Prisons Are A Public Health Crisis We Need To Divest From

Prisons are a public health crisis, an epidemic of violence perpetrated on individuals and their families.

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Some time today 10 prison guards who work at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary will appear before the court—called to account for the death of Indigenous man Jonathan Henoche, which took place on November 6, 2019. But there is so much more that remains to be accounted for. The violence inherent in the prison itself and the society that maintains it will not be resolved today. It will not be resolved by these court appearances, and will not be resolved by whatever verdict the court ultimately decides. The courts cannot solve the crises in our prisons, because prisons themselves are the crisis. Prisons are a public health crisis, an epidemic of violence perpetrated on individuals and their families. We not only permit this violence to rage on; we are currently planning to feed and expand it, to the tune of $200 million dollars, with the proposed new mega-prison that the Liberal government intends to build in the greenspace known as White Hills.

Deaths in custody in our province have gone on long enough. We have seen violence, sickness, death, mental health crises and human rights violations continue to unfold in Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP) in St. John’s, and at the NL Correctional Centre for Women (NLCCW) in Clarenville. We have seen suicides with families mourning the loss of loved ones. Formerly incarcerated people have spoken out and protested outside the doors of these institutions. We have seen reports and inquiries for two decades on the unsafe conditions in prisons, for people incarcerated and for the people working in them. Prisons have been shown time and again not to increase public safety or address the conditions that create violence. If anything, caging people in prisons only amplifies those conditions. Yet little has changed. And now there has been another violent death, allegedly at the hands of correctional officers. When will enough be enough?

The isolation, restraints, infection, injury, and even death that are the essence of the prison is borne disproportionately by those on the margins. Too many prisoners are themselves victims of physical and sexual abuse, too many come from racialized communities, too many are poor, inadequately housed, unemployed, and unwell. The fact that prisons disproportionately affect racialized, impoverished, and marginalised people is not mere coincidence. The prison is part of a system that was not designed for safety but rather to control, oppress, and segregate some far more than others. The history of the prison is tied intimately to the dark history of slavery, of colonisation, and capitalism. Prisons are institutions of punishment. They have no actual commitment to the healing of prisoners to rejoin our communities, of their families, or the substantive change in the systems that lead people to prison. They do nothing to address the root causes of violence, and evidence continues to show they are unsafe and unhealthy for anyone unlucky enough to find themselves inside.

Reforming the prison—attempting to make it incrementally better through bigger facilities, recommendations for better training, or more “inclusive” cages—wastes effort that could be directed to positive change. Inhumane systems cannot be made better. It is a fact that the very existence of prisons is traceable to the acts of well-intentioned reformers, not craven monsters. No amount of investment will reduce the harm of prisons because they are working as they were intended to, and more prison investments only result in more criminalized and incarcerated people.

It is the deeply inadequate investment in essential community supports and basic needs that drives the process of criminalization. What we need now in this province is spending in communities, in health promotion, dignified housing, affordable food, social services, in education, in accessible work that pays a living wage. We do not need, nor can we afford, $200 million for a bloated new prison that will demand more imprisoned people to fill the twice-as-many cages its walls will hold.

In August of 2020, shortly after he was anointed premier, Andrew Furey said that “everything” is on the table in terms of cuts, to deal with the province’s undeniably large debt. And yet, the enormous quantities of money funneled into institutions of punishment for undeniably diminished returns somehow never finds its way onto this particular table. So today, as we are faced with yet another example of the brutality of prisons, let us demand this: that we begin to put the institutions of punishment on that table. That we begin to decarcerate, defund these institutions, and that we think about what it might look like to reallocate the money spent on carceral systems and put it instead into systems meant to serve, uplift, and support the people of this province—all of the people who have been left out of every megaproject and every resource scheme and every backroom deal this province has ever made.

All over the world, communities are taking seriously the calls towards abolition. In our own country, doctors, nurses, midwives, and allied health workers have identified prisons as a public health crisis. Thousands of people support the call for creating a national moratorium on prison construction and spending. Many more work every day to build up the community support we need to collectively flourish. We ourselves are part of community organisations right here in NL that also seek to build new ways of addressing and mitigating harm, while building up real safety.

We are invested in building safe communities for everyone. We believe that as a society we are capable of addressing and preventing harm and violence without resorting to the failed punitive and violent prison system that our governments fund today, because some of our most marginalized communities do this everyday. We need to cut our unhealthy addiction to incarceration and other systems of punishment in this province, and commit to a future that sees us all as worthy of flourishing. Halting the construction of the new mega-prison, and in time closing HMP and NLCCW, are critical steps towards this future.

Organizing for a world without prisons has existed long before us, but we are here now, organizing in this province for something different—a future where we all belong, where we are all cared for, and where the harms that may befall us are met with compassion and healing not with more trauma, vengeance, and violence. We will be here, everyday, no matter the outcome of today’s court appearances, building this movement and demanding this government and the next, and that Newfoundland and Labrador begin the process of abolition now.

Photo by Simon Burchell.

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