Canada’s Broken Prison System

From Vicky Mochama and Ishmael Daro’s excellent podcast, Safe Space.

Anna Mehler Paperny (Reuters investigative reporter)
Sharmeen Khan (activist w End Immigration Detention Network)

What is Canada’s prison system like? Who does it disproportionately hurt? What can alternatives look like? Although we heard more about prisons during Harper’s years as part of his platform was being tough on crime, nothing has changed since 2014.

Ivan Zinger report of national prison system

  • solitary confinement is overused
  • few mental health resources for inmates-no resources for integration of prisoners after incarceration
  • overrepresentation of indigenous people behind bars is “deeply entrenched”: despite only making up 5% of the population of Canada, they make up around ¼th of all inmates in Canada. And it’s worse for women
  • black inmates are fastest growing popn – 69% growth in black inmates from 05-16 in federal system

Common misconceptions:

  • most people behind bars have done something bad. Truth: in provincial jails, a significant portion are not charged, and are merely waiting for their day in court.
  • there are limits to how long you can put someone in solitary confinement for. Truth: as of now, any prisoner could be placed in SC for any length of time.
  • criminal justice system is impartial, benevolent and fair. Truth: there are systemic structures embedded within it that lead to people/groups being incarcerated. eg. the school to prison pipeline
  • indefinite immigration detention isn’t a thing in Canada. Truth: there are people in max security that haven’t been charged because they overstayed their visas/are here illegally – for years upon years with no movement in justice system. One man stayed in jail for 13 years before being allowed to return to Jamaica

“Administrative Segregation”

  • What Canada calls solitary confinement
    • you’re not there to be punished, and you haven’t even done anything wrong, it’s for your own safety and the safety of others
  • United Nations: 15 days is the most you can do, is considered torture beyond that. People deteriorate rapidly in solitary
  • Language makes it sounds more necessary, gives it distance from what it does. It makes it sound bloodless.
  • “Disciplinary segregation: is actually for punishment, but vast majority are in administrative segregation
  • 2016: first nations man held in solitary confinement in Ontario for 4 years and lost his speech. No substantive change since then. Howard Sapers, Ombudsman, has recommended systemic reviews, stricter rules around SC, prohibition on placement of people with mental illnesses (currently, many are put in because of their mental illness, which makes them difficult to deal with)

Canada’s prisons are the "new residential schools”

When a large amount of a certain community is incarcerated, that community starts to function differently. Adults can’t find jobs, pay rent, or keep custody of their kids (which is especially awful because of a historical loss of custody on a large scale). Because of this huge disparity in who we’re locking up, courts should take into account circumstances and try their very best to divert indigenous from the prison system. Gladue reports exist, but they don’t seem to be available at the right time. They should be available when they’re at the bail hearing stage (when you might be locked up to await trial), not at sentencing.

Other Systemic Issues

Nonviolent drug crime convictions are majorily POC, but white hipsters can smoke a joint no problem. There’s a perception that POC commit more crime, but a large factor is the more intense surveillance that goes on in their communities. This increased surveillance also makes it harder to get bail – harder to get surety since less people have been not involved with the justice system. So then more people in these communities “have to” go to jail – meaning losing housing, losing jobs, losing custody.

More people awaiting sentencing than actually serving sentences in jail. During 2015-16, 15,000 adults were in remand and 10,000 in custody.

  • those 15,000 people are still legally innocent
  • justices are terrified to appear soft on criminals, so risk is over-estimated in population awaiting trial
  • getting out on bail depends on who you know, and what assets/resources they have. even though criminal code hasn’t changed, and still says that bail should be default unless there is a perception of high risk.
  • Ontario: 67% of people can’t get bail, country average is 60%.
  • The US has a cash bail system, which is unfair against poor. In Canada, essentially you need to have another person vouch for you (surety) with an amount of money that they can pledge (isn’t given away, but needs to demonstrate that they have that amount) to give if you breach bail. But they have to have time to spend in court, have a house for you to sleep in for like months, etc. It’s a very high burden on social networks to ask for these commitments.
  • the supreme court has said that these expectations are onerous and shouldnt be the norm.

re:prison abolition, we will need to destroy poverty first

  • after white feminists campaigned for cracking down on domestic abuse, many communities were destroyed.
  • prisons didn’t make women safer, didn’t impact rates of abuse and assault-so now we look at transformative solutions, because using the court systems hurt the community more.
  • women who don’t want to go to the police for domestic abuse because their status is tied to their husbands, for ex, could really benefit from alternative approaches
  • looking at this from my own personal perspective, the idea of letting domestic abusers go is really, really distasteful to think about. But we need to think about this. Our sense of justice can’t blind us here.

thinking about rehabilitation is a method towards prison abolition

  • Sweden started closing down jails because they had no more prisoners
  • Always going to be child molesters and serial murders, but the vast majority people are there for nonviolent crimes. 
  • communities should talk about practising self-determination, what to do with people who harm, and how to heal from that.
  • In Canada, more indigenous communities should be empowered to create and run healing circles.

Ontario’s Solar Energy

So it’s the day before I have two midterms back to back, which means that obviously I’ve spent the last few hours getting sucked into the energy section of the Auditor General’s Report. There’s some fascinating stuff in there about solar power, which I’m learning just in time for wowing the bae on Valentine’s day!

-When you make an electrical grid, you need to achieve parity between supply and demand. When there’s too much power in the grid, you need to shut down some generators. When there’s too little, you need to turn some on. The solution that we came up with is to have two tiers of suppliers:

  • base load plants which provide the minimum supply of power in the system, and
  • peaking plants, which provide additional supply during peak hours.

-Nuclear and hydroelectric plants are base load plants; they are large, their energy is really cheap, and they’re very expensive to turn off and on again. 

-Fossil and alternative power sources make peaking plants. Their energy is more expensive, but they’re easy to turn off and on again.

-Solar energy throws a giant wrench into this. They 1) can’t be easily turned on and off, 2) are not reliable enough to be a base load supplier, 3) are also not reliable enough to be a peak load supplier, and 4) is incredibly expensive.

-We have a microFIT program in Ontario, which is when the government pays you to hook your solar panels up to the grid. The government pays in total $491 million per TWh for solar. Compare to the traditional source of peaking power:

  • fossil: $153 million
  • wind: $119 million
  • bioenergy: $200 million.
  • (If you’re curious, base load plants cost around $60 million per TWh)

oh, and 5) it’s actually messing with our energy grid because it’s unpredictable and it must be embedded within our system due to its not-easily-turned-on-and-off-ness. Because of all the panels hooked up now, Ontario has started experiencing a lot of days with surplus energy generation (defined as when base load power generation exceeds demand) – from 172 days in 2011 to 319 days in 2014. On a yearly basis, we waste more energy than the maximum amount that Manitoba can produce.

This is bad because consumers have to eat the costs, exporting power happens at a loss, and some other reasons like wearing down infrastructure.

There’s even more interesting stuff in the Auditor General’s Report, which you should read on a day that is not a day before you have two midterms.

Like how the incentive scheme to get renewable energy off the ground was supposed to have their goal met in 10 years but managed it under one, but the government kept it going anyways, or how it’s apparently not actually the most efficient way to stop GHG emissions.

Embarrassing confession time: through the course of writing this I realized that last year we had a guest lecture about this, but I don’t think I was paying attention. If anyone in my year is reading this, this is apparently supposed to be old news to us? From the notes of that guest lecture though, I rediscovered which has some rad graphs about the current status of energy generation in Ontario.

On Toronto Police at Pride

So. Speaking as someone who identifies as queer (NOT that this should matter because purity politics are the worst), I think Pride Toronto’s decision to ban policemen in uniforms from pride this year is pretty gross.

I can’t believe that after all the outcry about Rob Ford not going to pride, we’re sticking up our noses at the thought of the establishment showing their support for us. I don’t understand how dialogues and reparations can even begin if one side refuses to even be in the same space as the other. Common ground is absolutely essential for building rapport, and we’re destroying what little we have.

And if you believe that all policemen live in insular, hate-filled bubbles, why would you want to deny them a chance to leave it? And if you think that the awful relationship that police have historically had with the queer community justifies banning them, why doesn’t this argument extend to mayors and prime ministers?

Regarding queer people who have had a bad experience with policemen and feel genuine fear at having to be near them, I absolutely empathize. They’ve constantly turned a blind eye to our pain, and punished us disproportionately through the over-surveillance of places that we gather.

And if it was any other city, I would think that that’s a pretty big deal. But look, Toronto is really, fantastically, gay. The pride parade isn’t your only option during pride month, to celebrate being you. There’s dozens of really cool smaller events going on through the month, those that aren’t as corporate and visible as the parade. I encourage you to go to them, even if you don’t specifically need a safe space away from cops. But policemen had one event that they had to go to and participate in. That number is now zero. This isn’t progress.

I remember the world being amazed at the wonderful photos of our rainbow-decked police force every summer, a symbol of Canada’s real, amazing progressiveness. As a young person coming to terms with my queerness, it meant the world to me that my country and my institutions would support me, even if my family wouldn’t.

The thought that these photos won’t happen this year breaks my heart. I don’t like the messages that this sends – that police and uniforms aren’t to be trusted by the queer community*, and that the queer community is picky and difficult to work with (in the case of any organization or institution that was thinking of helping us).

If you agree with me, help me make a difference. Take a moment out of your day and jot out a tweet or shoot a Facebook message at Pride Toronto. give arguments, let them know that the people against this decision aren’t just racists and Facebook trolls. pride’s still a while away, i’m sure we can change this if we put our minds to it.

*Ok look, this is true. I don’t want to make any excuses for the gross negligence that is the way the Toronto Police Force treats the queer (and other minority) communities. But I don’t think the answer lies in a withdrawal from their services.

Coming of Age Rituals

[epistemic status: pure speculation]

1) There has been many articles written on the phenomenon of prolonged adolescence. Some downsides to this: immaturity, an unwillingness to learn about how to do your taxes even after you have to do your own taxes, and engaging in risky behaviour such as binge drinking, regular drug use, and unsafe sex. Let’s take the premise that this is bad, even though there are actually lots of upsides also to prolonging adolescence.

2) In a class I’m taking we’re learning about something called the Pygmalion Effect, which is that when you know you’re expected to do something, you will do it better than someone who doesn’t have this expectation.

w/r/t coming of age rituals: if there is an expectation that you’re more mature now, you’re going to start behaving more maturely. If you think that you should be wiser now, you’ll start to be more considerate of all your actions. If going through a widely used and recognized ritual causes everyone to expect you to start behaving like an adult, then that will happen.

Another good thing that will come from a widely used coming of age ritual is that it bridges the generational schism, which is currently awful and still getting worse.

If there was something that everyone has gone through, then it’s something that everyone can talk about. It’s a way to connect to everyone, from the bus driver to people in retirement homes to your professors and bosses. It might have to be something kind of unpleasant, to build a “haha yeah we all had to go through this hell” sense of camaraderie. I talked to a Danish person in a Discord that said that this is basically what happens in Denmark, because of mandatory military service.

(This would contribute to immigrants and refugees feeling even more isolated and not like part of the community, though.)

3) There are many problems with things that are similar to coming of age rituals in North America today. 

  • The “sweet 16” celebration is very gendered, and has a very sexualized undertone. I would argue that it allows girls to see themselves as sex objects, instead of women.
  • Things like a hazing process in universities and colleges can be coercive and abusive. Also, they are limited to the group of people who go to institutes of higher education.
  • Things like losing your virginity is, like, just a bunch of patriarchy nonsense. Also the concept of virginity as we see it now is still kind of homophobic?
  • Some countries have mandatory military service or training, and this seems like a good idea in comparison with the rest of the things. My dad was in the generation that had all males doing mandatory military training in China. He said that it helped him a lot with some basic life things, like keeping organized and maintaining good posture. He also got to build forts out of school desks with his classmates, which sounds like the coolest thing ever. However, I’m iffy about having something innately nationalist, violent, and masculine being the rite of passage. I will reconsider this if I can be guaranteed an opportunity to build forts out of desks. (disclaimer: I am an immigrant and my family was dirt poor when we came to Canada. I remember being so amazed that not only did the government help us so much with just living stuff like housing credits and food stamps, there were also things like free, public libraries that gave away free passes to the zoo and subsidized swimming and skating classes at community centres. Ever since I moved here I have loved our government. It has major flaws, but I believe that Canada is a beautiful country still and I will be forever grateful to it for giving me the childhood that I had. But as much as I love Canada, I think standing for the national anthem during grade school is about as nationalist as it should get.)
  • Getting married. No.
  • Getting your driver’s licence. Maybe okay, but limited to those who can, well, drive. Which means, less prominence in urban areas, and in poorer communities. I have a feeling that as urbanization and ride-sharing tech progresses this one will be phased out.
  • Moving out. Won’t be applicable to cultures that live in inter-generational households.
  • Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Okay these are pretty great, carry on, except maybe the part where some girls are gifted with nose jobs. But too local to a specific community.

4. I think we should have a coming of age ritual. But what would a modern one look like? My first thought was that you can’t just make one up, since they’re entrenched in tradition. But some examples that I gave aren’t particularly ritualistic at all, and honestly, it doesn’t take very long at all for traditions to get entrenched.

What do I want in a coming of age ritual?

  • Civic pride and a sense of civic duty would be good, but it would need to be done very carefully to not veer into nationalism.
  • The seven unitarian principles might be a good starting point, but I have a feeling that it would inspire too much useless (or actively harmful) voluntourism.
  • In a previous iteration of this post I suggested a short internship in a government office, but wow, looking back, I can’t imagine anything less inspiring than that. No offence @civil servants, I will join your ranks after I’m done school after all!!!

If I’m allowed to indulge my inner romantic futurist, I think we can afford to shelve this idea until space travel is affordable to all. Because I think the ideal coming to age ritual might be a trip to the moon.

It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.
— Neil Armstrong