Overcrowding has repeatedly been cited as a reason for the proposed $32 million dollar provincial prison, which was approved for rezoning early this year. However, as journalists from CBC were quick to point out, this is in large part because of how the New Brunswick government is calculating the prisoner population, which now includes those who are not physically in prison. Additionally, new statistics reported by Global show approximately 2,218 provincially incarcerated prisoners are on remand awaiting sentencing or additional court appearances.
I write this letter to you under the lens of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In the Canadian prairies, a strong movement of prisoner advocates, Indigenous abolitionist groups and their kin have worked tirelessly to illuminate larger truths about a legal system conditioned by settler colonialism under the COVID-19 pandemic. Indigenous prisoner advocate Cory Cardinal declared, “The COVID virus is the virus of truth.” This was a call to action, one requiring us to examine the pervasive government neglect in our legal systems.
Often when we have conversations about state violence the sentiment of a “broken system” is invoked. I urge you to consider the ways in which this so-called brokenness is intentional.
The COVID-19 pandemic exemplified this through organized social abandonment both in and outside of carceral institutions. During the height of the pandemic many prisoners were subject to overcrowding, lack of personal protective equipment and subject to long periods of solitary confinement. Conditions, that according to criminologist Justin Piche, “amount to torture under the Canadian law.” These conditions are indicative of the “violently exclusionary ways”’ in which the ‘social’ was constructed in terms of public health, argue Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in their book, Rehearsals for Living.
Negligent responses to safeguard the health and well-being of prisoners illustrated the many ways in which the state calculated prisoner lives as expendable. What became clearer under the pandemic is that prisons and jails are not only incapable of solving crime and are cost ineffective but are always already a public health crisis for those inside. In that, prisons have never supported the health and well-being of those collectively abandoned in the carceral setting.
Social Anthropologist João Biehl refers to these spaces as ‘zone(s) of social abandonment” where practices allow individuals to pass unseen through systems and create violent and deadly conditions of non-recognition and exclusion. Ruth Gilmore also describes such spaces where vulnerabilities of all kinds come together as “forgotten spaces”–spaces in which people are abandoned by the state. Saskatchewan in particular has had a strong call to provide early release measures for prisoners during COVID-19 in order to safeguard their health. A call echoed across the country. However, the need for prison abolition extends beyond the safeguarding of prisoners’ health.
Angela Davis reminds us that “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.” We must instead task our provincial government with addressing these social factors that support crime reduction and create a safer and healthier community for us collectively.
What are we to make of a provincial government who justifies spending $32 million dollars on a new jail? What should we make of the recently released provincial budget in which another $32.6 million was allocated to policing and increasing the number of RCMP officers? Meanwhile the budget only provides 4.9 million towards repairing existing social housing and 5.9 million towards increasing social assistance payments. The message remains clear; it is more desirable for the provincial government to ‘do away with’ people and the undesirable social problems by building carceral structures and increasing policing rather than investing in the resources to address those social factors.
For a maritime province that prides itself on its oft cited stereotype of friendliness and neighbourly behaviour, I ask you, New Brunswickers, who is it that you consider your neighbour or more importantly who don’t you? What did it mean when we said we are “all in this together?”
Abolition has no blueprint and will look different based on local and regional contexts. In such, Indigenous nations have their own protocols and practices which often operate on relational accountability. At the root of abolition is a belief in transformative and restorative justice–a justice that equally relies on the transformation of societal conditions as it does on the restoration of relations that have been harmed.
Rather than abandoning people to carceral settings and isolating them from community and kin, transformative justice requires us to engage in a restorative process to address harm done.
Transformative justice invests in our collective power of world making, or imagining a different world–a world in which we relate to each other, address harm and reduce harms differently. However, abolition also asks that we abolish carceral logics in the everyday and our interpersonal relationships. It is for example asking why a person did XYZ action to hurt us and what caused them to–rather than deciding to act in turn by doing the same and hurting them back. Essentially this logic of equal punishment/revenge, though seemingly minute, informs our carceral systems.
Abolition requires us to become accountable to each other and ask the “what caused this?” and “why?” questions. It is about investing in people and transformative action rather than punishment.
Maren Savarese Knopf is a Saint John area resident, prison abolitionist and graduate student with the University of Regina researching prisoner experiences during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.