Alternatives to detention: why oppose these?

As part of the new National Immigration Detention Framework, the government set aside $5 million to implement what it calls “alternatives to detention”. After years of hunger strikes by migrants being held in provincial jails in Ontario and a massive support campaign by the End Immigration Detention Network, this new Framework seems to be the government’s response. Migrants were mainly demanding an end to indefinite detention. While most of the money set aside as part of the National Immigration Detention Framework is being used to make prettier detention centres, the alternatives to detention programs are being offered as the government’s attempt to address these concerns.

But it is bullshit.

The alternatives to detention programs started to be rolled out in the summer of 2018. In September 2018, migrants being held in provincial jails in Ontario went on hunger strike again. They were protesting the fact that the government didn’t consult with them about these new changes. The only press release to go out during the hunger strike included a quote from a lawyer supporting the migrants that said “the best alternative to detention is to release people back into their community, where they can re-integrate without intrusive monitoring.” The government never met with the migrants and eventually the hunger strike ended.

What even are the alternatives? The government has introduced three main programs as part of its “alternatives to detention”: one is a cellphone-based location monitoring program, one is a “Community Case Management and Supervision” program being run by the John Howard Society of Canada, and one is an ankle bracelet program.

It might seem on the surface like the “alternatives to detention” are a step in the right direction, a way to have fewer people held in detention centres and provincial prisons. We disagree. For us, this seems like an excuse to expand the systems of surveillance that the government can use against migrants. Whereas before, the only option was detention or releasing people on their own recognizance, now there are more options, none of which are about undoing the border itself, granting status to everyone now, or moving away from a system based on control and surveillance.

We have seen this happen before. In the federal prison system there are “transition houses” or “halfway houses”, which were implemented for people who were getting out of prison and had no money and nowhere to go. Though that impulse was a humanitarian one, the houses were eventually coopted by the prison system to become an extension of people’s sentences. Many prisoners are now mandated to spend up to a year or more in a halfway house after being released from prison. Conditions in halfway houses have become more and more restrictive, and the slightest sign that someone isn’t obeying all of the rules in the house can get you thrown back in prison. They are a tiny carrot at the end of a big stick.

The John Howard Society, who was awarded almost $5 million to implement the new “Community Case Management and Supervision” program for migrants, already runs many of these halfway houses and parole programs for people caught up in the criminal justice system. For some reason the CBSA believes that this makes them qualified to run programs for migrants. As part of these new programs, migrants who are released from detention can be forced to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as part of their “release plan” and can land back in a detention centre if they skip a meeting.

The electronic monitoring programs are no different. Originally tested as part of the post- 9/11 National Security Certificate program (which involved imprisoning non-citizens indefinitely without charge on secret evidence), ankle bracelets are an incredibly stigmatizing and invasive piece of technology. Some of the men who faced the Security Certificate regime in the early 2000s requested to be transferred back to prison rather than continue to live with the ankle monitors.

The new cellphone call-in program is also based on scary technology – this time using software that makes a fingerprint of your voice and tracks your location based on your cell phone, so when you call in, it verifies your voice and your location at once. All this tech mainly makes it easier for the CBSA to find people once they are ready to deport them.

So what to do? Oppose the new prison and the alternatives! Stand up for migrant justice and oppose the border in all its forms! Fight for truly liberatory ways of relating to the Earth and each others!