Both police and prisons are institutions set up to maintain a capitalist and racist social order. Whether it's the commission of inquiry into the SQ after the Oka crisis, or the one following the 2012 student strike, there are always recommendations to restructure organizations or re-evaluate the use of this or that type of weapon. While the list of victims of police services and prisons grows longer in Quebec and elsewhere, the idea of investigations and reforms is still being bandied about. Worse, some are calling for more training or technological gadgets like cameras, which would only increase police budgets. If the current American crisis has taught us anything, it's that cameras are useless: Ahmaud Arbery's death was filmed, but it was only when the public rose up against the police, prosecutors and judges who tried to sweep the case under the carpet that the murderers were arrested. George Floyd's death was filmed, but it was only after three days of protests that charges were laid, initially against just one of the police officers involved. The total impunity of the police and the massive injustice of the prison system will not be solved by yet another reform. This impunity must be addressed by abolishing these institutions.
Police and prison, what do they really prevent?
Crimes can simply be divided into three categories. Crimes against property, crimes against the person and victimless crimes, as the law codes already do. For each of these categories, it's easy to show that the effects of police and prison are harmful.
Firstly, victimless crimes, such as sex work or drug trafficking or possession, are frequent grounds for arrest, but as their name suggests, do not cause direct harm to people. Several countries around the world have succeeded in significantly reducing drug use by providing support services to people who consider themselves to have addiction problems. This approach advocates harm reduction, which aims to reduce the physical damage caused by addiction, for example by providing safe spaces for drug use and decriminalizing drug use. By attempting to prohibit drug use or the purchase of sexual services, the authorities facilitate the establishment of criminal networks and endanger the safety of workers and consumers. They also expose themselves to the constant threat of criminalization, a threat which is particularly ineffective in reducing addiction. Indeed, the most important factor in addiction treatment is the will of the person affected. If a person is forced to undergo treatment against his or her will, the chances are slim that a positive effect will emerge.
Secondly, property crime occurs largely because the poorest people have no other choice, faced with recurrent cuts in welfare, unemployment and social services, and the emphasis on lifestyles that are unattainable for most. The criticism has been made a thousand times before, and has recurred ever since the first prisons were created: poor people who have to use crime to survive find themselves isolated together in prisons, where they can develop their criminal skills. Investing in more prisons and police doesn't solve the problem of wealth redistribution, and in fact costs much more than setting up social redistribution mechanisms. If injustice must be maintained with a stick, the problem won't be corrected by changing the size of the stick.
Finally, crimes against individuals are the rarest. Despite this, violence in society is mainly directed at people who are already marginalized: racialized people, women or non-binary people, poor or homeless people, sex workers, people with disabilities and homosexuals. Various studies show that these people are more frequently the victims of police violence, and consequently report crimes against them less frequently. To take just one example, a study carried out among people with physical or mental disabilities shows that people with disabilities report crimes against them 50% less often (Regroupement des activistes pour l'inclusion au Québec (RAPLIQ), 2011). What's more, the police and prison intervene in cases of violence, but only after the fact, when there's nothing more that can be done. Not to mention the fact that prison does not prevent recidivism. In short, the police and prisons don't protect the most vulnerable, and even if the police did intervene, they would punish the action without tackling its root causes: sexism, racism, homophobia or capitalism. On the contrary, the police more often target racialized people, neglect complaints made by women and generally attack poor populations.
In short, for no category of crime do police and prisons seem a useful or productive avenue. And despite the fact that crime rates have been falling for nearly twenty years in Canada, while police budgets have been continually increasing. While crime resolution rates rarely exceed the 40% mark (Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal, 2015), authorities continue to encourage massive investments in repression tools(Ministère de la Sécurité publique, n.d.). And finally, while more crimes are reported per capita in rural areas, the majority of police forces are still located in cities. So, if the real purpose of police and prisons were to reduce crime, neoliberal governments would long ago have abolished them, because they are only marginally useful for this purpose. Instead, the police seem much more at the service of the capitalist social order, to prevent the poor from developing non-capitalist survival strategies and to prevent the reorganization of production from an egalitarian perspective. This situation is illustrated by the historical context of the emergence of the police and prison.
A brief history of police and prison
In "Canada", the police developed as a result of the Métis uprising in western Canada. In the U.S., the closest thing to today's police developed in the South, as a watchdog group for slave control (Williams, 2007). In both cases, the police became more institutionalized with the emergence of poor populations brought about by capitalist development, while retaining their original racist bias, manifested among other things in collaboration with far-right groups (you only have to go to a counter-demonstration in response to far-right demonstrations to see this), assassinations targeting a majority of racialized people (as in Montreal), and racial profiling. These characteristics are constant in police history.
The same story applies to prisons. The first prisons were set up to prevent vagrancy and to fix the poor in fixed spaces, by forcing arrestees into poorhouses or workhouses as early as the end of the 18th century. Subsequently, prisons were set up on a similar model, during the period of rapid industrialization, which necessitated mass labor. This model was expressed in the form of forced labor, whether legal prison labor slavery or factory labor slavery. In short, today's prisons are institutions that force marginalized populations to work. It's not surprising, then, even taking into account the racism of the police, that indigenous and racialized populations are over-represented in prisons to this day: it's a tool that has always been used to force poor populations to work.
What if we cut budgets...
… the racist and capitalist nature of these institutions would persist, and as soon as the wave of protest subsides, massive reinvestment would take place. Indeed, the well-documented culture of silence present in police departments makes today's police officers direct accomplices in the violence carried out by their colleagues (A. Cab, 2020). This culture of violence can only be curbed by putting in place services that enable marginalized people to meet their needs without being forced to resort to illegal strategies. It would also be possible to draw inspiration from the crime management groups set up by various revolutionary groups, such as the Black Panther in the USA or the ANC in South Africa during apartheid (Williams, 2007, afterword). We'll have to, because either we develop community-based mechanisms, or risk being killed by the police every time they turn up.
- A. Cab, O. (2020, 6 juin). Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop. medium.com. Récupéré le 9 juillet 2020 de https://medium.com/@OfcrACab/confessions-of-a-former-bastard-cop-bb14d17bc759
- Gauthier, C. (2006). La sûreté du Québec : un professionnalisme en voie de développement. Université Laval, Québec. Récupéré de https://corpus.ulaval.ca/jspui/handle/20.500.11794/18395
- Ministère de la Sécurité publique (n.d.). Desserte policière au Québec 2015. Retrieved from https://www.securitepublique.gouv.qc.ca/fileadmin/Documents/police/statistiques/desserte_policiere/desserte_policiere_2015.pdf
- Commission spéciale d'examen des événements du printemps 2012 and Ménard, S. (2014). Rapport. [s.l.]: [s.n.]. Retrieved from http://collections.banq.qc.ca/ark:/52327/2384858
- Regroupement des activistes pour l'inclusion au Québec (RAPLIQ). (2011). Crimes cachés: mieux comprendre la violence et la négligence à l'égard des personnes en situation de handicap.
- Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (2015). Annual report 2014. Retrieved from https://spvm.qc.ca/RapportAnnuel/2014/files/inc/91ebb7b3db.pdf
- Williams, K. (2007). Our enemies in blue: police and power in America. Cambridge, Mass: South End Press.
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