The COVID-19 pandemic has been a period of incredible collective action for the public good, and also a moment of stark inequality. “We are all in this together” is a comforting slogan, but there is clear evidence that some areas of society are experiencing the pandemic disproportionately.
The three hardest-hit workplaces or institutions by COVID-19 infections across North America are senior care facilities, meat-packing plants, and prisons. From this cross-section of the most vulnerable people in Canadian society, prisons might prove to be the most intractable to change in the post-COVID-19 world.
Can we imagine a Canadian society in which we rapidly decarcerate in order to address the stunning inequality revealed by COVID-19? It is a difficult prospect to visualize, in part because it requires the willing consent of the state to accomplish real progress. But the COVID-19 pandemic has already pushed the federal government to release at-risk prisoners to help slow the damage of the pandemic within prisons. It has not been enough to mitigate the spread in some institutions. The Mission Institution in BC is currently the hardest hit with more than 100 people within the prison are infected and one inmate has died.
It is an old a maxim of prison reformers that people are sent to prison as punishment and not to be punished. This assumes additional urgency during an event when incarceration itself becomes an imminent risk to the health and welfare of incarcerated people. COVID-19 only brings this into sharper relief; it has long been clear that Canadian correctional facilities are detrimental to the physical and mental health of inmates.
The disastrous spread of COVID-19 in Canadian and American prisons illustrates the shocking exploitation and harms produced by incarceration. A response to this crisis, and beyond, must move beyond prison reform, and towards widespread decarceration—the rapid reduction of numbers of incarcerated people and subsequent reform of sentencing connected to the criminal code.
The argument for decarceration grows stronger when we consider the inequity of who serves time in Canadian prisons. If we can disavow ourselves of seeing prisoners as criminals, we can look at the harrowing inequality that prisons produce and reproduce. Poverty, mental illness, and other forms of social inequality characterize the Canadian prison population. More than 50 percent of the prison population at any time is being held in pre-trial detention without ever being convicted of a crime. Bail violations, non-payment of fines, and non-violent offences make up more than two-thirds of the total prison population.
The starkest example of correctional inequality is the over-incarceration of Indigenous people across Canada. More than 30 percent of inmates in Canadian prisons are Indigenous, and the problem is accelerating. In the past decade the Indigenous prison population has grown by 44 percent while the non-Indigenous population has fallen 13.7 percent. This situation is steeped in colonialism the racist history of incarceration in Canada. If we are to advance a politics of reconciliation and decolonization, this cannot be accomplished without recognizing that decarceration must be a central component of this movement.
Finally, we can link prison inmates back to people in the other flashpoint in COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoners have much in common with meat-packing workers who labour under the worst conditions and for the lowest wage. The agency and freedom of these workers is largely illusory. Through need or intimidation, they were compelled to work through the pandemic in unsafe conditions, long after unions had warned health officials of the impending crisis.
A lack of agency also links prisoners with residents of long-term care facilities. Seniors in these institutions lived in dangerous and preventable conditions but could not personally exercise the agency to escape the situation. Meat-packing workers attempted to advocate for their safety but at the same time could not afford to risk dismissal. The results in all three settings were similar and predictable. Understanding these commonalities should remind us that incarcerated people are not non-citizens or residents of a separate world. They are a part of us, and the harms we allow to befall them reflect on all of Canada.
There may be multiple solutions that can improve future conditions and responses to crises on shop floors or in care facilities. Unionization and organizing can play a role in these settings, but the challenges are different in prisons. For incarcerated people, the only just way forward is to move toward decarceration. If we are to imagine emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic with a coherent politics of collectivism and emancipation, it must include decarceration as a cornerstone of transforming Canadian society.
Ted McCoy is a historian and an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of Calgary. He is on Twitter at @tedmccoy.