“Institution is not just a place, it’s the way people think”

Prison Industrial Complex

When we strive towards the common goal of harm reduction, it is best done through community participation. The more allies we have, the stronger we are. The more familiar we become with the struggle of others, the more we learn about our own and acquire new skills and tools to further our cause. On Saturday January 22nd I sat in on a Community Justice Coalition meeting. The topic was, but not limited to, the prison industrial complex. That may sound like a mouthful, so let me take a moment to explain. The prison industrial complex is a term that is often used to describe the manner in which the rapid expansion of people in prison is linked to the influence of private prison companies and businesses that supply goods and services to government prison agencies. The people who promote this are more interested in making a profit rather than rehabilitating individual or actually reducing the crime rate. As such, many people end up institutionalized for the wrong reasons. These can be substance use and disability which results in the criminalization of both drug users and people with disabilities. In some of the saddest instances, they end up dying in the institutions from lack of proper medical care or harm reductions supplies.

The Community Justice Coalition came together in February of last year to resist the Harper government’s “Law and Order” agenda which seeks to lock away more people and for longer periods of time. The conservatives have put forth over 16 new crime bills which plan on increasing state control by removing power out of the hands of individuals and increase prison spending. They have put forth these bills while trying to convince the public that they will increase safety and diminish crime but there is more evidence to suggest that community organizations, income subsidies and effective drug and harm reduction do this best. The bills that our government are trying to pass will have impacts not only on individuals, but on families, youth and society as a whole.

How did this happen and how could there be such attempts at disempowering the public? The answers may be found when looking through a historical lens the Canadian governments past actions when dealing with marginalized peoples. At the meeting we viewed as a group a documentary called “The Freedom Tour” which documented the work of People First of Canada, a group dedicated to putting people first in communities and deinstitutionalization. This documentary provided us with a visualization of peoples experiences, a very powerful tool indeed. We saw that people who were institutionalized not too far from our own homes were forced to participate in unpaid work, had no privacy and were subject to both corporal and emotional abuse. We saw people with mental disabilities trapped in these institutions, when what they needed was to be part of the community. These institutions were places like the Michener Centre, where there was widespread sterilization, sexual abuse and neglect in the facilities. People with disabilities who died here were sent to the centre’s cemetery, and their families seldom notified of their passing. The Valley View Centre where the abuse was so bad and the care so entirely poor that when an individual tried to run away, he seizured while trying to jump a train and lost both legs which had to be amputated. When he was returned to centre, he tried twice again to escape. This time in a wheelchair. What does this say about our institutions? It tells us that they are imperfect and that they are in need of reform. It tells us that there needs to be more community input.

People in institutions still need representation and support and it is important to realize that we can not take pieces of peoples lives as though we are entitled to it, because systematic institutional organization tells us we are permitted to. These institutions are not the working of a healthy, free and democratic nation. In addition, institutions and prisons that will be built under Harper’s agenda are both counter productive and are not treatment centres. In 2010, the Correctional Investigator completed two separate reports concerning the deaths of two prisoners in federal custody- an Aboriginal man and a female youth. Negligence and segregation played a role in both of these deaths.

As we can see, prisons and institutions are not the right places for community members to receive treatment and especially not youth. Unfortunately, Bill C-4 recommends that we send youth to institutions and enforce it with more vigour than in the past.

What is Bill C-4?


The purpose of this bill is to amend certain provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act to emphasize the importance of protecting society and to facilitate the detention of young persons who reoffend or who pose a threat to public safety.

As such, to name a few things that it can do:

  • establishes deterrence and denunciation as sentencing principles similar to the principles provided in the adult criminal justice system
  • expands the case law definition of a violent offence to include reckless behaviour endangering public safety
  • amends the rules for pre-sentence detention to facilitate the detention of young persons accused of crimes against property punishable by a maximum term of five years of more
  • requires the Crown to consider the possibility of seeking an adult sentence for young offenders 14-17 years of age convicted of murder, attempted murder, manslaughter of aggravated sexual assault

When reading these provisions, it important to keep in mind that one in four females and one in ten males have mental health problems at the time they are sent to prison.

How do we deconstruct these issue and ensure that the needs of real people take precedence over that of so called “institutional efficiency?” As is illustrated with the examples provided above, the Canadian government has had a tendency to act like some lives are worth more than others and that some lives are mores deserving of the liberty and freedom on which we pride ourselves as members of Canadian society. We must call for is seeing people for who they are rather than the labels that are attached to them. Is is our duty, if not our obligation, to do so.

For more information about the People First of Canada, please visit