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Educate before we have to incarcerate

Reporter reflections: Our staff revisits stories from the past year

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I had been in Stony Mountain Institution a couple of times over the years, but I'd never seen the range before.

It looks just like it does in the movies -- cells with steel bars to cage men.

It was almost surreal to be walking by and looking at the men leaning on the bars, just killing time. Surreal, but horrible.

I'd gone to Stony to research a story on the adult-education program within the prison. It all started when I attended the annual education job fair at the University of Manitoba, where recruiters from Correctional Services Canada hiring teachers were making a pitch to imminent education grads.

I interviewed six inmates, four of whom were OK with having their names and photographs published, along with details of their crimes and their lives.

Yes, I'm aware I'm a bleeding heart, and I know all six men had committed serious criminal acts. I know as prison systems go on a global scale, our prisons are on the higher end of the scale. I know what the word recidivism means, but I also hope that I know what the word rehabilitation means.

It was pretty easy to spot their common thread.

All six had abjectly miserable school experiences. One had not been inside a classroom since he was 12 years old. One, who'd come to Canada as a Laotian refugee, had immediately been placed in a Grade 11 classroom in northwestern Ontario with the other 17-year-olds, where he was totally lost. One marked time in school until he could drop out at 16, seeing it all as a waste of his time. Another with ADHD reached Grade 7.

One older fellow even had graduated from Winnipeg Technical College, though technology long ago made his skills obsolete. But as a kid, he moved among a lot of schools in and around Winnipeg, his family never staying in one place long; he never had time to put down roots and develop friendships and a sense of belonging in a school.

People talk about reducing dropout rates, developing programs to keep kids in school and providing innovative alternatives to spark a love of learning in kids who can't cope in a regular school setting. These men sitting in prison are among the consequences of our not succeeding in educating every child.

Another thread -- all six have goals of further education when they're back on the street.

Those young men I interviewed will spend seven or eight years in prison for violent crimes.

Look at the calendar and think about where you were on this date in 2003, and then imagine that all those last eight years of experience and enjoyment and living and family were instead spent locked up in a small cell behind thick gates and thicker walls.

A few days after being in Stony, I was working the Sunday shift, in which police news releases become a few paragraphs on our website and in the next day's paper. There were news releases about young men charged with aggravated assault, and it hit me, if they're convicted when they come to trial next year, they'll be in Stony or someplace like it through 2019 or 2020.

I'm not going to argue that they don't deserve incarceration... but maybe there are kids in our city that we can reach before they become those men.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2011 A5

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