Prisons and Struggles Against Capitalism


“Words Break Down Walls” by Molly Fair

In April, I gave a talk on prisons for a monthly series of political discussions on issues from an anti-capitalist approach called Living Theory.

Some of the people who attended wanted a copy of the presentation I gave, so I’ve posted it. It borrows from the first issue of our Papers for the People series.

Hi Everyone,

To introduce myself, my name is Kaley Kennedy and I am part of a collective that brings books into the women’s unit at the Central Nova Correctional Centre in Burnside. We also do other programming, including a read aloud program, where we record women reading children’s books and send the recording and the book to their children, grand children, or other children they care about on the outside. Each day, there are about 25 000 children whose mothers are in either federal prisons or provincial jails in Canada.

I think it is important to acknowledge that while my personal background and experience has been essential to my own questioning of the prison system, I acknowledge that as a white woman who has never been incarcerated, my understanding of the effects and far-reaching implications of the criminal justice system in communities, especially communities of colour, is limited. I am, therefore, greatly indebted to activists and scholars from aboriginal communities and communities of colour and others who have faced imprisonment that have taken up questions of the prison system, and actual justice.

Today, I want to talk about a few things. First, I want to speak a bit about prisons in Canada and the current conditions of prison labour in Canada. Next, I want to talk a bit about the function of the prison in capitalism and what I feel to be some of the most troubling aspects of the prison system. Lastly, I want to talk a bit about how I think that prison abolition needs to be at the centre of an anti-capitalist analysis and praxis.

As of 2005/2006, there were a total of 192 correctional facilities across Canada, with 76 under federal jurisdiction, including 18 community correctional institutions and 58 federal institutions/prisons, and 116 facilities under provincial/territorial jurisdiction. Only 16 of the 116 provincial/territorial prisons were classified as minimum security. In total, over 252,000 people were admitted into custody in 2005/2006, but only 34 percent of those were serving sentences. Almost 60 per cent of people admitted to prisons were on remand, meaning they are waiting to go to court or serving time for probation violations. In terms of demographics, 12 per cent of those admitted were women, and, though aboriginal people only make up 4 percent of the total population in Canada, they represent almost 25 percent of all those admitted to prisons in the country. In Nova Scotia, there are 5 provincial prisons and 2 federal prisons. In 2005/2006 of the approximately 4,600 people admitted to prisons, 39 per cent were sentenced prisoners and 55 per cent were on remand.

The majority of those admitted to prison are there because of drug- or property-related offenses, not for violent crimes. In Canada, only 22 per cent of people admitted to provincial or territorial prisons were admitted for violent crimes and 49 per cent of people admitted to federal prisons were for violent crimes. Of the 4,600 people admitted to prison in Nova Scotia, less than 300 were sentenced for violent crimes. Even when exploring crimes classified as violent crimes, many are influenced or impacted by other factors such as mental health, poverty, or self-defense. Who derives safety from prisons and police and why is a question that relates closely to systems of privilege. For those people who have never faced police repression, the police seem like an important institution, but for communities that have been impacted by racial profiling and police brutality, the police represent a threat to the health of the community.

Every year, about 4800 inmates across the country participate in CORCAN work programs. CORCAN is a branch of the Correctional Service of Canada that coordinates corrections work programs. These include not only inmate programs, but also programs for people on community release, which would include people in halfway houses or on probation or parole. CORCAN additionally runs over 50 shops where inmate workers produce goods and services from office furniture to uniforms to industrial laundry.

Inmates are paid between $5.25 and $6.90 per day. Inmate pay increases based on the time an inmate works, their behaviour, and their work performance. This structure is constructed in such a way as to use disciplinary principles in order to regulate inmate behaviour. Inmates can be arbitrarily disciplined or restricted in their pay increases because while prisoners have the legal right to have access to counsel in disciplinary hearings, they often do not have the resources, and because of a general lack of resources for inmate law, not very many lawyers have experience in this are.

Inmates also have no vacation time or vacation pay, and need clearance from a health profession to take a sick day. Overtime pay is just over $1 per hour and inmates are required to hand over 25 percent of any earnings over $69 biweekly for room and board. It is also important to mention that inmate wages have not been increases since the mid 1980s, and between 1981 and 2005, the average cost of two week’s work of canteen goods increased from $8.49 to $61.59. Even accounting for inflation, prices have almost tripled.

In the 2008-09 Fiscal Year, inmates worked about 2.8 million hours collectively. Unlike rights granted under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that are intended to apply to all people, inmates are excluded from the statutes and regulations that define labour laws.

Prisoners are assigned to work programs in their correctional plan. A correctional plan is an outline of a program that determines the work, training, and activity for an inmate’s sentences. Inmates have little ability to refuse to work, even in poor conditions because an inmate’s adherence to their correction plan is part of decisions on inmate privileges and parole.

CORCAN’s mandate is supposed to be centred on work programs that work for prisoners; decisions ultimately come down to dollar figures. In 2009, CORCAN announced it would be closing 6 prison farms across the country because the farms had been losing money.  CORCAN’s 2008/2009 Annual Report states that the farms had lost $4.1 million that year. Prison farm supporters including prisoners, correction workers, prisoner justice activists, and community members cited the role of the farms in providing local, fresh food to prisons, and in providing meaningful work for prisoners. Closures were complete in 2011, despite opposition.

CORCAN sells most of its goods and service such to government departments such as Corrections Services Canada and the Department of National Defense. In 2008-09, CORCAN had about $70 million in sales, with $10 million of those sales to the private sector. If the 4800 inmates who worked in CORCAN shops were paid at the top rate of $6.90 per day, CORCAN would have spent just $2.4 million on paying prisoners, just 3.45 percent of their total sales.

Prisons have become integrated into the capitalist system in several, related ways. The first, and most obvious, is the sheer volume of money that goes into the system. In Canada, prisons either fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal government or provincial/territorial governments. Crime and justice is a big-ticket item for governments. Federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments spent more than $12 billion on policing, courts, legal aid, prosecutions and adult corrections in 2002/2003. Policing accounted for 61% of justice costs; adult corrections, 22%; courts, 9%; legal aid, 5%; and criminal prosecutions, 3%. Almost 60 per cent of people admitted to prisons were there on remand, meaning they are not actual sentenced prisoners and are in jail awaiting trial or for breaking probation conditions, and the average sentence for a sentenced admittance is 60 days in Canada. Considering this, the cost of keeping people in prison seems even more ridiculous.

   Government spending on prisons also doesn’t account for the money corporations make from their involvement in the prison industry – prisons require everything from construction work to food services; guards to utilities like heat and running water. In the United States, prisons have replaced factories and farms in many small towns as the primary industries. The idea that prisons result in economic development has even popped up here in Nova Scotia. Currently, the Nova Scotia Department of Justice is planning on rebuilding correctional facilities in Cumberland County, Antigonish and Cape Breton, in order to bring them in line with the systems of prisons used at the other two provincial prisons: Central Nova and South West Correctional Facilities.

In 2009, despite the fact that the prison in Cape Breton is only at “mid-life,” former Justice Minister Cecil Clarke announced that the Department of Justice is trying to build a new $30 million facility because the current prison’s operations do not fit in with the preferred model that the Department is using a the two newer facilities. At the time, Clarke was adamant about how this new project would help with economic woes in the region “I don’t want Cape Breton to be left out of a capital construction process…Since we are looking at stimulus spending, this is an avenue that would provide jobs and would increase the capacity and size of the facility. Ultimately, you could have up to 250 persons in that facility, over double what it is now.” Clarke also lauded the economic benefits for local suppliers and supplementary industries. Interestingly, there was no mention of this being a response to increases in crime. Similarly, a 2009 leak from the Department of Justice that indicated that the replacement for the Cumberland County facility would move the facility out of its current location of Amherst, NS, to Springhill, NS, 25 kilometres away, caused uproar amongst the legal community and the mayor of Amherst. Lawyers contend that moving the facility farther from Amherst will increase costs as all necessary legal services are in Amherst, and from the mayor of Amherst has expressed concerned about losing the facility’s 38 jobs.

The prison also serves a specific function within capitalism. It provides a space to hold surplus populations that are created and needed by capitalism. Capitalism seeks to place the lowest possible price on labour, and in order to achieve a cheap price for labour; a surplus of workers must exist who are seeking a limited number of jobs. This surplus is likely to be greater than the number of people, who control the system, and as such capitalism constantly faces disruption from those populations, and the prison is one way to control and divide the working class. Political myths about criminals are also used to redirect responsibility for crisis under capitalism: we see this as a way for the government to increase surveillance and security.

In Canada, the development of this process has been slower because the population and the prison system are significantly smaller than in the United States. But there are several examples about how a new “tough on crime” policy approach is creating new types of crime. For example, after a few prisoners were mistakenly released from prison facilities in Nova Scotia or escaped in transit, new security measures were implemented that increased surveillance intensely. The justice system introduced ankle tracking devices, new ion-detection machines that detect molecular level traces of drugs and contraband substances, and new dome cameras. In all, the Nova Scotia Department of Justice spent over $250,000 on these devices for a system that admits about 4000 prisoners per year. These machines increase perceptions that prisoners are a threat to the greater community, and provide new reasons for harsher punishments including longer sentences, solitary confinement, and suspensions of certain prisoner privileges.

Despite the strong connection between capitalism and prisons, inmates and prisons are often excluded from discussions or debates about workers and labour. This is common to most struggles. In feminist movements, for example, the experience of criminalized women is mostly ignored. In my work, the rhetoric around gender-based violence often talks about creating a more aggressive response from police to sexualized violence, but there is little attention paid to the violence that the prison system enacts in the form of cavity searches and rape in the prison.

The dominant discourse presents the idea that prisons are a deterrent to crime; the reality is that prisons rely on invisibility in order to perform their function in society. The prison complex is kept out of the centre of the city in order to create further divisions among working people. So, for those of us on the outside, the prison is not necessarily a constant presence in our life. If it was, I believe that there would be more of a consistent resistance to it, in the way that people with limited political consciousness will resist the police, the school system, and other institutions that employ a security apparatus that is modeled by the prison.

But I also want to argue that often the analysis of prisoner justice activists excludes an understanding of the inmate as worker or other experiences an inmate may have outside of their imprisonment. I think, for example, that the division drawn to create a category of “political prisoner” is problematic. It denies that all prisoners are there for political reasons, and I think de-politicizes the prison as a political structure made necessary by political decisions and values enforced in our society. I think it also doesn’t recognize the gendered and racial elements of the prison system, or the way that forms of political struggle are also gendered and influenced by race. So for example, women who commit fraud in order to feed their children are resisting their situation under capitalism, but if they are incarcerated for such an act, they are not seen as political prisoners. Similarly, if a racialized trans woman is incarcerated for sex work, the category of “political prisoner” doesn’t recognize her inevitable incarceration because of rigid gender structures and racism. Instead, I want to argue here, and am interested to hear the discussion, that an anti-capitalist analysis that wants to forward a more just world, relies on the abolition of the prison as an institution.

American prison abolition group, Critical Resistance defines the Prison Industrial Complex as “a complicated system situated at the intersection of governmental and private interests that uses prisons as a solution to social, political, and economic problems.” The term is a political term intended “to contend that increased levels of crime were the root cause of mounting prison populations.” The concept of the Prison Industrial Complex takes up Michel Foucault’s analysis that punishment and the prison system are closely tied to social structures and relations, including economic and political systems.

Foucault explains that, “We must first rid ourselves of the illusion that penalty is above all (if not exclusively) a means of reducing crime and that, in this role, according to the social forms, the political systems or beliefs, it may be severe or lenient, tend toward expiation of obtaining redress, toward the pursuit of individuals or the attribution of collective responsibility.”

Foucault discusses punishment as both “a complex social function” and “a political tactic” used to normalize behaviour that the government or society decide is necessary. Systems of discipline and punishment in the criminal justice system, the military, or schools, place the body in “a machinery of power that explores [the body], breaks it down, and rearranges it.” The purpose of this machinery is to normalize certain behaviour seen as useful to a particular context. Usually, this is in response to some need in society such as a need for more workers, a need for better hygiene during outbreaks of disease, or the need for an army during war. The military normalizes the behaviour necessary for an effective army through a certain system of discipline, and the high school system uses discipline and punishment to prepare students to enter the workforce. Currently, the school system, especially, normalized surveillance and the use of a zero-tolerance approach in schools normalize crime-related policies such as the war on drugs and three strikes. Submitting children to surveillance and zero-tolerance policies normalize these intrusions of privacy and autonomy, and can set up particular populations for a life moving through the juvenile and adult prison systems.

When you establish some behaviours as normal, behaviours that resist or fall outside these norms are labeled abnormal, and can be used to create different levels of social status or rank in our society based on obedience and disobedience to the norm. The shift from punishment that harms the body, such as the death penalty or lashings, to imprisonment, was based on the concept that discipline can reform and normalize behaviour of people labeled deviant or abnormal. In a society apparently based on freedom and democracy, then, the ultimate punishment for behaviour outside the norm is to deprive an individual or group from these two things. The prison system relies on the idea that punishment can reinforce systems of discipline, to maintain a certain system of order. This is only possible, however, because some order has been established as acceptable.

Angela Davis provides a helpful example in the context of 1950’s women’s prisons. Prison reformers had long advocated that women prisoners be separated from male prisoners in large part because women could not be subjected to the same discipline that men were, and instead should be subjected to a disciplinary program that promoted “feminine” values. In the 1950’s, women in prison received training in domestic skills such as cooking and needlework. Davis points out, however, that while this would have established white women as “good wives” it effectively trained women of colour to be domestic workers. This was part of continuing a system of black servitude to white masters.

Christian Parenti makes a similar argument about the way gender roles are established in male prisons in the United States. He notes that, “jailhouse rape is more than sadistic thrills: it creates a gender and, therefore, a division or labor and a set of class relations.” Without women to take on the role of the second sex, “the subordinate “gender” in male prisons [becomes] the so-called “punks,” straight or gay men forced into a submissive sexual role, as well as “queens,” gay men and transsexuals who may embrace homosexual sex and their gendered role as submissive.” The prison system works to uphold systems of oppression that exist in society at large. Since society condones sexism and racism in both subtle and obvious ways, these structures are reinforced inside prison walls.

The purpose of prison is not to right wrongs, but rather to regulate the behaviour of prisoners so that they adhere to their appropriate place in the structures of power that exist in the outside world. The prison system can therefore not be removed from an understanding of power, privilege, and oppression, nor can it be tasked with addressing the social causes of “criminal” behaviour. Any attempt to dismantle the oppressive regime of capitalism must see the prison as a primary target because it at once enshrines and codes our structures of inequity and class that capitalism also relies on and creates.

The time period that gave rise to incarceration, as the primary mode of punishment was also the era that established that the value of labour could be quantified in an hourly wage. Foucault writes, “There is a wages-form of imprisonment that constitutes, in industrial societies, its economic “self-evidence” and enables it to appear as a reparation…hence, so the expression so frequently heard… that one is in prison in order to “pay one’s debt”” (Foucault, 216). This approach implies that the individual, and not the system are responsible for particular actions.

People in prison are not necessarily responsible for damaging the social relationships between the perpetrator and the victim, or between the perpetrator and his or her community. The song “Wolves” by political hip-hop group Dead Prez expresses this concept well. It uses a sound clip from a speech given by Omali Yeshitela, chairperson and founder of the African People’s Socialist Party, about crack cocaine. Yeshitela uses the analogy of an indigenous hunting technique that uses a double-edge sword stuck in the snow with blood smeared on it to explain how the introduction of crack cocaine into African American communities has destroyed them. As the wolf licks the blood off the blade, it cuts itself and eventually dies from drinking its own blood, but “instead of blaming the hunter who put the damn handle and blade in the ice for the wolf… what happens is the wolf gets the blame, gets the blame for trying to live.” This is what Yeshitela says is happening in African American communities. Instead of blaming racism and the legacy of slavery, society blames the individual drug dealers and drug users.

Assatta Shakur also discusses this in relation to her own experience of being in prison: “So many of my sisters are so completely unaware of who the real criminals and dogs are. They blame themselves for being hungry; they hate themselves for surviving the best way they know how, to see so much fear, doubt, hurt, and self hatred is the most painful part of being in this concentration camp.”

In his book, Lockdown America, Christian Parenti has a chapter entitled, “Balkans in a Box.” His comparison, if not obvious, is that within the prison exists a contained conflict zone akin that that which has existed in the Balkan countries – where rape, murder, and racial genocide, are common. He outlines how workers are exploited, how prisoners are denied voting rights, how there is little in the way of complaint processes, and about the excessive use of force, solitary confinement, and various other cruel measures. Angela Davis explains that “the institution of the prison has stockpiled ideas and practices that are hopefully approaching obsolescence in the larger society, but retain all their ghastly vitality behind prison walls” (Davis, 83). She points out that routine elements of the prison system such as strip searches and cavity searches are state-sanctioned examples of sexual assault that would be condemned outside of the institution of the prison.

Foucault writes that when the institution of the prison first rose as “the penalty par excellence” it erased all other alternatives that had been proposed during the eighteenth century because the prison “appeared so bound up, and at such a deep level, with the very functioning of society” (Foucault, 215). It is difficult for most people to imagine what life would be like without prisons, and to imagine how societies would function. People’s ability to think beyond capitalism, beyond prisons is connected. Capitalism intends to monopolize our understanding of value. We understand value in capitalist terms, in relation to private property. To think outside of this can be difficult, and capitalism itself limits to what extent we can think outside of the prison system. With prisons, we think about what would we do with the child molesters. Well, even beyond the concept that most prisoners are not pedophiles, the limits of our current system make it difficult to think about a world without child sexualized assault. Intergenerational trauma is a large part of the experience of aboriginal and racialized people, women, trans and gender non-conforming people, people who have regular contact with institutional detention, and so on. And harm exists all the time in our society that exists entirely outside of the criminal justice system, such as sexualized violence that continues to be a constant presence within radical movements.

What would an anti-capitalist analysis that centred the prison look like? Some prison abolitionists have focused on how prison spending, like military spending, has limited the funding available for social services. The $12 billion spent on the criminal justice system could make post-secondary education free, raise welfare rates, and invest in mental health programs. This method of resisting prisons fights to replace prisons with social supports and community programs is important. Those who argue for these reforms, also recognize the need for the decriminalization of drugs and sex work. This, paired with additional funding to social programs, is likely to reduce the need to incarcerate individuals under the current system, and give individuals and communities some additional resources. If people are not struggling to support themselves and there are adequate services to address mental health concerns, the number of people who need to go to jail will be vastly reduced, not only through a reduction in the number of acts that are defined as criminal, but also in that violence will be less necessary if there is not property and wealth to fight over. In one community in the US, community members bought up land that was intended for prison building in order to prevent more prisons in their community.

Locally, this means actively opposing increases in prison spending, especially give the current drive for increases in prison building being pushed by the Harper conservatives and being allowed by our provincial government. Prison workers are also able to resist prison building by recognizing their interests in maintaining older prisons which require more workers, it means communities pushing for stimulus spending for community spaces and public services, rather than prisons. These measures of reform should be seen as prioritizing immediate improvements in people’s lives, but have the revolutionary politics that they will not be enough.

We also need to prioritize building relationships based on accountability, solidarity, and support. Building accountability to one another in our communities can mean that the state policing system is not necessary. Robin Templeton, in an article on the work of young feminists in challenging the Prison Industrial Complex explains that young women, who have seen men consistently ripped from their communities and put in jail, are “working in their communities with the explicit intent of increasing trust and reciprocal respect as well as making their neighbourhoods safer places in which to live. She goes on to explain that creating a society free from the institution of the prison requires more than the “obvious answer[s] of economic justice and ending racism,” and will “involve the difficult work of transformation, redemption, and renewal.”

By building relationships that strive both to support one another in dealing with difficult experiences such as addiction and mental illness and to hold one another accountable for individual actions and choices, we reject the prison’s focus on removing people from their communities. This is work that is already central to many communities, especially communities that have been most impacted and marginalized by the prison system. In other communities, it is not prioritized and recently, feminists have argued that it leaves movements susceptible to police infiltration because sexism, misogyny, and gender-based violence are so prevalent in radical communities that people do not see these as a political threat.

Lastly, organising that tries to build relationships between people on the inside and the outside is essential. This could include working to try to organise prisoner unions, amplifying prisoner voices through public advocacy, and building alliances through long-term, sustained work with communtiies who are most impacted by prisons. Some examples I know about include prison education programs with students from the inside and from the outside, reading groups that include people inside and outside and use written correspondence. It also means rendering the prison system visible and talking about it to your neighbours and friends in the context of zero tolerance policies in schools, laws that criminlise queer and trans people, and a slew of other political contexts.

Any project that has at its centre a focus on justice needs to see the prison system as counter to its goals. As long as society relies on a criminal justice system that aims to maintain hierarchical power relations that oppress some for the benefit of others, our ability to undermine this in other areas of society will be weakened.

Some of the content for this talk was taken from my essay “People Before Prisons: The importance of challenging prisons and supporting and repairing our communities” available here, this article I wrote for the Dominion Newspaper, and an infographic available in the March/April 2012 issue of Briarpatch Magazine.


Other Resources


One response to “Prisons and Struggles Against Capitalism

  1. Leanne MacMillan

    Kaley – this is an excellent piece of work. Congratulations. I was “captivated” right to the end. Very compelling.

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