Can convicts learn from Auschwitz?

Poland hopes to shock criminals straight with visits to Auschwitz

Can convicts learn from Auschwitz?Every year, thousands of people visit the Auschwitz concentration camp site in Poland to tour the grounds and pay their respects to the dead. This year, an unusual group will visit: Polish convicts, who will be attending a course on the history of Auschwitz and crimes committed there, museum officials confirmed to the Daily Telegraph. The program, which one prison official called “shock therapy,” is intended to teach criminals about the dangers of violence and oppression as part of their rehabilitation—yet, according to a Canadian expert, such programs rarely, if ever, work.

Irvin Waller is a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, and co-director of its Institute for the Prevention of Crime. The U.S., he notes, has tried similar tactics to deter at-risk youth from crime; one program, dubbed “Scared Straight,” saw young offenders taken to maximum security prisons, where inmates would relay the horrors of life in jail. In randomized controlled trials, Waller says, “these programs show no impact.” What does reduce recidivism “are programs that actually tackle the risk factors leading people to crime,” he says: education and mentorship programs, for example.

And whether or not inmates would benefit from visiting Auschwitz, other concerns remain. Bernie Farber, chief executive officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress, worries that using the former camp in this way is “gimmicky.” Beyond that, he notes, Auschwitz must stand as “a place of reverence and memory.” And, says Farber: “Auschwitz happened not because hardened criminals were let loose in the world; Auschwitz happened because ordinary people let their evil impulses take over. Auschwitz must stand as a monument to the potential for evil in humankind—average humankind, not criminals.”

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