Prisoners are the playthings of politicians. It's rare that any elected official has a kind word for the incarcerated – and why should they, ask the voters for whom tough-on-crime policies are crafted.
Some criminals need to be incarcerated – some for a very long time. But the conditions of incarceration should be designed to rehabilitate. They shouldn't be inhumane. Otherwise, prison is brutal, cruel and counterproductive.
So what Barack Obama is now doing is as remarkable as it is rare. In a series of actions designed to fix what he calls the "broken system" of criminal punishment, the U.S. President has challenged get-tough orthodoxies. More importantly, he has displayed empathy and understanding toward a hidden population that is too often derided, despised and neglected.
Over the past month, the President has commuted the sentences of non-violent offenders, ordered a review of solitary-confinement practices, made a public visit to a federal prison, mused about how lucky he was not to have faced imprisonment as a young drug user, criticized America's absurdly high incarceration rate and denounced the norm of prison overcrowding. In a speech to the NAACP, he called for a rethink of mandatory minimum sentencing. He also addressed the politically taboo subject of prison rape, questioning why something so awful should be a pop-culture joke.
Canadians should be paying attention to the President's liberated display of compassion. Canada's incarceration rate is not nearly as high as our neighbour's, but many of the other issues resonate here. Prisoners at Ontario's huge Toronto South Detention Centre, for example, are regularly locked in cells for 24 hours or more and lack proper medical facilities. These unacceptable conditions appear to be the result of understaffing and budget cuts. Criminals and the presumed innocent awaiting trial aren't being treated with humanity.
Nearly every man or woman behind bars will one day rejoin society. What kind of people would you like as your future neighbours?