Why Abolish Prison?

Liberal society tells us that prisons exist to protect us from people that cause harm, but the history of prisons, along with their current social functions tell a very different story. Prisons have always existed to lock up poor people, runaway slaves, people in debt, people society doesn’t want, and everyone who dares to resist the way this world is organized.


Prisons are racist

In Canada, the prison system has always been intimately tied to the colonial project. As the fledgling Canadian state sought control over indigenous territories, it built railways and post-offices and also prisons in order to assert its sovereignty and suppress indigenous uprisings. Stony Mountain is a particularly good example of this. Built in Winnipeg in 1877, as part of a wave of prison construction in the years immediately following Confederation, Stony Mountain was erected near Lower Fort Garry, where a military force had already been stationed to quell the Red River Rebellion. A member of that military unit became the first warden of the new penitentiary. The leaders of a second indigenous uprising, the NorthWest Rebellion of 1885, were later imprisoned at Stony Mountain. This prison is still operational today.

Parallels can also be drawn between prisons and the histories of residential schools and the pass system. From 1885 to 1951, the pass system was an informal Canadian government policy that required indigenous people to get a pass from an indian agent in order to be allowed to leave the reserve. Through the residential school system, the Canadian state kidnapped, confined, and traumatized generations of indigenous children. Prisons, residential schools, and the pass system have all been used to confine indigenous peoples and control their movement.

The connection between prisons an colonization isn't just a thing of the past. These days, Indigenous people make up 27% of the federal prison population in Canada, while representing only 5% of the total population in so-called Canada. Indigenous people are also significantly more likely to receive higher prison sentences, more likely to spend time in pre-trial detention, more likely to receive higher security classifications, less likely to be granted parole, and have less access to legal representation. Meanwhile, the over- representation of indigenous people in the federal prison system is only increasing.

Indigenous people aren't the only ones targeted by a racist prison system. In the last 10 years there has been a 70% increase of Black people incarcerated in the federal prison system. Black people in prison make up 9.5% of the total prison population as opposed to 2.9% of the population outside prison. Black prisoners are more likely to be put in administrative segregation, more likely to be classified as high security, less likely to be assigned work in prison, and less likely to be able to access culturally relevant programming. At the same time, migrants without papers are imprisoned in migrant detention centres and often in provincial prisons as they await deportation.

The unavoidable racism of the Canadian prison system isn't incidental or an unfortunate mistake that can simply be reformed away. Rather, racist prisons are doing what prisons have always been designed to do. Some of the earliest jails in Canada were used to imprison runaway slaves. Today, Black and Indigenous people are often criminalized, living in communities that are subjected to heavy policing, and therefore facing increased risks of ending up arrested and imprisoned. Like the police, prisons exist because the state needs a way to control people, especially racialized people who have been deemed “undesirable” and who have been targeted for exploitation, displacement, and death.


Couldn't we reform prisons?

This prison system extends beyond buildings with walls that are full of cages. It includes half-way houses, court house cells, police stations, electronic monitoring, the parole system and probation. In short, every facet of a system of control and surveillance that is designed to suppress revolt and keep powerful people in power. The state positions its prisons as solutions to economic, social, and political problems, while obscuring how the violence of racism, colonialism, and capitalism lead people to end up in prison in the first place. Meanwhile, the continuation of the prison system only benefits those already in power. From the politicians who get elected on “tough on crime” platforms to the architects and contractors that score big deals building prisons. From the private security firms who police migrant detention centres to the mass media organizations that perpetuate stereotypes of poor people, racialized people, queer people, immigrants, and youth, as deviants, delinquents or criminals.

But, while the Canadian state pours billions of dollars into the prison system every year, conditions for people inside continue to get worse. Many of the reforms won by prisoner movements in the 1970s are slowly disappearing. Access to education and trades are drying up, families who want to visit loved- ones inside are being subjected to increased security measures, and most programming is run by Correctional Services staff, rather than independent specialists. In 2013, the Harper government cut the pay for federal prisoners, even though prisoners hadn’t seen a pay raise since the 1980s. Federal prisoners now make about $3 a day at most, that is if they can access employment at all.

Under these conditions it might be easy to confine ourselves to asking for more reforms and better conditions for prisoners. But, the only fix for prisons is to abolish them entirely. In the 1960s, the implementation of widespread prison reforms accompanied a construction boom. 25 new prisons were built by 1970. In fact, prison reforms often come packaged with new techniques for control and surveillance and an expansion of the capacity of the prison system. We see this when funding allocated for cultural and employment programming for prisoners is re-diverted towards the construction of maximum security units. We see this when the closing of one prison–decried for its harsh conditions–results in the opening of six new prisons, as happened with the federal women's prison system in the 1990s. We see this when the expansion of prison “alternatives” like half- way houses accompanies the introduction of the first ultra-max unit–simply a more refined version of the carrot and the stick, and ultimately just another tool for social control.


Toward a better vision of justice

Prison abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance, and of creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages, it’s also about undoing the society we live in because the prison system is enabled by social conditions like oppression and inequality and uses punishment and control to maintain this status quo. While the state tries to create a class of “criminals” who it can blame for society's ills, we know that no meaningful justice can ever come from the state. Prison abolition mean challenging the notion that locking people in cages can ever make us safer. It means struggling for a world where everyone has access to basic necessities like food, shelter, and freedom.

An abolitionist vision means not only destroying the prison system and transforming the society that supports it, but also building new models for ways to deal harm and conflict. Practices such as Transformative Justice, which grew out of black feminist organizing, offer possible models for dealing with interpersonal harm autonomously from police, courts, and prisons. As we struggle for a world without prisons, we will need to develop concrete strategies for moving towards a world we might actually want to live in. Thus, abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.