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Prison strike should prompt our thinking on the abolition of prisons

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The Prison for Women in Kingston was opened in 1934 and closed in 2000. Wikimedia photo by Actionhamster.

As you may have heard, there is a prison strike now underway in the United States as well as in one institution in Nova Scotia.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an incarcerated group of prisoner rights advocates, called for the strike action to run from August 21 to September 9, highlighting 10 modest demands that can be read here. One of those demands calls for an end to prison slavery.

Journalist-author-activist Chris Hedges argues, "Prisons are a grotesque manifestation of corporate capitalism."

He explains prisoners now work behind bars for major corporations including Chevron, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard, to name just a few.

Hedges notes:

"Prisoners do not receive benefits or pensions. They are not paid overtime. They are forbidden to organize and strike. They must show up on time. They are not paid for sick days or granted vacations. They cannot formally complain about working conditions or safety hazards. If they are disobedient, or attempt to protest their pitiful wages, they lose their jobs and can be sent to isolation cells."

And he warns, "The roughly 1 million prisoners who work for corporations and government industries in the American prison system are models for what the corporate state expects us all to become."

CBC notes, "[Those on strike in the U.S.] have been joined by [prisoners] at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility -- also known as Burnside jail -- in Dartmouth, N.S."

Their own modest set of 10 demands -- including better air circulation, healthier food, access to the library -- was published by the Halifax Examiner in this article.

Significantly, their statement includes the line: "We recognize that the injustices we face in prison are rooted in colonialism, racism and capitalism."

Poet-professor-activist El Jones, speaking in support of the strike at Burnside, recently commented, "People in prison are largely there for crimes of poverty, mental health and addiction."

Let us keep in mind too that Nova Scotia Department of Justice figures show that in 2014-15, 14 per cent of adults sentenced to jail in that province were African Nova Scotian even though they are only two per cent of the province's population.

Furthermore, 12 per cent of the youth sentenced to "correctional facilities" in the province were Indigenous, even though Indigenous people represent just four per cent of the population of Nova Scotia.

The numbers are even more disproportionate in Saskatchewan.

This past June, CBC reported that, "In 2006-07, 70 per cent of male youth admissions to custody (in Saskatchewan) were Indigenous, but by 2016-17 it was 92 per cent."

Statistics Canada says that Indigenous youth made up 46 per cent of admissions to prisons across Canada in 2016-17, while being only eight per cent of the country's youth population.

Speaking of similar incarceration patterns in the U.S., activist-academic-author Angela Davis has commented:

"The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs -- it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism."

She has also highlighted the research that shows there are now more Black men behind bars or on probation and parole than were enslaved in 1850 in the United States.

Davis says, "Abolishing the prison is about attempting to abolish racism."

It was 30 years ago now that I first met Ruth Morris, a Quaker and leader of the prison abolition movement in Canada (and the person who hired me for my first job in activism).

She was later to form her own organization with the stated purpose to "promote structural equality, de-colonization, abolitionism, decarceration, decriminalization and transformative justice."

Those words speak to me all the more now.

Hopefully they speak to you too.

Photo: Actionhamster/Wikimedia

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