Resisting Prisons, Rebuilding Communities

The hunger strike staged by thousands of California prison inmates (check July 8’s Babylon Bite) has brought the hidden world of incarceration back to the front-pages of the news and hopefully back into public consciousness. In Canada, the Harper Conservatives will be pushing their ‘tough on crime’ agenda which will lead to a dramatic expansion of Canada’s prison population in the near future. It’s time we seriously rethink the roll prisons play in our society.

Prison statistics from the U.S. make for depressing reading. After 30 years of a failed ‘War on Drugs’ and consecutive ‘tough on crime’ bills passed at the state and federal levels (by morally challenged Republicans and spineless Democrats alike), the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. prison system has reached 2.2 million. This represents 20% of the world’s total prison population. In the past two decades, the US prison population has risen by 400%.  68% of the prison population are people of colour, primarily Blacks and Latinos. 4 million ex-inmates face barriers to jobs, housing, public assistance, and parental rights. In total, the US government spends $50 billion per year on the prison system (for more stats check Critical Resistance).

Before you get too comfortably righteous in your Canadian skin, consider this:  In Canada, less than 10% of the population live below the poverty line but close to 100% of our prison inmates come from that 10%. Aboriginals are 4% of Canada’s population but 20% of the population of federal prisons. More than 70% of prison inmates have not completed high school and 70% have unstable job histories.

Apart from the social and psychological damage of incarceration to communities, individuals, and families, Canadians spend more than $147,000 per prisoner in federal custody each year. It would take between $12,000 to $20,000 per year to bring a person in Canada above the poverty line (depending on where they live).  We could save $127,000 per year by providing social and economic security to poor people, rather than using prison as method of social control. According to Hugh Segal “If governments become tough on poverty, safer communities and declining prison populations will follow.” Segal is no left-wing pinko anti-prison activist, he’s a Conservative Senator. The quote and statistics above are from a report he issued last year on the relationship between prisons, poverty and crime. Segal concluded that the practice of mass incarceration, through tough on crime measures, has little to no effect on crime rates. Poverty reduction, on the other hand, does (Because the rich get richer, and the poor get prison, very few white-collar criminals find themselves behind bars. In fact much of the anti-social activities of the rich, from speculating on Third World food prices on the stock market to avoiding paying decent wages and accounting for the costs of environmental degradation, are postively encouraged by our economic system in the name of growth and prosperity).Prisons in modern societies have become nothing but warehouses for the socially excluded and marginalized who don’t fit the requirements of a globalized capitalist economy.

What we’ve seen in the US and Canada over the past 30 years is a shift from a welfare state to a penal state. The welfare state are those programs we all rely on to keep us healthy and economically secure, things like public health care, public pensions for security in old age, social housing for those who cannot afford housing on the market, and social assistance for those who experience long-term unemployment, and so on. Governments at all levels have cut back on these programs, making life more insecure for many, not just the poor. The rise of precarious employment (temporary jobs, low-wage part-time, and self-employment) has meant that more and more of us are not able to secure a decent standard of living through work, hence the rise of the working poor and the persistence of poverty.  The US government has rolled back the welfare state and rolled out the penal state, as prisons become the place to house those who are poor, jobless, stigmatized and marginalized. This agenda will intensify with Stephen Harper’s plan to emulate the American model of mass incarceration. We will need to resist this agenda in our communities (if the hunger-strike in California is anything to go by, resistance could start on the inside).

In her book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” long-time anti-prison activist Angela Davis asks “How can we imagine a society in which race and class are not primary determinants of punishment? Or one in which punishment is no longer the central concern in the making of justice?” If we are to resist prisons and rebuild communities, we must be prepared to pose alternatives to incarceration. And as Davis urges, this is not about replacing prisons with prisonlike substitutes like electronic monitoring but rather envisioning an “alternative to imprisonment –  the demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” In other words, building an alternative to prisons involves transforming institutions and attitudes at the very core of our society.

In Canada, aboriginal peoples are leading the way with new models of restorative justice, an alternative to the ‘justice’ administered by the Canadian state; a state which has locked up so many of their brothers and sisters after years of colonialism has torn the social fabric of their communities. If we are to build an anti-prison movement that can combat the Harper agenda, building solidarity with aboriginal communities, while listening and learning, would be a good place to start.

Published July 8th 2011 on POUND (

Tags: , , , , , , ,