I can’t say I’m a huge fan of The Shawshank Redemption, but there’s one scene toward the end that I consider truly memorable. It’s the one in which Morgan Freeman, having been paroled from prison after so many years behind bars, is shown at his job in the free world: bagging groceries at a supermarket. Upon feeling Nature’s call, Freeman waves a hand at his manager and asks for permission to use the restroom. Slightly embarrassed by the fact that this request was made public, the manager calls Freeman over and informs him that he’s free to go and hit the head whenever he pleases.
This gentle reprimand hits Freeman hard—it’s the moment he realizes that his decades of incarceration have left him so thoroughly institutionalized that he cannot function in normal society. It’s a bitter revelation that I immediately thought of upon reading the tale of Craig Andrew Glen Blair, a career criminal in New Zealand who seems to have decided that he lacks the skills to exist beyond prison walls:
Blair had only been out of prison from a previous bank robbery offence for five days when he decided he could not cope living on the outside.
He had spent all his money on release on alcohol and had lost contact with his immediate family, his lawyer Tim Barclay told the Rotorua District Court.
Blair, 43 made a calculated decision to reoffend just enough to be able to be sent back to jail, he said.
Blair, who had already served a two-and-a-half year sentence for robbing the National Bank in Te Puke in 2008, held up the Westpac Bank in Rotorua in June this year.
He waited in the queue and then approached the teller demanding money, saying he had a gun in his bag. After being handed a “modest” $1140, Blair walked 400 metres to the Rotorua Police Station to give himself up.
At sentencing yesterday Judge Phillip Cooper said Blair had refused any rehabilitative assistance available to him on his release. He also made no attempt to contact his immediate family, which included his adult children, for help.
Prison seems like such a ghastly place to most, so it’s very difficult to understand Blair’s mindset. Yet at the same time, his seemingly odd choice dovetails with fresh research (PDF) questioning whether incarceration really reduces recidivism. The fact of the matter is that humanity’s various systems of justice are all united by our faith in the hierarchy of punishments. But what happens when the facts of life on the outside invert a critical part of that hierarchy—that which holds that prison is a worse fate than supervision in the free world?