books 2 prisoners, prison abolition, and prisoner justice
these are some notes based on a radio interview that I did on ckcu in 2014
books 2 prisoners ottawa is a grassroots prisoner justice collective. we acknowledge that ottawa exists on stolen algonquin land, and that the entire ottawa river watershed is the traditional territory of the algonquin nation.
currently our primary activity is sending books to prisoners, and writing to political prisoners and prisoners of war – we host monthly letter writing nights on the fourth monday of each month. we have also organized various educational events and were one of the groups that co-organized prisoner justice day in ottawa in 2014.
over the years, because i was and am poor, “crazy” and had a drinking problem, i have had many interactions with the criminal injustice system, especially the police. for me, partly because i came from a middle-class family, i am white and a canadian citizen, this has rarely resulted in prison time. i got involved with books 2 prisoners and prison abolition after i spent two months in prison. i served 7 days at the gatineau prison for my part in the blockade of highway 117 with and in support of the algonquins of barrier lake. the other 7 weeks I spent in the ottawa-carleton detention centre on arson charges that were eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence.
no more prisons
while most of the work we do is to improve the lives of prisoners through corresponding with them and providing free books, we are also committed to the vision of a world without prisons, and that does not use punishment as a method of addressing harmful behaviours.
it is important that prisoner justice and prison abolition activists continue to focus on the core reasons that prisons must be abolished: prisons are inhumane, caging human beings and inflicting violence on them is not acceptable, and, finally, incarceration does not work if the real goal is to reduce and end harmful behaviour and “crime”.
it is equally important that we are clear that the true reasons for the existence of prisons is to control, oppress and dominate targeted populations such as, for example, poor and working class people, racialized people, migrants, disabled people, drug users and sex workers and to make money while doing so.
what we need instead of prisons, and what would truly be more effective at reducing and eliminating harmful behaviours and “crimes” are social housing, accessible mental health programs and drug rehabilitation centres, a living wage, adequate and accessible social assistance programs and decent jobs.
as we work to abolish prisons we need to focus on decarceration – reducing the number of people in holding cells, jails and prisons. for example, there are large numbers of people who are in detention centres, such as the ottawa-carleton detention centre, who are inside because they did not get bail. despite the legal maxim that “everyone is innocent until proven guilty”, these human beings are incarcerated as if they were guilty until proven innocent, and this situation exists only because they are poor, working-class and/or come from oppressed and targeted communities, such as the black community, for instance.
many other people are in prison because of drug-related offences. these people, and our communities would be better served if they were given access to effective drug and alcohol treatment programs. decriminalizing drug use and focusing on mitigating and preventing self-destructive and destructive behaviours would be a more rational response to excessive drug and alcohol use, than caging and punishing people who use illegal drugs, and/or who are alcoholics.
finally, for the very small number of people who are hurt so badly that they engage in violence against themselves and others we need to find compassionate and humane ways to respond to their actions rather than violent and punitive methods such as prisons – remembering always that prisons will not prevent violent behaviours and, in fact, are more likely to further hurt the people incarcerated thus making it more likely that they will continue to harm others and themselves.
what is prisoner justice?
prisoner justice is, to me, recognizing that people aren’t criminals, they are criminalized. the real reason that some people are in prison, while others are not is because of systemic, institutional and cultural oppression. everyone has commits “crimes”, while only some people are put in prison. the people who are put in prison are overwhelmingly working-class, poor, racialized and disabled, to name only a few targeted categories of prisoners.
it also means taking leadership from prisoners and former prisoners, especially those from communities that are targeted by the criminal injustice system for police violence and incarceration. it means that, as we work towards abolishing the prison system entirely, we also work to find ways to improve the lives of incarcerated people, ways that do not strengthen the prison-industrial complex.