There is “no neutral ground”: Carceral expansion and organizations that serve the criminalized in Canada

Justin Piché

There was considerable expansion of jail, prison and penitentiary capacity during the near-decade that Stephen Harper was the Prime Minister of Canada, both federally and at the provincial-territorial level.  Correctional Service Canada expanded federal penitentiaries expecting an influx of new prisoners resulting from the avalanche of sentencing reforms passed by Parliament from 2006 to 2015.  However, the bulk of new penal infrastructure built by the provinces and territories throughout this period was largely put in place to address crowding owing to a longstanding increase in people on remand waiting for the ‘justice’ process to grind forward.

Now, with a new government in Ottawa committed to reviewing the laws, policies, and practices of the penal system to achieve outcomes such as reducing the number of Indigenous peoples behind bars, one may have expected a pause in carceral expansion in Canada. However, the push to erect new human cages knows no partisan boundaries, whether in the east, the north, central and western Canada, or in my backyard in Ottawa. Past failures  be damned because we can get things right this time around – a promise that gives us new or expanded jails, prisons, and penitentiaries that will likely to transport us to future confinement crises.

Selling prison expansion

As noted in a recent study in Contemporary Justice Review, new carceral spaces are being sold to Canadians in a manner that suggests they will resolve existing crises in imprisonment and neoliberal capitalism. We are told existing carceral institutions aren’t designed in such a way that promotes institutional security and relationships between custodial staff and prisoners – so let’s have new prisons for that.  Existing facilities feature inhumane living and working conditions – new prisons will take care of that. Existing institutions don’t provide adequate care for the growing number of women in shackles or the increasing number of prisoners living with mental health and substance use issues – so let’s have new prisons for that. Existing institutions don’t provide culturally appropriate programming to Indigenous peoples incarcerated en masse – new prisons can do that. We need good paying, full-time jobs – build new prisons for that.  We need to build sustainable, green infrastructure – yes, we can have new prisons for that too. And we’re told that these new carceral spaces are also good for us because they’re ‘evidence-based’.   Yet everything we know about new jails, prisons, penitentiaries and the like suggest that will have many of the same problems as the old ones.  The answer is to work towards diversion and decarceration so that fewer people are imprisoned.

Working together to support diversion and decarceration

Many organizations advocate and provide services for the criminalized in Canada, often promoting “healthier communities”, “social development”, “prevention”, “community-based” diversion and supervision models, “restorative justice”, and “social justice” more broadly as the most productive means to reduce victimization in contrast to the failures of imprisonment.  Yet, when governments announce that new carceral spaces will be constructed, not enough of these organizations speak out against these initiatives that’ll keep human beings locked-up in cages.

For instance, when the #NOPE / No On Prison Expansion initiative called upon Canadians to demand a prison construction moratorium, it met its 500-signature goal for Canada Day 150 but without the active support of a number of organizations that officially believe in incarceration only as a last resort. We were supported by the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Canadian Friends Service Committee, which support prison and penal abolition respectively.

To succeed in any struggle one needs allies. If the goal is to work towards effective, more humane, increasingly just, and less costly responses to the complex conflicts and harms that we call ‘crime’, then when it comes to building more confinement spaces there can be “no neutral ground”. Dollars that could have been spent in our communities to promote equality and prevent harm are being spent on cages instead.

I challenge organizations that serve the criminalized to publicly endorse the idea of a moratorium on new carceral spaces  in order to work towards building our communities instead of more prisons. We all need to work together to build the capacity to reduce Canada’s reliance on incarceration – a goal that abolitionists and progressive reformers can agree on. To fail to do so now will work to sustain the Canadian carceral state and prison-industrial-complex, which will deprive us of our collective freedom for generations to come.

Justin Piché, PhD is Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa and is co-founder of the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project and its’ #NOPE / No On Prison Expansion initiative. 



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