1. How the Prison Industrial Complex Screws Workers

Elizabeth Chiu has a story on CBC about judges who are becoming frustrated with the length of time it is taking to transport prisoners to the court.

Mounting frustrations over delays getting people accused of crimes into courtrooms in Dartmouth, N.S., have prompted one provincial court judge to throw out criminal charges and another has warned he is prepared to do the same, or to call police in to help.

Moving an accused person from a holding area in the basement of the Dartmouth courthouse into courtrooms on the second floor should take minutes, but hours can be spent waiting because of a lack of deputy sheriffs. Typically, two sheriff’s deputies — responsible for courthouse security — are required to move a single offender.

Image from atlantic.ctvnews.ca

One judge, Daniel MacRury, stayed theft charges against a man and a woman last week.

He also warned the supervisor for the deputy sheriffs that he would be charged with contempt of court if he didn’t appear in his courtroom within five minutes to explain the delay.

The supervisor explained to MacRury, “Your Honour, I have no staff.”

MacRury scolded the supervisor. “They’ve had an hour and a half to bring them here. The charges have stayed — judicial stay — because the state is not prepared to bring them before the court.”

I wrote in April about the effect the construction at Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility (Burnside) is having on prisoners:

This construction at Central Nova is what has resulted in the transferring of prisoners to North East Nova Scotia and other prisons, as the north ranges are closed during the renovation. These transfers, in turn, have resulted in prisoners from the Halifax/Dartmouth area having to pay long distance phone charges in order to contact their families, leading to costs of $10 for a 20 minute call with service charges and fees factored in. These conditions led to the petition by prisoners to the justice minister asking for an end to exploitive phone costs, a story covered in the Nova Scotia Advocate.

The Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner Credit: Halifax Examiner

At that time, the renovations were reported to cost $4.3 million, although I have heard (unconfirmed) suggestions that the cost is substantially higher. As I wrote in April, the province is leasing the facility from Citigroup, owned by Hawthorne Capital, and will have to buy the prison back from them. So we pay for the construction on the jail that will ultimately profit the private developer.

The story on CBC seems to me to demonstrate the far-ranging effects this construction is having not only on prisoners, but on correctional workers, and on the judicial system. As a result of the renovations, prisoners are being moved around the province to other facilities. I would suggest that a significant factor in why the sheriffs are struggling to deliver people to court is because they are driving people for hours across the province. I have heard that sometimes the other jails won’t accept prisoners when they arrive, and they have to be driven back.

The judges are right to be angry and to identify the delays in people getting to court as a miscarriage of justice. As noted in the article by defence attorney Pat Atherton:

...the delays also affect his clients, who deserve to be dealt with fairly and in a timely way.

He said on Thursday he went downstairs to speak to his client, and was told the sheriffs couldn’t accommodate a visit because of a lack of staff.

“He’ll now be transported to the correctional centre and I will not have had a chance to see him this morning,” said Atherton. “It becomes frustrating because they don’t know what’s going on and they need to instruct counsel.”

Courts in Nova Scotia are already backed up, and deadlines imposed by the Jordan decision has set strict time limits on the amount of time it takes cases to come to trial. A Statistics Canada report released in January also showed that Nova Scotia had the biggest increase over a decade of people on remand in the country, meaning people serving time before trial who have not been convicted of anything.

In the same time period, crime in Nova Scotia, as reported by 2016 statistics, has dropped by 39 per cent. 

We might wonder why, if crime rates are dropping, our courts are overstressed to the point of struggling to meet reasonable trial deadlines and why we have more people incarcerated than ever awaiting trial. Perhaps our reliance on incarceration as a solution for social problems such as addiction, poverty, and mental illness is not only inhumane, but expensive, ineffective, and unjust.

Perhaps, rather than investing millions in jail renovation projects that are disrupting facilities and courts all over the province for a jail the province doesn’t even own, we could have invested that money in more treatment beds, employment and skills programs, affordable housing, and other initiatives that address the social causes of crime. Rather than our goal being building better jails, perhaps we should be looking at reducing our prison population significantly, and not incarcerating people for non-violent crimes, crimes of poverty, crimes of addiction, or due to mental illness.

Image from pbs.com

It’s not the fault of workers like the sheriffs or jail staff that the province is heavily invested (both literally and figuratively) in the prison industrial complex. It’s easier for frustrated judges to confront the supervisor than to summon the justice minister or the premier or the CEO of Hawthorne Capital to appear in court, but maybe Stephen McNeil should be answering for why the province has no initiatives to de-carcerate and for the damaging effects that incarceration has on our communities.

In my experience, the sheriffs have always been decent. Recently, my friend’s mother died while he was awaiting trial. He needed permission to visit her in hospital, and to come to her funeral. At the funeral, the sheriffs allowed him to hold his child, born after he was incarcerated who he had never seen, and allowed his family and friends to touch and embrace him. At another friend’s trial, when they saw him writing through his trial, the sheriffs made sure there were pads of paper and pens waiting for him when he came back for sentencing.

I also experienced the delays in the court when I went to a bail hearing for a friend who had already been transferred from Burnside to another jail across the province. After everyone took the time off work to attend the hearing, it had to be cancelled and rescheduled. Besides being inconvenient and costing people money, it was deeply stressful and upsetting to everyone.

No matter how kind workers in the system are, when the system itself is deeply flawed, the effects are always going to be inhumane.

The prison industrial complex doesn’t only negatively affect incarcerated people and their communities, particularly poor and racially marginalized communities, it also affects workers in the system. As I’ve written about often, many of the communities that invest in prisons in Nova Scotia are rural communities facing economic collapse and job loss due to the collapse of traditional industries. Building a prison is seen as an economic benefit for these communities, providing contracts on construction, new training programs and jobs for correctional workers, and spending in the town by visitors who come to see their loved ones. Expanding facilities or increasing the number of prisoners is often sold, particularly to working class people and communities, as a job opportunity.

However, as we see in this story, these prisons aren’t any kind of long-term solution for workers. As we continue to pour more money into prisons, putting more and more people behind bars, we experience diminishing and negative returns. As the jails become more and more crowded, correctional staff in turn experience more violence and dangerous conditions at work. Workers are not equipped to handle the serious mental issues that are exacerbated by crowded and stressful conditions. The jails become hazardous, and along with the prisoners who live there, staff have to work on ranges covered in mold, or even shit. The same conditions that traumatize prisoners also affect staff, and correctional staff have high rates of PTSD and suicide.

Image from jobs.novascotia.ca

The carceral system continually “reforms” itself in order to sustain itself. As the Canadian criminologist Michael Jackson argues:

One of my students, Ori Kowarsky, in reviewing how Canadian prisons in every generation have generated a crisis, raised the question of whether “this habitual gearing down is analogous to a stock market ‘correction,’ a facile surface crisis which allows each generation the privilege of breathing new life into the institution and its unremoveable flaw by making its outward accoutrements according to the fashion of the times” (Ori Kowarsky, “Penitent and Penitentiary: The Problem of Situating Zones of Outlawry and Punishment” [University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law, 1998] [unpublished] at 8). The Canadian Sentencing Commission, in its 1987 summary of the succession of official inquiries, concluded that these inquiries were “more of a tribute to the resiliency of the criminal justice system than a chronicle of change” ( Sentencing Reform at 40). At the end of his year-long study in my Penal Policy seminar, Ori Kowarsky concluded that “the story of the penitentiary in the 20th century may be the story of a system straining against the law in order to remain true to its nature . . . [T]he ideology of the penitentiary is like DNA, it is encoded in every brick, in every bar and every report” (Kowarsky at 58).

The current renovations at Burnside, for example, are re-arranging the jail to institute a direct supervision model, where the officers are on the ranges with the prisoners rather than “in the bubble” separated from them. The problem isn’t whether this is a better or more effective model (people who have experienced it in the “new” jail in Pictou seem to prefer it), but rather why, instead of seeking real solutions for relying less on incarceration, we simply make adjustments in the system to better manage the population. Changing to a new policy gives the impression of system reform and improvement, while the numbers of incarcerated people continue to rise.

That we are experiencing serious breakdowns in the system is being seen at every level. Prisoners and their families are affected. Victims are affected. Staff are affected. Lawyers are affected. Judges are affected. And when our justice system stops functioning fairly, the entire society is affected, as the loss of the rights we are all entitled to cuts deeply into our most important democratic institutions.

Image from cbc.ca

It’s well past time for us as a society to seriously reckon with the failure of incarceration as social or economic policy. Not only is jail ineffective in providing the tools and skills that actually reduce crime by addressing trauma, providing treatment and rehabilitation, and generating real accountability for harm or to victims, it is unsustainable as a job creation plan for workers in this province. The only winners are people like Hawthorne Capital.

Protests by correctional workers demonstrate that despite the authority they may have over prisoners, they are also victims of the capitalist prison system. While the system convinces workers that they are on the side of “law and order” and that therefore their allegiance is with the policing and carceral state, in fact, the interests of correctional workers actually align more closely with those of advocates for prison justice and against state violence. Without real changes to the way we do justice, their working conditions will continue to be deplorable.

2. Solidarity Halifax and Police Checks

At the beginning of August, Solidarity Halifax organized three days of action on police checks.

As an organization, we urge all people to take responsibility and not allow this issue to fall solely on the shoulders of the Black community. White people benefit every day from structural inequality, and to fail to speak out against street checks is to continue to prop up a racist system.

On the first day of the action, Nova Scotians were urged to contact the police to register their opposition to the checks. Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais responded to Solidarity Halifax with a letter. I understand that members of Solidarity Halifax will be writing an article to appear in The Nova Scotia Advocate addressing this letter, and I look forward to that publication.

Robert Devet over at the Advocate has consistently been reporting on the delays in the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission’s report on whether street checks are racist, which was originally expected in July.

This is the response by Blais to Solidarity Halifax:

I acknowledge receipt of your e-mail and appreciate your concerns.

As you correctly indicated, we are continuing the analysis of the street check data. This will be done with the assistance of an academic named by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

Carrying out such an analysis will be important in order to be able to better understand the underlying causes of the disproportionality we have seen. If it were only as a result of racism, then simply stopping the practice and implementing various training and accountability solutions would, indeed, address the issue. However, the particular issue of police-community relationships and the larger issue of systemic and non-systemic racism in Nova Scotia requires that we determine exactly what we are dealing with, which includes levels of criminality, individual relationships, the approach used for street checks and other related factors.

I suspect that the issue is a lot more nuanced than what people would like to believe. We owe it to our communities and from my perspective, to the hard-working police officers who take issue with being branded racist simply because of statistics, to better understand the context around this. Only when that context is understood are we better able to deal with the immediate concern of perceived bias in HRP and the larger issue of bias in our communities. In the interim, we have begun to look at our procedures, including privacy concerns, that will change not only how we perform street checks, but will impact on those other areas where we interface with the African Nova Scotian and the Black communities.

Image from rawstory.com

Let’s break this down, shall we?

As you correctly indicated, we are continuing the analysis of the street check data. This will be done with the assistance of an academic named by the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

I’ve written already about how the insistence on an “expert,” or in this letter “an academic” to review carding is insulting to the African Nova Scotian experts who have called for a moratorium on the practice. The implication is both that nationally recognized figures in justice issues such as Robert Wright, Lana MacLean, and Shawna Hoyt don’t have the credentials to be taken seriously, and also that somehow community members can’t recognize, understand, and name their own experiences of racism.

The refusal to believe not only the Black community, but also professionals within that community, essentially suggests that African Nova Scotians are too biased to assess their own experiences and therefore don’t count as objective analysts. Meanwhile, in the same breath the police continue to deny their own bias. This is one way that white privilege is enforced — while white opinions, viewpoints, feelings, and experiences are treated as normal, universal, objective, and factual, Black perspectives are seen as subjective and therefore less valid. Despite the huge amount of research, testimony, journalism, and lived experience of racist street checks by Black people that already exists, Black expertise and intellect is never considered trustworthy or real. On the other hand, police get the benefit of the doubt, and we can never assume they might be racist without looking into the matter.

Ask judge Corinne Sparks about this dynamic. While she was accused of bias and the police discredited and attacked her for recognizing the reality of racial profiling, 20 years later despite all kinds of studies and evidence that systemic racism exists in police forces, the police are still claiming there’s no evidence that their practices are racist.

The name of the academic hasn’t been made public as far as I can find, but even if they appointed an African Nova Scotian to this position, there has already been enough proof about police racism — including the Kirk Johnson case that precipitated the order to keep data on race and police stops — to demonstrate the racism embedded in the HRP. The continued insistence on the need for more analysis, when the police ignored the data they were already keeping, is insulting and shows a lack of any actual will to confront racism.

If it were only as a result of racism, then simply stopping the practice and implementing various training and accountability solutions would, indeed, address the issue.

So the police don’t already have training and accountability around racism? And whether or not street checks are “only” a result of racism (and note the victim blaming there, with the implication being that perhaps Black people deserve to be over-surveilled and checked more), shouldn’t the police be accountable to communities because that’s their actual duty? Good to know that police feel it’s okay to wait on a report before they decide whether they want to be accountable to Black people or have training in not harassing us and being racist. They’ve claimed all along they do have training in racial bias, so which is it?

However, the particular issue of police-community relationships and the larger issue of systemic and non-systemic racism in Nova Scotia requires that we determine exactly what we are dealing with…

What the fuck is “non-systemic racism?” At the community meeting in March, The Coast reported the following exchange:

“Do you deny institutional racism exists!?” shouts a man, rising to his feet, to cheers and rumblings in a crowd of more than 70 people. There’s a pause. Then Halifax Regional Police chief Jean-Michel Blais responds:

“What do you mean by institutional racism?”

Is Blais trying to say that individual people are also racist? While individual people can and do hold racist views, that racism is “connected to/learned from broader socio-economic histories and processes and is supported and reinforced by systemic racism.”

The very definition of racism, as opposed to personal prejudices, is that it is systemic in nature. In other words, the difference between anti-Black racism and not liking people who wear scarves is that racism is enforced throughout the institutions in society (from schools, to media, to the justice system, to the statues we put in our public spaces) and reflects hierarchies of power that exist throughout our society.

If racism could be “non-systemic racism,” then that would mean that racism in individuals exists that is not influenced in any way by our histories and practices of racism — which in turn means that systemic racism would not actually exist. The point of acknowledging systemic racism is to understand that racism is not simply a matter of individual discrimination, and that white people consciously and unconsciously benefit from these structures. In other words, the construction of “non-systemic racism” actually absolves white people, and police, from their participation in systemic racism by suggesting that really racism is just a matter of some bad apples.

I’ll also note here that Blais is derailing accountability here by pointing to “racism in Nova Scotia” when the topic of discussion is the specific racist practices of the police force. Of course police attitudes reflect broader social attitudes of anti-Blackness, but deflecting to the “larger issue” of racism throughout society essentially works to suggest that the police are powerless to change their own practices. “Racism exists, so what can we do about it?” seems to be the message here. The suggestion is that it’s the responsibility of society to change before the police can change, rather than the police addressing how they engage in racial profiling.

As my mother would say, we’re not talking about what all the other kids are doing. My issue is with you.

which includes levels of criminality, individual relationships, the approach used for street checks and other related factors.

“Levels of criminality.” Translation: Black people are more criminal than white people, so we’re only checking and arresting more Black people because they commit more crimes. Never mind that repeated studies show that white people actually do more drugs than Black people, but Black people are charged far more often with possession. Recent data from Toronto showed:

Black people with no history of criminal convictions have been three times more likely to be arrested by Toronto police for possession of small amounts of marijuana than white people with similar backgrounds.

Again, police practices of racial profiling mean that if you are stopping more Black people, then you are going to find more illegal activity in that population. The police then use this “data” to determine who they police, resulting in more policing of Black people, and therefore more “evidence” of illegal activity. The police insistence on Black criminality is actually created by their practices of racially profiling us in the first place.

Of course, if they were really interested in determining “levels of criminality” and fairly policing, they wouldn’t be so dedicated to defending flawed practices that have been shown over and over again to be rooted in racial bias and ideas of Black pathology and threat. This demonstrates that police profiling is not simply about identifying crime, but is actually about controlling Black populations, and enforcing white power over Black bodies.

We owe it to our communities and from my perspective, to the hard-working police officers who take issue with being branded racist simply because of statistics, to better understand the context around this.

The real victims of racial profiling aren’t the Black people being terrorized and harassed by police, it’s the poor police officers who get accused of being racist for engaging in racist practices that have been shown over and over again to be racist. Black people aren’t seen as fully human, so what really matters is the feelings of police officers. Being called racist is of course worse than actually suffering racism. Police officers shouldn’t be accused of racism without extraordinary proof, but stopping Black people on suspicion is perfectly fine. Translation: it’s okay if we accuse Black people without any evidence of anything, but accusing us of things there actually is evidence for is the real problem here.

Photo: New Glasgow Police. Real victims have tanks

Why isn’t Solidarity Halifax devoting their anti-capitalist labour to “contextualizing” the police? They owe it to the community!

I also note how the goalposts are continually being moved with regards for proof. When Black people speak about experiences of racism, we are told that these experiences don’t actually exist because there are no numbers. But now, with actual numbers showing exactly how racist police checks are, suddenly statistics are somehow meaningless and don’t offer any proof. So what exactly would be proof of racism then? And if statistics don’t count, what possible evidence could a report provide that the police would accept as showing them that they are racist?

Only when that context is understood are we better able to deal with the immediate concern of perceived bias in HRP and the larger issue of bias in our communities.

“Perceived bias.” Translation: the problem is how Black people perceive things, not our actual actions. Also, the concern is how we’re being perceived, not the trauma experienced by Black people. And again with the “larger issue”  of racism anywhere else but with the police, despite the police having the power to arrest people, deprive them of liberty, impact their future employment, socially stigmatize them, commit violence upon our bodies, etc. What other biases that we experience are more serious than that?

Image from goodmenproject.com

In the interim, we have begun to look at our procedures, including privacy concerns, that will change not only how we perform street checks, but will impact on those other areas where we interface with the African Nova Scotian and the Black communities.

“Interface?” Was there a rollout of police robots that we all missed? This kind of corporate euphemism nicely elides the actual trauma of police checks. The police aren’t “interfacing” with us, they are terrorizing us, making us feel unsafe on the streets and our communities, restricting our movements and how we live in society and the choices we make about where to go and how, creating alienation in our youth and affecting their self-esteem and sense of belonging, and letting us know our place as Black people at the bottom of society and at the mercy of white power systems.

The rest of that paragraph is basically, that since the police got caught, they’ll make some small changes to suggest they are reforming their practices, while continuing to engage in oppressive practices that have already been ended in other communities.

Apparently, if we all just stopped calling the police racist when they demonstrate their racism, then “interfacing” with the Black community would stop being a problem. The real problem is Black people, how we see things, how we insist on driving and walking around, how we continue to believe that when we experience racism, racism therefore exists. If only we would stop causing all our police checks, then things would be better.

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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. I got off the PRISON WORKER topic because El Jones injects every intricate article she writes with a mega dose of humanity. Prison workers are the grout that makes the bricks look solid. I believe their voices could change the environment they work in for the best. Social media. GO!.

  2. The ‘pattern’ prison fails everyone. Ori Kowarsky’s analysis is very true, in my opinion. Prison is still invested in as a ‘one size fits all’ institution which eliminates rehabilitation just as classrooms filled with two or three levels of learners got excellent pre-election attention. Investing in two or three tier prison systems is where our money should be spent. And not to suggest prison rehab wouldn’t still be jail, rather a second or third opportunity for incarcerated people battling addiction the chance to get clean and connected to opportunity. Not to imagine that a hospital for mentally incarcerated prisoners would be any less a hospital BUT a humane solution for those unfortunate souls – and the prison staff who must watch over them. Prison for the cold-blooded, rehab prison and prison hospital. Imagine the relief our currant system would have. Mega employment for rehab alone and national acclaim for Prison Hospitals plus jobs, jobs and relief.

  3. What the heck do they need tanks for in New Glasgow? Though it obviously made them happy, it seems a waste of money to me.

    1. The vehicle is not a tank and New Glasgow were given one when DND were disposing of the vehicles. Ludicrous decision by the town where there is no reason for them to have such equipment.

      1. Colin May, please note my name and picture to the left of this comment. Further, you know where I live, because we live in the same nice, mostly white, middle class neighbourhood.

        The fact that you sat in a room full of mostly white men – yes, I’m taking a wild guess – at Police Commission meetings, tells me something, but as hard as I try, I can’t figure out how that gives you any insight into systemic racism and the resulting police checks and harassment visited upon mostly young, black men.

        And “over the past 25 years (you) have read many articles and books regarding policing and the role and duties of a police officer”. Why? Did you just spend the last 25 years preparing for the moment when you could come to the defense of the HRP? Racist policing has only entered into the public consciousness in the past couple of years and only because of the powerful voices of activists like El Jones and organizations – I prefer the word, movements – like Black Lives Matter.

        There is well documented proof that systemic racism is common in most police departments in North America. Most of that racism is directed at young black men, but you can also see it in the treatment of indigenous people in many parts of the Great White North. Racist attitudes displayed by some (certainly not all) cops is tolerated by the white politicians and government officials to an alarming degree.

        I have confronted a couple of Halifax councilors – the ones I thought might be a bit more progressive or at least, a little more enlightened – and have been met with indifference when I raised the problem of racism and specifically, street checks, in the HRP. “It’s being studied”, they say.

        Perhaps, if you had just read newspapers and watched and listened to news casts over the past 25 years instead of thumbing through the pages of the Police Gazette, you might have learned a bit about the subject at hand. If you had, you would know that many black and indigenous people have indeed
        complained “through the normal complaint process”, over the past 25 years and you would know that most of those complaints were met by total lack of interest from the white power structure.

        Chief Blais’ insistence on studying the data is simply a way to buy time in the hope that the issue will just fade away. It won’t. Chief Blais and city council need to admit there is a problem and deal with it. Sometimes you just have to enforce the law and in this case, as succinctly stated by Bill Turpin, the law is the Canadian Constitution.

    1. I attend the meetings of the Board of Police Commissioners and over the past 25 years have read many articles and books regarding policing and the role and duties of a police officer. I am familiar with police legislation across the country.
      Why do you hide your name ?
      Pluck up the courage to post comments with your name.

    2. Mr. May: I have been interested in racism most of my 75 years, particularly how it’s played out in my own city. Mz. Jones makes it clear that our black and white population experience the world in very different ways. That’s why I asked you the question. In another era it would have been a rude question. You’re right, though: I don’t feel comfortable posting my name. I’m not a major contributor here and I enjoy the well written, strong opinions…even Parker what’s-his-name.

      1. The Police Commission meetings are open to the public at City Hall and meeting minutes and documents are available through the HRM website.
        A peace officer has great discretion as to how she/he carries out her/his duties and responsibilities, and we rely on well trained persons to exercise good judgement.

  4. What makes street-checks constitutional? Sections 7, 8 and 9 suggest they aren’t.
    Section 15 also strongly suggests HRM’s approach is unconstitutional.
    The police brass should be called to account for these violations in court.
    Where is the proof street checks fight crime or make us safer? On the face it, a high number of arrests doesn’t indicate less crime.

    1. ‘Street checks’ include an officer writing in her/his notebook the details of something she/he has observed or overheard.
      People who believe they have been stopped or talked to because of their race or for no reason should complain through the normal complaint process, it is not difficult – based on my personal experience.

      1. Recourse to a complaint process doesn’t make street-checking constitutional.
        Making notes is fine, obviously, and if that’s all HRP were doing I don’t think many people would complain, even if they noticed it. But stopping someone peacefully going about their business is oppressive. Police need a credible reason to detain you. Otherwise, you don’t even have to produce ID. You can just wish them a good day and get on with your own.