Prisoner's Justice Day: August 10th

Prisoners' Justice Day originated 25 years ago to pay tribute to two Canadian prisoners who died while in solitary confinement. It is a day when prisoners go on a one-day work stoppage and hunger strike, while outside supporters organize events to draw attention to prison conditions and remember those who have died behind bars.

Although the mainstream media portrays the Canadian public as wanting increased criminalization, longer sentences, and harsher prison conditions, those of us who support and advocate for prisoners know that the prison system does not contribute to making our society safer or better. No matter what you may have heard about how prison has become a 'cake-walk,' or how prisons are more like 'luxury resorts,' we're sure if you were to visit a prison yourself or talk to someone who's been in one you'd quickly start to see how misleading those statements are. And we think it'd be a pretty safe bet to say that the Christian right - with their 'tough on crime' philosophies - have never seen the inside of a prison wall or talked to many people who have.

The majority of people in jail are there because of poverty-related crimes, and prison only locks them further into poverty. Prison means isolation, strip searches, and loss of connection with family, friends, and community. It means frequently being treated like an animal by guards and staff, or being physically or sexually abused. It means loss of jobs on the outside, loss of children to the state, loss of homes and possessions, and little to no chance of getting these things back once released (thanks to the stigma of a criminal record and often no financial support). Sometimes it means being forced to take medication you don't want, or being forced to take 'treatment' from people you can't trust. It means being locked in segregation cells if you get so desperate or you're in such pain that you hurt yourself or try to take your own life.

Prisons are tools of social control that reinforce oppression on all levels. Do you think it's a coincidence that native people (those to whom our society has been the most unjust) make up around 17% of the federal prison population and as high as 79% of the prison population of the prairies, yet are only 2% of Canada's total adult population? Our so-called justice system has for the most part become a means of further punishing those who have suffered the most at the hands of our unjust, unequal, and discriminating society. Canada has one of the world's highest rates of incarceration and doles out some of the longest prison sentences. But history has shown that high levels of incarceration do not result in low levels of crime - the United States, for example, has the world's highest rate of incarceration accompanied with skyrocketing crime rates.

So what are some alternatives to incarceration? We could start by addressing poverty, which is the single biggest reason people get sent to jail. Consider that it costs Corrections Canada upwards of $66, 000 to keep just one person behind bars per year, while if that same person were trying to get by on social services they would on average be allotted only about $6000 annually. Surely we could do something to address this glaring injustice.

The funds used to build and maintain prisons could also be put to better use. Many progressive groups have developed models for community justice and alternative measures programs, which have proven to be more effective in preventing crime and in meeting the needs of both the (so-called) victims and perpetrators. Ex-prisoners have developed peer-assisted initiatives to support their brothers and sisters upon their release from prisons. Programs that focus on prevention of violence help to reduce crime. Yet all of these types of programs and initiatives are notoriously under-funded.

We advocate for prison abolition because history has shown time and time again that the only way to reform the prison system is to abolish it. First steps toward the goal of prison abolition include imposing a moratorium on prison construction immediately, focusing on early intervention programs and decriminalization, moving toward decarceration of those presently behind bars, and recognizing that very few people ever need to be restrained by prisons. This Prisoners' Justice Day, we hope you will join us in advocating for our goal, and we urge you to think critically and speak out about our (in)justice system, in the interests of a more humane society for all of us.

- Amber Dean