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Dauphin jail closure: Manitoba NDP must abandon failed law and order politics

The crisis of Indigenous imprisonment is no less than the crisis of ongoing genocide and settler colonial control

Canadian PoliticsIndigenous PoliticsHuman Rights

Dauphin Correctional Centre. Photo by Danton Unger/CTV News.

On January 24, 2020 Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government announced that it will permanently close the 61-person Dauphin jail and not replace it. The provincial New Democratic Party has previously criticized premier Brian Pallister for slowing the now-defunct Dauphin jail expansion project, which the NDP promised to build just before they were defeated in 2016 after 17 years in power.

The NDP had proposed to triple the size of the jail. Instead, the Conservatives are now getting rid of it entirely.

From a purely political standpoint, it is hard to make sense of this decision. Why is the NDP championing law and order rhetoric? Why is the PC government neglecting its traditional jailer role? How will the Conservatives–a party with a rural base–get away with such impactful divestment from a major rural job creator? How are the calls to action from numerous official inquiries into violence against Indigenous peoples (who make up close to 80 percent of people in jail in Manitoba) being so cavalierly ignored, again, by both parties?

The closing of the Dauphin jail is a victory: keeping jails open is not a way to keep anyone safe, together with family, or to improve conditions in particular places.

The Manitoba NDP is at a critical juncture. It must either distinguish itself as a party with new faces genuinely committed to new politics, or confirm that the party will continue with failed law and order politics which increased jail capacity by 52 percent while doubling the jail population during their 17-year hold on power.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) is a major driver of the NDP’s jail construction agenda. Correctional officers are a powerful lobby within the MGEU, despite only making up five percent of its membership. The vast majority of members are health care professionals, community workers, social service providers, and educators.

The MGEU has falsely tied jail construction to the prosperity of its members. This is not only an important moment for the NDP, but also for the MGEU, which has been disproportionately favouring narrow correctional officer interests that run counter to the those of the majority of its members who depend on the expansion of the province’s life-sustaining public services.

What’s more, the future of the NDP and the future of the MGEU are wrapped up in the same questions of race and working-class solidarity. We all suffer when the health, safety, and prosperity of some working people is posed in opposition to those of other working people, in this case those who are criminalized. We are all at risk when the forces of state repression expand. The RCMP’s violence, as we write, against working people fighting for a better future for all in Wet’suwet’en and Regina are prime examples.

The Manitoba PC government’s law and order politics are full of nuance and contradiction that must be understood in order for us to take hold of this moment and consolidate it into a win for Manitobans.

The Dauphin jail closure means the province will have 61 fewer jail beds than before. The Winnipeg Free Press has reported that the provincial government has succeeded in scaling back the jail population by 250 since the Conservatives have been in power. This is not insignificant–it represents 11 percent of the jail population and a quarter of the 1,000-prisoner increase that happened under the NDP. In fact, justice spending under the NDP doubled, from $300 million in 2000 to $600 million by the time they left office. For a government single-mindedly concerned with cost cutting, the justice budget is an obvious target.

Considering that 70 percent of people imprisoned in Manitoba are waiting for trial, it makes sense to tackle the jail overcrowding crisis by tackling the remand crisis, which is what the Pallister government has done through parts of their criminal justice modernization strategy.

There has been a concerted effort to release people on bail instead of making them wait in remand. For many people, this is a huge relief and a welcome and necessary easing up of carceral control over their lives. Many individuals die in remand custody, and their lives (and those of their loved ones) are disrupted in endless ways: they lose jobs and housing, miss appointments, are denied medications, they may go into withdrawal from substances that are criminalized, they are beaten up and terrorized by guards.

Most people who are held in remand are being detained on multiple minor charges or breaches of conditions often stemming from a single non-violent incident made visible to the criminal justice system by intensive policing (not because anybody called it in as a problem). For most people, simply not being in jail is better for them and their communities than being held on remand.

There are also people who have been picked up by the police in the midst of crises or in response to acts of real violence and harm. For those people and the people who they have harmed, jail is not a helpful response—but neither is doing nothing. The Pallister government, in cutting the jail population, has no intention of supporting people in actually solving the problems they face; and they are making people’s problems much worse through divestment from healthcare, housing, and social services.

In other words, in addition to the suffering caused by jailing, there is also a significant amount of suffering being exacerbated by the PC government’s austerity measures.

In his Criminal Justice Modernization Strategy, Pallister claims to be emphasizing restorative justice diversions, but restorative justice requires strong and healthy communities. His governments’ investments in policing and emphasis on rural policing and rural crime indicate that the premier is trying to appease the fears of crime expressed by his rural base, without actually offering them anything in terms of real solutions to health, housing, and poverty, which have reached crisis proportions.

The province’s downtown safety strategy for Winnipeg is nothing but the latest urban apartheid campaign waged by the city’s business leaders. The reality that the provincial government is now stretching its austerity policies into the realm of law and order provides us with a real opportunity to roll back decades of brutal carceral policy and to redirect state capacity toward life-sustaining infrastructure. We can do this by building new solidarities between people whose material conditions are being worsened by attacks on public services, and increased policing and imprisonment.

Neither the austerity agenda of the PCs nor the law and order agenda of the NDP are acting in solidarity with the communities of the 1,500 Indigenous people currently locked up in Manitoba‘s jails today.

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the report on the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and LGBTTQ2S* people are all clear—the only way out of the crisis of Indigenous imprisonment is through Indigenous self-determination over land and the relationships that shape the lives of people on it: self-determination over restorative justice, economies, housing, health, and community services.

Put another way, the crisis of Indigenous imprisonment is no less than the crisis of ongoing genocide and settler colonial control.

The NDP doesn’t have to make a choice between supporting workers and supporting criminalized people. They don’t even have to make a choice between taking violence seriously and taking rehabilitation and restorative justice seriously. The most effective and sustainable route to justice is through good jobs in life-affirming social services, and strong unions who work to expand their ranks, not pit members against not-yet-members. Everyone in every community will benefit from self-determination at the individual scale, made possible by a basic standard of living that gives people room to make choices that work for them and their communities about the best ways to solve the problems they face.

Many of the workers at the Dauphin jail wouldn’t have to go through re-training to work elsewhere; nurses, administrative staff, and others could be reallocated to a robust social service sector.

For every correctional officer job lost, the NDP can commit to replacing it with a better one: a healthier job that does not rely on eroding the humanity of people, either those doing the jailing or those being jailed.

By framing the future of “good jobs” as one that requires jailing, the MGEU and the NDP are rejecting the best interests of both those whose loved ones have suffered in jails, and those whose loved ones impose suffering in jails, ultimately foreclosing a healthy future for the entire working class.

Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Winnipeg, and a collective member of Bar None, an abolitionist prisoner-solidarity organization based in Winnipeg.

Owen Toews is a geographer, collective member of Bar None, and author of Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg, published in 2018 by ARP Books.


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