Post # 170

820 words; 4 minutes to read

Several posts on this blog have provided evidence that prisons are ineffective and expensive ways of addressing public safety.  A recent report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Analysis, written by Heather Lawson builds the ‘ case for investing in community and social support for imprisoned racialized women in Canada’ as an alternative to prison.

Racialized women are Canada’s fastest growing prison population. In the last 10 years, the incarceration rate of women sentenced to federal institutions has increased by one third despite the fact that the rate of women accused of a Criminal Code offence decreased significantly.  (This is consistent with other evidence that arrests and especially imprisonment in Canada have not declined nearly as much as have crime rates).

Nor do women in prison resemble the overall population.  Indigenous and Black women are both disproportionately represented in Canadian prisons. ‘Accounting for 4% and 3%, respectively, of Canada’s adult female population, they make up nearly half of all prisoners in federal women’s institutions.’  Indeed, the overrepresentation of Black women in Canadian prisons is worse than in the United States.

Who gets arrested and convicted

We also know that eight of every 10 female inmates have a prior conviction. This suggests the existence of a marginalized population repeatedly entering the prison system.  For example, a high proportion of women in prison are themselves victims of abuse or violence.

As other posts on this blog have pointed out, it is not so much an act of wrongdoing that makes one a criminal but rather being caught, arrested, and convicted.  Who is criminalized is a different matter than who commits a criminal act. Many people commit crimes but are not arrested or not prosecuted.  Trends in prison populations show that criminalization is related to racist constructions of crime.

Over and under policed

Racialized women in Canada are both under- and over-policed. Over-policing, trauma, poverty, and sex work are key factors in explaining why racialized women are disproportionately jailed.  For example, the report cites evidence that Indigenous women in Vancouver are more likely to receive a street check than any other group.   At the same time, years of mistreatment, abuse, and negligence towards racialized people in Canada means that law enforcement cannot be relied upon in times of need. A report by Pivot Legal Society, a legal advocacy organization in Vancouver, found that the majority of individuals surveyed who had been criminalized for drug use said that they would never call the police if in trouble.

Prison makes things worse

Programs that are supposed to help reintegrate offenders into the community often fail to be relevant to specific populations and issues. For example, programs for Indigenous prisoners, and those with substance use needs are not appropriately designed for the people they are intended to serve.

The federal prison environment itself is antithetical to release and reintegration. Practice such as separating mothers from their children and families, solitary confinement, strip searches  and a reliance on use of force to control inmates are ways in which the prison system contributes to the disenfranchisement of communities. Lauren McKeon in The Walrus provides an interesting history of women’s prisons and the failure to reform them.

Invest in services, not prisons

According to the report, Public Safety Canada pegs the average cost of incarcerating a single inmate in a women’s institution at more than $190,000 per year.  This is vastly more than the average Canadian family earns and spends in a year.  In total, the federal government spends approximately $110 million each year to keep about 600 individuals in women’s prisons. The amount of money spent on federal women’s prisons would be more effectively spent on addressing the root causes of incarceration: racism, colonialism, poverty, trauma, and mental illness.

Community-based programming offering support to marginalized groups before coming into contact with the justice system is a superior and more cost effective approach.  Community supervision, for example, costs 74% less than incarceration according to the report.  Yet many imprisoned women reporta tragic account of the failure of social services on the outside to provide marginalized women with basic necessities relating to security, housing, and social welfare.’

In a study published by Homeless Hub, the costs of existing institutional responses to homelessness including shelters, affordable housing, and group homes were compared. All of these except psychiatric hospitals were less expensive than holding someone in prison.

Even a fraction of what is spent on incarceration would have widespread benefits for individuals and communities if spent, instead, on appropriate social support.  Instead, we choose to address problems such as trauma, addiction, poverty, and mental illness by spending money on locking people up and treating them badly instead of helping them so that they would not be involved in crime in the first place.  Focused measures to reduce the prison population and instead and improve community, health, and social services would be a much more effective strategy for ensuring safety for all, and would reduce crime as well as the harms created by imprisoning those already disenfranchised in Canadian


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