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The Case for Prison Reform | The Walrus

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Age of the child I gave this to:. Hours of Play:. For each of these progressive changes to the system, however, I can easily summon an example of an injustice that will illustrate how outmoded and inherently corrupt the institution of prison is, despite the reforms that have been implemented over the years since Kingston Penitentiary opened its doors.

Moreover, Indigenous programs and the permission to smudge and hold traditional medicines does little to erase the legacy of colonialism and the evolution of Canadian prisons into the new residential schools. Likewise, the Charter is only supreme when those who dare to defend their humanity have the resources and wherewithal to fight lengthy, expensive, and complicated legal battles.

For those interested in the profusion of reports, investigations, and special inquiries that have documented such injustices and, to a degree, tempered the inherent violence and egregious abuses of prisons in Canada for almost two centuries, a good place to start is the report A Flawed Compass: A Human Rights Analysis of the Roadmap to Strengthening Public Safety , by UBC professor Michael Jackson and former John Howard Society of Canada executive director Graham Stewart.

I recommend this report because, in order for us to understand Canadian prisons at present, it is necessary to grasp the ideological machinations that shaped them under the Harper government. It also provides good background for efforts to push for non-reformist reforms, which may result in immediate improvements in the living and working conditions of those currently incarcerated.

The Sampson report promoted a neoconservative campaign to overhaul the federal correctional system, including reactionary recommendations to the federal government, all of which were enthusiastically endorsed by the Harper government. While not all of these recommendations found their way into the Harper policy playbook e. As I have noted, every so often the abuses of the criminal justice system find their way into public view and seem to hang there for a brief period before other issues again come to dominate the public conversation.

So how do we generate broader acceptance for radical ideas about prison reform?

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One starting point is a broader social movement with and for prisoners, which will work toward a radical rethinking of justice — a justice that heals wounds instead of creating new ones. There are also certain policy changes that do have a chance at being seen as viable by a wider public in the short term. Like Trojan horses, these changes have the capacity to accomplish a twofold task of introducing immediate improvements into the lives of prisoners, and therefore putting more power in their hands, while at the same time offering opportunities to expose prison injustices, thereby chipping away at received ideas about the prison system.


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Upon being elected in , Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a mandate letter to his minister of justice and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, requesting a review of criminal justice laws, policies, and practices implemented by the Harper government between and But hold the applause. The findings were not revealing, and only confirmed what prisoners and other experts have been saying for years: prisons punish the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society, and current approaches only exacerbate the problem.

Measures to break the cycle of crime, or the violence that is bound up within the prison system, are not on the agenda. The recent transfer of Terri-Lynne McClintic to an Indigenous Healing Lodge is one example of how criminal justice issues can be politicized by opponents and the potential for public outrage to undermine certain aims, like working toward ending Indigenous mass incarceration. Yet despite a rejection of efforts to effect progressive change by politicians and a certain segment of the public, we should not assume that the generalpublic imagination cannot be won over.

The public may be ignorant of the realities of prison, but there appears to be a degree of desire to know what happens to those who find themselves in the clutches of the system. Fed with stereotypes and misinformation, this appetite distorts public understanding of who the punished really are.

It is my impression — both in my work with the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons and from what I have been able, in prison, to gather in following the recent Senate Committee on Human Rights as they travel across the country on a fact-finding mission — that the first-hand personal narratives and expert opinions of prisoners, both current and former, may offer compelling accounts that can bridge the gap between public understanding and the lived realities of imprisonment. What is to be done? This is the burning question for any social movement. Not all prisoners draw the connection between their concrete, first-hand experiences in prison and the more abstract, socio-political structures that have shaped their lives.

Nor do many express a politically conscious objection to the idea of prison.

What it’s really like ‘down inside’ Canada’s prisons

Nevertheless, the knowledge holders, subjugated as they are — often disqualified and located low down on the hierarchy of who can know and what can be known — are the resistance. Jarrod Shook is an academic, writer, poet, and social justice activist based in Ottawa.

Jarrod holds a BA in Sociology from Laurentian University and is currently working towards completion of a second degree in criminology at the University of Ottawa. He is dialogue editor for the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. Subscribe today and receive every issue of Canadian Dimension hot off the press.