Prison Abolition in Canada

Arising from and extending the life of slavery’s economy, the modern prison-industrial complex continues to earn the rage of abolitionists worldwide. Like anti-slavery abolitionists before them, prison or penal abolitionists seek to make redundant an institution most people - including many leftists - take as an inevitable feature of human society. In summer 2006, Caitlin Hewitt-White spoke with seven activists within (and beyond) the Canadian state about the struggle for prisoner justice and prison abolition. Peter Collins is currently held in Bath Institution, in year 23 of a 25-year life sentence. He is a politically active prisoner who has done work with communities inside and outside of prison on issues of prisoners’ rights, as well as exposing the corruption and brutality of Correctional Services Canada through his writings, media interviews and political cartoons, which are online at Joint Effort: Emily Aspinwall, Filis Iverson and Sonia Marino are prison abolitionists in Vancouver. They are part of different projects including Joint Effort, Books 2 Prisoners, the Stark Raven Media Collective, and the Vancouver Prison Justice Day Committee. Julia Sudbury is Professor of Ethnic Studies at Mills College, Oakland, CA. She is editor of Global Lockdown: Race, Gender and the Prison-Industrial Complex (Routledge 2005) and author of numerous books and articles on women’s activism and women’s prisons. She is a founding member of Critical Resistance and former member of the Prison Activist Resource Center. Kim Pate is currently the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. A teacher and lawyer by training, she has advocated for criminalized men, women and youth in the Canadian state. Patricia Monture is a member of the Mohawk nation, Grand River Territory, a lawyer by training and a long-time activist. She teaches sociology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

What are the most pressing struggles in the area of prisoner justice in Canada right now? How do they connect with the larger strategy of prison abolition?

Peter Collins: In my opinion, the biggest issue is excessively long sentences, which in Canada and the United States are some of the longest in the world. Other issues include psychological damage, poor healthcare, unaccountable parole decisions, no skill training and so-called “correctional mandates” that aren’t goal-oriented, that don’t give a prisoner a goal to meet, they just leave him or her in a kind of limbo where people make decisions about them based on partial and fabricated information, which has a huge impact on whether or not a prisoner sees their family or freedom. There are many issues and they are all interlaced.

Joint Effort : On the inside, our work reveals a few basic realities. First, there is no rule of law on the inside. Basically, any prison can do what it wants and justify it as a security measure done “for the good order of the institution.” We need to support efforts to create an independent oversight/watchdog committee (with powers to enforce recommendations), to bring prisoners’ voices to the outside, and hold Correctional Services Canada (CSC) accountable.

There is also the fact that women prisoners are now doing far longer and harder time than even a decade ago. Sentences are longer due to systemic barriers to women getting out at their earliest eligibility date. For example some prisons don’t offer the programs needed for Escorted Temporary Absences (ETAs) or early parole. It’s also harder time because women prisoners in Canada are consistently over-classified in terms of security rating, resulting in far harsher prison living conditions than men. We need to fight to eliminate CSC’s security classification system for women.

In recent years, numerous prison closures in BC have resulted in severe overcrowding and, until recently, women were being held in prisons designed for men. This issue has been partly addressed, but a state of over-incarceration remains. Prisons are increasingly being used as a substitute for social services for people with mental health and addiction issues. In addition, the general lack of medical care (especially needle exchange and palliative care) may result in women serving a death sentences for minor infractions. The majority of women in prison today are serving time for engaging in victimless crimes (related to property, drugs or sex work) and do not pose a threat to society. It is therefore also imperative that we further efforts to create non-oppressive, community-based alternatives to incarceration.

These pressing struggles represent opportunities to empower prisoners and activists both inside and out. Prisoners and their allies are coming together to expose widely-held myths, prevent incarceration, reduce the harm to prisoners inside and enhance ex-prisoners’ capacity to exercise choice on the outside. On the outside, it is essential to continue engaging people on prison abolition ideas by countering right-wing “get-tough-on-crime” propaganda and knee-jerk reactions towards crime, which are leading to a growing Americanization of Canada’s penal system, such as the privatization of prisons, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, etc.

Julia Sudbury: I’d like us to think beyond the boundaries suggested by this question and ask some additional questions. How do we limit our political visions and our activist strategies when we think about prison justice or any other political issue as “Canadian”? In what ways do activists mimic and support the Canadian state’s mobilization of patriotism when we limit ourselves to Canada, the US or any other nation-state? I want to suggest that we demolish those mental borders and relocate ourselves in the context of a global prisoner justice and prison abolition movement. We are witnessing a transnational ascendance of the prison-industrial complex. Incarceration has become a key tool in the consolidation of neoliberal politics, unfettered global capitalism and US Empire. Our work as activists engaged at a local level is to identify the ways in which the construction of a youth superjail in Brampton, Ontario, for example, is deeply connected to the proposed new $30 million US war-prison at Guantanamo. They represent the two faces of a war at home and a war abroad: the complimentary use of military aggression and state power to consolidate a world order dominated by political and capitalist elites. Revealing these links helps us to understand how our local work can contribute to a broader global justice and anti-imperialist movement.

The point is that if the conditions that create imprisonment as a solution to social unrest and economic disparity continue, any decarcerative gain will ultimately be eroded and more prisons will be built. The military-industrial complex in Canada, the US and globally drains resources that could fund schools, health care, rehab, mental health services, job creation – the real alternatives to incarceration. Therefore, our current challenge is to see the big picture, to build a broad-based mass movement against all forms of imperialism and neoliberalism, while working on the ground toward small and realizable goals.

While we work to demolish the borders that keep our visions of social change artificially constrained within Canadian borders, we also need to dismantle borders between prison activists and other social movements. So we are talking about our work locally, inside and outside prison walls, as part of a larger global justice movement. If we are to bring about radical change, if we are truly committed to building a world in which prisons are, to quote Angela Y. Davis, obsolete, then we need a far bigger movement than the various prison activist groupings that are so valiantly putting on Prisoner Justice Day events and pushing for access to health care, education and legal advocacy inside prisons and jails. These goals are important and will make a difference in the lives of many women and men inside. But ultimately, our job as activists is to articulate and make possible a different reality in which poverty, mental illness, addiction, racism and gender violence are not pathways to prison. So one of our most important challenges today is to move outside our comfort zones and build coalitions with activists in other social justice arenas, from homelessness and mental health to Palestinian solidarity and peace activism.

This is not always as straightforward as it may seem. We are likely to find numerous strategic and political differences that will need to be overcome in order to build real solidarity between movements. For example, when a group of immigrant rights activists began to dialogue with prison activists, it became clear that both groupings would need to jettison some of our ways of thinking and doing to build solidarity. Immigrant rights folks would need to let go of language that demonized prisoners, such as suggestions that undocumented immigrants should not be sent to jail “like criminals” when they were in fact innocent of any crime. Such a formula ignored the ways in which Black and aboriginal people are criminalized, constructed as criminals that the rest of society can self-righteously condemn and lock away. We needed a new formula that does not seek to gain humanity for one group on the backs of another. At the same time, prison justice folks needed to make a commitment to making visible the other “prisons” in our midst, the immigration detention centers – sometimes converted hotels near airports – which can often be overlooked when we focus on prisons and jails.

We need to learn about each other’s struggles and campaigns and integrate them into our work. Prisoner’s Justice Action Committee’s film festival is a place where this learning and strategizing has taken place. The annual film festival was founded in 2005 as a way to raise awareness and build movement capacity. Groups such as No One is Illegal and Sumoud, a Palestinian prisoners solidarity group, coordinated screenings and panels as part of the festival, creating autonomous spaces within the structure of the festival and working relations that can be drawn on later for solidarity actions and joint campaigns. This is the grassroots, daily slog of coalition building that we all need to engage in.

Kim Pate: What’s happening with prison reform and advocacy is linked to what’s happening in the broader social context – not just the context of law reform, but the context of human rights and the rule of law. When we see a devaluing of humanity generally – as we’re seeing with the attacks on poor people, on racialized groups, on anybody who does not fit into a mainstream white male paradigm – then we start to see that the same individuals who don’t fit into that paradigm will more likely be marginalized, criminalized, and imprisoned, either in prisons or in other institutions. “Institutionalized” is sometimes the word preferred over “imprisoned.” But I think “imprisoned” is an appropriate word, whether it’s a psychiatric hospital or an actual prison. Both are built for the purpose of punishment.

In Canada, we have seen cuts to social programs, health care, and education and this is impacting the numbers of people in prison. The numbers haven’t necessarily gone up steadily since the cuts intensified, but they certainly have impacted the number of women going to prison, and that’s a global phenomenon. When we talk about abolition, we’re talking about the interconnectedness of different processes that marginalize groups of people. We need to look at abolition from a much broader perspective. Some groups are merely looking at closing prisons, but are not looking at the broader social construct and questioning why certain people are criminalized in the first place, by whom, and for whose benefit.

Patricia Monture: I guess first of all I want to start by being really honest. I used to go to jail all the time – to federal prisons. My life has evolved, and sadly, I don’t get to go to prison very much any more. I’d like to say that the rights of people in the criminal justice system don’t have an impact on my daily life, but they do. I live in Saskatoon. It’s not just my kids, but also myself who is regularly stopped by police. My son has been stopped for the offence of wearing a red bunny-hug (hoodie) and was accused of being a gang member. The first thing the police officer said to him was “What are you doing on this side of town?” because we live on what’s rumoured to be the white side of town. So I guess the way my life has developed over time, I now see the prison abolition movement to be too narrow of a movement. I don’t say that to take away from the inhumane conditions faced by anybody who lives in a prison in this country, or any other country in the world.

I was thinking this morning of one of my teachers, the late Dr. Ed Solomon, an Anishnaabe elder. He used to say that prisons are a blasphemy on Mother Earth. I think we have to extend that insight even further to understand that the prison is the most obvious example of what is wrong with this society. It’s the exercise of power over other people and the failure to treat other people with respect and humanity. Sadly, those things often fall down on lines of class, race, and gender. People don’t respect that there are other ways of doing things. I think that’s the biggest struggle – the abusive use of power, and all of the relationships that make that up. The prison is only the most obvious example. I think all of that has to be abolished.

Tell us about the decarceration efforts that are most important to you and your work, for example fighting for better social housing ordecriminalizing sex work, etc. In general, what is being done, and what needs to be done?

Joint Effort: For reasons stated above, we support the work of activists fighting for better social housing, both transitional and long-term supportive housing. There are are also numerous legislative reforms that should be supported, including efforts to decriminalize sex work, drug use and addiction (23% of policing and incarceration costs in Canada relate to the war on drugs), community-based restorative justice, mental health and drug courts. These legislative measures, however, cannot lead to the eradication of prisons until they are linked to community-based alternatives (such as improved access to viable treatment for mental health and addiction issues). They will also ultimately need to address the criminalization of entire communities (for example Aboriginal over-representation in prison and the criminalization of non-status immigrants) and other common factors that put people at risk of incarceration, such as colonialism, exploitation, racial profiling and abuse of police power.

Many prisoner allies still have a long way to go toward building alliances with peer-led prisoner support/justice groups (such as creating meaningful social networks for ex-prisoners) and indigenous self-determination movements. We also see a critical need for more programs to help at-risk youth and better early-intervention programs to identify and treat people who may be prone to violence.

Julia Sudbury: I see decarceration as part of a broader strategy toward abolition. So we start with moratorium – demanding an end to the construction of new prisons and jails. Then we move on to decarceration, removing groups from the prison system and into appropriate locations for services and support if they need them, whether mental health services, substance abuse rehabilitation or youth programs. However, there is a danger that as we seek to remove certain groups from prison, people will buy into the idea that “this group doesn’t belong in prison” but will not shift their ideas in general about prison. In other words, that they will continue to buy into the prison “con” – the myth that prisons make us safe and are an essential part of the social landscape.

For example, when I was in Arizona a few years ago, we worked on a campaign to divert women in conflict with the law from prison. We pointed out the huge expense involved in incarcerating these women who were in the vast majority involved in non-violent drug-related activities. There was a lot of support for the campaign and I think it was because we could mobilize images of children crying for Mom to come home. These women could easily be humanized. This was useful strategically, but at the same time, it left public attitudes and stereotypes about “latino drug runners” and “native criminals” unchallenged. So in a sense, it stopped short of an abolitionist message.

So while I think it is critical to push for decarceration in multiple sites – from drug offenders to women sentenced for killing a violent abuser – it is also important to develop our language around the real function of prisons. To raise awareness that prisons do not make us safe, but instead reinforce the very conditions that produce violence and insecurity; that prisons are a quick fix for neoliberal governments dedicated to cutting social welfare, education and other public spending. In other words, that we all lose when our resources are spent on criminalizing and incarcerating ever-larger populations. This is the shift toward an abolitionist vision.

Patricia Monture: What I’ve been really thinking a lot about lately, because of my own experience and a recent inquest I was at about an Aboriginal woman who died in police custody here in Saskatoon, is racial profiling of Aboriginal people by police. Because I’m a professor, I’ve been talking about this in classrooms. I’m really surprised to find that there is such a colour divide on this one. It’s an absolutely self-evident truth to Aboriginal people that policing services are not a service, but something to fear. They’re not being offered equitably to all groups that live in this city. So I’ve been trying to find ways to make that an issue.

One of the problems is that when you’re harassed for little incidents like wearing a red sweatshirt and being accused of being a gang member, when that happens over a long period of time, that has an impact on you. The complaint mechanisms and procedures require an individual response to each incident, but it’s not the individual incidents that are the problem, it’s a systemic pattern. And if this is what my children go through with all the privilege that they have, you can only imagine what the average Aboriginal person who is poor, who might have a criminal record, who doesn’t have those layers of privilege that my kids have must be going through. So I think, if anything, my own life experiences, including being a prisoner advocate over the years, have made me look at how the system starts someplace else. We can keep fighting for prison reform, or we can start trying to change things so that we can prevent people from ever having to go to prison.

Kim Pate: Because of the current political climate, lots of people who are committed to prison abolition are afraid to say so. Many of us who have worked in and around the prison system or the criminal (in)justice system for many years have come to the conclusion that prisons are a major part of the problem – not the only part of the problem – but a major part of the problem. And yet, increasingly, people are reluctant to say so because peoples’ livelihoods seem to be at risk if they challenge mainstream thinking. In my experience even those who are more “radical” adhere to mainstream thinking in support of prison, punishment, or so-called “law and order” models. When asked to prioritize issues on which to spend time, energy and money, they will not prioritize prison abolition. I think there’s a massive amount of misinformation about what effective justice is and about what the public wants, and this in itself creates fear and anxiety around abolition.

To frame all of this in the context of my experience, my politicization came through working for 25 years, first with young people, then with men, and for the last 10 or 15 years with marginalized, criminalized and imprisoned women. One of the things that has struck me is that almost everybody who’s been doing this work for any amount of time comes to the position of abolition. It becomes clear that nothing beneficial can be gained from imprisoning people.

One of the frustrations I have with decarceration is that some people tend to start with the least problematic behaviors - the least “harmful,” if I can use that term. If someone has “stolen” something, taken something that’s labeled as a theft, a decarceration approach seems almost pointless because the obvious question is, “Why are we jailing people for property-related offenses in the first place?” So the most progressive decarceration approach really should focus on other cases that are identified by the system as causing the greatest harm. One of our efforts is working with the Native Women’s Association and Strength In Sisterhood (a group of women in and from prison) to look at the women, particularly the young Aboriginal women, who have been labelled as the most difficult to manage, the most violent. Sometimes they have mental health labels as well. We’re starting to identify what we need to do to get those women out of prison and into the community as quickly as possible. In cases involving people serving long sentences, we have to use a long-term strategy. In a couple of cases we think we may be able to get reviews of those sentences. In other cases we have to literally deconstruct the way in which those labels of “dangerous” and “violent” have been constructed by the system.

Probably the best and the only public example of this at this stage would be the situation of Lisa Neve, a young Aboriginal woman I’ve known since she was 12. In fact, she and I recently co-wrote a piece called “The Criminalization of Resistance” in Julia Sudbury’s book Global Lockdown. She was constructed on paper as “the most dangerous woman in Canada” for a period of time. We’re anticipating that if we can actually develop approaches on a woman-by-woman basis that lever them right out of the system, then the arguments that are used for keeping them in the system will become more and more fragile. It becomes easier to deconstruct the public fear and anxiety around crime if we take on the cases that make people the most scared, concerned, and anxious. Because these are the cases that get trotted out as excuses for longer, more brutal sentences, and more violent approaches in general.

People often say, “If you don’t want prisons, then what do you want to them replaced with?” There are all sorts of justice alternatives but, and I don’t mean this flippantly, I find it quite ironic, and outrageous at times, that we have to promote a perfect or foolproof system to replace one which has clearly failed. As my friend and co-activist Debbie Kilroy from Australia says, if all of our organizations had the extended failure rate that the prison system has, we would be de-funded and out of work. It is folly to pretend that we can create an instant alternative, as opposed to recognizing that we need to look at more structural and systemic changes that will prevent more people from being criminalized in the first place. One of the challenges I often issue to my friends and former colleagues in the restorative justice area is that they take on the fact that the elimination of welfare has systematically created a new class of people who, if they are monitored, could be (and are being) criminalized. This would mean actually looking at structural change rather than rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

What do you think of the relationship between the left in general and the prisoner justice movement in particular? What about the radical left? What is going well, and what can be done better?

Peter Collins: Given the power that the so-called right has over the media and over contemporary social institutions in Canada and the Unite States, it would seem that the so-called left is being overrun. I’ve always felt that labelling and pinning people to one side of an argument or another and then staying in your corner is ineffective and counter productive. It feels like the boys and girls on either side of a gymnasium floor at a dance. We need to be inclusive, we need to bridge the gaps and recognize that while peoples’ stated solutions are different, they all for the most part want a safer society. Instead of left and right, perhaps we should focus on educating people and generating ideas, maybe similar to the commercials we see these days by We could do a skit or commercial about how prison shatters families, destroys minds and the state parades it around as if it works.

In all cases the so-called radicals provide a needed wake-up call to society, and through their sacrifice provide more fertile ground for effective and meaningful change with the people who hold all the cards. What can be done better? More and more diverse educational efforts. We need to be clever, we need to be shocking, we need to use all the tools that are out there, all the advertising tools, all the tools that they use to sell cigarettes – we need to be using those to sell people common sense and social responsibility.

Joint Effort: In our experience, prisoner justice issues are generally ignored by the mainstream left. We are encouraged about the information sharing and solidarity actions between prisoner allies and various grassroots movements (such as anti-poverty, women’s anti-violence groups, Aboriginal and international solidarity movements) who are at times criminalized for their political work. But our greatest hurdle is challenging a common perception, deeply held by many activists, that views non-political prisoners as “other.”

Despite some solidarity between other grassroots movements and the prisoner justice movement, there appears to be a tentativeness in this relationship. It seems that a chasm exists between support for those who are targets of political incarceration or detention (political prisoners, failed refugee/non-status immigrants, security certificates) and social incarceration (“social” prisoners who are not incarcerated for political reasons). Why are so many activists unable or unwilling to make the links between social conditions and those who are criminalized and incarcerated? Maybe social prisoners are seen as more politically untouchable, harder to defend, harder to work with or unworthy of support. In order to figure out how to bridge this gap, we need to better articulate our vision of a future without prisons, including alternative ways of addressing violence and violent people.

Ultimately, building broader coalitions will involve bringing together not only progressive social activists with political activists, but also the myriad of informal prisoner support networks and prisoner justice activists who don’t identify as lefties of any stripe (such as community service providers, family and friends of prisoners and many Aboriginal groups, both inside prisons and out).

Julia Sudbury: While the mainstream left has been supportive of the idea that we need to deal with the root causes of “crime” – poverty, inequality, homelessness – rather than over-policing and incarcerating marginalized communities, they tend to stop short of a radical critique of “crime” itself. Why are Aboriginal, black and immigrant communities most targeted by the criminal (in)justice system? How do prisons reinforce social inequalities and punish the poor? How have we come to view such a wide range of activities, from seeking to work in a different country, to getting into a playground fight, as criminal activities? These are some of the critical questions that the left should be asking. We don’t see prison justice issues at the top of any political agenda. Instead, the issues are framed around how best to tackle “youth violence” or “black-on-black violence.” The answer is too often seen as being about more or better policing, rather than in jobs, youth programming, and economic justice for working-class youth and communities of colour.

The radical left tends to have a more sophisticated analysis of the prison-industrial complex but tends not to see abolition as a priority. Involvement in the prison justice movement could be an opportunity for the left to develop greater contact with young people, Black and Aboriginal communities, and trans/LGBT people who are all threatened by the growing prison-industrial complex. A true anti-racist and anti-imperialist left agenda must place dismantling the prison-industrial complex at the centre of its platform of action, because prisons have become such a critical tool in the maintenance and reproduction of the new world order.

Kim Pate: There’s natural affinity and alliance in terms of ideology between left-leaning folk and abolitionists. Many of us identify as both. But I’m amazed at how many abolitionists are still pro-capitalist. The paid and unpaid work that I’ve done around this could not have been possible without the alliances with anti-oppression groups who are more likely to be labelled as left. We’ve worked very well with anti-poverty groups, for instance, locally, regionally, and nationally. Some challenges have arisen when we’ve worked with the labour movement: there hasn’t always been the same level of commitment to a Guaranteed Liveable Income or a higher minimum wage. Some people may appear to be on the same page ideologically, but haven’t thought it through, or may very well have thought it through, but are limited by self-interest. The strongest alliances we’ve made have been with the independent women’s groups and movements, groups representing Aboriginal women, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada in particular. But we have also worked with groups that are seen as being on the left but that don’t have as many integrated approaches in terms of their actions. I would count our organization among those. We would be described as working predominantly on prison issues and yet our alliances with women’s groups, Aboriginal groups, groups representing racialized people, lesbian women, the whole range of individuals fighting oppression – this is all vital to the work we do. You can’t just do it on your own anywhere these days. But in criminal justice, historically, we’ve been the most guilty of working in isolation. It’s clear that some of the most important work we can do is in coalition. If we have issues involving young women, we will promote and follow the leadership of Justice for Girls. If it involves native women, we will promote and follow the leadership of the Native Women’s Association. If it’s issues regarding any kind of disability, we will promote and follow the leadership of the DisAbled Women’s Network. Coalition work is vital.

Patricia Monture: That question really poses a problem for me. Living in Saskatoon and thinking about local resources, I can’t say that we have a well-defined prisoners’ justice movement here. So it makes it very hard to answer in an immediate sense. The other problem I have in answering that question is that as an Aboriginal person – although I know what you’re talking about and I know what those terms mean – they don’t really resonate or reflect what my life looks like. How I look at politics is how many Aboriginals think about politics. And I’m not talking about self-government. I’m talking about tradition. I’m talking about the role of women in governing Aboriginal communities and keeping them safe. I’m talking about a distinctly Aboriginal sense of politics versus the kind of politics that the Canadian state inflicts on people. It’s like an insider/outsider view of the world. So it’s very difficult for me to answer that question, but I think that in itself is very telling. I think it’s a good question and has to be asked, particularly given the over-representation of Aboriginal people in prison, particularly in the Prairie provinces. So why isn’t there a more defined prisoner justice movement in the west as compared to the east, in a city like Toronto for example? I think part of the answer has to do with the poverty and social conditions that Aboriginal people are facing just to survive here. When all of your energy is spent trying to get your family through the day safely, then where does the energy come from to develop a movement?

The other pressing issue out here – to extend the conversation – is the number of Aboriginal women who are murdered and missing. That reality probably touches every Aboriginal life in the province of Saskatchewan, but again there is a lack of political response to these murdered and missing women. I don’t want to say there isn’t activism on the Prairies – but there’s a different shape to activism, defined by a different set of issues. Some days it feels to me that we’ve forgotten prisoners. But I don’t think that’s true. When I think about Prisoner Justice Day, I think that instead of having a single day, we should make every day Prisoner Justice Day. If there is anything that I’ve learned from the experiences of the last few years out here is just how fragile any of our freedoms are.

The Canadian prison system, especially women’s prisons, have undergone major changes since the early 1990s, prompted in part by critical, though state-sponsored, inquiries such as the Creating Choices report. What has been the impact of these changes on prisoners’ lives and on the prison abolition movement?

Peter Collins: This is simply not true. Women suffer under the same physical and psychological conditions and they have to endure the same kinds of decision-making. Many are held in men’s maximum security prisons. You know, you just have to speak to those women to find out that nothing has improved. As for the impact of these so-called major changes, Justice Louise Arbour recently made scathing comments yet again about how Correctional Services Canada (CSC) has not followed her recommendations. It would appear that CSC can more easily dismiss complaints now that many people believe there have been adequate changes to this horrific system.

Joint Effort: Although there have been numerous recommendations made over the years to create better conditions of incarceration for women in prison, these recommendations are never legally binding and hence their implementation is deemed optional by the authorities. Most of the positive changes that have actually been made in the last two decades are superficial.

While the visual conditions of confinement may be more pleasant, the physical conditions of confinement have actually worsened, especially for women in maximum-security settings. The rate of incarceration of women continues to increase, and Aboriginal women continue to be vastly overrepresented in the prison system (3% of the outside population, almost 30% of the prison population).

In addition, access to higher education and options for job skills training that are transferable to the community are virtually non-existent, and the focus of prison programming remains on requiring prisoners to undergo personal change, a process steeped in self-blame and denial of socio-economic realities. Some other major changes in the prison system have actually made living conditions worse. These have included increased and more intrusive surveillance, privatization of prison services (including healthcare, which continues to deteriorate), as well as overcrowding and double bunking (currently at 76% in British Columbia, up from 36% in the late 1990s). The conditions at some Ontario jails are so bad that judges are giving 4:1 time served ratios to prisoners.

During this same period, CSC has been revising its public image and using more deceptive language (for example, “living unit officer” instead of “guard”). Coupled with mainstream media coverage of prisoner-related issues (which actively promotes a culture of fear), these changes continue to have a negative impact on public perceptions of prisoners and generally have made our public education work more challenging.

It appears that North American neoconservative politics and worsening social conditions are having more of an impact on the prison abolition movement than actual changes to the Canadian prison system.

Julia Sudbury: Recent prison reform in Canada has been marked by collaboration between sometimes well-meaning state officials and non-profits/community groups seeking to improve the lives of prisoners. In particular, women’s prison reform saw the closure of the Victorian monster P4W (Kingston Prison for Women) and the opening of new supposedly women-centered federal prisons. What is critical is for us to learn from these developments? What happened? Well, the number of women’s prisons increased as provincial prisons replaced the old P4W. This means that the number of women in prison increased, as there were more prison beds available. For those of us who observe prison expansion, we know that “if you build it, they will come.” At the same time, the new “kinder, prettier” prisons – cottages instead of cells, trees and grass instead of concrete – encourage judges to send more women to prison and encourage the public to believe that prisons are a sane answer to the manufactured problem of “rising crime.” The point is that prison reform often simply supports the prison-industrial complex by expanding its reach and legitimating it as a humane option.

Regardless of how well-meaning some of these reforms are, they are fundamentally about maintaining an unjust social order in which poor women, Aboriginal women, women with mental health issues and addictions, and abuse survivors continue to be punished by the state, become the scapegoats and the victims of the neoliberal downsizing of public services.

It’s also important to remember that reforms in the provincial system are actually moving in quite a different direction. In Ontario, for example, a series of new superjails has been built to replace the aging local jail system. The goal here has been to cut the corrections budget by building no-frills jails in which 1,600 or more men and women are warehoused using the US model of economies of scale. Women’s programming in the jails has been slashed and women are located more and more within larger men’s prisons, contrary to all international human rights guidelines.

Ontario has also dabbled with privatization, using a US corporation to run one of its jails. This was a failed experiment and the jail has been taken back into state hands. However, all of this is a reflection of the influence of the US mass incarceration machine in Canada. A number of conservative politicians in Canada would love to continue to push Canadian prisons and jails in the direction of mass warehousing and neutralization of whole populations along the lines of California or Texas. These are trends that we all need to be wary of. In the US, the “corrections” budget has surpassed $60 billion per year, which of course has had a huge impact on spending on schools, hospitals and social services. As the Prisoner Justice Action Committee, we’ve responded to this convergence between US and Canadian ideas on imprisonment by linking up with US-based organizations like Critical Resistance and the Ella Baker Centre, building cross-border connections so that we can learn from and support each other’s strategies.

Kim Pate: I think that you know what’s happened since the Task Force, and I don’t want this to be seen as critical of the intent, or of the hopes that people had when they entered into the Task Force or other reform processes. I think many of the Task Force participants, myself included, are now involved with the human rights complaint against the government of Canada with the Native Women’s Association, Strength in Sisterhood, and 24 other groups. Some people have described the complaint as a reform agenda, and I suppose that’s a good critique to hear, but the reality is that none of us want to see the women, men, and youth who are currently imprisoned brutalized any further as we’re working on decarceration and/or abolition strategies. We work on decarceration strategies while also keeping our eye on the conditions of confinement, on the human rights abuses that are happening. Organizationally it is vital that we work on both more globalized public and non-criminal justice approaches to decarceration and achieving abolition while also talking (probably because of my training as a lawyer) about these in terms of the rule of law, the charter and human rights, because human rights abuses are happening in prisons.

We are demanding a mechanism of external oversight of the prison system. We have called, for instance, for the implementation of the recommendations made by Justice Louise Arbour. We need to be able to intervene with Corrections when they interfere with a sentence, so that someone like one young woman, originally sentenced to three years, doesn’t end up in an environment that is so brutalizing that her responses to it cause her to end up doing 21-and-a-half years. The sentencing judge never intended for that to happen when he sentenced her to three years. So calling for the ability to examine the conditions of confinement is part of decarceration.

There are many individuals in the system who have similar views and will do what they can to help in the context of their position. It’s not lost on me that increasing numbers of the poorest, the racialized, are ending up in the military or as prison guards. And it’s also not lost that some of the most secure employment these days, with healthcare and benefits, is in this kind of work. We know too many single moms who would much rather be doing progressive, anti-oppressive work in the community for the sake of their kids, who end up having to take these kinds of jobs guarding their brothers and sisters.

I say to these women (and men): “I rely on you to let me know what’s happening in there. Even though you can’t act because of your position, you have a moral and human obligation to the men, women, and kids on whose backs you’re earning your living to let us know when these things are happening.” Sometimes it’s easier to draw lines abstractly, but when you are actually working with individuals in this context, the lines are much more blurred. Obviously, we think they have an obligation to speak out. Few do, more must. But it doesn’t take the rest of us off the hook from continuing to argue for abolition and for the re-focusing of resources towards progressive social, health and educational supports and services.

Patricia Monture: The prisoner justice movement has places where it is clearly defined and has a face. And there are other places where individuals still work in isolation. So I think the prisoner justice movement is a complex thing. To get back to the question of reform – I’m an interesting person to ask that question to because I was a member, although most days I don’t want to admit it, of the Task Force that produced the Creating Choices report. It’s complicated to talk about. I do think the closing of P4W is something to celebrate. It was a dreadful facility. It did dreadful things to women, as the suicides in the late 1980s and 1990s were a testament to. I do think that for some individual Aboriginal women the experience of incarceration is now better, although that strikes me as a really strange thing to say, because I don’t think you can make incarceration better, or I just think that’s a crazy way of thinking about things.

On the other hand, I think we’ve done some horrible damage in the sense that P4W used to have an incredibly strong Native Sisterhood – the Aboriginal women’s movement in the prison – and they did all kinds of things. They were supporting each other, they were like family to each other, bringing in elders, developing programs. So many things. There was a network of volunteers not just from the Kingston area, but from Toronto, the Maritimes, from all over the country, who would come to events that P4W hosted, so that the Sisterhood was connected on the street. That national relationship and energy that the Sisterhood provided has been fractured now that we have these small institutions. I think that, from the point of view of an activist, that’s a terrible, terrible loss in the women’s lives.

When I look at the kind of individuals who have benefited from the changes – for me there’s a huge travesty. For example, there’s now the Okimaw Ochi Healing Lodge, which is the first healing lodge in the country, but the very women that we envisioned that lodge taking in were maximum security women. Women who had faced severe struggles in their lives, had issues of abuse in their childhood, in residential schools. Only one of the women that we envisioned that place for has ever gotten there. A lot of the women who to get there are young, they’re serving first federal sentences for rather minor offenses related to poverty and addiction. As far as I’m concerned, they shouldn’t even be in prison anyway. So my great fear at the end of the day about what we have done is that we’ve just scooped up more women – the number of women who are incarcerated federally has now doubled – by making it look like it’s a nice place and it’s a place where good things are happening for women. But the system is scooping up more women who shouldn’t really be there in the first place.

How far do we go with making prisons better places to live? What, in particular, is the revolutionary potential of prison reform, if any?

Peter Collins: I think it’s a rare and short-sighted prisoner who covets a prettier and nicer prison. It’s imperative that we demand proper physical and mental healthcare for prisoners while in the long term do strategic work, moving forward to enlighten society about the caustic and destructive nature of prison, no matter how modern the facility.

It’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever see a revolution in our time. The revolution will have to be an evolution. Society is currently apathetic about the issues. They have bought into the premise that the state’s current response is the only safe measure against the scourge of criminality and mayhem washing over our continent. Education is the only thing that works, and it’ll have to be a multi-prong approach with very long-term goals.

Joint Effort: This question was difficult to answer and we must admit to having serious doubts about the revolutionary potential of prison reform. As part of our work, we continually struggle with issues of co-operation with the prison system (with the risk of co-option and complicity) versus non-cooperation, which may be more desirable but really only viable once our abolition movement gets reasonably strong, both inside and out.

Ultimately, the goal should not be to make prisons a better place to live, but to challenge their existence. For now, this means that we are as careful as we can be when deciding where, when and how to respond to prisoners’ requests/needs. We always ask, “What is this demand going to achieve? Who benefits and whose interests are being served?” In this way, every struggle for change in the fight for prisoners’ rights can have as its short-term objective better conditions for those still inside. The important thing is that reforms are never sought as an end in and of themselves, but rather as evidence of our (prisoner and activists) experiences and efforts to raise public awareness of the issues and further our efforts towards abolishing prisons.

Julia Sudbury: As long as the prison justice movement involves prisoner leadership, it will always include campaigns to improve the immediate living conditions of prisoners. People are dying preventable deaths in prison and face immense mental and physical pain. Obviously we have to challenge the conditions that cause this. At the same time, we do need to be wary of getting sidetracked into helping the state to improve its prisons, at the expense of decarcerative work.

In the prison abolitionist movement, we talk about “non reformist reforms.” In other words, we think through the strategies that we are promoting for immediate small-scale changes in terms of whether they support or undermine the long-term goal of a world without prisons. This means that we may not support the construction of hospice care within prisons, for example, because it undermines the bid to get elderly and terminally ill prisoners released to the community.

In my opinion, any organization dedicated to improving conditions for prisoners must either support abolition as a long-term strategy, or accept that they are strengthening the prison-industrial complex and ultimately leading to more and more people’s lives being destroyed.

Kim Pate: Well, I’m not in favor of anybody having a horrible experience anywhere. On the other hand, improving prisons is a bit of a fool’s game. Mental health is a good example. We saw progressive trends in mental health several decades ago when people moved into the community, not always as well-resourced as they should be, but “normalization” and “deinstitutionalization” approaches were important and positive trends. In Canada and the US, especially since the drastic evisceration of the social safety net in the mid-90s, people who had historically been dependent on that net became overrepresented in prisons. Not surprisingly, the only system left to support these socially marginalized people is the criminal justice system.

Because of cuts to mental health services, people with “mental health issues” and mental disabilities are coming into the system. The policy of providing more mental health services in women’s prisons was not necessarily ill-conceived. But the reality is that these new “mental health services” in prisons are always annexed to prisons. In fact, the mental health component is always secondary to the process of criminalization. Behavior that used to be seen as symptomatic of a woman’s mental health is now more likely to be seen through the lens of criminalization. Paradoxically, the federal corrections system has committed $30 million in five years to mental health services, but at the very least it’s going to exacerbate the problem for those individuals who are already in the system. Likely it will be linked to more people been sent to prison because the perception amongst judges, many lawyers and many members of the public is that the only way now to get mental health services to a criminalized or marginalized person is to send them to prison. Leaving the system becomes an increasingly remote reality. Prison is one of the few places where there are resources being pumped into mental health services. People are being given longer sentences under the guise of treatment.

The corrections system can argue that women have access to some of the best prison services, but obviously, this type of thinking is flawed. Even the “best” prison services are failing them. Extricating young women from the system is going to be increasingly challenging because everything that will help them survive if they were to be released into the community – services, support, a social safety net – is being systematically attacked. This helps create the illusion that their ability to become “self-reliant” and “healthy” is possible only in a prison environment. Young women actually become less self-reliant in a prison, less able to resist, and less able to thrive in a community if and when they get back there, and too many of them die in the process.

I joined my current paid work after our organization had gone through what was seen internationally as one of the most progressive and far-reaching prison reform efforts, the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women. Half of the members were community members, as well as a number of Aboriginal women. The Task Force seemed to promote a whole new approach to working with women inside, but what we ended up seeing was an appropriation of our language and a bastardization of our recommendations. While I was an abolitionist before joining, this experience very clearly led our organization to taking an abolitionist perspective, a vision of “Canada without prisons,” as our mission statement now reads. It was very clear the minute the report was done and the framework was put in place that even those well-intentioned and committed bureaucrats had to go about the business of systematically appropriating the language and bastardizing the approaches. I’ve spoken to people in other parts of world where similar reform approaches have led to similar results. In Britain there were great reform efforts planned for the Holloway Prison for women, and now all the women that were involved in that are abolitionists. We all recognize that the best prisons in the world are no prisons.

Patricia Monture: Well, I don’t think that’s a question that somebody like me can decide, because there are people who live in those places, and inhumane things are going on, and I don’t think I have some kind of a right to choose for them. I participated in the Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women solely because the Aboriginal women at the Prison for Women asked me to. If they hadn’t asked me to, I wouldn’t have gone ahead and done that. I think that part of our activism around the prisoner justice movement has to come from living by example. We have to turn the power we have as unsentenced people over to the prisoners. You don’t get to decide what happens, they do. They’re the ones who are living it. I think that prisoners have to decide what is “tolerable,” but that also feels like a crazy way to think.

Is there a revolutionary potential in prison reform? No. There’s no revolutionary potential at all because that system is so wrong – that system of having power over. Many of the things that we thought when we talked in the past about empowering women we meant in a very systemic and structural kind of way. We weren’t talking about empowering individual women. We were talking about equality. We were talking about doing something about the rape and violence against women in society. That’s what I think empowerment meant to me at the time. That’s been flipped over into this idea that women have to individually take responsibility for the crimes they commit. It’s been turned into this notion of “risk,” which gets applied today with regularity.

So, do I think there’s a revolutionary potential in prison reform? Absolutely not. I think prison is an absolutely crazy idea. Part of the problem is that the prison is seen as serving a social good. Everyone who doesn’t have any involvement with the criminal justice system takes comfort in thinking “those people over there, the bad people, the criminals, they’re all in jail. Gee, that must mean I’m good.” I mean, that’s drastically oversimplified, but that’s basically what is going on. To me that’s a crazy way to keep social order. That’s why prison abolition is so important. My view now, based on what I’ve learned in my life, is that you can’t fix something that’s just a wrong idea from the get-go. You can’t fix the place.