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Prisons and Struggles Against Capitalism

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
"Words Break Down Walls" by Molly Fair
"Words Break Down Walls" by Molly Fair

In April, I gave a talk on prisons for a monthly series of political discussions on issues from an anti-capitalist approach called Living Theory. Here is an excerpt from the talk. The full text can be found here.

Hi Everyone,

To introduce myself, my name is Kaley Kennedy and I am part of a collective that brings books into the women’s unit at the Central Nova Correctional Centre in Burnside. We also do other programming, including a read aloud program, where we record women reading children’s books and send the recording and the book to their children, grand children, or other children they care about on the outside. Each day, there are about 25 000 children whose mothers are in either federal prisons or provincial jails in Canada.

I think it is important to acknowledge that while my personal background and experience has been essential to my own questioning of the prison system, I acknowledge that as a white woman who has never been incarcerated, my understanding of the effects and far-reaching implications of the criminal justice system in communities, especially communities of colour, is limited. I am, therefore, greatly indebted to activists and scholars from aboriginal communities and communities of colour and others who have faced imprisonment that have taken up questions of the prison system, and actual justice.

As of 2005/2006, there were a total of 192 correctional facilities across Canada, with 76 under federal jurisdiction, including 18 community correctional institutions and 58 federal institutions/prisons, and 116 facilities under provincial/territorial jurisdiction. Only 16 of the 116 provincial/territorial prisons were classified as minimum security. In total, over 252,000 people were admitted into custody in 2005/2006, but only 34 percent of those were serving sentences. Almost 60 per cent of people admitted to prisons were on remand, meaning they are waiting to go to court or serving time for probation violations. In terms of demographics, 12 per cent of those admitted were women, and, though aboriginal people only make up 4 percent of the total population in Canada, they represent almost 25 percent of all those admitted to prisons in the country. In Nova Scotia, there are 5 provincial prisons and 2 federal prisons. In 2005/2006 of the approximately 4,600 people admitted to prisons, 39 per cent were sentenced prisoners and 55 per cent were on remand.

The majority of those admitted to prison are there because of drug- or property-related offenses, not for violent crimes. In Canada, only 22 per cent of people admitted to provincial or territorial prisons were admitted for violent crimes and 49 per cent of people admitted to federal prisons were for violent crimes. Of the 4,600 people admitted to prison in Nova Scotia, less than 300 were sentenced for violent crimes. Even when exploring crimes classified as violent crimes, many are influenced or impacted by other factors such as mental health, poverty, or self-defense. Who derives safety from prisons and police and why is a question that relates closely to systems of privilege. For those people who have never faced police repression, the police seem like an important institution, but for communities that have been impacted by racial profiling and police brutality, the police represent a threat to the health of the community.

Every year, about 4800 inmates across the country participate in CORCAN work programs. CORCAN is a branch of the Correctional Service of Canada that coordinates corrections work programs. These include not only inmate programs, but also programs for people on community release, which would include people in halfway houses or on probation or parole. CORCAN additionally runs over 50 shops where inmate workers produce goods and services from office furniture to uniforms to industrial laundry.

Inmates are paid between $5.25 and $6.90 per day. Inmate pay increases based on the time an inmate works, their behaviour, and their work performance. This structure is constructed in such a way as to use disciplinary principles in order to regulate inmate behaviour. Inmates can be arbitrarily disciplined or restricted in their pay increases because while prisoners have the legal right to have access to counsel in disciplinary hearings, they often do not have the resources, and because of a general lack of resources for inmate law, not very many lawyers have experience in this are.

Inmates also have no vacation time or vacation pay, and need clearance from a health profession to take a sick day. Overtime pay is just over $1 per hour and inmates are required to hand over 25 percent of any earnings over $69 biweekly for room and board. It is also important to mention that inmate wages have not been increases since the mid 1980s, and between 1981 and 2005, the average cost of two week’s work of canteen goods increased from $8.49 to $61.59. Even accounting for inflation, prices have almost tripled.

In the 2008-09 Fiscal Year, inmates worked about 2.8 million hours collectively. Unlike rights granted under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that are intended to apply to all people, inmates are excluded from the statutes and regulations that define labour laws.

Prisoners are assigned to work programs in their correctional plan. A correctional plan is an outline of a program that determines the work, training, and activity for an inmate’s sentences. Inmates have little ability to refuse to work, even in poor conditions because an inmate’s adherence to their correction plan is part of decisions on inmate privileges and parole.

CORCAN’s mandate is supposed to be centred on work programs that work for prisoners; decisions ultimately come down to dollar figures. In 2009, CORCAN announced it would be closing 6 prison farms across the country because the farms had been losing money.  CORCAN’s 2008/2009 Annual Report states that the farms had lost $4.1 million that year. Prison farm supporters including prisoners, correction workers, prisoner justice activists, and community members cited the role of the farms in providing local, fresh food to prisons, and in providing meaningful work for prisoners. Closures were complete in 2011, despite opposition.

CORCAN sells most of its goods and service such to government departments such as Corrections Services Canada and the Department of National Defense. In 2008-09, CORCAN had about $70 million in sales, with $10 million of those sales to the private sector. If the 4800 inmates who worked in CORCAN shops were paid at the top rate of $6.90 per day, CORCAN would have spent just $2.4 million on paying prisoners, just 3.45 percent of their total sales.

Prisons have become integrated into the capitalist system in several, related ways. The first, and most obvious, is the sheer volume of money that goes into the system. In Canada, prisons either fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal government or provincial/territorial governments. Crime and justice is a big-ticket item for governments. Federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments spent more than $12 billion on policing, courts, legal aid, prosecutions and adult corrections in 2002/2003. Policing accounted for 61% of justice costs; adult corrections, 22%; courts, 9%; legal aid, 5%; and criminal prosecutions, 3%. Almost 60 per cent of people admitted to prisons were there on remand, meaning they are not actual sentenced prisoners and are in jail awaiting trial or for breaking probation conditions, and the average sentence for a sentenced admittance is 60 days in Canada. Considering this, the cost of keeping people in prison seems even more ridiculous.

Government spending on prisons also doesn’t account for the money corporations make from their involvement in the prison industry – prisons require everything from construction work to food services; guards to utilities like heat and running water. In the United States, prisons have replaced factories and farms in many small towns as the primary industries. The idea that prisons result in economic development has even popped up here in Nova Scotia. Currently, the Nova Scotia Department of Justice is planning on rebuilding correctional facilities in Cumberland County, Antigonish and Cape Breton, in order to bring them in line with the systems of prisons used at the other two provincial prisons: Central Nova and South West Correctional Facilities.

In 2009, despite the fact that the prison in Cape Breton is only at “mid-life,” former Justice Minister Cecil Clarke announced that the Department of Justice is trying to build a new $30 million facility because the current prison’s operations do not fit in with the preferred model that the Department is using a the two newer facilities. At the time, Clarke was adamant about how this new project would help with economic woes in the region “I don’t want Cape Breton to be left out of a capital construction process…Since we are looking at stimulus spending, this is an avenue that would provide jobs and would increase the capacity and size of the facility. Ultimately, you could have up to 250 persons in that facility, over double what it is now.” Clarke also lauded the economic benefits for local suppliers and supplementary industries. Interestingly, there was no mention of this being a response to increases in crime. Similarly, a 2009 leak from the Department of Justice that indicated that the replacement for the Cumberland County facility would move the facility out of its current location of Amherst, NS, to Springhill, NS, 25 kilometres away, caused uproar amongst the legal community and the mayor of Amherst. Lawyers contend that moving the facility farther from Amherst will increase costs as all necessary legal services are in Amherst, and from the mayor of Amherst has expressed concerned about losing the facility’s 38 jobs.

Despite the strong connection between capitalism and prisons, inmates and prisons are often excluded from discussions or debates about workers and labour. This is common to most struggles. In feminist movements, for example, the experience of criminalized women is mostly ignored. In my work, the rhetoric around gender-based violence often talks about creating a more aggressive response from police to sexualized violence, but there is little attention paid to the violence that the prison system enacts in the form of cavity searches and rape in the prison.

But I also want to argue that often the analysis of prisoner justice activists can exclude  experiences an inmate may have outside of their imprisonment. I think, for example, that the division drawn to create a category of “political prisoner” is problematic. It denies that all prisoners are there for political reasons, and I think de-politicizes the prison as a political structure made necessary by political decisions and values enforced in our society. I think it also doesn’t recognize the gendered and racial elements of the prison system, or the way that forms of political struggle are also gendered and influenced by race. So for example, women who commit fraud in order to feed their children are resisting their situation under capitalism, but if they are incarcerated for such an act, they are not seen as political prisoners. Similarly, if a racialized trans woman is incarcerated for sex work, the category of “political prisoner” doesn’t recognize her inevitable incarceration because of rigid gender structures and racism. Instead, I want to argue here, and am interested to hear the discussion, that an anti-capitalist analysis that wants to forward a more just world, relies on the abolition of the prison as an institution.

What would an anti-capitalist analysis that centred the prison look like?

Locally, it means actively opposing increases in prison spending, especially give the current drive for increases in prison building being pushed by the Harper conservatives and being allowed by our provincial government. Prison workers are also able to resist prison building by recognizing their interests in maintaining older prisons which require more workers, it means communities pushing for stimulus spending for community spaces and public services, rather than prisons. These measures of reform should be seen as prioritizing immediate improvements in people’s lives, but have the revolutionary politics that they will not be enough.

We also need to prioritize building relationships based on accountability, solidarity, and support. Building accountability to one another in our communities can mean that the state policing system is not necessary. By building relationships that strive both to support one another in dealing with difficult experiences such as addiction and mental illness and to hold one another accountable for individual actions and choices, we reject the prison’s focus on removing people from their communities. This is work that is already central to many communities, especially communities that have been most impacted and marginalized by the prison system. In other communities, it is not prioritized and recently, feminists have argued that it leaves movements susceptible to police infiltration because sexism, misogyny, and gender-based violence are so prevalent in radical communities that people do not see these as a political threat.

Lastly, organising that tries to build relationships between people on the inside and the outside is essential. This could include working to try to organise prisoner unions, amplifying prisoner voices through public advocacy, and building alliances through long-term, sustained work with communtiies who are most impacted by prisons. Some examples I know about include prison education programs with students from the inside and from the outside, reading groups that include people inside and outside and use written correspondence. It also means rendering the prison system visible and talking about it to your neighbours and friends in the context of zero tolerance policies in schools, laws that criminalise queer and trans people, and a slew of other political contexts.

Any project that has at its centre a focus on justice needs to see the prison system as counter to its goals. As long as society relies on a criminal justice system that aims to maintain hierarchical power relations that oppress some for the benefit of others, our ability to undermine this in other areas of society will be weakened.

Some of the content for this talk was taken from my essay “People Before Prisons: The importance of challenging prisons and supporting and repairing our communities” available here, this article I wrote for the Dominion Newspaper, and an infographic available in the March/April 2012 issue of Briarpatch Magazine.


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