Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

President Barack Obama speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. As part of a weeklong focus on inequities in the criminal justice system, the president also met with law enforcement officials and nonviolent drug offenders who are paying their debt to society at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison for male offenders near Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Evan Vucci/The Associated Press

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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?

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies