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Can Plastic Surgery Transform a Criminal?

Criminals Plastic SurgeryA British filmmaker is researching cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries conducted last century on thousands of penitentiary inmates in Canada in an effort to reduce reoffending rates by repairing crooked noses, facial scars and birth defects.

Dr. Trefor Nodwell, a plastic surgeon and founder of The Ottawa Clinic, says that he was surprised to hear that surgery alone would have any significant effect. “Surgery is a wonderful way to help people get a new perspective on life, but a patient has to have a healthy inner life as well as a positive self-image to affect personal growth.”

Between the 1930s and 80s, experiments of this kind took place at the Kingston Prison for Women and the Kingston Penitentiary, where filmmaker Harriet Mathams will be filming for her upcoming documentary.

Dr. Nodwell explains, “People from all walks of life are burdened by scars from accidents, birth or other incidents. Plastic surgery can come with many positive psychological benefits, and I would imagine with inmates it would be no different.”

Half the patients who underwent surgery in Kingston did not reoffend. A similar experiment at Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby, B.C. saw the reoffend rate drop by about 30 percent, and a Texas prison saw the rate of reoffending drop by 18 percent after plastic surgery. The results of these tests suggest that plastic surgery can help change an inmate’s behaviour.

“There is no doubt plastic surgery could boost an inmate’s esteem,” says Dr. Nodwell, “however, I wonder if the researchers were able to tease out the effects of other formal rehabilitation efforts like education, job training, substance abuse management and psychological counseling.”

An experiment of this kind and scale raises a lot of ethical questions, which Mathams’ documentary will no doubt investigate. “Governments and institutions had a different approach to the ethics of consent and perhaps prison conditions were harsher for inmates at that time,” explains Dr. Nodwell. “It would be interesting to know what discussions took place between doctors and inmates about the risks and benefits of the reconstructive procedures they were agreeing to undergo.”

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