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How Prison Shaped My View of Flanagan and Child Porn

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This is my first foray into the subject of pornography in any form. I have never seriously looked at adult heterosexual pornography, much less aberrant or deviant forms, and I only venture here because my experiences as a prisoner for three years give me a perspective that I have not seen in the furor following Tom Flanagan's comments on the subject.

I have met the University of Calgary academic twice, and find him to be a decent and civilized man. Last week, during Q & A at the University of Lethbridge, he spoke flippantly on a terribly serious subject, child pornography, and deeply offended legitimate sensibilities. It was a bad mistake and he has apologized for it.

In the circumstances, his apology should be accepted, and he should not have been dismissed by the CBC, the Globe and Mail or from any other affiliations. Sincere apologies for mistakes that are not illegalities or revelations of fundamental failings of character should not bring such heavy retribution as was inflicted on Tom Flanagan. This society's concern about pedophilia should not be taken to such extent that insensitive -- but not discreditably intended -- remarks become an instant race to stone verbal offenders to death before they can utter their abject recantations.

When I was in U.S. federal prisons, I met many men who had been severely sentenced for downloading child pornography. Most of what little violence there was in those low-security prisons was directed against these people, for no reason other than outrage at the nature of their alleged offenses. None of the people whom I met had actually molested or even approached a child; none had created child pornography, profited from it, or distributed it. I am well familiar with the practice of convicted people to whitewash their records, especially where they are at some physical danger, as those of us who were sent to prison could be if careless, unlucky, or stigmatized by the nature of the conviction. But in the case of those I refer to, I had all of their records checked (all criminal convictions in the United States are publicly accessible); and their offences were as I have described.

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Having objected to the habit of over-reactive disassociation with anything or anyone to do with this kind of misconduct, I will not labour my own extreme distaste and concern for the subject. Lawyers, psychiatrists and qualified behaviourists whom I know and respect, have all told me that some examples of child pornography are so disgusting that even the most worldly and experienced professionals are profoundly shaken and repulsed by them.

I am sure that that is true. But inflicting heavy prison sentences on the sort of people I met in prison who were convicted of downloading this material in their homes -- who are no threat to anyone, but like watching this sort of thing, and don't pay for it or share it -- is wrong and part of the problem, not a step toward a solution.

Without exception, in all other aspects of their personalities that I encountered (and prisoners live at close quarters with each other), these were perfectly sociable men. They were often quite cultured; one was a chef, one a French teacher, one an art teacher. They were interesting conversationalists and their conduct as prisoners gave no hint of aggression or deviance.

I am afraid that this is a problem that surfaced in our Western societies relatively suddenly, having long been repressed, and has roused a level of hysteria that is understandable. And given the concern most of us rightly have for the welfare of children, this attitude is useful up to a point. But it is not an answer in itself, and it is not the sort of initial response conducive to finding the best possible way to address the problem.

Society does not need protection from the type of people I am writing about here. They are no more likely to inflict themselves on children or anyone else than the rest of us are. And sending them to prison for long periods where they are ostracized and largely forced to associate with each other, and where they are apt to be beaten up at any time as unlucky props in the sociopathic frustrations and belligerency of other prisoners, dressing up their aggressivity as righteousness on behalf of the defenseless, will make things worse. It is unjust to everyone.

From what I have seen of the response to the Flanagan affair, his critics have made practically no distinction between those who derive pleasure from looking at child pornography privately and passively, and those who sexually assault children. Yet few legal and moral distinctions are clearer and more honoured by time and practice than those between private contemplation of deranged or even psychotic activities, and the perpetration of them.

I was not present at Tom Flanagan's session with the First Nations people in which the child pornography matter was suddenly raised at the University of Lethbridge event last week. But I have not seen that his own account of the occasion (published in [the National Post] pages on Monday) has been contradicted by those who were there. And he seems certainly to have been on the better side of the question: He was just making that important distinction, albeit in negligently cavalier and provocative terms, as professors often do.

Then there is the civil rights aspect. It appears to be acceptable to society to have the police enter people's homes without notice and seize their computers and examine what they have been viewing and reading, and then to prosecute and imprison them for long periods in very hostile conditions, because of the nauseating and deranged nature of what they have been downloading for their own use -- even though their imprisonment could not fail to aggravate whatever drove them to such objectively disgusting susceptibilities in the first place.

I believe that this is not acceptable, in either civil rights or correctional terms. On balance, people should be able to read and view what they want in privacy, as long as they are not profiting from or distributing such intolerable material. I agree that this sort of predilection is so abominable that society is justified in having those addicted to it discreetly identified, subjected to special scrutiny, and compelled to report for treatment and counselling. But the people I met who were convicted on these charges were not hopeless cases of psychiatric wreckage; were, I repeat, no danger to anyone, and throwing them into prison and ostracizing them in society while they are beaten up at the pleasure of other prisoners often no less legally tainted than themselves, is not the response of a civilized society to a problem that requires a proper fusion of enforcement, compassion, and common sense.

It is particularly not an appropriate response given the unlimited availability of such material over the Internet, and the impossibility of prosecuting at the source. We are flogging the junkie, without recourse to the dealer, and then flogging insufficiently febrile commentators as well.

The scourge of child pornography is a terrible problem made more odious and unnerving by its revolting and perverted nature, and by the vulnerability of its victims. But the correct response is not to treat it like people in medieval times screaming "unclean" -- not only at those suspected of being lepers, but also, as in the Flanagan scenario, at those who even refer in an inappropriately relaxed way to non-contagious instances of leprosy. As a society, and for the sake of the victims especially, in reducing receptivity to child pornography and therefore the availability of it, we are going to have to do better than this.

This piece was originally published in the National Post.