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Prisons, Profits and Government Austerity

by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back

Prison de Bordeaux, Montréal, Québec. Photo by Bungalow1via Wikipedia
Prison de Bordeaux, Montréal, Québec. Photo by Bungalow1via Wikipedia

While the term “Prison Industrial Complex” is widely cited by critics of incarceration, there is little mainstream understanding of how this term, originally coined in a 1997 speech by Angela Davis, manifests today in the lives of prisoners. The authority to take away people's physical freedom is one of the primary ways in which the state exercises control over the population, holding monopoly over the power to deem which activities (and which people) are “criminal,” while other activities that result in equal and greater social harm are not considered grounds for arrest or punishment. Heads of state in powerful Western countries frequently violate international laws and treaties, as well as their own domestic laws, in ways which cause widespread death and environmental devastation, yet they remain immune to punishment under the law and are not defined as criminals. These double standards are deeply intertwined with capitalist agendas and the upholding of class inequality.

    Government austerity means fewer jobs, fewer social services and often a concurrent increase in the criminalization of poverty. It is no coincidence that the activities increasingly criminalized under austerity often relate to the informal economies through which many people opt to provide for themselves and their families when jobs and social services have been systematically cut. The criminalization and stigmatization of scheduled substances, sex work and non-sanctioned migration across state borders further illustrate this double standard. People's strategies for surviving under a system of profoundly limited economic options are portrayed as a greater danger to society than the actions of politicians and policy makers who would rather separate families, waste public funds and subject an ever-growing number of people to months, years, decades and lifetimes of physical and mental anguish, than renounce the profits and social control that the prison system creates.

    Under for-profit prison systems such as America's, the number of people being incarcerated directly correlates to profits, adding an additional incentive to fill existing prisons and build new ones. Austerity also results in those scant resources that can mitigate the inherent emotional, psychological and physical harms of incarceration becoming less available or disappearing altogether. Such resources are often intentionally scrapped to minimize expenditures and maximize profit, in addition to the elimination of safety and building code inspections. This form of corner-cutting severely impacts people's already-compromised quality of life, increasing stress and often contributing to violence. When riots break out in over-crowded, under-serviced facilities, prison officials often use these events as an opportunity to continue pushing for longer sentences, less parole and less prisoner mobility.

   While for-profit prisons are not yet a widespread reality in Canada, federal institutions are increasingly privatizing services such as food and telephones, while claiming larger portions of prisoner wages under the auspices of covering prison costs. These wage cuts, which were made official last year, raised the 25 per cent that was already garnished by another 30, plus the administrative costs of phone usage. The amount which prisoners are now required to keep in their savings accounts has also been raised to $200, allowing the government to collect more interest. In addition, prisoners' pay grade can now be reduced if they are deemed to be exhibiting insufficient “accountability” by parole boards, who are notorious for their racially biased nature.  


   Reduction in wages means that prisoners cannot buy food on canteen to make up for the decreases in food provided to them, and are less able to buy phone cards to speak to their families and loved ones. According to prisoner justice activist Giselle Dias, the families of many prisoners are also negatively impacted by austerity, making it less feasible for them to visit and pay for phone calls with their loved ones. Joan Rusza, of the Prisoners’ HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN), also stated that the increasing crowding of prisons since the passing of Bill C-10 in 2012 has led to decreases in prisoners' mobility, living conditions and visitations. The demands raised by a recent prisoner strike in the Joyceville Institution were ignored by the warden, who offered to wave institutional charges against them if they agreed to end the strike.

    The repercussions of austerity for incarcerated populations and their families can be seen as a call to action for activists across the board. According to Dias, when prisoners do not see evidence of a strong and accessible anti-prison movement on the outside, this makes it difficult for them to take on leadership positions and organize for change. “If you don't know someone in prison, you should,” says Dias, adding that it is crucial for people corresponding with prisoners to write or blog about repression that is happening on the other side of the walls. In February of this year, the Toronto Star reported that two people incarcerated in the Toronto South “superjail” died in the same week of preventable overdoses. Abuse and denial of basic rights within prisons thrives in a climate of silence, and the majority of prisoners experiencing these things may not have access to contacts who can make their stories visible to the media or advocacy groups. The disappearance of social safety nets means that community organizing and mutual aid are more necessary than ever, and it is vital that we include the people suffering some of the most severe impacts of white supremacy, colonialism and economic inequality in these movements.


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