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.

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