British Columbia

BBC documentary examines Burnaby prison's plastic surgery program

Dr. Edward Lewison performed ear, chin and nose reconstructions on inmates, and found that those whose physical appearance improved were far less likely to reoffend.

Ear, chin and nose jobs were given to inmates at the former Oakalla Prison Farm

Oakalla Prison, also known as the Lower Mainland Regional Correctional Centre, overlooked Deer Park in Burnaby. (B.C. Ministry of Justice)

If one could improve a prisoner's physical deformities, would they be less likely to reoffend?

That was the question that the late Dr. Edward Lewison set out to answer when he began volunteering at the former Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby in the 1950s.

For over 20 years Dr. Lewison performed facial reconstructive surgery on the prisoners and tracked their post-surgery behaviour.

"The idea was that if people looked ugly or had unfortunate features, they would come to resent this, and crime would be their way of getting even with nature and society, to use Dr. Lewison's words," said Rod Williams, a British filmmaker who is producing a documentary about prison surgery programs for the BBC.

Williams told Chris Brown on The Early Editionthat plastic surgeons worked in prisons across North America in the 1950s and 60s, including Oakalla and Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario.

A guard outside Oakalla Prison. (B.C. Ministry of Justice)

"What's interesting about this whole story is it came from the surgeons — they'd been struck by the transformation plastic surgery could bring about in their ordinary patients," said Williams.

New face, new start?

By 1965, Dr. Lewison had performed surgery on 450 patients. The majority of the operations were for deformed or previously fractured noses, and the remainder were reconstructions of deformed ears, receding chins, and the removal of facial scars.

He published the results of these operations in a 1965 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"The beneficial psychological changes in these inmates were observed almost immediately," he wrote.

"There was a marked inclination to co-operate with those in authority and to participate in prison activities. Formerly hostile and incorrigible individuals became polite and gracious in their manner."

While the general prison population had a recidivism rate of 72 per cent, he found that among the 450 inmates who received surgery only 42 per cent had returned to crime.

According to Williams, "this finding was echoed incidentally throughout Canada and the United States, and this led to a massive spread of programs of this kind throughout the North American prison system."

Validity of the research

Dr. Lewison continued his research with another paper in 1974, admitting that his results may have been skewed both by the process he used to select candidates for surgery, and because he did not have a control group of "disfigured subjects who did not receive surgery."

A view of a jail cell at Oakalla Prison. (Jack Lindsay/Vancouver archives)

For his later study, published in the Canadian Journal of Otolaryngology, he took candidates from both Oakalla and the Haney Correctional Institute in Maple Ridge, interviewing and approving 200 candidates for surgery, but only operating on 100.

This time, he recorded that 48 per cent of those who received surgery returned to crime, while the recidivism rate was 69 per cent for the control group that didn't receive the surgery.

Williams said that later research surveyed the studies done by Dr. Lewison and other prison plastic surgeons, and concluded it was flawed — there was just no way of knowing whether or not the surgery had contributed to making inmates into better public citizens.

"It's very hard to know for sure what to make of it," Williams admits. But, with some research that shows that good-looking people are more likely to be paid more, and less likely to be apprehended for a crime or convicted by a jury, he believes there is validity to Lewison's work.

"I think the plastic surgery programs, bizarre though they may seem to us now, were well motivated and I think did a great deal of good to a great many people," he said.

Williams is currently looking to get in contact with former inmates who may have known Dr. Lewison and received surgery from him.

Rod Williams can be contacted at facechangeinprison@gmail.com.


To hear the full interview click on the audio labelled: Documentary on prison plastic surgery programs

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