing in themselves and there is neither a need to impinge on human dignity nor to violate human rights.

Clearly, what would that accomplish as prisoners return to society in so little time? A person serving a ten year sentence is eligible for parole after one third of their sentence has been served. They are legally eligible for statutory release after serving two thirds of their sentence. So I ask should prison be designed to help persons learn to succeed in society, or be productive members of society? To socially be able to fulfill their responsibilities?

OBE:

In going through the interviews and documentation of these former convicts, were there any particular common themes that surprised you? Ones you weren?t expecting?

RR:

I must admit I was shocked by the degree of violence persons described in various institutions - by the scars they showed me on their faces, arms, and backs, simply all over. When I asked about the reasons behind the scars, I quickly learned it was often pettiness (e.g., a phone call, a sideways glance, reaching across a person?s food).

These men lived in such conditions of confinement that their agitation and social living were becoming impaired as well as their judgement. Men were not proud of how they acted; a theme emerged where they clearly felt they had no other options if they were to survive in prison. Further, the suicide scars were daunting. I was saddened that so many men were reduced to suicidal ideations and attempts. I quickly developed a soft spot for many former prisoners, often men who had caused suffering to persons yet they too suffered so deeply. I wanted people to see the value of their life.

OBE:

Is there one particular interview that stands out from the rest?

RR:

So many interviews stand out, many not included in the book although their voices are found within the text. This is largely because whenever I felt a person?s story left him identifiable I elected not to include his more comprehensive narrative.

The stories that stood out to me were not necessarily those of the men deemed ?most criminally active? or the best ?story-tellers? though of course their interviews were entertaining. Instead, it was the vulnerabilities I saw among persons who had lived such actively criminal yet saddening existences that stood out to me. The men who shared, genuinely shared their stories and the intricate interplay of emotions that shape their time in prison and post release; these were men who shared their struggles and their successes.

A success could take many different forms, like a daughter agreeing to meet her father, a first interview with a potential employer, being out in society without a parole breach, or simply being able to sit in a crowded space without an anxiety attack. I learned about the anxieties persons experience post release and just how ?hard? it is to survive outside of prison.

OBE:

What would it take for a prison to be deemed a ?humane form of punishment??

RR:

I wish there was an easy answer. Much would need to change both for the persons working in corrections and the prisoners incarcerated.

It is imperative to recognize that even correctional officers are serving time, just incrementally. They too suffer, just like prisoners, from the conditions of confinement and this fact impacts everyone in the prisons, their families, friends and the community.

Rehabilitative efforts are needed, but I do not know what this would look like in order to be effective. It would include, perhaps obviously, more resources (both material and human), better conditions (in some institutions), ensuring that prisoners? basic human rights are met and that they also received assistance that puts them on a pathway toward successful reintegration.

I would advocate for more application of practices of specific responsivity and working toward creating an environment that prepares persons for social and community living anew. Sometimes it really seemed to me that for many interviewees prison was an easier space to exist, almost ironically a more honest space - just not a place anyone wants to be.

OBE:

To your knowledge, has Canada?s penal system improved or worsened over the years?

RR:

Recent years have left a less than positive mark on corrections in Canada. Corrections are marked by several challenges:

- an aging prison population that needs chronic and palliative care, both inside prison and in the community post-release,
- overcrowding and vast increases in the size of the prisoner population despite a steady decline in Canadian crime rates over the past 40 years,
- increasingly growing numbers of prisoners with mental illnesses, and many other realities.

Specifically, recent policy changes and commissions have affected corrections including the Independent Review (2007), the Transformative Agenda (2008), and the infamous legislative amendments associated with the Omnibus Crime Bill, now enacted Bill C-10.

The impact of Bill C-10, passed in September of 2011 with implementation beginning in 2012, included the creation of new criminal offences tied to sexual and drug offences, new and/or increased mandatory sentencing, the selective elimination of conditional sentences, increased pretrial detention and new, harsher sentencing principles for young offenders.

Just a few weeks ago in fall of 2014, the implications of the act became clear when I visited a prison and saw the realities of extensive overcrowding. Things like the consequential shortage of material resources (mattresses and clothes for prisoners) and how ranges housing sex offenders had more occupants than ever before - all likely a result of mandatory and longer sentences.

We must always recall that the future of Canadian corrections is largely shaped by funding cuts and political directives. It leads to more people being confined in small spaces (double or triple bunking), which may results in more violence, agitation and strains on resources, further imposing strain on prisoners and staff. The growth in the Canadian prisoner population, combined with budget and funding cuts for corrections also negatively impacts rehabilitative programs and resources. Completion rates for all correctional programs (drug, violence, etc.) are already concerning and can only become more concerning with overcrowding and funding cuts.

If you ever tour the oldest penitentiary in Canada, Kingston Penitentiary, which just recently closed its doors after 178 years of operation, you'll find a perfect reminder.

It was originally built with more or less positive intentions, renovated after riots and even modernized. But it was also home to many notorious prisoners and many men whose voices are included in my book. Kingston Pen has history and plays a role in the life course of too many persons in our society.

Rose Ricciardelli is an Assistant Professor and the Coordinator of Criminology in the Department of Sociology, at Memorial University. She earned her PhD in Sociology at McMaster University in 2009. She has published in a range of academic journals including: British Journal of Criminology, Theoretical Criminology, Sex Roles, Criminal Justice Review, Canadian Review of Sociology, Canadian Journal of Sociology, Journal of Crime and Justice, Journal of Gender Studies, The Prison Journal, and Journal of Criminal Justice Education.

Her first book, released in the spring of 2014, entitled Surviving Incarceration: Inside Canadian Prisons explores the realities of penal living for federally incarcerated men in Canada. She also has an edited collection being released in 2014/2015 that looks at imprisonment globally.

For more information about Surviving Incarceration please visit the WLU Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out our other Five Explorer Questions in our archives.

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