Jeff Shantz: Prison-justice action in the time of COVID-19

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      By Jeff Shantz

      The saying “out of sight, out of mind”, unfortunately, describes the reality for prisoners and the institutions that contain them, as their experiences are largely overlooked or forgotten in everyday public discourse.

      This is a reality that prisoners, their families, and prison-justice activists have to contend with in trying to address issues of prisoners’ rights and well-being within state institutions that are generally shielded from public scrutiny.

      Carceral institutions, or prisons, are already damaging to prisoners’ health and well-being. The COVID-19 crisis has made situations inside Canada’s carceral institutions even more dire than they already were.

      Overall, the rate of COVID-19 infection for Canada is 0.18 percent, but for federal prisoners it is 2.4 percent (or 18 per 10,000 compared with 240 per 10,000 for federal prisoners, an infection rate 13 times as large).

      As of May 7, 2020, the Tracking the Politics of Criminalization and Punishment in Canada project reported 563 COVID-19 cases connected to carceral sites in Canada. Two prisoners have died, one in Mission Institution, another at the Federal Training Centre, in Laval.

      COVID-19 poses new challenges for organizing, given concerns over physical distancing and public gatherings. As a way to express solidarity with prisoners—and to let prisoners know that people outside are both thinking of them and pushing for adequate and proper responses to the health emergencies they are experiencing while raising broader public awareness about conditions inside—prison-justice, abolitionist, and anti–police power activists have been organizing car caravans.

      Under the hashtag banners of #freethemall, #freethemall4publichealth, and #freethemallcaravan, this has included weekly caravans and noise actions, in which participants outside of carceral sites in the Lower Mainland honk car horns and sound noisemakers in solidarity with prisoners.

      Activists have come from local groups such as the Prison Justice Day collective, Anti-Police Power Surrey, and No One is Illegal. Formerly incarcerated people and family members of currently imprisoned people have also been part of the actions. Some communication is maintained with people inside.

      The first action included physically distanced sign hangings at the Surrey Immigration Holding Centre on April 4. On April 26, noise demonstrations were held at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre and the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women, both in Maple Ridge. These followed previous demos at Mission on April 17 and again at the Surrey holding centre on April 19.

      Such actions have been part of an emerging cross-Canada wave of caravans, with other events taking place at the Burnside Jail in Nova Scotia, the Joliette Institution for Women, the Rivière-des-Prairies provincial jail, the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, and the Toronto South Detention Centre.

      The most recent caravan went to Surrey Pretrial, the largest provincial prison in B.C., on May 10. In 2018, 15 prisoners at Surrey Pretrial went on a hunger strike against overcrowding, despite a 2014 expansion that carried a capital cost of $90 million at a time when the crime rate in the province was the lowest it had been in four decades. People inside made quite a bit of noise. Their banging could be heard well above the horns outside and went on for most of the action, which lasted more than an hour.

      Participants in the noise demonstrations have demanded safe release of prisoners, proper release planning to ensure the health of those released, community supports such as housing, and livable-income supports and funding. Those released deserve proper health and safety provisions, including possibilities for physical distancing and safe quarantine.

      Activists argue that incarceration should not include additional extrajudicial punishment—whether solitary confinement for all but 20 minutes (as is happening) or undue exposure to coronavirus—and certainly should not mean a possible death sentence. They are calling for expanded testing and regular public updates on health conditions and the wellness of prisoners.

      The caravans have not been met with indifference. During the action at the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre, a guard drove his car into one of the noise-demo participants, throwing them into a ditch. The guard continued driving, brushing his car up against other demonstrators. All of this happened in full view of fellow guards who were surveilling with a video camera.

      A May 3 noise action at Mission Institution had a much more positive outcome. On that occasion, the #freethemall caravan managed to get fully on-site at the prison and came very close to buildings in the medium- and minimum-security sections. Prisoners inside the medium-security building could hear the noise being made outside and responded immediately with noise of the their own. There were cheers, shouts, banging, and drumming.

      One prisoner hung a “Thank you” banner out a window. Another thank-you sign appeared, then one saying, poignantly, “Help us.” People inside started drumming in rhythm with the noise being made by the activists outside. There were waves and claps. This interaction kept up for most of an hour.

      While this all unfolded, guards came to tell the caravan members that they were on private property and needed to leave. The guards were reminded that the prison was itself an institution of colonial violence, located on stolen land of the Stó:lō and Kwantlen First Nations.

      The carceral apparatus in Canada is itself one of racialized, colonial class violence. Criminal-justice systems in the country disproportionately surveill, target, imprison, and inflict violence on Indigenous people, black people, people of colour, people experiencing mental-health crises, and poor and homeless people.

      Jeff Shantz is a full-time faculty member in the department of criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) on the unceded traditional and ancestral lands of the Kwantlen, Musqueam, Katzie, Semiahmoo, Tsawwassen, Qayqayt, and Kwikwetlem peoplees. He is the founder of the Critical Criminology Working Group and a cofounding member of the Social Justice Centre at KPU, where he is lead researcher on the Anti-Poverty/Criminalization/Social War Policing project. Follow on twitter @critcrim.