The Department of Justice is planning on spending $150, 000 on electronic monitoring against the advice of the province’s Criminal Justice Transformation Group.

Members of the group’s bail committee who studied community solutions to incarceration informed the Department of Justice that electronic monitoring does not work. Studies show that monitoring is expensive, has no effect on recidivism, and is less effective than programming and other social supports.

Nova Scotia has some of the highest remand rates in the country, with a 192% increase in the last decade. Over two-thirds of people in provincial jail are now on remand, meaning they are awaiting trial and have not been convicted.

In June, the province cut funding for community housing used to support releases of incarcerated people during COVID-19. The program successfully allowed the release of 41% of provincially incarcerated people in the pandemic.

Emma Halpern, the Executive Director of the Elizabeth Fry Society which advocates for criminalized women, pleaded with the province to extend the funds. There was no recidivism among the people who used the program. On Information Morning, Halpern said:

“As of June 30, we could have people going back to jail because they have nowhere to live, and their conditions require them to have somewhere to live,” she said.

“Could we just keep some funds so we could find a way to resettle those people?”

She said most of those released from provincial facilities were “released either because of compromised immune systems or … they were there because they didn’t have an address and we sometimes use jail as a homeless shelter.”

It costs around $271 a day to incarcerate someone in jail in the province according to the 2017/2018 figures; the supportive housing program cost around $125 a day.

A bail housing plan for women developed by the Elizabeth Fry Societies of Mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton and Coverdale Courtwork Society was recently rejected for funding by the Department of Justice.

A recent SSHRC funded research project led by Dr. Alex Khasnabish (I was the co-investigator on the project) demonstrated that poverty, housing insecurity, and addictions were the leading causes of women breaching court orders and being returned to jail. Indigenous women, women living with disabilities, racialized women, and women with histories of abuse and trauma are disproportionately incarcerated. 

Like programs that advocate body cameras as a solution for police brutality, governments repeatedly turn to technological solutions as a panacea for social problems even though those solutions are proven not to work. Law professor Debra Parkes identifies a “punishment agenda” in Canada that includes:

[N]ot only an increasing prison population, but more fundamentally, a policy agenda that is based on an ideology — often in the face of contradictory evidence — that more punishment (particularly incarceration) will make Canadians safer.

Indigenous scholar Patricia Monture writes about her experience with the Task Force for Federally Sentenced Women. After Corrections Services Canada consulted extensively with advocates, academics, and women with lived experience about the solutions that were best for criminalized women, they ignored all the recommendations. Monture recounts:

The result of what reformers intended to be a transformation of women’s prison has instead been shifted to a re-characterization of women prisoners as dangerous. The shift can be seen in the enhanced security measures such as the “eye in the sky” surveillance camera, fences, and razor wire. This re-characterization is substantiated in some instances with stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples.

Since the Task Force report in 1990, Indigenous women now make up over 42% of federally incarcerated women, a number that keeps growing yearly.

Rather than investing in community solutions such as housing, addictions treatment, mental health programs, employment assistance, and other measures that address poverty and trauma, governments prefer to avoid any attempts at reform and simply try to technologize themselves out of the problem, throwing even more money at a system that is fundamentally broken and that does not prevent crime, recidivism, or address harm in communities.

I wrote here about how corporations like Amazon are investing heavily in policing technologies, recognizing that surveillance is the new frontier of policing and incarceration. Telmate, the company that runs the phone system used by the province’s jails that offers monitoring and recording technologies pays the province a commission for their services: they make money from the predatory charges added on to the calls.

Photo: Halifax Examiner

Electronic monitoring programs make communities into prisons, and extend incarceration into homes and families. Rather than simply reducing our reliance on incarceration, these programs turn racialized communities — who face the highest rates of policing and incarceration — into surveilled spaces which are subject to 24/7 policing.

African Nova Scotians were shown to be six times more likely to be street checked than white people, and the Wortley report revealed that one-third of Black men in Halifax had a criminal record. Electronic monitoring programs are another practice that will mark Black male bodies as criminal. The stigma of a bracelet can prevent employment, increase social shaming and isolation, and sends the message that Black people are the people who need to be watched and controlled. Our buses may say Black Lives Matter, but government policy consistently marks Black people as threatening, and subject to social disciplining.

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Coverdale Courtwork Society Executive Director Ashley Avery is disappointed with the government’s funding priorities, and with their decision to ignore the bail committee’s recommendations:

It is very disappointing that there have been no government funded responses to remand for women in the Halifax Region and that despite extensive research and recommendations from expert committees, the province is investing in electronic monitoring.

Women and gender diverse folks experience punishment differently to men and have different and more complex needs in the community; this approach will not address these needs. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, plus a housing crisis, and without supportive housing for women seeking bail, we know that this investment will fall short of supporting the most vulnerable.

Avery is concerned that electronic monitoring may trap women in abusive domestic situations without the ability to leave. Rather than offering trauma-informed solutions, the province is further endangering vulnerable women:

We are talking about a population of women that are extraordinarily marginalized in our communities; Indigenous and Black women, women with mental health issues and substance use disorders and who are vulnerable to violence, are precariously housed, or homeless. The women that need the greatest resources will not be affected by e-monitoring, nor will this approach reduce the remand population in a meaningful way because it has not been proven to reduce recidivism.

This approach is premised on someone having a fixed address, during a housing crisis. It is inequitable, but also dangerous for women who could end up confined to an unsafe place in the community, without support or resources. 

In 2019, the province announced they were developing a gender-based analysis tool to assess government policies. Recently, women’s organizations pushed for a feminist analysis in the mass shooting inquiry. However, the recent decisions on funding that exclude organizations that serve women, Trans, and non-binary people coupled with investment in programs like electronic monitoring show that the needs of women, particularly the most marginalized women in the province, are still being ignored in decision making.

The public health crisis of COVID-19 shows us we are only as safe and healthy as the least-cared-for people in society. It seems that no lessons have been learned.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Prisons are a for profit industry and shamefully do so on the backs of taxpayers and oppressed people.

  2. There is no excuse for failing to fund these modest and very valuable womens programs. Investment in surveillance is NOT investment in community.