December 5, 2011

Cruel & Unusual Punishment (December 5, 2011)

Is it better to be poor or a prisoner?

That question has plagued me for some time now.  In fact, I touched upon the analogy of poverty being a prison in a video blog this past summer. ( "And Now For Something Completely Different" ) And, to be honest, the answer to the question really depends on where you are prisoner . . . and how poor you are.

The reason I am finally writing about this question is because of something I heard on the radio the other day.  The news commentator was speaking about how confessed Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Behring Breivik, was determined by psychologists to have been in a psychotic state and insane at the time of the horrific killings.  Accordingly, it was recommended that he be sentenced to compulsory mental health care.  A reporter from Norway then described that this would mean detention in a mental health facility, likely for life but subject to periodic reviews, and that the prisoner would have all of his physical needs looked after including all of the medication he requires.

I don't disagree with providing for a person's physical needs while in detention, even if they have killed 77 people. (Although I suspect that some would disagree with me.)  However, that is not the point I wish to make here.  What occurred to me was . . . how many homeless people suffering from some form of mental illness would give their eye teeth for this level of care?

In fact, that is the decision that some people who are homeless make, particularly as winter approaches, when they decide to commit a crime in order to get the warmth and care of prison.  Isn't something a little backwards when someone who commits a crime has it better than a person who doesn't commit a crime?

I'm also not advocating that we make prison conditions worse.  I'm simply saying that we should improve "freedom conditions" to ensure that everyone who hasn't committed a crime has at least the standard of living as someone who is locked up.  Doesn't that make sense?  Isn't it humane?

Let's try this another way. 

Prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" is a legal concept that originated in the English Bill of Rights in 1689.  It was later adopted by The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Charter of Fundamental Freedoms of the European Union and many others.  While there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, definitions tend to include things such as . . . unacceptable suffering or humiliation . . . so excessive to outrage the standards of decency . . . torture or degradation or punishment too severe for the crime committed.  I cannot help but wonder - what crime did people in poverty commit that allows them to remain in suffering that may include lack of shelter, lack of food, lack of clean water, humiliation, inadequate health care, etc.?

I'm serious.

If there are things that are so severe as to outrage the standards of decency regarding punishing a prisoner, then why is that same standard not enforced in society for people who have not committed crimes?  Even if you buy the bogus argument that people in poverty are suffering by their own doing, how can we stand by to let someone who has only hurt themselves get a much worse deal than someone who has hurt another?  And, of course, most people in poverty are not in their situation by choice or due to their own fault.  There's a plethora of reasons why someone is in poverty ranging from being born into poverty, victim of trauma, suffering illness, subject of personal or natural disaster, and so on and so on.  Yet, these innocent people find themselves in situations that would violate international standards for prisoners of war and they're subject to situations that would likely contravene any definition of cruel and unusual punishment.  And, sadly, many people in poverty have been handed a life sentence.

But there's good news.  There IS something we can do about raising the standard of living for everyone above that of the best kept prisoner.  First, we must be aware that the situation of extreme poverty exists, and it exists everywhere.  Second, we must notice the outrage that burns deep within ourselves that anyone anywhere should have to live in conditions of absolute squalor.  (If you have trouble recognizing the outrage, then simply ask yourself how you would feel if you lived in those conditions.)  Third, we must take action.  Most importantly, we must raise our voices to say that WE CARE and that no one should be without their basic rights . . . unless, perhaps, they have actually been sentenced to prison.

We must open our eyes to see what is there.
Then, open our hearts to show that we care.

Phase II - Struggles of the Working Poor Daily Report
Day 34 & Day 35 (December 4th – 5th)

Weight at Beginning of Project:  233 lbs
Weight at End of Phase One:  216 lbs
Weight at Start of Phase Two: 221 lbs
Weight at Start of Today:  216 lbs
Available Funds:   $46.15 (Leftover) + $7.50 (Dec 4) + $8.00 (Dec 5) = $61.65
Funds Spent Today:  $0.00
Remaining Funds:   $61.65

New Loan:  $0.00
Loan Due Today: $0.00
Loan Payment:   $0.00
Outstanding Loan: $135.00 @ 2% per month (non-compounding) . . . payments due as follows:  $34.38 due Dec 8th; $34.22 due Dec 15th; $34.07 due Dec 22nd; $33.91 due Dec 29th.

Items Purchased:   Nil
Free Stuff:  Free Pass to Festival of Trees Exhibit

Gas Purchased* & Remaining:  $0.00 (i.e. 0.0 litres @ $1.089 per litre . . . 0.0 km @ 10 km/litre) + 3.81 litres (gas remaining) = 3.81 litres (38.1 km)
Driving Today:  18.0 km (i.e. 1.80 litres)
Gas Remaining:  2.01 litres (i.e. 20.1 km)
*Will not include any fuel or driving related to work that is paid for by work.

Hey!! I'm That Poverty Guy . . . let's make a world of difference together.


  1. I am concerned. This Blog is very well done and thought out ... in my humble opinion.
    Do you EVER stop thinking? Do you sleep at night? REALLY, I am a 'T' and have a hard time 'turning off' ... maybe your Blogs help "get it out". I pray for you ... and for 'them'.

  2. Sean D. Krausert, EditorDecember 5, 2011 at 5:25 PM

    LOL! Yes, I sleep at night. No, I seldom stop thinking (but am able to "turn off" at night . . . most of the time). The Blogs are a good outlet, and I hope that they give good food for thought. Thanks for your prayers for all of those in need . . . and for me. :)

  3. The Alberta gov't granted "cruel and unusual punishment" when they opened the doors to all the long term mental health institutions. I remember thinking how horrible it was that they just literally stood there and shoved the residents out. There were pictures of people who had been kicked out not knowing where to go. MANY of them ended up homeless and because of their mental illnesses didn't have a chance of "pulling up their bootstraps" and get themselves to the level that they would be or could be accepted by society. At about the same time social assistance used to be called...was taken away from MANY.
    What was once a system that unfortunately was abused by some people became an abuse in its absentia. Again, all of a sudden no money coming in for many families...cruel and unusual punishment. I am not a person who blames all of
    societies ills on lousy politicians...but I was around when the announcements for these two massive changes were made. Because of my own
    mental health problems...of a nature that did not need institutionalizing...I was even more appalled. When I was on a psych ward in the Edm Gen Hosp, the threat to the patients by some of the staff was, "Don't do anything stupid or you'll be sent to Alberta Hospital." That scared the bejeebers out of me because as a child we had lived not that far from it but it was called Oliver at that time. The most terrifying thing in the world was "If you get into Oliver you never get out." For some that was horrifying but for many, many chronically mentally ill patients it was a godsend. They had food and a bed and a roof over there heads. That is, until they didn't. I bet many of those people who were set a cruel and unusual punishment sort of way...that day are probably dead now. And I bet that beats the life that many of them had to endure after they
    were kicked out into the streets.

  4. Sean D. Krausert, EditorDecember 6, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    Thanks Marilyn for your comment! Your first hand experience and recollection really struck home for me how "voids" are created. Certainly, governnments can't be expected to do everything, nor should they. However, I think there is an onus on government to work to fill a void that they have created. Also, they should be active in filling other voids that they see as well . . . not necessarily with public dollars but through referral and encouragement to civil society organizations.

  5. There is another gruel and very unusual punishment ... that is to be an active Christian or in fact an active member of many Faith groups. We pay taxes of which 'some' ought to go to relieve Poverty, but then the Government Downloads unto the Churches/Synogues/Temples so that we have Soup Kitchens, Food Banks, Thrift Shops, Educational spaces,Out of the Cold programs and MORE that we pay for in our Weekly Offering.Double Taxation !!!

  6. Sean D. Krausert, EditorDecember 7, 2011 at 9:50 PM

    Thanks for the comment Dan. Try this one on for size . . . the government also covers a lot of programs that treat the symptoms of poverty (sometimes adequately and sometimes not). However, studies show that the cost to address the root causes of poverty are actually cheaper in the long run, i.e. it will save us money. So we not only potentially pay multiple times, but it is not even spent the best way possible. That is why perhaps the most important thing we can do is be a loud voice to make poverty alleviation a priority so that our funding can be used towards root causes. We'll still have to help with immediate needs in the interim, but hopefully the end of such is in the not too distant future.

  7. As a professional who has worked with people with disabilities, I can attest to the fact that this population remains poor, and often homeless due to no fault of their own. Well meaning governments and professionals with university education, but no real street education, have made stupid pronouncements for these people that has saved public money at the expense of the poor. For example, giving people with Fetal Alcohol Disorder the right to make their own decisions is like freeing rabbits into a coyote infested park. They need an external brain. Someone to help them make appropriate decisions. Often, instead, they end up with criminal people who use them for their own ends.
    We elect governments to provide us with security and to make decisions with our best interests in mind. It seems they have forgotten that.

    I admire what you are doing and wish you success. Do you feel that you are making a difference, or just confirming what you already knew?

    1. I've replied in a general post below. Thanks for your comments!

  8. Thanks for your comments, Arctic Goddess. You raise some excellent points.

    Unfortunately, I think government often makes decisions, albeit with good intention, that plays to popular but uninformed policy. This results in getting "hard on crime" but in doing so leaves the door wide open to increasing crime rates because the policy doesn't actually address the problem. Many in poverty, including those with disabilities, will suffer under such policies. And, sometimes it's necessary to spend money in order to save money. Studies show that servicing poverty is more expensive than eliminating it, but eliminating it requires some up front investment and a transition period. Sometimes the long term good is ignored if it is more costly than the short term saving.

    Thanks for your encouragement. Yes, I have received a lot of anecdotal evidence that I am making a difference in widening the perspective of individuals which then translates into more engagement in poverty alleviation. However, the numbers are still in their infancy as is the project . . . so stay tuned as the goal is to be part of change on a systemic level. The project is growing daily.