Prison Abolition in Canada: Rejecting Incarceration & Historical Revisionism

Image by Nicolas Lampert Via Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative

Prison abolition as a school of thought often goes misrepresented by many — whether it be to serve corporate, political and/or personal interests. As a recent piece titled What Abolitionist Do by Dan Berger & Mariame Kaba notes, “Critics often dismiss prison abolition without a clear understanding of what it even is”. This preface is important because it speaks to a confusion by not only average citizens, but, as well as activists and scholars who soften their language in attempts to present abolition as the ‘pragmatic’ or ‘economic’ option undoubtedly obscuring its rich history of abolition.

This sentiment and framing is met head-on by prisoners who have been vital to a struggle which continually dehumanizes them. We must NOT understand abolition as compromise. Abolition is not reform. Therefore, it becomes paramount to challenge language which reinforces the mainstream narratives of prison abolition as a utopian ideal. Roger Lancaster, writing for Jacobin attempts to make sense of U.S mass incarceration in a way which perfectly highlights the flaws of a theoretical position which peddles myths about abolition as ‘rhetoric’. In doing so, he conveniently erases the memory of revolutionary prisoners such as George Jackson and the Angola 3 (who continue to dedicate their lives to resisting incarceration); while, simultaneously erasing the efforts of organizations like Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), IAMWE Prison Advocacy Network and many more in North America.

It’s these same groups which have attempted to reshape narratives around abolition. Abolition is direct action. And an example of this culmination is the recent Millions For Prisoners Human Rights March which was possible due to the collective work of abolition groups from various communities. As Brian Sonenstein & Jared Ware appropriately highlight in their important overview of the march:

“Despite receiving little to no media coverage, the event was as compelling as it was historic. It was a show of increasing strength and solidarity for challenging legalized slavery in the United States. It also reckoned with accomplishments, setbacks, and the passage of time, as speakers took the stage to reflect on the history of slavery, the Constitution, and the prison industrial complex”

The importance of the aforementioned piece is in its consideration of lineage. Prison abolition has a rich history; one which must not only be discussed, but, centered in the ways we resist a carceral state which has a vested interested in the lack of mobilization against settler-colonial nations such as the United States and Canada. Historical revisionism is an enemy which has dire consequences. Allowing the state to dictate how resistance occurs is a cancer which must be fought at every turn.

The march itself highlighted the historic roots of abolition with the likes of Ramona Africa (MOVE 9), Yusef Salaam (of the Central Park 5), Robert King and Albert Woodfox (Angola 3) who spoke to their lifetime of experiences; ones which have been marred by repression constantly. Abolition spaces must continue to highlight how contributions by individuals like them lie at the heart of our organizing spirit by actually including them.

Ramona Africa, sole survivor of U.S bombing on MOVE home (Reuters)

Canadian Abolition Context

For many, abolition is not a discussion which needs to be had in Canadian spaces focused on justice and/or liberation. The clear lines which many have no trouble spotting and naming in the American criminal justice system seem invisible to them. Loic Wacquant briefly mentions this in Crafting the Neoliberal State: Workfare, Prisonfare, and Social Insecurity. Wacquant highlights how fluctuating incarceration numbers over the past thirty years have unquestionably contributed to Canada becoming a footnote in discussions about incarceration. Important to challenging this for abolitionists and activists alike is an important reflection on the scholarship of Canadian political prisoners in the landscape of Canada’s settler-colonial history.

“Our people were given many prophecies. Before the Strangers came across the oceans to this sacred land with their strange ways, There were none of our people in prison There were simply no prisons. Because we had a better way.” -Arthur Solomon, from Journal of Prisoners on Prisoners Vol. 2:2 (1990)

A recent Maclean’s article attempts to outline the current condition of incarceration for Canada’s Indigenous population. Nancy Macdonald states:

“While admissions of white adults to Canadian prisons declined through the last decade, Indigenous incarceration rates were surging: Up 112 per cent for women. Already, 36 per cent of the women and 25 per cent of men sentenced to provincial and territorial custody in Canada are Indigenous — a group that makes up just four per cent of the national population. Add in federal prisons, and Indigenous inmates account for 22.8 per cent of the total incarcerated population”

She continues, “In some Prairie courtrooms, Indigenous defendants now make up 85 per cent of criminal caseloads, defence lawyers say. At Manitoba’s Women’s Correctional Centre in Headingley, as many as nine in 10 women were Indigenous, according to one recent count”. To suggest these discrepancies are not part of larger campaigns to repress and marginalize Indigenous populations is wholly wrong. It is important to draw connections between the legacy of destruction caused by the Indian Act, while also understanding how these communities are still disposable to the state. Especially when, for example, industrial pollution continues to plague Indigenous communities disproportionately.

(Don Healy/Regina Leader-Post)

Understanding these conditions as symbiotic is crucial to prison abolition and the transformative potential of offering viable alternatives to incarceration. Upon being asked the general question of ‘what is being done’ as well as ‘what needs to be done’, Vancouver abolitionists Emily Aspinwall, Filis Iverson and Sonia Marino (of Joint Effort) eloquently note:

“ 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”

Julia Sudbury (editor of Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex) adds:

“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”

Reflecting on the latter half of Sudbury’s point, I find it pertinent to reiterate that we must always reject incarceration as a quick fix. This means organizing to abolish the School Resource Officer Program which, “criminalizes our Black, Indigenous, and racialized youth, supercharging the school-to-prison pipeline”. This means organizing for trans sex-workers who are not only subject to heightened violence in Canadian prisons but, also, withheld from harm reduction initiatives such as free HIV testing and drug rehab programs. This means fighting the policy of carding which has contributed to hyper-surveillance and over-policing in racialized communities. Deconstructing these barriers and fighting against these punitive measures is unquestionably a grand task; but, one which has been historically taken up by our brothers and sisters in these cages. Reclaiming this history of prisoner organizing and scholarship is the first safeguard against revisionism. As James Baldwin once said, “people who trust their history do not find themselves immobilized in it”.

Some abolition organizations & platforms in Canada:

Journal of Prisoners on Prisoners has been a prisoner written, academically oriented and peer reviewed, non-profit journal, based on the tradition of the penal press for almost 25 years: http://www.jpp.org/

Joint Effort is an all women prison abolitionist group involved in solidarity work with women prisoners at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women (Federal) in Abbotsford, BC and the Allouette Correctional Centre for Women (Provincial) in Maple Ridge, BC: http://www.vcn.bc.ca/august10/organizations/jointeffort.html

End the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) is a prison abolition group based in Kingston, Ontario. Their website also posts various posters, flyers, and other resources that EPIC has produced since their inception in 2010: https://epic.noblogs.org/resources/

West Coast Prison Justice Society operates Prisoners’ Legal Services, the only legal aid clinic for prisoners in Canada: https://prisonjustice.org/

Books 2 Prisoners is an independent community-based group whose purpose is to broaden the range of reading materials available to prisoners throughout Canada. Their mission is to provide free reading materials to prisoners as per request. To contact their email: books (at) prisonjustice (dot) ca