Prison (In)Justice: The Canadian Context

For a SURJ TO screening of the US prison documentary Thirteenth earlier this fall, I made a short factsheet on the incarceration and forced labour of criminalized persons in the Canadian state, an issue I’d been researching for a little while. I’m posting here a somewhat expanded version of that document, still pretty sketch-like, since a couple of friends were asking and maybe others will find it useful.

Prison (In)Justice: The Canadian Context

Mass incarceration in the United States is a well documented phenomenon, brought to the attention of a broad public through, for example, Michelle Alexander’s popular book The New Jim Crow, the Netflix original documentary Thirteenth, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s celebrated long essay “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” By comparison, questions of carceral justice in Canada occupy little media space.
Is this because Canada’s prison policy is relatively unobjectionable? How do the Canadian and American systems of incarceration compare?
Basics by the numbers…
Population: 326 million persons[i]
2.3 million persons incarcerated (0.7% of pop.)[iii]
4.5 million persons on probation/parole (1.3%)[v]
Population: 35 million persons[ii]
41,000 persons incarcerated (0.1% of pop.)[iv]
112,000 persons on probation/parole (0.3%) [vi]
A fairly rosy picture of the Canadian system, at first glance. But…
Between 2005-2015, the Canadian federal inmate population expanded by 10% (the national per capita incarceration rate expanded by a similar margin).[vii]
In this period, the Aboriginal inmate population increased by over 50%; the female incarcerated population, by over 50%; and the Black incarcerated population, by 69%.[viii]
26% of federal inmates are Aboriginal, a group that comprises 4.3% of Canada’s population; 9% are Black, a group that comprises 2.9% of Canada’s population.[ix]
Over half of female federal inmates and 25% of male federal inmates have been diagnosed with a mental health condition (to say nothing of those undiagnosed).[x]
The above-mentioned expansion of the Canadian prison population happened largely under the federal Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, which emphasized public security and victims’ rights, and which was voted out of power in 2015. But it isn’t clear that the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has meaningfully reversed the carceral trends established by its predecessor. For example…
In April 2016, enacting “offender accountability” measures announced by the Conservatives two years earlier, Correctional Services Canada expanded the range of goods that offenders must purchase to include such items as soap, shampoo, deodorant, adult diapers, and feminine hygiene products.[xi]
Inmates are to purchase these items out of gross wages for full-time labour set at a maximum of $6.90 a day, and more commonly paid at $5.80 a day, wage levels that have remained frozen for 30 years (while the cost of consumer goods to prisoners has increased 700% in the same period).[xii]
Meanwhile, the average annual cost to the public of incarcerating one male federal inmate is $111,202—and twice that much for a female inmate.[xiii]
Labour in Canadian Prisons 
Canadian inmates are routinely given labour assignments, for which they’re compensated on a scale that ranges from $5.25 to $6.90 per day (not per hour!).[xiv] From these wages:
22% is deducted for food and accommodation.[xv]
8% is deducted for the Inmate Telephone System Administration.[xvi]
A variable amount is deducted for an Inmate Welfare Fund.[xvii]
Prisoners who aren’t given a work assignment, or who refuse such assignments—which, in principle, they’re free to do—are not charged for their food and accommodation. They’re granted a basic allowance of $1 per day.[xviii] From this amount, however, they have to buy such basic goods as are mentioned above—soap, deodorant, etc.—and pay for any phone calls.
Inmates thus have a material need to work while incarcerated, but their wages are fixed at levels well below the minimum wage in the prison’s jurisdiction—while their labour contributes to products sold at market value beyond prison walls.
Much of that commerce flows through CORCAN, an agency that Correctional Services Canada operates as a “key rehabilitation program.”[xix] Its mandate is to grant inmates vocational training; in the process of such training, CORCAN prison labour generates a range of commercial products and services, from military supplies to office furniture.
The main buyer of CORCAN products is the federal government. Prison labour produces goods for state apparatuses like the Canadian Forces, the Department of National Defense, and the Canadian Coast Guard, along with many not-for-profit and private sector clients.
CORCAN may indeed provide valuable training opportunities. Yet the agency is also now the subject of a court challenge from Canadian inmates, who allege not only that its wage rates are a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the United Nations’ standards for international labour, but also that some inmates have been coerced into working, threatened with unfavourable parole hearings and even solitary confinement for refusal of CORCAN assignments.[xx]

The Future of Prisons in Canada
Shortly after Justin Trudeau was elected Prime Minister in 2015, he issued a directive to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to explore restorative justice models: approaches that centre harm-reduction, rehabilitation, and mediation rather than retaliatory or incapacitating punishment.
Such models have been shown to produce lower recidivism and higher rates of satisfaction among both victims and offenders.[xxi] (That the far-right Rebel Media opposes the principles of restorative justice is less empirical but nevertheless persuasive evidence for those principles’ basic decency.[xxii]) Yet the phrasing of Trudeau’s letter leaves it ambiguous whether his directive applies only to the goal of lowering Aboriginal incarceration rates or to the operation of the criminal justice system as a whole.[xxiii]
In either case, very few concrete steps have since been taken in this direction. In April 2017, the federal Minister of Justice held an emergency meeting with provincial justice ministers to address unreasonable trial delays, an issue on which the Supreme Court cracked down in its 2016 R. v. Jordan decision, which led to the dismissal of hundreds of delayed cases across the country. At that meeting, areas targeted for reform included:
…mandatory minimum penalties, of which 60 were created by the Harper Conservative regime;[xxiv]
…unfair and poverty-punishing bail policies: there are more adults in pre-trial custody (unconvicted, innocent in the eyes of the law) than are serving a sentence in provincial/territorial custody;[xxv]
…administration of justice offences, which don’t enhance public safety and which represented 23% of all cases in 2014/15, at a cost to the public of $807-million;[xxvi]
…preliminary inquiries, which allow prosecutors and judges to assess if there’s enough evidence for a case to go to trial;
…and reclassification of offences.[xxvii]
The use of so-called “administrative detention”—solitary confinement—has also recurred as a key area for reform.
Yet the Jordan decision, which issued from the judicial and not the legislative arm of government (i.e. not from the people’s elected officials), remains the most significant effective change to the Canadian criminal justice system in recent years. The federal Liberals claim to be “undertaking a broad examination of Canada’s criminal justice system to ensure that it is just, compassionate and fair, and promotes a safe, peaceful and prosperous Canadian society.”[xxviii] But, to all appearances, almost two years into that government’s majority mandate, this undertaking remains little more than talk.
Where mandatory minimums have been repealed, this has been the work of the Supreme Court and provincial Courts of Appeal, not the government.[xxix] Indeed, Prime Minister Trudeau has said he believes there are “situations where mandatory minimums are relevant.”[xxx] And it’s not as if Justice Minister Wilson-Raybould has been unable or unwilling to take action on certain issues—politically safe ones. Her department is responsible for proposed legislation such as:
…Bill C-39, which cleans up “zombie laws” in the Criminal Code, provisions that the courts have deemed unconstitutional but that linger in the Code until legislators remove them, like the former offences of anal intercourse and abortion; and
…Bill C-51 (2017; not to be confused with the Conservatives’ 2015 security and terrorism bill of the same name), which introduces legislation to limit the admissibility of a defendant’s evidence and thereby increase the likelihood of conviction in cases of sexual crime, nested in a bill otherwise concerned with repealing such nominal offences as “fraudulently pretending to practice witchcraft”[xxxi]—what has been described by one prominent criminal defense attorney as “the perfect Harper Conservative justice bill.”[xxxii]
None of that legislation repeals Harper-era mandatory minimums, despite the Liberals’ insistence that they believe in evidence-based policy-making and the heaps of evidence suggesting mandatory minimums are ineffective at achieving their intended public safety goals.[xxxiii] None of that legislation limits the use of solitary confinement, or eases conditions of bail, or reduces trial delays, or expands the use of restorative justice or alternative sentencing practices, or takes any steps towards reducing the criminalization and incarceration of racialized, poor, and mentally ill persons.
The federal government has conducted a public opinion poll to evaluate Canadians’ appetite for repealing mandatory minimum policies, an approach that has been criticized for favouring the majority’s mood over evidence. A spokesperson for the justice minister had said that related legislation would arrive this past fall.[xxxiv] One can only hope that that legislation eventually materializes, and that it addresses more than symbolically the deep harms done by the existing legal and carceral apparatus.
The violence the Canadian state inflicts on criminalized persons may compare favourably to its almost unbelievably nightmarish counterpart in the United States. But the differences are largely of degree, not of kind.
Resources/To Learn More
John Howard Society of Ontario (provincial chapter of national service org for prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration):
Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (similar to John Howard Societies, but focused on women and girls in the prison system):
Long Maclean’s investigative feature on racial injustice in the Canadian penal system, centering Indigenous over-representation behind bars:
Roundtable discussion in Upping the Anti journal on prison abolition in Canada:
Critical Resistance (prominent US-based prison abolitionist org):
[i] US Census Bureau:
[ii] Statistics Canada:
[iii] Prison Policy Initiative:
[iv] Statistics Canada: (adult data), and (youth data).
[v] Prison Policy Initiative:
[vi] Statistics Canada: (adult data), and (youth data).
[vii] Office of the Correctional Investigator:; for national per capita incarceration rates, cf. World Prison Brief:
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Office of the Correctional Investigator:
[x] Ibid.
[xi] Ibid.
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Ibid.
[xiv] Correctional Service Canada (CSC):
[xv] CSC:
[xvi] CSC:
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] CSC:
[xix] CSC:
[xx] National Post, August 30, 2017:
[xxi] Public Safety Canada:
[xxii]The Rebel Media:
[xxiii] Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Mandate Letter:
[xxiv] Globe and Mail:
[xxv] Department of Justice:
[xxvi] Department of Justice:
[xxvii] Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat:
[xxviii] Department of Justice:
[xxix] Toronto Star:
[xxx]Huffington Post:
[xxxi] Department of Justice:

Jagmeet Singh, Prison Abolition, and the NDP Leadership Race

A big “on the other hand”: I’ve been supporting Niki Ashton for the NDP leadership because she seems to push hardest against that party’s drift to the neoliberal centre, but I believe deeply that prison abolition and restorative justice (defined a bit more below) are essential to any genuinely radical left politics, and Jagmeet Singh’s criminal justice reform positions are hands-down the best in the race, and probably the best I’ve ever seen from a Canadian politician.
Singh is a criminal defence lawyer, so he knows and targets in depth the issues that blight Canada’s penal system: cruel and ineffective mandatory minimum sentencing laws, bail policies that keep people behind bars for the crime of being poor, the criminalization of the mentally ill and of racialized persons, and an overall tendency to favour punitive/retaliatory over rehabilitative/restorative forms of justice (despite lip service to the contrary). Other, related issues in Singh’s platform are under-theorized by comparison: concern for unfreedom at home should be matched with care for unfreedom abroad, and Singh, unlike Ashton, tends to sideline questions of international solidarity with oppressed peoples.
But his explicit, detailed refusal of conservative law-and-order politics is a huge deal, unmatched by any of the other candidates (Ashton comes closest). Prison abolition is an important conceptual framework because, as theorists like Angela Davis argue, it’s about so much more than prisons: to ask what would be necessary to render prisons obsolete, as a thought-experiment and a horizon, is to identify the social and cultural determinants of harm, to strategize concretely about how those harms can be limited, and to think carefully about non-violent approaches to individual and communal restitution, healing, and repair. In the Canadian context, prison abolition and restorative justice also imply a transformed relationship to Indigenous peoples, insofar as restorative justice adopts Indigenous principles (and practices!) of reconciliatory dialogue in place of the liberal utilitarianism that says that certain persons — the criminalized, the disabled, the mentally ill — are disposable.
I’m not moving my vote to Singh without more reflection, but the essence of socialism is the absolute unwillingness to accept that human beings should abide in cages and chains, and I have a lot of time for anyone who cries out against that horror, whether or not he calls himself a socialist.

A Distinct Left Alternative, Not Kitchy Slogans

I’ll support him if he wins the NDP leadership, but the consolidation of leftish Canadian support around Jagmeet Singh on the basis of that (actually pretty weird and troubling?) viral video speaks to the #1 problem with what passes for the left in Canada: a tendency to privilege heartwarming optics and performances of virtue over coherently expressed visions of social transformation. That video, at very best, is pure Trudeau. At worst it’s a progressive man literally shouting over a right-wing woman with kitchy slogans, which is the right’s stereotype of how the left deals with its critics among so-called ordinary people.

I worry that Niki Ashton doesn’t have the union and other elite NDP backing to win the leadership, but in a match-up with Trudeau she’s electable because she represents a distinct alternative, a different way of saying and perhaps of doing politics. Angus and Caron maybe less so, on the surface, but at the last debate they spoke with an assurance and a nuanced take on the issues that I found less marked in Singh, who seemed more often to speak in generalities (i.e. generalities I found less subtle and precise than the others’ generalities).

His policy positions seem to be better than Trudeau’s, so, again, if he wins the leadership I’ll support him, but if he wins it’ll also increase my fear that the modern NDP, rather than representing a genuine left alternative in Canada, instead colludes in producing the depressive state that Mark Fisher called capitalist realism: the sense that there *is* no thinkable left alternative, that all that exists is market logic and less or more woke, less or more cheerful technocratic modifications to it.

Fascists and Democrats are Both (Often) Petty Bourgeois, and Other Little Facts that Liberal Class Analysis Ignores

A few thoughts about fascism and class — some of them probably obvious to any theory-steeped Marxists in my orbit, but maybe useful for anybody working through these questions as I am?
Liberalism’s major analytic deficit is that its understanding of class is profoundly inadequate. Liberals don’t deny class, in fact; liberalism has a class analysis. But this analysis takes class to be a simple binary tension between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. It presumes that class is just one form of privilege, like race or ability, and if anything rather simpler than those.
The problem with this analysis is that class isn’t only or mostly about money, about having and not having, though this can be an important part of it. Class is a whole subjective and objective formation, comprised of values, tastes, modes of association, etc., and defined ultimately by its members’ roles in the process of production. The petty bourgeoisie is not the proletariat, which is also not the peasantry. All may be “poor” (or not), but their class interests are wildly different.
Fascism’s traditional base, and that of authoritarian dictatorship in general, is the petty bourgeoisie (those “small business owners”!) and the peasantry. This is Trump’s base. The proletariat or “working class,” which Marx and Engels and Lenin and Luxemburg considered to be the revolutionary class, is distinct from these groups. It’s distinguished from them by the far greater degree of association among its members. The proletariat is that group of workers exploited most directly, most bodily by industrial capitalism — but industrial capitalism brings those workers physically into community with each other, and depends on their uninterrupted labour, and so creates the conditions of possibility for them to unite against it, first of all in the form of the labour strike.
It’s this group, to repeat, that Marx et al. saw as the base for socialism.
But what happens to this class analysis when an ever greater part of capitalism is post-industrial? When the factory no longer brings the workers together, but instead they remain atomized in their diffuse digitized workplaces? How do we then distinguish between white-collar proletarians (if that can be thought) and white-collar petty bourgeois? To what extent does the proletarian class, as Marx understood it, disappear with the rise of so-called immaterial labour?
A nation of clerks, where the clerks are relatively poor, isn’t thereby a proletarian nation. It’s a petty bourgeois nation. And such workers, by nature liberal democrats if not turned fascist (the same people contain both potentials!), lack the leverage to derail capital that associated industrial workers have or had in the form of the strike.
The petty bourgeois can strike, but in their fragmentation, their isolation, to do so causes minimal disruption to capital. In the eyes of capital, they’re dispensable in a way that industrial workers became but once were not. Thus they lack revolutionary capacity, though they may act briefly with a semblance of unity to install a strongman who can represent their interests by proxy. (This is a version of Marx’s class analysis in the “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.”)
The new working class, today’s proletarians, seem to me to be mostly not in offices but behind counters and grills and steering wheels: low-wage service workers. This isn’t Trump’s base. This is a group that feels its exploitation as such, that doesn’t believe itself to be “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” actual or potential “small business owners” in need only of lower taxes and smaller government for their success.
It’s these people who must be brought into effective coalition with the left. They, and the unemployed and disabled, late capitalism’s wounded veterans, its human sacrifice zones. And if the petty bourgeois can be won over, that’s good too. But it should be remembered that their class interests are served, to a great extent, by a leader like Trump. Which is why liberal class analysis, which de-centers and simplifies class conflict, is so often in fact petty bourgeois class analysis, the ploy of a class that wants to obscure its own parasitic relationship to authoritarian state power. Which is why we should reject it.
Happy Labour Day.

Reject Fascism, Not Just Fascists

Woke liberals and alt-right trolls share a particular basket of noxious tactics. As Liza Featherstone notes in The Baffler, militants of both camps often “dox” their enemies — publish a target’s personal details to expose that person to suffering — and go after those enemies’ jobs. Such practices are ethically murky at best, it should be but isn’t needless to say. Their compatibility with the alt-right’s frank Nietzschean repudiation of morality is telling, and they’re McCarthyite through and through: the state persecution of communists during the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee was also waged primarily by attacks on people’s livelihoods, as Featherstone points out. Today’s liberals sometimes minimize the seriousness of that economic violence, deny that it is in fact violent; in a striking number of cases, those same folks tend to be insulated from any such potential privations by thick wads of family cash.
But wait! An acceptable villain, a legitimate target of doxxing and stalking and harassment, poison-pen letters to bosses and college administrators, has appeared on the scene! Behold, resurrected from that one bit of history everyone can be trusted actually to have heard of, descended from the blood-slicked frames of a Tarantino film: the Nazi! The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville presented progressives with names and faces dazzlingly permissible to hate. We must not “tolerate the intolerant,” etc. We should embrace a “diversity of tactics,” including doxxing spiteful idiots. Who could disagree? They’re actual, literal Nazis.
Well, yes, but a funny thing about Nazis: though they affirm an ideology that sites the source of group belonging in the blood, nothing in their blood makes them Nazis. An implicitly identitarian idea of the fascist — one that sees The Fash as a thing some marginal monsters are, instead of a thing many ordinary people (and states!) to various extents and rather often do — is inaccurate, ahistorical, and counterproductive in ways that matter. Not only does it reproduce the same kind of essentialism that’s in play when white supremacists assert their own natural racial difference, but it also sweeps from view the paths by which young people (especially) become indoctrinated by the far right. And it abjures completely the project of deprogramming and incorporating the winnable among them into an actually emancipatory movement.
To build such a movement means, inevitably, to recruit those whose current politics are in many aspects reprehensible. The belief that a successful, broad-based left can be composed exclusively of people who today identify as leftists or liberals is false. Just ask Lenin: “The task devolving on Communists is to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence ourselves off from them with artificial and childishly ‘Left’ slogans.” In his pleasingly titled 1920 pamphlet “‘Left-Wing’ Communism: an Infantile Disorder,” Lenin reminds us that to build socialism, we work not with “abstract human material,” but rather with the broken, wounded, dissipated “human material bequeathed to us by capitalism.” With patience and perseverance, we must wage a ideological campaign not just on but also in “those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found.” This isn’t to deny the need to rebuff physical violence by actually existing fascists with an answering defensive violence. Probably that’s sometimes necessary; to my mind, it needs to be judged case-by-case. But besides being an ineffectual distraction, throwing random punches at Nazis doesn’t go nearly far enough: we should destroy the Nazi in the man, but we also can and have to save the man. This won’t always be possible, but wherever it is possible, it’s necessary.
If we want to take practical steps to build socialism and not just indulge a counter-revolutionary politics of catharsis, we should pay close attention to the narratives of former fascists and neo-Nazis who managed to get out. Some of the people in the grip of those ideologies may be lost to hate, but others are kids grasping for belonging, solidarity, and purpose in an atomized society that’s left them half-crippled with despair. It’s easy to understand the urge to dox these people, to get them driven from college or fired, but not only do such tactics do nothing to repair the underlying causes of radicalization (and sometimes result in horrifying cases of mistaken identity), but they also signal that our movement knows only the will to retaliate when confronted with those who are or have been in sin. They communicate this not just to the Nazis themselves but also to the many, many more people observing the melee, potential converts to either side. Rather than wish suffering on those flirting with toxic politics, because they deserve it — it’s something deeper than “both sides”-ism to say we all fucking deserve it — our movement should meet them on the day after the day after their worst mistake and show them the way home. An alternative account of reality, an alternative politics, an open hand and an open door. In the Jewish tradition this process is called T’shuvah, and is honoured. The word is translated often as repentance. More precisely, it means return.
If you think this Pollyannaish, recall that the presumption in advance that certain people are irredeemable underwrites the prison-industrial complex — gotta defend against those “super-predators” — and all the police and other state-sanctioned brutality that goes with it.
Reject fascism, not just fascists.

Some Notes on the Shortcomings of the “Privilege” Discourse

A Facebook friend asked what I mean when I talk about the inadequacy of the “privilege” discourse, and it was a good chance to organize my thoughts. Here’s a few.
1) “Privilege,” as a liberal discourse, uses the language of intersectionality but is in fact incredibly *non*-intersectional, centering only a very few forms of difference and erasing subtler others.
2) It participates in a call-out culture that is excommunicative, guilt- and shame-fetishizing, toxic, silencing, morally compromising, and not edifying for either its winners or its losers.
3) It makes politics confessional and gestural, about becoming virtuous by confessing one’s primordial sin, rather than foregrounding the need to organize concretely and strategically across identity lines, in solidarity, to which performative self-flagellation is simply irrelevant.
4) Symbolically, it implies that everybody should be brought down to a certain level rather than everybody brought up.
5) It is distinctly alienating when directed at people who, rightly or wrongly, feel themselves not to be privileged. It loses them. It drives them into the arms of reaction.
6) It accentuates what makes us different rather than what unites us. (And it falsifies what makes us different too: see point 1.)
Excellent further reading on this includes Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s book The Perils of Privilege (…/phoebemaltzbovy/9781250091208) and virtually anything the Chicago-based organizer RL Stephens II writes, including his brilliant critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates (…/the-birthmark-of-damnation-…/). See also this great Dead Pundits podcast episode featuring the indispensable Adolph Reed Jr. (…/ep-22-race-class-and-dsa-w-adolph-…).

One half of a dialectic of despair?

Hi, I have a question. Maybe you understand this issue better than I do and can help me out.
The classic conservative and liberal objection to socialism is that its proposals are unrealistic. This objection is generally correct, though not for the reasons its defenders claim. Socialist proposals for ending poverty, e.g., are entirely realistic given the material resources and technological powers available to humankind in 2017. They’re often entirely unrealistic, in a single country, given the relations of domination that marble the all-ensnaring web of global capitalism. This is the lesson of Mitterand’s Socialist Party in 1980s France and Allende’s presidency in 1970s Chile, as I understand it. Socialism In One Country comes under impossible pressure from militarized, mobilized capital and does not last. At best (and there are also a lot of “at worsts”), it becomes Social-Democratic State Capitalism In One Country.
So what do we do? How do we organize, as people (if we’re such people) who think capitalism chokes our highest human capacities and should be repealed and replaced? Locally, sure, on issues that matter to local people in material terms — but does that work ever become more than reformist accommodation to a vicious system? Maybe that’s the best we can do? But that’s no more than one half of a dialectic of despair, isn’t it, to win real, meaningful improvements in people’s lives while the oceans rise and apocalyptic wars are kindled by the dynamics of a system that our parliamentary inch-gains hardly touch.
I probably just need to read more Trotsky and Luxemburg or something, but like, do you think about this? What’s the way forward, the way out? How do you combat this particular despair?