It Is Past Time for Prison Reform


Please Note: The following is an opinion piece

By Rachel Nirenberg

If you follow American politics at all, you’ll find that it’s impossible to have any sort of discussion about race or the criminal justice system in the United States without hearing the phrase “prison-industrial complex”. Though it’s recently made its way into the mainstream and even been invoked by centre-left politicians such as Hillary Clinton, the concept is not new and has origins far older than Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. It was initially coined by Angela Davis, an American activist known for her historical connections to the American Communist and Black Panther parties. In her 2003 book titled Are Prisons Obsolete?, Davis explains the concept of the prison-industrial complex:

Each new prison spawned yet another new prison. And as the U.S. prison system expanded, so did corporate involvement in construction, provision of goods and services, and use of labor. Because of the extent to which prison building and operation began to attract vast amounts of capital – from the construction industry to food and health care provision – in a way that recalled the emergence of the military industrial complex, we began to refer to a “prison industrial complex.”

To put it simply, as the number of prisons in the United States increased, so did their need for goods and services which were provided by private companies. Whenever you involve private companies, the purpose of whatever you are creating shifts. Since private companies by definition seek to make money, you have now created a class of people who have a vested interest in ensuring the proliferation of prisons. For big companies, the logic is simple. In order to make the maximum profit, prisons must not just continue to exist but must increase.

The corporations that stand to benefit from the prison industry aren’t always obvious. Take, for example, the case of the phone company AT&T, who, for a price, provides phone calls from inmates to family and friends. If AT&T wants to make as much money as possible, a prison system with empty prisons and thus no one to use their services is not in their best interest. Therefore, AT&T joins lobbying groups such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), which advocate for tough-on-crime legislation that ensures that the prisons that currently exist stay full and that new prisons are always being built.

Though the issues with the American legal system often get the most press, anyone pretending that the same issues do not exist in our Canadian system is kidding themselves. Despite falling crime rates, the number of incarcerated Canadians and the severity of their sentences continues to increase. Billions of dollars are spent building and maintaining prisons here too and as a result, the private companies who contract with the government stand to make huge profits.

The increasing privatization of the prison system is not the only issue present in our system. People of colour, especially black and Aboriginal people, are greatly overrepresented in Canadian prisons. Together, black and Aboriginal Canadians make up about 7% of the general Canadian population but account for 35% of the prison population. The reasons for these disparities are, of course, nuanced and complex, but it is clear that systemic racism plays a significant part, despite the Charter and other legal sanctions meant to protect minorities from discrimination. Criminalization of visible minorities and institutionalized racism are often presented as solely or at least primarily American issues, but it is obvious that they are present in Canada too. The insidious denial of their existence does nothing to help anyone but instead makes them even more difficult to address.

The Canadian government must also look seriously at the human rights abuses rife within its criminal justice system. The case of Adam Capay, an Aboriginal man who spent four years in solitary confinement awaiting trial, horrified the nation for a brief time but ultimately did not horrify it enough to create any real change. Solitary confinement, which is widely accepted, even by the government, to be a cruel and unusual punishment is used far too often in Canadian prisons. Though solitary confinement is officially a “last resort”, half of all Canadian prisoners report spending at least some time there. In 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau called on his Justice Minister to investigate and eventually phase out solitary confinement, but so far, this has been for naught; no concrete action has been taken.

It is past time for the government to take responsibility for the serious issues present in our justice system. Privatization of prisons, racism by law enforcement, and the denial of the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment are not solely American problems. Canadians who smugly assert our justice system’s superiority to that of the United States do nothing to solve the problems inherent in it and enable a passive, lazy attitude that allows these problems to continue to go unaddressed. What Canada really needs and has needed for decades is a comprehensive system of reforms meant to address the issues in Canadian prisons. If we as a society continue to be unable to even acknowledge these issues exist, change will not come. It is time to pull back the curtain, take a long, hard look at our justice system, and get our hands dirty fixing it.