On January 11, members of No One is Illegal Montreal and Solidarity Across Borders came together to present a panel discussion on issues in the prison system and forms of state-sponsored violence. The event was part of the Month Against Prisons, a “month of activities, conferences, and workshops on alternatives to the prison system, held in solidarity with prisoners,” hosted by the two organizations.
Speakers included Arash Aslani, a political refugee from Iran to Canada and a former detainee at the Laval Immigration Detention Centre, and Robyn Maynard, a writer, activist, and outreach worker in Montreal currently working with the sex workers’ rights organization Stella.
The panel opened with video of a protest staged outside the Laval Immigration Detention Centre in August 2013, organized by Solidarity Across Borders. During the demonstration, the outer wall of the centre was torn down to protest the punishment of prisoners by prison security. “Tearing down that wall is symbolic and the first step to tearing down all walls of all prisons everywhere,” said organizer Jaggi Singh.
“There’s a tendency in academia to speak from an ivory tower. It’s important to get perspectives from those already marginalized, since legislation tends to affect them the most.”
Aslani, the first speaker, described how he had been a political prisoner in Iran. After fleeing his home country, he was alternately homeless and held in immigration detention centres throughout Europe before arriving in Canada in a shipping container.
Here, he was held for ten months in the Laval Immigration Detention Centre and eventually released under very strict conditions after staging a hunger strike. While he was not subject to much of the physical brutality he had experienced in Iran, he described his experience in Laval as psychological torture, which he considers more harmful.
“There, my name was not Arash, it was 205-Delta,” he said. “Physical torture makes you angry, it makes you hate your torturer, but it keeps the fire and hope alive inside you. Psychological torture makes you like a lamb, you just do what you’re told and you lose the sense of yourself.”
Maynard followed with a presentation on carceral feminism – feminism that sees prosecution and imprisonment as a solution to violence against women – and the failure of sex work prohibition in its goal to protect sex workers. Maynard said that measures to abolish sex work by prosecuting buyers and pimps – such as those in the federal Bill C-36, which went into effect on December 6 – actually make sex workers less safe and less able to ensure a healthy working environment.
“To write this bill, the Harper government worked with women’s groups who seek to abolish sex work because they think it’s inherently degrading or violent, and many of us were at the hearings for the bill advocating on behalf of sex workers, where we were treated really poorly,” said Maynard.
“[Lawmakers] look at the harms within prostitution, for example the high rates of violence, and instead of actually understanding that it’s the criminal laws that create people’s vulnerabilities to violence.”
“The preamble to the bill is couched in all this feminist language, talking about the ‘commodification of women’s bodies,’ but it’s actually really dangerous for women actually out there working,” she explained.
Maynard also mentioned the marked uptick her organization had seen in police violence against sex workers in Montreal since the bill was put into effect.
Later, she described the take-home message of her talk to The Daily. “I wanted people to understand the dangers that can come from using law enforcement and police and the state as a solution to ‘the problem with prostitution,’ which I don’t necessarily see that way,” said Maynard.
“[Lawmakers] look at the harms within prostitution, for example the high rates of violence, and instead of actually understanding that it’s the criminal laws that create people’s vulnerabilities to violence, they push to have more laws to control those of all genders in the sex trade, as opposed to increasing their autonomy and therefore their protection,” she added.
The organizers, as well as the attendees, saw the panel as a success. “I found it really interesting,” said Aishwarya Singh, a McGill student present at the event.
“These were people speaking from lived experience,” Singh continued. “There’s a tendency in academia to speak from an ivory tower. It’s important to get perspectives from those already marginalized, since legislation tends to affect them the most.”
The Month Against Prisons continues until February 8.