Getting Out of Prison in the Age of Austerity
Getting out of prison in the age of austerity
By Alex Hundert; October 16, 2012 - Narrative Resistance
[Note: For an audio interview on this article with the author, click HERE.]
As another round of protests and riots inflamed the streets of Europe in response to ongoing austerity measures there, in this country the Conservative government is preparing to pass yet another secretive and heartless omnibus budget bill. And as provincial austerity measures too are increased, inevitably communities already targeted by an exploitative and exclusionary capitalist system will disproportionately bear the brunt of the impact. For no one is this more true than for those and the communities of those already in prison.
Austerity, by cutting public spending, makes more people poor and makes life harder for those already impoverished. In order to maintain control over an increasingly impoverished and alienated population, along with austerity inherently comes increased criminalization of the poor accompanied by increased militarization of the state’s security system. Hence in this country for example, along with omnibus austerity budgets we get omnibus crime bills which together drastically reshape the state for the age of austerity.
For those who already find themselves criminalized and incarcerated, one of the most severe impacts of austerity will be that when prison sentences end it’s going to be much harder to stay out. Amongst the prison population, due to systemic and structural realities recidivism is an epidemic. Most people serving sentences are not here for the first time and most of us know we will be back. This is already the case. But contemporary austerity measures (like the elimination of Ontario’s Community Start-up fund for people on social assistance, for example) are quickly making this reality ever more inevitable.
In prisons, so called rehabilitative programming is already experiencing the detriment of funding cuts that reduce these places ever more to high security warehouses for targeted populations. But most of the damage is on the outside where cuts to welfare, community services, drug treatment, healthcare, childcare, education etc. will make it increasingly less likely that people saddled with the stigmas of criminalization, in need of healing from experiences of incarceration, returning to targeted neighbourhoods and criminalized communities, will be able to stay out of the clutches of police and prisons.
Last month I found out that a former cell-mate of mine is also being held here at the CNCC on a different unit. Two years ago I spent 3 months at the Toronto West Detention Centre where he and I shared a cell for much of that time. While we were there together we talked extensively about the myriad ways that the so-called prison justice system targets certain neighbourhoods and particular demographics. We talked a lot about what kinds of support he would need to stay out of prison. I was released while he was still in there. He has been in and out since and is apparently back in yet again. He has spent much of his life in jail.
Unfortunately we haven’t spoken in over a year and I’m not sure how he would feel (at present) about being named in this piece so I’ve left his name out of it. My old cell-mate does identify as being part of several demographics that are overly targeted for incarceration, which obviously overlaps with being disproportionately impacted by austerity measures. An indigenous man, he is a long-time resident of the St. Jamestown neighbourhood in Toronto’s downtown east side. He has AIDS, he is semi-homeless, and he is a drug addict. Needless to say he could use some support.
One of the problems that he has identified is that whatever minimal and poorly integrated support there exists in jail – drug treatment, “native programming” – it all seems to dissipate or become much less accessible the moment he gets out. He has told me about how the most accessible support out there for him is too dependent on old relationships in familiar places. One of the things he told me was that he strongly felt that the most effective support he could receive would be simply having first and last month’s rent and a place arranged for him in a neighbourhood other than the one in which he has been re-arrested over and over again throughout his entire life.
While locked up together we put together a plan whereby when I got out (on bail) I was going to fund-raise the money and arrange a place for him in conjunction with advocating broadly for community based structural support for people getting out of prison. However, the Crown attorney’s office and the [Ontario Provincial Police] made it very clear that (at the time in my case) any fund-raising or public advocacy would be deemed a breach of my bail conditions “not to participate in or assist in the planning for any public demonstrations.” As ridiculous as that may be, for that reason the project was shelved.
My old cell mate and I lost touch. I’m sad to say I’ve heard that he is quite disappointed and angry with me feeling that I abandoned him. Maybe he is right to feel this way. If he reads this or if he doesn’t I want for him to know that I’m sorry and that I haven’t forgotten about him – for what it’s worth.
There are 2 primary reasons why I think structural community-based post-release support is so imperative. Theoretically, building within communities structural supports for people getting out of prison is a pre-figurative strategy for change based on mutual-aid, and challenging existing models of “justice” as well as some of the systemic barriers of classism, disableism, racism, and other oppressions. It also transcends difficult debates between advocating for prison abolition and working for prison reform.
Secondly, in the age of austerity, existing supports for people who are getting out of prison are being cut at every level of government. This is unacceptable. If we are failing to stop them from making the cuts, we have to replace the supports.
As the Conservative government is planning to keep secret many of the details about where cuts will be made in their upcoming second omnibus budget bill, the effects of their last round of austerity cuts are still being recognized and realized. For all the damage done by Bill C-38, the next round of austerity measures will inevitably make things worse.
Considering the impacts of austerity on the over-incarcerated, we must remember that these are being experienced in tandem with the conservative “tough on crime” agenda embodied by another piece of omnibus legislation, Bill C-10. So while funding for people living with drug addictions is being cut, the punishments and policing for “drug crime” are bring increased, as just one example. For another, we can look at the way funding for youth programming is being cut at the same time that conditional sentences are gradually being removed and mandatory minimums added, especially for ‘Young Offenders’.
Meanwhile Provincial and Municipal austerity measures cut services depended on by poor families and will impoverish many more with cuts to public sector pay and other public spending that working people depend on. The cumulative impacts of austerity will only contribute to it being increasingly difficult for people from targeted communities to stay out of the sights of the prison justice system.
My old-cell mate simultaneously falls into multiple demographic categorizations that are targeted by both austerity and criminalization. Supports depended on by people living with HIV/AIDS are being cut (to varying degrees) at all levels – from access to counseling to new research spending. Similarly there has been a wave of funding cuts for community agencies that support people living with illnesses, with addiction, with mental-health conditions, and living on the streets or in shelters. Further, as an urban indigenous person, given the ongoing realities of colonialism in this country, he is going to disproportionately experience the impacts of both austerity and criminalization.
Perhaps the most detrimental cuts for him, and for very many other people who will be getting out of jail in the coming year (and in the indefinite future), are the cuts by the McGuinty Government to the Provincial welfare system – Ontario Works – and specifically the elimination of benefits such as the Special Diet Allowance in 2010, and the most recent cut to the Community Start-up and Maintenance Benefit which will come into effect this coming January.
The Community Start-up and Maintenance Benefit is a meagre payment that people on social assistance (OW and ODSP) can apply for every 2 years and is essentially the only way people can get the money for first and last months rent, to put a deposit on utility and hydro bills and to get the basics for a home such as a bed. The CSUMB is a vital benefit for people who are homeless and trying to get housed, for people getting out of jail, for women and children fleeing a violent situation, and for people getting evicted. The elimination of this fund – a heartless austerity cut – will see more people trapped in abusive and violent households, more people stuck in situations of abject poverty, fewer young people able to afford an education, more people remaining homeless, and more people forced into shelters or onto the streets when they get out of jail. (See OCAP’s info on CSUMB and the fight against the cut here: http://www.ocap.ca).
Amongst allies who undertake anti-prison and prisoner support work there often exists a dichotomous framing of abolition and reform. A refreshing aspect of the type of support envisioned by my former cell-mate is that it escapes the confines of the box created by that theoretical juxtaposition.
What is sought is a post-prison support to empower people to avoid returning. What is sought is the initiative to build community-based structures that can work to share with people the skills to circumnavigate the systemic impediments to staying out of prisons and work with communities to develop the tools to deconstruct that system. What is sought is the capacity to help people stay out of jail.
It is important not to forget that the expansion of the prison system in recent years was predicated on overcrowding within the jails. Advocating against prison expansion is not what keeps people out of jails. Supporting targeted communities does, as would stopping the laws that are amongst the weapons of criminalization. Having failed to stop Bill C-10, and already initiated austerity cuts, we cannot fail to support those who will be most impacted by them. And perhaps if we can keep enough people out of jail, without prisoners, the prison justice system may just begin to starve.
Given the current realities of the system we are living under, some people and some communities are going to be targeted no matter what immediate grassroots strategies and community based structures we begin to implement. Something truly revolutionary at deeper structural and cultural levels is required to change that. But I can’t accept that someone like my old cell-mate might be doomed to be caught up in the traps of this most unjust system until the end of his days.
Even given all the current socio-political realities, resources and tools to fight back against systemic targeting can be shared with everybody. We can work together to defend ourselves. We can work together to defend each other. We can make it easier for people to stay out of the prison system’s sight. Even in the age of austerity we can work to keep people out of prison.
Postscript: I thought it might be helpful to name some of the structural community-based initiatives that I believe could help people stay out of jail once they are released. By structural, I mean that to be most effective, the provision of these supports needs to become part of the infrastructure of our communities. In some cases, these potential projects replace services that are being or have been cut by the State; in others, it requires reclaiming things that the State currently runs through oppressive means or for oppressive ends. In some cases it is doing more of things already being done but adapting our work, and our outreach, to people getting out of jail. Further, I want to say that none of this is meant to negate more revolutionary or ideological initiatives. It is merely meant to address immediate needs of people getting out of jail in the age of austerity.
A quick list of ideas:
Safe injection sites and other (broadly defined) harm reduction initiatives, community shelters and safe houses, skill-sharing, community and youth programming and activities, adult education, opportunities to engage in community organizing and activism, counseling, conflict resolution and mediation, alternative justice initiatives, emergency financial assistance, free food, cop watch programs, legal clinics, advocacy…