by Giselle Dias
Last night I was at a dinner party when the topic of prisons came up. It usually does when I am around because that is what I want to talk about. As I was talking about the poor conditions of prisons someone asked me “but what about club fed?” Immediately the top of my head wanted to pop off. I was angry. Not at the person who asked the question but at the police association and the media for portraying such a picture of prisons. What I want to say is “that’s fucking ridiculous!” Instead of saying that, I calm my mind and try and start from the beginning. But what is the beginning? How do you engage people in conversations about prisons that will help them understand the reality of the situation? How do you try and erase everything people have been taught about punishment, revenge and justice? I think essentially this is what we try and do as prisoners’ rights activists and penal abolitionists. We have to try and reach people on a level that we think that they may understand about why our penal system is failing and why prisons don’t work. These are the angles in which I work from:
Who is in prison? I talk about the realities of who is in our prison system. I talk about the over-incarceration of indigenous people. I tell people that although Aboriginal people make up only 3% of the canadian population, Aboriginal people make up over 26% of the female federal population and in the prairie provinces, Aboriginal people make up to almost 77% of the prison population. Some people find this shocking but immediately some people say or think that Aboriginal people are more ‘criminal’. This sends me down into an entirely different conversation about on-going colonization, residential schools, the 1960’s scoop in which many Aboriginal children were removed from their homes by children’s services. I start to talk about the effects of on-going colonization and the abuse children suffered in residential schools and being ripped away from their families with their culture being eroded at every turn. All of this connects to the need for alternatives to incarceration but it still doesn’t address ‘club fed’ so if there is enough time I have to start again from the beginning. Unfortunately, it begins again with the question of “who is in prison?”
I move into another conversation about “who is in prison?” I talk about the fact that 86% of people in prison are for non-violent offences. People are curious about this. Up until this point people have lived in the illusion that people in prison are violent and unmanageable. As abolitionists we have to debunk this myth. I start to talk about poverty and how many people in prison are living in poverty before their incarceration. People inevitably say “well at least when they are in prison they have a roof over their head and they get three square meals a day.” To this I want to say “what the fuck?” Instead I say “Unfortunately that is the world we live in where it is easier for people to access prison then it is for them to access a place of their own to stay and can afford food to eat.” Some people get this but their discomfort on the topic of prisons is not satiated. I move on.
From this point I may give examples from the U.S regarding the mass incarceration of people from racialized communities (Black people in particular). I talk about the racist policies around drug laws such as the differential sentencing of people involved with crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. I point out that white people are selling the same drugs as Black people, however, Black people are getting a significant harsher sentence than whites (crack cocaine is cheaper and is more often used and sold by people from racialized communities versus cocaine which is more expensive is being sold in white middle and upper class communities). I talk about the disparity of wealth that exists between people from racialized communities versus white communities, the lack of opportunities in racialized communities for employment, education, housing etc. and the lasting effects of slavery and racial segregation that still exists but is unacknowledged. I talk about the rate of incarceration for Black males in the u.s – 1 of every 4 Black males between the ages of 19-30 are involved in the criminal justice system. They are no longer allowed to vote, they can’t get jobs because of their criminal record, without money they cannot afford housing or healthcare. Black men end up back in prison because society will not allow them to re-enter society. People say “well this isn’t the united states. People in canada have it better.” I would guess that depends on who you are talking to – some people have it ‘better’ (mostly white people) but people from racialized communities and indigenous communities are over-policed and under-resourced in terms of education, jobs, social services etc.
People can still not get this idea of ‘club fed’ out of their minds.” This issue in particular seems to overwhelm people’s sense of ‘justice.’ They ask “why do prisoners get to live in such great places where they have access to steak and shrimp and a golf course?”
I start again. I say “It doesn’t matter how beautiful you make a prison, the result is the same. Prisoners are facing psychological torture each day at the hands of prison staff and other prisoners.” People don’t believe me. They want a ‘pound of flesh.’ They want torture, punishment and revenge. People are angry. They believe that when someone is defending the rights of prisoners they are denying the rights of victims. I completely disagree with this perspective. It is ridiculous to think that people advocating for the rights of prisoners are fighting against the rights of victims. Prisoners rights activists and penal abolitionists would have to be ‘sadists’ or worse yet ‘unconscionable’ to defend the rights of prisoners who have murdered, sexually abused or raped other people above the rights of victims. Just because we are fighting for the rights of prisoners does not mean that we don’t have feelings about what a person has done to inflict pain on others. In reality I know that many people who are abolitionists or prisoners rights activists have been victimized themselves in one way or another yet they see a different picture of the world. Activists and academics in this field have done a lot of research, reading and self-reflection before they jumped aboard a train that people ridicule, put down and judge. It is not an easy position to argue because people have such strong feelings about the justice system (as they should). Unfortunately, most people have not been given accurate information. They are fed media representations and ‘tough on crime’ gets votes. I digress, back to the question “What about club fed?”