The act of ‘no’ | John Chaif

By John Chaif

Law360 Canada (April 12, 2023, 12:41 PM EDT) --
John Chaif
John Chaif
After serving almost 40 years in prison I have lived in society for almost 11 months. I have discovered an interesting aspect to the impact of imprisonment. I have had to relearn the art of saying no.

In prison the power imbalance between figures of authority and the prisoner mean that one loses the practice of saying no. Compliance is an expectation of the authority figures. Compliance is understood by the authority figures to mean complete obedience to the whims of the staff. Non-compliance is seen as contributing to a degenerating attitude which is understood to lead to a heightened risk to public safety. This means the prisoner loses the power that comes with the freedom to express an opinion as well as the freedom to say no.

The power imbalance skews the importance of any decision to say no because there is a distinct lack of criteria for such subjective defining of the relevance of the matter being decided. Decisions that might otherwise be minor in nature can be elevated in this way to a degree that impacts on releasing decisions. Refusals, or the act of saying no, require serious consideration regardless of the appearance of the matter being decided. This suppression of the power to refuse within the offender can lead to long-term habits that can be challenging to break. More importantly, within the community, there can be a dysfunction of the offender’s ability to reach decisions of even minor irrelevance.

The practice of assertion of self by the offender is virtually non-existent within the relationships between staff and offender. Staff members have been heard to say that the moment an offender “tells” the staff member anything the offender is being aggressive. There is zero tolerance for assertion. Any act of assertion is interpreted as aggression. This contributes to the tensions within the prison and the level of violence that occurs because the staff have, in this way, already escalated the energies within the exchange.

These dynamics mean that the elements of assertiveness training within cognitive behavioural programming such as anger management or substance abuse, programs designed to reduce the criminogenic factors leading to commissions of crimes, are not implemented or practised with the commitment required to affect meaningful change. The internal conflict within prison administrators between their mandate to reduce criminogenic behaviour by teaching assertiveness (as a means of reducing aggression towards one’s self or others) and the challenges of handling empowered prisoners who have learned to assert themselves within the prison environment means a shortfall in the commitment to improve the prisoner’s behaviour as the administrators choose the path easiest for them.

This means that society is short-changed. Society is cheated of the value that would be added to the prisoner if they were taught positive ways to address life’s challenges. This has two distinct impacts on society. First, the released prisoner has not learned to apply assertion in everyday life so their problem-solving skills lack depth and effective choices of expression. This does not help them create positive outcomes in their social interactions. Life is more challenging for them than it is for others and prisoners have already demonstrated difficulty in dealing with social challenges.

I have had the experience of having the opportunity to express an opinion free of negative repercussions and still struggled with expressing myself. I was in an art store looking at two photographs. When presented with framing choices, I realized I did not want the pictures. Yet I struggled with expressing my opinion. Expressing one’s opinion is an important aspect of social interaction. This expression contributes to an understanding of one another. The crippling of it through intensive suppression within the prison environment creates a significant social disability.

Secondly, the community is deprived of an educator who would share their learned practices with others simply through the way they live their life. Positive assertion in social interactions would become more common. Instead, the act of imprisonment inserts socially handicapped individuals into the very communities asking to be safer.

The power-imbalanced relationships between staff and prisoners and the lack of commitment to creating an environment of positive assertions means the released prisoner, now a member of the community, is not practised in making or implementing decisions of even the simplest kind. Every choice becomes a matter to be pondered. The difference in the speed of life and the number of choices possible between life inside prison and life outside prison can short-circuit the decision-making ability of the individual.

This brings us to the tensions that occur when someone says no. Saying no to administrators in prison generally creates a negative situation for the prisoner. Choices are not presented within a context where no is a viable option. And to assert one’s right to say no can lead to escalated confrontation rather than meaningful discussion of options within the choices. So the capability to express no with or without opinions becomes atrophied.

Socially, saying no is a part of life. We can learn to say no with assertion, but more importantly, we can learn to say no with socially accepted phrases that are without offence to the other party. We can learn to say no with grace.

In 1983, at the age of 27, John Chaif was sentenced to life in prison with 25 years until parole eligibility. In 1988 he escaped from Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont. He was later rearrested in the United States and spent six years in the federal prison system there before being transferred back to Canada. Chaif has spent a great deal of time inside advocating against systemic abuses, including abuses relating to prison labour. His advocacy has at times attracted the attention and opposition of prison authorities. Earlier this year he won a Federal Court challenge he brought after being denied day parole (Chaif v. Canada (Attorney General), 2022 FC 182). Chaif was subsequently released from prison on day parole this past May at the age of 67. He now continues his activism on the outside, as a vocal proponent for the human rights of prisoners.

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