States of prison abolition: COVID-19 and anti-colonial and anti-racist organising

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Thalia AnthonyUniversity of Technology Sydney, Australia

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Vicki ChartrandBishop’s University, Canada

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Until recently, carceral and penal logics have proliferated the global scene unabated. The coronavirus pandemic not only ushered a moment of pause for the world, but in some areas, even a reversal in carceral trends. In many countries, some sectors experienced unprecedented reductions in imprisonment and migrant detention. Even where the pandemic advanced more invasive carceral controls, such as with policing through health checks and issuing tickets, it also fuelled global resistance through the Black Lives Matter movement. In the wake of the pandemic, an uprising of activists, advocates and supporters captured the public imagination with anti-racist and abolition uprisings and advances in community care. In the lands now known as Australia and Canada, where the criminalisation and incarceration of Indigenous people has been increasing, this mobilising has resulted in important alliances and advancements to challenge these carceral and penal trajectories. In this article, we trace several abolitionist initiatives to show how the convergence of COVID-19 and anti-racist and anti-colonial movements catalysed an important moment for abolitionist organising.

Abstract

Until recently, carceral and penal logics have proliferated the global scene unabated. The coronavirus pandemic not only ushered a moment of pause for the world, but in some areas, even a reversal in carceral trends. In many countries, some sectors experienced unprecedented reductions in imprisonment and migrant detention. Even where the pandemic advanced more invasive carceral controls, such as with policing through health checks and issuing tickets, it also fuelled global resistance through the Black Lives Matter movement. In the wake of the pandemic, an uprising of activists, advocates and supporters captured the public imagination with anti-racist and abolition uprisings and advances in community care. In the lands now known as Australia and Canada, where the criminalisation and incarceration of Indigenous people has been increasing, this mobilising has resulted in important alliances and advancements to challenge these carceral and penal trajectories. In this article, we trace several abolitionist initiatives to show how the convergence of COVID-19 and anti-racist and anti-colonial movements catalysed an important moment for abolitionist organising.

Introduction

In the last few decades, carceral logics have proliferated the world stage without abandon (PRI, 2020). Throughout the globe there has been increasing control of borders (Bhandar, 2004; Walia, 2021), carceral expansion and preventative detention (Piché and Larsen, 2010), increasing logics of (in)security and surveillance (Walby et al, 2016) along with systemic racism and colonial systems of control (Saleh-Hanna, 2008). The advent of the coronavirus pandemic, however, not only ushered in a moment of pause for the world but even a reversal in these carceral trends.

The threat posed in carceral environments to the transmission of COVID-19 raised flags throughout the world that prompted unprecedented reductions in detention and imprisonment in many countries.1 Simultaneously, the pandemic also precipitated the imposition of greater restrictions in prisons with longer lockdown periods, more widespread isolation and the suspension of personal visits across many jurisdictions. There have also been intensified coercive controls through policing, surveillance, curfews and tighter laws on movement and political protests.

While the coronavirus saw unprecedented and sweeping changes across the world, it also exposed and heightened many of the inherent problems within carceral institutions. Similar to long-term senior care and nursing homes that were hit hard by the pandemic (Thompson et al, 2020), carceral institutions such as prisons and migrant detention centres exacerbate the risk of COVID-19 by virtue of their closed and confined spaces, overcrowding, restrictions on movement and inadequate healthcare. Given the high rates at which nation states like Canada and Australia incarcerate specific segments of the population, as we outline below, it also has disproportionate impacts on racialised, disadvantaged, unwell and ageing people who are especially targeted and contained within carceral networks (Chartrand, 2014).

The combination of a viral threat and intensified restrictions also set the scene for anti-carceral, anti-police and anti-racist activists, advocates and academics to challenge the overall use of carceral controls as a response to broader social problems. Across the globe, calls were made to defund the police, dismantle carceral systems and invest in community care and mutual aid (Choosing Real Safety, 2021). Where the pandemic created more and exacerbated already existing carceral controls, it also amplified abolition politics that continue to be developed into new conversations internationally (Afary and Al-Kateb, 2020; Moran, 2020).

In this article, we consider how the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the perils of carcerality, with a specific focus on the prisons in the colonised lands now known as Canada and Australia.

Having outlined the impacts of the pandemic, we then trace several abolitionist initiatives to show how the convergence of the pandemic and anti-carceral and anti-racist work catalysed an important moment for abolitionists organising in both countries. In settler colonial countries like Australia and Canada where the criminalisation and incarceration of Indigenous people and other racialised and displaced groups have been increasing over decades, these mobilising efforts have resulted in important alliances and advancements to challenge punitive and racialised trajectories.

For this article, we develop a comparative methodology that highlights some synergies in the forms of carceral oppression and resistance in colonised lands. Our methodologies are grounded in our own lived experiences in the movements and resistance, as well as a range of official and grass-roots sources including government and non-government consultations, phone calls from families and prisoners, prisoner activist groups, and collation building in discussing the impacts of COVID-19 on carceral environments and abolitionist strategies and demands. We demonstrate how the abolition movement has sown the seeds for an alternative world based on collaborative care and a collective humanity and the need for common well-being for people and the planet.

Coronavirus and Australian prisons

Australia has been spared the high rates of transmission and death from COVID-19 that most of the world has experienced. As of 12 April 2021, there have been a total of 29,402 cases, averaging at 1143 per 1 million population. There have been 909 COVID-related deaths, averaging 35 per 1 million population (Worldometer, 2021). Australia’s COVID-19 cases are well below one-tenth of international averages, which stand at 17,526 COVID-19 infections per 1 million population and 378 COVID-19 deaths per 1 million population (Worldometer, 2021).

In line with relatively low transmission rates in the community, infection rates of COVID-19 in prisons have also been substantially lower in Australia than in most other countries (see Rapisarda and Byrne, 2020). As of 12 April 2021, there have been several dozen COVID-19 infections reported in adult prisons and youth detention centres in the states of New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, out of a total prison population of 41,060 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020a). Many of these infections involved staff. There have been no reported COVID-19-related deaths in prisons.

Nonetheless, Australian prison environments remain a high risk of spreading disease. They are characterised by severe overcrowding, often operating at over 100 percent of design capacity (Productivity Commission, 2020). The high churn rate of people in prisons, including due to high remand rates (approximately one-third of people imprisoned), presents ripe opportunities for introducing the disease. Its risk is consistent with other diseases, such as Hepatitis C in which the transmission rates are higher in prison than in the non-prisoned population (Hepatitis Australia, 2017). Twenty-five per cent of people in prisons have Hepatitis C, compared with a prevalence of less than one percent in the general Australian population (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019).

There is also inadequate healthcare to prevent and treat current health conditions in Australian prisons (Public Health Association of Australia, 2017), apart from COVID-19. A lack of healthcare has been especially fatal for First Nations people in custody. Aboriginal Legal Services (NSW/ACT) CEO Karly Warner stated that ‘[o]vercrowded prisons are not equipped to deal with a deadly pandemic’ (quoted in Moran, 2020). First Nations people who die in custody are currently three times less likely to receive required medical care, when compared with non-First Nations people (Allam et al, 2021). The lack of capacity for prison health services to respond to a COVID-19 outbreak is eloquently articulated by Makayla Reynolds, whose brother Nathan Reynolds died in custody due to the failure of health services to prevent and treat an asthma attack. She states:

I feel like if prisons couldn’t cope with my brother’s medical emergency back then, then how on Earth are they going to cope with a medical emergency from COVID-19? My brother, a proud Aboriginal man and loving dad, had a known asthma condition and couldn’t survive the conditions of a minimum-security prison. How on Earth will our people held in prisons survive a pandemic? They wouldn’t. (Reynolds quoted in Moran, 2020)

The colonial logics of the Australian prison system translates in excessively high numbers of First Nations lives behind bars. First Nations Australians are the most incarcerated people in the world, according to global prison measures (Anthony, 2017). Thirty per cent of imprisoned people identify as First Nations, which is unjustly out of step with their three percent of the general population. Systemic racism throughout the penal system propels overrepresentation of First Nations people in prisons (see Blagg and Anthony, 2019: 97–132; Australian Law Reform Commission, 2017). In the land known as Australia, as well as in the land known as Canada, the profile of the prison population speaks to the ongoing colonial trends towards a carceral trajectory to contain and punish First Nations people more deeply.

In a pandemic, high levels of imprisonment place First Nations people at severe risk (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services et al, 2020). Outside of a pandemic, prisons are more generally geared towards harming First Nations people. A recent deaths in custody report found that a First Nations person is approximately 10 times as likely to die in prison custody compared to a non-First Nations person: 3.11 per 100,000 of the First Nations adult population compared to 0.38 per 100,000 non-First Nations people (Doherty and Bricknell, 2020).

Carceral environments in Australia are invariably harsh places, and yet the pandemic intensified the punitiveness and inhumanity of controls. From the outset of the pandemic in Australia, in March 2020, prison authorities were on the front foot in imposing restrictions. Governments were slower in imposing COVID-19 restrictions in the community, unlike in Canada where prison responses lagged general community lockdown, as we further outline below. Coinciding with the initial imposition of tough prison restrictions, advocates for people inside were warning of the risk COVID-19 posed to the lives of people in prison and arguing for release (see Bartels et al, 2020). This advocacy had some impact on bail and sentencing decisions to impose non-custodial options (Bartels, 2020). As a result, the number of people in prisons fell by five percent between March and June 2020 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020b). In NSW, the reduction was 11 percent by mid-2020, especially due to a decline in the number of people remanded due to the denial of bail (NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, 2020). For the vast majority who remained in prison, conditions deteriorated.

In NSW, parliament introduced legislation to empower the Corrections Commissioner to release people from prison (see Anthony, 2020a). However, the Commissioner refrained from using this legislation and not one person was released under its provisions. Instead, prison authorities suspended prison visits, services, programmes and employment, as well as extended in-cell lockdown for up to 22 hours per day (Smee, 2020) and solitary confinement (Bugmy Bar Book, 2020; Caruana, 2020; Smee, 2020). People inside were given cleaning duties that increased the risk of exposure to potential infection (National Indigenous Radio Service, 2020). For First Nations people in prison, 98 percent had their mental health and wellbeing ‘negatively impacted’ and 50 percent were ‘massively’ affected by COVID-19 restrictions (Deadly Connections Community and Justice Services Limited, 2020). Such restrictions and fears that COVID-19 will amount to a death sentence have spurred resistance in prisons and support for abolition and Black Lives Matter (BLM) movements. While the Australian community saw fewer rates of COVID-19 infections than in Canada and elsewhere, prison authorities nonetheless took a punitive approach to curtailing the spread, even when legislation provided them with other options.

Coronavirus and Canadian prisons

As of 22 April 2021, there have been 1.15 million COVID-19 cases in Canada and 23,763 related deaths. Rates of COVID-19 in Canada were at an all-time high in what is referred to as the ‘third wave’, despite the vaccination rollout (Miller, 2021). Part of the strategy to lessen the COVID-19 impact, in addition to the two metres of social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing, Canada also intermittently closed schools and parks, non-essential businesses, workplaces, and borders, introduced quarantine measures and banned public and private gatherings. The provinces of Ontario and Quebec introduced some of the most restrictive protocols, including provincial border restrictions and the suspension of all non-medically necessary surgeries, while Quebec additionally imposed 8pm curfews in all red zones and 9:30pm curfews elsewhere. These far-reaching measures persevered for months, unlike the more finite and less severe community ‘lockdowns’ experienced in Australia.

During the first wave of widespread community transmission of the coronavirus, which triggered ‘stay at home’ policies and community ‘shutdowns’ in Canada, prisons and other detention centres were given little initial thought by the public or media. In the provinces, where prison sentences of less than two years are managed, the curtailment of viral spread was sought by providing bail agreements, additional earned credit, temporary absences, house arrest options and release to anyone incarcerated within 30 days of their end of sentence.2 As a result, some of the provinces reduced their prison population by a 15 percent average, with Ontario prison reductions as high as 25 percent (Ling, 2020). At the federal level, where prisoners with two-year sentences or more are housed, the Correctional Service Canada (CSC), as opposed to releasing people, focused on restrictive measures by instituting 23-hour lockdowns, suspending visits, postponing all temporary absences and work releases, and cutting programmes as well as segregating and isolating people on ranges (NAACJ, 2020; Chartrand et al, 2021). Despite these initiatives, as of March 2021, at the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, there were more than 6000 known cases in prison and there had been five COVID-19 related deaths (Canadian Civil Liberties Association, 2021). This rate constitutes more than 15 percent of the total cases throughout the country. Since the outbreak, there have been five carceral deaths.3 Advocates argue that measures taken do not protect the lives of people in prison and that release is the only safe option (Iftene, 2020; Paynter et al, 2020).

The pandemic is even more of a concern for Indigenous people and other displaced and racialised groups, who are more heavily policed and incarcerated by the Canadian state and who have fewer supports or resources when and if released. At the federal level, 30 percent of the prison population are Indigenous (OCI, 2020), which is vastly higher than the 5 percent of the overall population. At the provincial level, Indigenous people are incarcerated at rates of upwards to 75 percent, such as in the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan (Malakieh, 2020). Indigenous people are not only more likely to be criminalised and imprisoned, but also experience punishment more deeply through higher classifications and dangerous offender designations, and longer periods of imprisonment. They are less likely to receive parole or probation and experience higher levels of segregation, violence, suicide and death (Chartrand, 2019). This targeting also exists for black people and people of colour (Owusu-Bempah and Wortley, 2014). The restrictive and punitive measures taken by the prisons are reflective of the continued segregation and elimination of colonised people in Canada, as in Australia.

Since the pandemic, several lawsuits have been filed throughout the country, and are currently in front of the courts. One application for a lawsuit was filed by Joelle Beaulieu, a woman from Joliette prison in the Quebec province, on behalf of all federal prisoners incarcerated in Quebec since 13 March. The application alleges that federal prison officials acted too slowly in implementing protective measures at the institutions (Canadian Press, 2020). Another lawsuit has been filed in British Columbia’s Supreme Court by seven former and currently incarcerated individuals and claims the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has ‘breached the Charter by subjecting incarcerated persons to medical and administrative lockdowns – a form of isolation akin to solitary confinement – for indeterminate periods of time, suspending parole hearings and withholding the programs and services that they require, including visitation and spiritual counselling’ (Burns, 2021).4 A further lawsuit was launched in federal court by Sean Johnston in conjunction with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Prison Law Association, the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario, and the HIV Legal Network. The claim alleges that physical-distancing measures in prisons have been grossly inadequate. The claim further alleges that the CSC cannot ensure proper physical-distancing measures without reducing the prison population (Casey, 2020). Where the restrictive and isolating measures taken by prison authorities are even being legally challenged, correctional authorities maintain their position on the COVID-19 response.5

Abolition and community justices and accountability

It is clear from the correctional response to the pandemic that the current carceral system of justice ignores and conceals the harms that prisons inflict on the incarcerated, their families and communities (see also Dolovich, 2020). This is also evident from centuries of policing, criminalisation, incarceration and violence inflicted on First Nations and racialised groups in both countries as elsewhere and, as we have outlined above, exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. The normative carceral logics on which many Westernised countries are based are intimately woven into colonial oppressions and structural racism. It is myopic to think that safety is an artefact of policing or punishment, and that justice must be a state-sanctioned practice. The police and prisons do not protect or keep people safe, particularly First Nations and other racialised and marginalised people whose lives continue to be compromised by the system, as so clearly outlined in various commissions of inquiries in both countries. As said by Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba and Barapa Barapa woman Apryl Day (2020), whose mother Tanya Day died in police custody in 2017,

The Australian justice system was not designed to protect Aboriginal people. An illustration of this is the rising number of Aboriginal people dying in police custody. While this might look like a broken system, in reality it’s being executed in the way it was designed, to tear down and oppress Aboriginal people while it upholds white supremacy.

Abolition is a theory and practice to address social harms outside of carceral and penal controls and mechanisms. Harney and Moten (2013) note that it is not just about tearing down walls but is concerned with the very way we create a world in which we think such walls are even needed, or the ‘abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that could have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society’. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Gilmore and Murakara, 2020) similarly identifies abolition as a project of recreating relationships and social structures and abolishing ‘the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems’.

An anti-colonial and anti-racist approach to abolition considers colonialism and white supremacy as defining and formative features of modern institutions, such as the criminal justice system. As central to modern life, this necessitates the abolition of multiple colonial infrastructures, logics and relationships, along with those connecting elements that make carceral institutions appear as necessary features of our social worlds.

Abolitionist and formerly incarcerated Gunditjmara woman Tabitha Lean told a parliamentary inquiry into First Nations deaths in custody in the land known as New South Wales, Australia,

We know that colonisation criminalises our people. Our existence and survival have become an act of radical revolution. Colonisation abuses black minds, black bodies, black lands and black waters. It locks us out of housing markets, job markets and labour markets. Our grandmothers, mothers, sisters and aunties are left to grieve the loss of their sons and daughters to every kind of colonial frontier that exists in this country. When people ask us what we can do to stop black deaths in custody, we say: Stop locking us up, stop caging our kids, stop chasing us down, stop exiling us, stop brutalising us, just stop killing us. (Select Committee on the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody, 2020: 10)

She further told the inquiry,

That is the thing. All that these inquiries want are neat little explanatory solutions because no-one wants to look at the big white elephant in the room which is colonisation because colonisation demands the imprisonment and subjugation of Aboriginal people because that is the only way to further the colonial project. So I would agree with Ms. Kilroy. We cannot tell you these nice little neat things that are going to make a difference because it is racial capitalism and colonisation that is killing Aboriginal people. Until we break it down and face that fact people are still going to die in custody. (Select Committee on the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody, 2020: 13)

Genuine change requires systemic change. As Audre Lorde (2018) stated, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. An ongoing investment in state-centred justice negates the possibility of considering the many ways that safety and accountability can and are produced in the community. This was evidenced throughout the pandemic where, in a time of challenge for many, an international movement was born to support the most exposed and vulnerable to its fallout. This was achieved through collective actions, community mobilising, sharing of resources, constellations of support and the development of solidarity movements (Perilous Chronicle, nd; Spade, 2020). We outline below several anti-carceral and anti-racist initiatives throughout the lands known as Australia and Canada, embedded in abolitionist theory and action in response to the continued incarceration of people in prison throughout the pandemic, particularly Indigenous and other people of colour who are targeted by and subject to carceral and colonial controls. We consider how these initiatives lend themselves to how we might begin to think about justice as a community endeavour; not in some idealised form, but in actual and current grass-roots practices and abolitionist organising.

Anti-colonial organising and mobilising in the land known as Australia

In the land known as Australia there were several demonstrations, protests and uprisings in response to the harsh COVID-19 lockdown conditions, many of which grew into solidarity actions with the BLM movement by mid-2020. Brett Collins, who coordinates the advocacy group for people in prison, Justice Action, and formerly incarcerated himself, had warned on 20 March 2020 that the oppressive COVID-19 restrictions in prisons would spur people inside to rise up (ABC, 2020). This warning was realised by early April 2020, when people held in several prisons staged uprisings in response to the oppressive COVID-19 conditions and fears that COVID-19 would spread inside (Farquhar and Scully, 2020). Restrictions such as the suspension of personal visits and extended lockdowns contributed to the lighting of two fires in Shortland prison and unrest in Wellington and Goulburn prisons (Ferguson and Woodburn, 2020) and Parklea prison (Fife-Yeomans, 2020). In Brisbane, Queensland, there was an uprising at Arthur Gorrie prison after staff contracted COVID-19 (Bunch, 2020). Many of these protests were put down by authorities with force and gas.

The most overtly political protest in prison in defence of BLM occurred at Long Bay correctional complex in Sydney (NSW) in June 2020. At that time, prisons continued to be governed by highly restrictive COVID-19 lockdowns, despite such lockdowns ending for the broader NSW community by May 2020. Long Bay was also the first prison site in Australia with confirmed COVID-19 cases, which were contracted by prison and health staff (Butler et al, 2020: 8).

On point with these restrictive practices, Long Bay prison is also implicated in widespread criticism of racist prison violence. A focal point of the Australian response to the killing of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 was the killing of Dunghutti man David Dungay Jnr in similar circumstances. Dungay Jnr was killed on 29 January 2015 at Long Bay prison hospital. His dying screams were ‘I can’t breathe’, while being pushed down by six guards, including one who held a knee to his back (see footage at Davidson, 2018). The coroner did not hold any of the officers responsible, and prosecutions have never been brought despite ongoing campaigns by the family and supporters (Windsor, 2020).

The protest at Long Bay prison reflected a coalescing of anti-carceral and BLM movements from inside and outside prisons (Anthony, 2021: 6). It occurred on 8 June 2020, two days after mass anti-racist protests on the city streets of Sydney and across the country. Six people held at the prison spelled ‘BLM’ on the grass of the Long Bay hospital. Advocates, activities and people in prison expressed consternation with the violence of prisons; concerns that were already at fever pitch during the pandemic. Tear gas was used to put down the BLM protest and accompanying resistance against COVID-19 lockdown conditions in prisons ABC, 2020). A public statement by the ‘Prisoners of Long Bay Jail’ in conjunction with the ‘Prisoners of the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre (MRRC) Silverwater’ read:

We prisoners passionately embrace the commitment of Black Lives Matter, other organisations and people to force change on the way authorities degrade, attack and kill us. (Anarchists Worldwide, 2020)

Reciprocating this solidarity on the outside, abolitionist activists staged a car convoy (Anthony, 2021: 9–10). Over 100 protesters took to cars and bikes – due to COVID-19 restrictions – and circulated around Long Bay prison on 19 September. Signs exhibited the demand, ‘Defund, Disarm, Dismantle Cops, Courts, Prisons’. The catch cry shifted from the original chant ‘No justice, no peace, no racist police’, to ‘No justice, no peace, abolish the police’.

The protests took place against a backdrop of mobilising by First Nations families and organisations, such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Deadly Connections, activists, academics, lawyers and justice advocates. Open letters were also written early in the pandemic (for example, Bartels et al, 2020) demanding decarceration and the rights of people in prisons, including the cessation of punitive COVID-19 carceral restrictions and intensified policing. Advocates and supporters also lobbied for vaccinations, COVID-19 testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation and adequate health services in prisons (Gerry et al, 2020). Families of loved ones produced a public statement calling for First Nations people to be released as a priority, due to the particular threat the pandemic posed to their lives from over-incarceration, chronic illness and systemic racism in healthcare.

These messages were also shared with people inside prisons. An article entitled ‘Solidarity from the outside in’ was published in a prison magazine, Insiders News, in order to let people inside know about the open letter campaign calling for release. It conveyed:

Keeping your distance from people can be hard, but it’s even more difficult if you’re sharing a cell with someone. That’s why it’s sensible to think about releasing people from prison – before an outbreak happens. Over 500 academics, advocates and justice professionals (including myself) have started a campaign calling for the release of prisoners in Australia to prevent COVID-19 infections in prisons. (Anthony, 2020b: 43)

The article was also written to let people inside know that there were people in the community supporting and fighting for them. It was felt especially necessary given the isolation arising from the COVID-19 prison restrictions. The editor of Insiders News wrote:

This article is a bit different from what we usually publish in Insiders News – usually, we try to steer clear of politics and commenting on what the government is doing. However, when Thalia Anthony got in contact with us, we decided we wanted to share this piece with you. The main message to takeaway is that there are people on the outside that care about you – not just your friends and family, but people you don’t even know! These people (including the Insiders News team) are thinking about you, care about you, and are fighting for your rights and your health. Stay strong! (Appended to Anthony, 2020b: 43)

The pandemic also raised the voices of formerly incarcerated women who have long espoused abolitionist demands, including Debbie Kilroy, Tabitha Lean and Vicki Roach (Dulaney, 2020; Sisters Inside, 2020). In response to the pandemic, Kilroy (2020) described prison as a potential ‘death sentence’ and called for the release of women to ‘safe, secure accommodation, with adequate resources to live’. A ‘National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls’ was formed in 2020 and Kilroy, Lean and Roach made the following statement on its behalf:

The Network argues that no woman or child should be imprisoned in this country, for the abolition of all prisons, including those that cage children.…

We know that COVID–19 is in our children’s prisons and we know that children inside are scared, they’re suffering, their mental health is being affected. We must act now, if we want to prevent any more deaths in custody….

We need to urgently release people in order to protect them and while we are doing that, let us into the prisons, let us run programs, let us support women and kids inside. (Sisters Inside, 2020)

This building of solidarity shaped the community response in opposition to carceral regimes. The #CleanOutPrisons campaign was initiated in 2020 by First Nations people with lived experience (Lean, 2020), and with the support of Aboriginal Legal Services (Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT Ltd, 2022 and Sisters Inside, an organisation that advocates for the rights of women inside (Sisters Inside Inc, 2020). This campaign sought to provide support for people inside, and distributed hundreds of bars of soap to prisons to address and highlight the lack of hygiene in prisons. Throughout the pandemic, First Nations, prison advocacy and multicultural organisations, such as Deadly Connections, Sisters Inside and Young Spirit Mentoring Program, continued to provide support and services for people captured by law enforcement systems. In the land known as Australia, COVID-19 intensified the efforts of anti-carceral activists and organisations to provide mutual aid and build communities of care through equitable and supportive relationships and access to resources and services.

Anti-colonial collective actions in the land known as Canada

In the land known as Canada, upon the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, there were numerous calls to action, protests and demonstrations against the conditions of confinement at federal and provincial prisons. Many of the activities consisted of solidarity strikes, twitter and social media campaigns, fundraising initiatives, news releases, conferencing and interviews, online speaker panels, educational awareness and tools, caravans and rallies and legal interventions, among many others (see Chartrand, 2021). It was of particular significance, given the higher rates of police targeting and incarceration for both Indigenous and racialised groups, in addition to the overall reluctance to decarcerate, that the abolitionist movement focused much of its work on collective actions and anti-racist organising.

Throughout the pandemic, several coordinated actions took place to show solidarity with those inside the prison. This included, for example, multi-city caravans across the land known as Canada, from Halifax, Hamilton, Kingston, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto to Vancouver. Using the hashtag #FreeThemAllCaravan, caravans were carried out in most of the provinces during both the first and second waves of the pandemic. Along with the caravans were several nationwide actions both inside and outside prisons. This included demonstrations at the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Centre, Central East Correctional Centre, Toronto-South Detention Centre and the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre (all in Ontario), protests at Donnacona Institution (Quebec), Collins Bay Institution (Ontario), and Saskatchewan Penitentiary (Saskatchewan), and an uprising at Bordeaux Prison (Quebec). The caravans and demonstrations not only showed solidarity for and with people in prison, but also built connections between abolitionist-based groups throughout the land who, for the first time, collectively organised at such a national scale.

Given that many of those inside prisons are First Nations, black and people of colour, it was clear how the pandemic would unfairly target and disadvantage them. A letter published in the Halifax Examiner, written by federally-incarcerated black prisoners in collaboration with by El Jones (2020), a spoken word poet, educator, journalist, and community activist and abolitionist living in African Nova Scotia, articulated this reality. As noted in the letter:

The movement against police brutality is important, but it is also larger than that. We must also address injustice in the criminal justice system, in prisons, and at parole. At every stage of this system, Black people and Indigenous people are discriminated against. We have come to realize that all these systems are connected….

Every day, we are seeing people in the streets protesting for Black and Indigenous lives. We want to thank everyone for being where we cannot be, and fighting what we cannot fight for. We also know that after the protests, Black lives will still not matter in prison.

The recognition that those in prison, and particularly racialised people, are often left behind in crisis situations, is an important reminder (Giroux, 2006). Using the media to heighten awareness can be an effective abolition strategy, and sometimes the only recourse for resistance for those in prison. This is especially true for racialised groups who are often disappeared by prison walls (Davis, 2000).

Other wide-ranging initiatives to shine the light on the racialised conditions of the prison system were carried out through webinars initiated by the Toronto Prisoner’s Rights Project. These included several Indigenous and black panels to discuss how the pandemic was impacting racialised groups both in and outside of the prison, and to highlight the continuum of carceral violence and controls. Also initiated by the Toronto Prisoner’s Rights Project was the Emergency Prisoners Support Fund. Within the first month of fundraising, the fund hit its $20,0000 goal to provide support funds to people being released from prison during the pandemic. Following their lead, Free Lands Free Peoples, an Indigenous-led abolitionist and anti-colonial group started a similar fund in the prairies (central provinces) to address the overwhelming need for Indigenous people both inside and out that, as noted above, make up the majority of the prison population in the prairies.

Collective abolitionist actions also resulted in coordinated hunger strikes across the country. These were carried out at both varying and overlapping periods at the Toronto South Detention Centre, Ottawa Carleton Detention Centre, the Saskatoon Correctional, Pine Grove Correctional, Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre, a Youth Detention Centre in Prince Albert, and Drumheller Institution. The hunger strikes were in protest at the ongoing isolation, deprivation of liberty and denial of support and services that had been going on for months at a time. Several of the hunger strikes were also coordinated between people in prison, their families and abolition supporters.

During the second wave of the pandemic, on 4 January 2021, a day of action in solidarity with prisoners throughout Saskatchewan correctional centres was organised by Free Lands Free Peoples and the Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta Abolition Coalition (SMAAC). On this day, both people outside and inside the prison held a one-day hunger strike in protest at the conditions leading to many widespread COVID-19 infections among prisoners and staff, including lack of preventative safety measures and inadequate treatment supports. One of the incarcerated organisers of the hunger strike, Cory Charles Cardinal (2021), a Woodland Cree and self-educated artist, writer and prisoner justice advocate, published an article in Briarpatch magazine that, in part, reads:

I speak on behalf of a generation of young lost Aboriginal warriors, surviving in a postmodern-day institution of colonial suppression that has unjustly labelled us as ‘criminals’ and ‘thieves’ as part of a 154-year-long campaign to diminish our identities as protectors of our people. Within this architecture of oppression, we are a vibrant community of strong, intelligent brothers who eat together, wrestle and play together, and protect each other from a system that has exploited us. … This cycle of systemic oppression must be broken and must be recognized for what it is: a modern-day act of genocide meant to eradicate a vulnerable people.

While outlining the ongoing colonial violence of the prison and the heightened vulnerability created by the virus, the author also highlights the shared comradery and community that exist between those inside the walls and in the face of a colonial violence. Many in prison continued the hunger strike for one to two more weeks, while several family members helped share the message to the public (Modjeski, 2021). Many think of prison protests, hunger strikes, and uprisings as ‘riots’ or ‘disturbances’ (for example, Richardson, 2020). Applying an abolitionist lens to these activities, particularly from an anti-colonial and anti-racist framework, squarely positions them as an important approach to community justice and one of the few recourses to draw attention to crisis situations, such as the pandemic in prisons.

After the initial hunger strike, more hunger strikes were repeated after a young Indigenous woman was found frozen to death in Saskatoon three days after being released from Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, as a result of authorities failing to notify family members of her release (Taylor, 2021). A GoFundMe page was also set up to assist incarcerated women at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre to help connect them with family, buy hygiene products, and find transportation home. A support line to connect people in Saskatoon prisons to community volunteers and support was also developed (James, 2021). Even more than protests, these hunger strikes show the potential of collective organising and building caring communities.

On 9 June 2021, at the age of 38, Cory Charles Cardinal died from a drug overdose after his release from prison. Cory had been instrumental in many of the actions and solidarity movements through the pandemic and well beyond. The abolition community, along with many others, grieve his passing.

His tireless work on behalf of his community of incarcerated and street kin provides a powerful example of what it means to devote one’s life to community care and relational responsibility inside the prison and beyond. (Stadnyk, 2021)

We often forget the hardships that many suffer in their own way and often on their own. We are honoured and privileged to know and walk beside so many who have sacrificed, struggled and lost in a system that lacks all capacity in the basic need of caretaking and giving. In abolition, we learn and grow from those who often have so little material benefit, and yet are the ones who give the most.

Conclusion

In her book Golden Gulag, Ruth Gilmore (2007: 242) points out that the growth of anti-prison work comes from an awareness that the ‘prison is not a building “over there” but a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere’. Anishinaabe-Métis legal scholar Aimee Craft (2018) holds that Indigenous people have long held relationship-driven practices that take all aspects of life into account. An anti-colonial and anti-racist abolition does not centralise institutions or the ‘wearing down’ strategies traditionally seen in social movements. Rather, at the heart of this work, are the constellations of support, relationship and community building and a shared responsibility towards the well-being of everyone, inside and outside the walls.

In this article, we first outlined the impact of the pandemic on people in prison in both countries, and the specific forms of structural racism exposed through COVID-19. We demonstrated that COVID-19 has been an opportunity for the release of some people inside prisons, but has also further entrenched penality and fear for those who have remained inside. As we see throughout this article, this has significant consequences for Indigenous and other racialised groups that are clearly targeted by the system. We then highlighted some of the organising and actions of anti-carceral and anti-racist groups, along with those behind the prison walls, and how this work reflects the tenets for building a future outside of carceral and punitive controls. Anti-racist and anti-colonial activities inform an important blueprint not only for prison abolition, but for building a better world. Highlighted by the pandemic is the fallacy that incarceration, detention, or any kind of ongoing confinement, can provide the resources and supports needed to keep people safe, whether it be from healthcare to housing, education, employment, skill development, literacy, socialising, family support, or many others. The socialisation of these forms of care and the development of community bonds of solidarity are constitutive of prison abolition.

As forms of carcerality continue to pervade our social world, abolitionists must continue to find different entry points to identify and dismantle its pervasive spread. Anti-colonial and anti-racist abolition organising teaches us to think imaginatively about possibilities for justice and accountability, beyond the scope of traditional, bureaucratic, ‘criminal’ justice models. It also builds the community that we are seeking to become. Anti-colonial and anti-racist abolition are founded in the enduring ancestral relations and practices in Indigenous societies outside of and antithetical to colonial and carceral logic. This is an approach that is needed today to address the many sweeping challenges that confront us in the 21st century. Challenging carceral systems is important for everyone as we work towards improving our relations with ourselves and each other through a collective approach to community and justice.

Notes

1

Hundreds of thousands of people in prisons across the world have been released temporarily and permanently as a result of coronavirus risks (Clarke, 2020). For example, Myanmar released almost 25,000 (Reuters, 2020) imprisoned people, while Indonesia released 18,000 (AFP, 2020), and Iran briefly released 85,000 people from its prisons (Aljazeera, 2020).

2

Provincial prisons in Canada are reserved for those who are sentenced to less than two years in prison or are on remand awaiting trial, while federal prisons are reserved for anyone serving a sentence of two years or more.

3

One death occurred at Mission Institution, BC, in April 2020, one at Laval Federal Training Institution, QC, in May 2020, one at Stony Mountain Institution, MB, and two more respectively at Saskatchewan Penitentiary and Willow Cree Healing Lodge, SK, in January 2021 (CSC, 2021).

4

This lawsuit is with the exception for the province of Quebec, which operates under a different civil law system.

5

In late February 2021 the federal government announced a 1.2 million dollar federal investment into the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), launching four new studies into how COVID-19 spreads through correctional facilities, and to test how many incarcerated individuals and correctional staff in a number of selected facilities have antibodies. Selected penitentiaries will be involved in the new studies, including Federal Training Centre, Grand Valley Institution, Joliette Institution, Mission Institution and Port-Cartier Institution, as well as provincial correctional facilities in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Quebec.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

Thalia AnthonyUniversity of Technology Sydney, Australia

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Vicki ChartrandBishop’s University, Canada

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