Bust out of jails

World gathering seeks means of punishment without prisons

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Try to imagine being at a conference on literacy where the best minds in the field conclude that the first step in the battle against illiteracy is for everyone to learn Latin. NThat’s how it felt at times sitting in on the ninth International Conference on Prison Abolition (ICOPA), which wrapped up last weekend at Ryerson.

In today’s political discourse, the idea of abolishing the penal system has about as much currency as a postage stamp. “Things are going forward and backward at the same time,” admits Ruth Morris, an ICOPA founder and a leading voice in the movement to abolish the penal system.

“More people are being incarcerated now than ever before, and more prisons are being built. But at the same time, there are some very hopeful signs. Even police forces are beginning to look to alternatives to incarceration.”

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Prison scares the shit out of me. I suppose that’s the idea. But when you’re hanging around with a bunch of people who’ve done time or are about to or are married to guys doing time, things start getting surreal.

But for many, this is normal life. After all, Canada has the second-highest rate of incarceration in the industrialized world, after the U.S. The war on drugs provides constant prison fodder, and according to Morris, 30 per cent of Ontario’s prison population is there for nonpayment of fines. Can you say “debtor’s prison”?

In one corner of the foyer at Metropolitan United, Renee Boje is talking to someone on a cellphone. She’s 30, but her sunny West Coast flower-child looks peg her closer to 17.

Fled California

She fled to Canada from California two years ago to escape a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for being on the premises of a medical-marijuana-growing operation when it was busted.

I meet another woman who’s just published a book on her experiences being married to someone doing hard time for bank robbery. And then there’s Barbara Riley, an elderly Ojibway woman whose 17-year-old grandson is serving time in an American prison. “I came because our people seemed to be under-represented at the conference,” she tells me. “Aboriginals are always an afterthought.”

She’s right. It is an irony that a conference about prison abolition should hear so few prisoners’ voices. Most on the speakers list are white and highly educated, albeit passionately committed.

They’re not part of the exploding North American prison population, which is overwhelmingly black, native, latino and poor. (In Canada, an aboriginal person is six times more likely to go to prison than any other Canadian.)

Perhaps sensing that a utopian attempt to abolish an inhumane, ineffective and fiscally irrational institution like the penal system isn’t going to fly on its own steam in today’s climate of scapegoating and revenge-mongering, the Morris-led abolitionists are forging links with other popular movements.

“Many activists fighting corporate rule don’t see the links between the penal system and globalization,” Morris says. “I’m not referring to the privatization of jails here. The penal system is a wonderful distraction. It directs attention to the crimes of the poor and marginalized, employs surplus labour, locks up the surplus unemployed and, in the process, no one notices the biggest criminals — the corporate ones.”

Morris is a larger-than-life grandmotherly figures who came to Canada from the U.S. in the late 60s and has worked for prison abolition for the last 25 years.

She helped Canadian Quakers become the first religious group in the world to adopt prison abolition as part of its doctrine in 1981. “Quakers had a large role in establishing the original prison system in the 1700s,” she tells me. “Now we have a responsibility to get rid of it.”

Outpaces pack

Morris’s model is called “transformative justice.”

“It’s a way to link corporate rule with the penal system,” she says. Like many dreamers and visionaries, she doesn’t stand still intellectually, and on this idea she’s again running ahead of the pack.

Most abolitionists espouse and practise what’s called “restorative justice,” which brings together the victim’s needs and the offender’s accountability for the act. This idea has manifested itself in many small programs throughout North America, where perpetrators of crimes — usually property offences — are diverted from the penal system into a process where the victim and the offender work out an alternative to incarceration.

(If a kid is charged with shoplifting, for instance, instead of going through the courts, he or she may do community service in the store where the theft occurred.)

“Restorative justice is wonderful, but it isn’t enough,” Morris says. “It still recognizes the criminal as the problem and fails to look at systemic injustice.” Transformative justice, on the other hand, examines the system that causes crime — poverty, racism, the class structure — and attempts social healing on a broader level.

“By involving the entire community, transformative justice sows seeds for new and authentic community,” she says.

But Morris’s blue-sky dreaming isn’t what some came to this conference for.

“I think it is important to express the high ideal, because it would be hard to do the work without a goal to work toward,” says Pat Clark. “But if we don’t take the small steps and deal in practical concrete action, you can forget about prison abolition.”

Number of inmates in federal custody: 13,726

Ontario jail population facing drug charges: 9 per cent

Proportion of federal prison population who are aboriginals: 17 per cent

Proportion of Canadian population who are aboriginals: 3 per cent

Number of inmates in state and federal prisons: 1,254,600

Proportion of inmates who are black: 48 per cent

Proportion of U.S. population who are black: 12.8 per cent

Proportion of inmates in state prisons who are drug offenders: 23 per cent

Sentencing Project, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics – Compiled by Geoffrey Chan and Tabassum Siddiqui

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