Today is Family Day.
It seems like an appropriate time to talk about how the state uses the criminal justice system and the prison-industrial complex to rip apart families in poor, marginalized and targeted communities. Ostensibly, this is to protect the families of the upper and middle-classes - you know, the people who count.
In school, through books and TV, and often by well-meaning parents, kids are taught that the police are their friends and are to be respected and trusted. So what does it mean when they come and take away mum, auntie or big sister? Is that person who they love bad? Is she not to be trusted? How do you explain to a child that "arrested" doesn't mean "guilty", and that if they had money and knew the right kind of people they'd be out on bail already? That guilty pleas are often a matter of convenience and cost, and anyway the law is unfair? It's hard enough to explain this disgusting logic to an adult, never mind a child who sees things in dichotomies of good and bad, truth and lie, right and wrong. I met a woman here who was once jailed for writing bad cheques to pay for groceries because she couldn't afford to feed her family. Children are self-centred by nature and tend to think everything is their fault - so how do you explain that one? Do you lie to protect them? If you do, will they grow up thinking mum did something really bad, like the prisoners in the movies?
Presumably people who don't live in nice, white, middle-class suburbs like the one I grew up in have different conversations with their kids about the role of police and jail in society. I certainly hope so, but a bit more mature analysis doesn't change the fact that when the state comes to take a family member away, an important adult in their life is no longer around. They are being punished too.
A lot of inmates on my range have kids - babies, adults and everything in between. While they're here they can't hug, hold or kiss them because the visits are "secure": prisoners and visitors are divided by glass and speak through the phone. Unless there's a way to apply for a touch visit on humanitarian/compassionate grounds (and if there is I have never heard of it) this applies to everyone on unit 2, the maximum security unit.
Even this limited contact can be a challenge for some families. Children under a certain age have to be accompanied by an adult, so someone has to be willing and available to bring them during the somewhat limited visiting hours. It's hard to get to Vanier if you don't have a car or can't afford the gas or a rental. Not to mention that Vanier "serves" a huge area. Some people would have to drive for hours for a 30 minute visit, or an hour long one if they're lucky to book a double. Some inmates simply can't bear to see their loved ones for such a short time, or they don't want to make them stressed or sad. So they tell them not to come and get no visits at all.
That leaves letters and call (calls are collect so not everyone can afford them). Calls to or about kids range from the usual chitchat - "what did you do at school today?" - to conversations with partners or caregivers - "make sure he eats his whole lunch!" - to tearful questions and arguments about custody. People laugh and cry over letters from or about their kids, proudly show me photos, and wish they could be there for the milestones. One mother recently missed her son's first big Valentine's Day date, an aunt was denied bail and was most upset by the thought of not being there for her nephew's first birthday. Still young and living at home, she later had a visit from her mum who told her she was kicking her out - apparently it's not just the state that forgets that pesky "innocent until proven guilty" thing, sometimes it's family too.
Those of you who know me know that I'm opposed to prisons. I agree whole-heartedly with the following statement taken from a zine I'm reading (Defiant Hearts: Birth and the Prison Industrial Complex):
"Correctional facilities" are designed to break the human spirit
and re-educate those within its walls to be "model citizens" -
snitches, police, obedient workers, and other variations of
cowardly traits - or, insert those who will not be tamed into
the osculating door of probation violations and lengthy prison
sentences, subsequently converting their lives into capital. . .
This process is necessary to the functioning of capitalism."
You don't need to share this view or agree with prison abolition to be able to understand that a lengthy separation of parents from their children is not going to benefit those kids. It's worth stating that on my range (despite it being the maximum security unit) most people don't seem to be here for serious violent crimes. For the most part it's things like fraud, theft and drugs, and some assaults (which also seem to be mostly related to drugs, or a response to the arrest itself). My guess is that almost all of it can be traced back to addiction and/or the criminalization of poor and racialized communities. Surely we can think of more productive ways to deal with these problems?
Try to imagine trying to raise your kids from jail, or worrying about how they are being raised by others, and how much you'd miss them. Also, remember that a lot of women in here are on immigration hold, and often don't have any pending charges at all. Try to put yourself in the place of a woman who was recently deported - taken straight to the airport from the jail - without being able to see or say goodbye to her two kids. They were with her husband who she hadn't been able to reach since the day she was detained a few months earlier. Her husband is a Canadian citizen. I asked if he would bring the kids to her country and she just replied "I hope so. I don't know."
Pregnancy is a whole other concern. Pregnant women get a special diet but they can't eat whenever they are hungry. On this unit they can't nap (or even lie down) when they're tired or sore, and there's no comfortable furniture of any kind. I'm not in a position to judge the pre-natal care offered here or to compare it to what's available on the outside. I do know that there are pre-natal vitamins and ultrasounds. I don't know if abortions are possible, and I highly doubt there are options such as midwives and doulas. I've been told by people who've experienced it that labour is induced on a pre-determined day and the woman is not allowed to refuse this. During labour she's handcuffed to the bed (really, how far's she going to get? She's in LABOUR). I've heard of prisons in the U.S. that have nurseries, and some that allow a young child to stay with the mother in jails - raising the questions of what the kid will take away from that kind of environment - but here when the baby is born it's taken away within a few days and placed with family or the state while the mother completes her sentence.
Which bring me to the Children's Aid Society (CAS) and a potential project for one or some of you. Since I've been here I've heard two people say that their bails were pulled by their sureties because of interference by CAS. In the first instance it seemed that it was about the surety's children and in the second about those of the accused. I have no other details but that sounds a bit sketchy to me. If anyone knows what the mandate of CAS is (and what role they actually play) when it comes to the bail process, I would love to know. If you don't know but would like to do some research that would be great. I'm happy to do what I can from in here (which probably isn't much). Please write me a letter if you're interested.
This was first published on bored but not broken
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