Monday, December 4, 2017

Reducing Imprisonment in Canada by Attrition: A Vision for 2018 and Beyond

by Justin Piché (Associate Professor, Criminology, University of Ottawa)

In a 1988 article published in the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, Jo-Ann Mayhew remarked from her cell in P4W / Prison for Women in Kingston that “allowing our experience and analysis to be added to the forum that will constitute public opinion could help halt the disastrous trend toward building more fortresses of fear which will become in the 21st century this generation’s monuments to failure”.  While Canada’s rate of incarceration remained stable in the first three decades following Jo-Ann Mayhew’s hopeful statement, a turning point emerged in 2018 when a series of scandals prompted a mass movement calling for prison divestment.  

As the movement grew – with more and more Canadians becoming convinced that incarceration was no longer an acceptable means of responding to social harm – the Government of Canada, along with its provincial and territorial counterparts who had been in the process of building new carceral spaces, officially committed to a moratorium stopping the construction of new jails, prisons, penitentiaries, and immigration detention centres.  Not satisfied, Canadians demanded a gradual attrition of the country’s prison population through a series of decarceration and excarceration / diversion measures, as well as the reinvestment of resources once earmarked for the penal system towards building healthy communities and capacity for transformative justice. 

Canadians said no to the mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples and Black individuals. They said no to the feminization and criminalization of poverty. They said no to the imprisonment of the legally innocent awaiting trial. They said no to the construction of new carceral spaces to cage those living with mental health issues and criminalized for using drugs at a time when governments had not invested enough resources to provide necessary care and services in the community to prevent people from harming themselves or others. They said no to the detention of migrants and refugees

Following the 2023 federal election, where the three parties forming the new Government of Canada promised to table a multi-generational strategy to abolish prisons by 2075, the Transformative Justice Act was introduced, debated at length and passed in 2025.  Through this legislation, funding was allocated to each province and territory to implement transformative justice processes in all elementary, secondary, and post-secondary schools to respond to conflicts within education settings. These investments were made to promote accountability and meet human needs in the wake of social harm, as well as to transform the social structures that gave rise to them. Workshops were also made available to families on how to implement transformative justice at home.

By 2050, transformative justice was widespread in various spheres of Canadian society, including workplaces. Canada's incarceration rate had been cut by more than half as conflict resolution and community transformative capacity had been built.  

By 2075, transformative justice became the default approach to addressing social harm across several generations of people. Incarceration officially became a relic of the past, as the Government of Canada initiated a truth and reconciliation commission to document the brutalities of imprisonment, as well as work towards healing for captives and captors alike.  Emerging from this was the creation of new penal history museums located in decommissioned jails, prisons and penitentiaries who were given the mandate to share with future generations the problems with imprisonment that led to its demise as a dominant response to social harm.

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