Justice unserved

The prison system cripples already-poor communities

Even as a relatively wealthy white woman, I’ve been intimidated, booked, manhandled, arrested, and sexually harassed by the police. Although I’ll never forget these instances, these types of run-ins are anomalies in my life. Way more times than not, I’ve had respectful, if a bit strained, encounters with the cops. This isn’t surprising. After all, I don’t fit their profile of a criminal.

I was socialized to believe that the arms of the state, or – as they are more congenially called – officers of the law, are there to serve and protect. What an innocuous motto. It makes memories of hugging cops as a kindergartener flash before my eyes. Gross. But, serve and protect who? And just as importantly, what?
Last fall, a Toronto courthouse saw a majority white, middle-class jury convict a young, poor black man – whose name can’t be published because of the age of the accused – of first-degree murder. The accused and his family, after fleeing the civil war in Sierra Leone and being granted refugee status in Canada, found themselves taking up residence in a rather notorious neighbourhood called Jane and Finch.

Corporate media pretty much always depicts Jane and Finch as a hotbed of crime and violence. The combination of that portrayal with a community comprised mostly of poor and working-class people, people of colour and immigrants of colour, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. By facilitating an understanding of these communities as inherently corrupt, these representations play into the already racist imagination of our society. The creation of a culture of fear around certain “unwieldy people” and their activities allows for the sanctioning of intensified policing. And I wish it ended there.

Suggesting that a community is exclusively and inherently violent masks the systemic and structural violence that its people endure. The forces of capitalism, racism, and colonialism collide to supply the breeding grounds for the crime and interpersonal violence that does occur. Jane and Finch is not an oddity. Like countless areas across North America, it is plagued by high rates of poverty and unemployment, low incomes, high numbers of rental homes and public housing units, an inadequate educational system, and high rates of malnutrition and hunger. Not to mention the intensity of the profiling, surveillance, repression, and violence on the part of the cops. No justice? No peace.

Let’s return to the fellow convicted of murder. Predictably, he got sent to prison. To be rehabilitated. But y’know, this word “rehabilitation” gets tossed around so much in law enforcement discourse that I frequently forget its actual definition. My dictionary tells me that to rehabilitate means to “restore (someone) to health or normal life by training and therapy.” Restore to his “normal life?” Oh, I suppose they mean the poverty, racism, and police repression that set the stage for the crime in the first place. And this is going to happen through training and therapy? That’s rich. Let’s have a little review sesh of what actually goes down in prisons.

Prisons are premised on the idea that the individual, not society, is messed up. Accordingly, the prison is meant to beat the legitimacy of the status quo and all its corresponding inequalities into those who find themselves trapped within its steel walls. And beat they do. Failure to obey prison guards often ends in violence. Compounded with crappy food, shitty health services, and meagre allowances, survival often means stealing, bribing, and joining a gang – all those wonderful activities that would be considered criminal on the outside. But wait! Distrust of authority? Dissent? Grievances? Gangs? Sounds like the basis for prisoner unity and rebellion. No worries though, prison guards use the good ol’ colonial method of dividing and conquering. Turns out fuelling racism is an effective way to control people. Rehabilitation my ass.

Locking people up devastates the lives of the convicted and fucks with their home communities. Leaving prison with a shiny new criminal record, emotional and physical scars from abuse and violence, and a detachment from family and society does not a well-adjusted individual make. If they do get released, they re-enter a community that, at the time of their imprisonment, had been destabilized by the consequent theft and diversion of resources. Taking a person and money out of a community and then reintroducing them with a new criminal record that will curb their access to legal (legitimate, accredited, stable, longterm) work can only exacerbate poverty and crime.

Look at any prison statistics in Canada or the United States. The cages are disproportionately stocked with youth, poor people, people of colour, and indigenous persons. The state, the (in)justice system, and their actors exist to protect themselves, property, and those who own property. More often than not, it is the disenfranchised that are brought to justice – even though “there are no crimes that people in prison have committed that the government [and corporations have] not also committed, and at a greater scale” as Peter Gelderloos, an anarchist prison abolitionist, has said.

From the civil war in Sierra Leone, to a neglected, heavily policed, and impoverished neighbourhood in Toronto, to being locked away in a prison for “rehabilitation.” From war zone to war zone to war zone. What is the cost of freedom?

Lisa M writes in this space every other week. Dissent to her at radicallyreread@mcgilldaily.com.