From the inside out – what we free ourselves from when we get rid of prisons


pjg-prison-justice-day-victoria_rgbIt is much like a classroom in a school on the outside with concrete walls painted off-white, long, folding tables and chairs, windows, white boards and mockable teaching materials that we all ignore. Joint Effort, a group of women on the inside and women on the outside that get together for workshops of mutual interest, has brought the materials into Alouette Correctional Centre for Women for the drawing workshop. Everyone, the woman who is almost due to deliver, the one who wants to write a book called Grandma goes to jail for her grandson, the woman who thought she’d be released last month, is visiting, drawing or both. Most people draw one of three things: boats, horses or roses. Two of which, at least, are ways to get away.

For those who are incarcerated, spirituality, vision and idealism are essential to survival. Prison abolitionists are fueled by idealism in their efforts to create societies without confinement. There are many ways toward abolishing prisons that can happen all at the same time. We could open the doors to every prison, jail and lock-up in the country. Or we could start gradual abolition, beginning with freeing women and youth convicted of non-violent offences. And we could provide community alternatives that render prisons redundant including more and better halfway houses, peer mental health resources and support, education, housing and health care with recovery and rehabilitation support..

Nowhere does tough-on-crime propaganda admit that most prisoners are serving time for victimless acts, or that most are survivors of abuse Crime rates are in fact dropping, while incarceration rate increases are largely due to minor parole infractions.  Communities are always so much more effective than governments at caring for people and need to be the ones demanding their children, women and men be released back into their circle of support to mend the damages of incarceration and exclusion. It isn’t only those who are imprisoned who are damaged by the prison system: prisoners have often had to leave behind friends and family who are put at risk without their support. Communities, families and cultures experience the intergenerational effects and legacies of incarceration in Canada.

Those with the greatest stake in prison abolition and the strengthening and sometimes rebuilding of our communities find themselves frequently at odds with the state and the bureaucracies and agencies that represent it. The incarceration of people, poor people in particular, continues on the outside. Support workers and case managers are penalized if they don’t police and surveil their clients and gather information for the Ministry of Children and Family Development with techniques like GPS braceletting. Alongside public-private partnerships in the mental health system, these conditions lead to contradictions such as forced medicalization (through involuntary drugging, institutionalization, etc.) and a lack of adequate care. As we have seen in the Downtown Eastside, this is about displacing people, about erasing the legitimate ties of belonging people have to the neighbourhood in order to make room for market development.

For many communities, urban and rural alike, never has it been more apparent that the state is not concerned with the sustenance and well-being of the people. Attacks on people through surveillance and information gathering on the part of social services are not unlike so-called “anti-terrorist” measures used to undercut dissent. Many have made the connections between Bill C-51, anti-pipeline struggles and the current expansion of Canadian prisons. If Indigenous sovereignty becomes a reality and there are opportunities for restorative justice, self-determining communities, sustainable local economies and true healing from residential schools and other colonial projects and institutions, what place would prisons and pipelines have in our society?

The dream of prison abolition becomes a reality as we not only fight against oppressive practices of the state, but as we also rebuild the traditions of care, healing and mutual participation in our communities. As any survivor from the Downtown Eastside will tell you, it’s the people that got them through their most desperate times. All along we have been our own horses and boats.

August 10th is Prison Justice Day, which is celebrated in Vancouver every year with a rally held in Trout Lake Park (Victoria Drive at 18th Ave) and with other events. For information about this year’s events see

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