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Public Safety Minister Vic ToewsAdrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Somewhat to my surprise, I find Public Safety Minister Vic Toews's adamancy that prisoners should be prohibited from occasionally ordering in pizzas or KFC dinners very disturbing. It brings to mind Ebenezer Scrooge and feels especially mean-spirited at this celebratory time of year. So what insights might we gain by focusing an ethics lens on this situation?

When I studied criminology many years ago, we were taught there were three goals of sentencing: punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation.

The convicted offender is considered to deserve punishment, the major element of which is loss of freedom. Could Mr. Toews view ordering in pizza as the attribution of too much liberty?

Punishment of the offender is also meant to provide the victims and others hurt by the crime with some healing. This is mediated through a person in authority – the sentencing judge – recognizing on behalf of society the wrong done to the victims and imposing punishment. This also elicits the sense for victims and society as a whole that justice is being done. In looking at the wider role of punishment, keep in mind that the criminal justice system replaced individual revenge and was a development toward a more civilized society and, in some respects, a more humane one.

Some victims and others would passionately support Mr. Toews's anti-pizza stand, but then some of them would also support corporal and capital punishment, which doesn't justify these interventions. And we should remember that how we treat the most despised people in our society says much more about our ethics than theirs.

Ordering in pizza and enjoying it in a social setting is something many of us do from time to time. It brings to mind warm human contact, laughter, sharing and conversation. Might these associations disturb the "them" and "us" dichotomy used to stigmatize, depersonalize and dehumanize prisoners? Make it less easy for us to believe they're not us – and we're not them?

The second goal of imprisonment is deterrence. Specific deterrence is directed at stopping that offender from offending again; general deterrence is aimed at convincing others that crime doesn't pay.

Even with the occasional pizza, KFC or barbecue chicken, prison is not a resort, so it's difficult to see how either form of deterrence could be negatively affected by very limited and warden-approved access to these commodities, unless it's believed that deterrence requires the maximum of deprivation that's within the bounds of not inflicting cruel or unusual punishment, as prohibited by the Charter of Rights.

Rehabilitation of the offender is the third goal of sentencing – and the one many people believe should take priority when there's conflict among achieving all of the goals. This choice of priority is not "going soft" on crime; rather, it's "going hard" on protecting society – precisely the goal of Mr. Toews's portfolio.

It's been reported that, sometimes, the pizzas are for family visits, which are allowed in an effort to keep families intact. Creating settings in which prisoners can experience love and joy with their families or companionship with their fellow inmates is more likely than not to assist in their rehabilitation, and it's very difficult to imagine how this would do harm in this regard.

So, without turning privileges into rights, ethically and humanely, the balance is in favour of bringing in the occasional pizza and KFC meal.

Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.

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