The Mass Incarceration Agenda in Canada: The View from Vancouver

This Feature Analysis is reprinted with the kind permission of BASICS Community News Service, an ILPS-Canada member organization

by Aiyanas Ormond*

Housing is an issue that preoccupies Vancouver. The local ruling elite is dominated by real-estate developers who fund both of the major civic political parties. Urban professionals seem to spend most of their time talking about their mortgages. The rest of us are desperately clinging to affordable housing if we have it, juggling jobs to pay exorbitant rents or mortgage payments, or living in substandard housing or on the streets.

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While the political elites meticulously avoid any kind of coherent action on housing – beyond paying lip service to ‘homelessness’ – the Provincial government is implementing its housing plan for the poor: two new remand centers with 700 cells between them. The expanded jail capacity is the lynchpin in the mass incarceration agenda – the new approach to dealing with the ‘surplus population’ as the welfare state continues to be dismantled and economic crisis mounts. Incarceration rates are already rising after a decade of decline and the federal “Omnibus Crime Bill” will significantly ramp up this process. Meanwhile, the Vancouver Police Department, and other forces across Canada, are ready and willing to dig the criminals out of the poor urban neighbourhoods, expanding their bloated budget and building successful police careers as they go. The number of police in Canada – and the expenditure on policing, over $12 billion in 2009 – have been increasing steadily despite a falling crime rate.

This paper starts with examining the components of the mass incarceration agenda – federal legislation, provincial construction of private prisons and the on-the-ground practices of police. The second section focuses on the structural factors shaping the mass incarceration agenda, as a new form of social control in the wake of the declining welfare state and as a successor system to the colonial residential schools.

The Ominous Crime Bill

The Conservative Omnibus Crime Bill (OCB) is the legislative component of the mass incarceration agenda in Canada. It will significantly increase the number of incarcerated people in Canada, at a huge cost – billions of dollars that could be spent on housing, health care or other social programs to improve conditions in communities.

The OCB targets groups that are vulnerable to labeling and vilification: ‘drug dealers’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘human traffickers’. In reality the people who will fill the new jail spaces are the poor, Native folks already over-represented among incarcerated people, people who are addicted to drugs and criminalized immigrants and refugees. The major mechanism will be the new mandatory minimums for drug sentences, and limits on conditional or alternative sentencing for ‘serious’ crimes’. This has special significance for Native people going through the courts because alternatives to incarceration such as sentencing circles, community justice committees and healing lodges have been proposed as the main strategy for addressing the over-representation of Native people in the prison system. The OCB also contains laws limiting the discretion of judges and stiffening penalties for ‘violent young offenders’ including expanding the definition of a violent crime to include ‘reckless behaviour endangering public safety’. The section on immigrants and refugees strengthens ministerial power and will be used in conjunction with other legislation to criminalize and incarcerate immigrants and refugees. The mass incarceration of Tamil refugees arriving in B.C. in 2010 stands out as a singular example of this ‘new approach’.

The mandatory minimums are the main mechanism by which this legislation will significantly increase the rate of incarceration in Canada. Mandatory minimums are stipulated for ‘drug trafficking’ in a range of illicit drugs, for drug offenses committed near a place frequented by minors, and for drug offenses committed as part of a ‘criminal organization’ (three or more people involved in the ‘crime’). While the government rhetoric around this legislation suggests that it targets drug kingpins and pushers, the reality on the ground is very different. The vast majority of people involved in the drug trade are people who are addicted to drugs or people who face other barriers to formal employment and get involved in drug production or selling at a very low level, often under very exploitative and violent conditions. The drug dealers in jail aren’t kingpins living in high-rise condos and driving fancy cars. The vast majority are people who hold drugs or cash at the street level. They are often paid in drugs (sell 5 rock, you get one) and are subject to violence from their bosses, and from the police, precisely because of the criminalized nature of the capitalist drug market. They have no control over what drugs come in or how they are distributed, and they are eminently replaceable within the economic structure of the drug trade, though not for their families, friends, children and communities.

New Homes for the Poor

While a few provincial governments are taking a stand against the OCB because of the anticipated cost of incarceration, across the country there is a huge boom in prison renovation and construction – according to the National Post the largest expansion of prison building since the 1930s. The Federal Government is adding 2,700 new prison ‘beds’ and the provinces are adding another 7,000 spaces across the country. The federal expenditure for prisons has ballooned $2.98 billion this year (a more than 80% increase) and is expected to rise to $3.98 billion next year. When you include the provincial expenditure on prisons the current annual cost is $4.4 billion, expected to rise to $9.5 billion by 2015.

In Alberta, a new Edmonton Remand Centre is currently under construction. The $586 million, 16-hectare facility has space for up to 2,800 and is slated to open in 2012. The Toronto South Detention Centre, to replace the Don Jail, carries a price tag of over $1 billion and is being built as a “Public-Private-Partnership” (P3) with a private company to build, design and operate the 1650 bed facility for 30 years.

In British Columbia the Provincial Government is in the process of building a 216 cell, $185 million remand center in Surrey and has budgeted for an even larger facility (more than 500 cells) in the Okanagan. Both facilities are being built on ‘Private-Public-Partnership’ (P3) model. The contract to ‘design-build-operate’ the Surrey facility has already been awarded to Brookfield Properties Management, a subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management, a gigantic Canadian real estate corporation that manages $150 billion in assets globally. This company will profit off the incarceration of the poor for the 30 year period of the contract.

Incarceration rates rose for a fourth year in 2008/2009, with more that 38,348 people incarcerated on any given day and more than a quarter million people doing some time in prison over the course of the year. With the OCB legislation and the increase in prison capacity the rate of increase is set to ramp up significantly.

The cost of incarceration per inmate is about $57,000 per year in a provincial jail and more than $88,000 per year in the federal system. So if you get a mandatory minimum of one year for selling drugs, probably one that you are addicted to, the State will spend $57,000 on you, but if you are unemployed and have to rely on welfare you’ll get $7320 per year ($610/ month – the regular welfare rate in B.C.). Since you can’t survive on $610, and because welfare will claw back any income you declare, dollar for dollar, you will have to resort to some kind of crime.

The jails are clogged with people who are in jail mainly because they are poor, addicted, and/or Native. Of charges that came to court in Canada in 2008-2009 about 21% were for administrative ‘crimes’ such as failure to appear in court, breach of probation (missing an appointment with your probation officer), or failure to comply with an order such as a no-go in a certain area. These charges are often generated as a consequence of drug charges, especially possession charges, that are later dropped because they are unlikely to result in any serious sanction. They are crimes that someone with the resources to keep track of court appointments, get to court and have representation would never do time for. Another 7% are drug possession and trafficking charges with no suggestion of violent behaviour, basically prohibition charges. And another 23% are for crimes against property, again with no suggestion of violence. From survival shoplifting to break and enter and auto theft, these are mainly crimes of economic survival generated by the gross inequality and poverty of our society. Only 12% of reported crimes in Canada are considered violent. A 1988 report on young offenders in custody in Manitoba shows that 45% were incarcerated for property crimes, 7.6% for ‘crimes against themselves’ such as drug use, sexual immorality or public drunkenness and fully 26.5% were in jail for victimless crimes like failure to appear in court.

Soft Crime Miners

In the mass incarceration framework neighbourhoods like the Downtown Eastside become gold mines for police wanting to increase their budgets. Despite a falling crime rate the Vancouver Police Department budget continues to increase, topping $200 million this year. The police regularly point to the Downtown Eastside to justify more police and an ever expanding budget.

Poor people engage in all kinds of survival strategies that can be criminalized from selling scavenged items on the sidewalk, to participation in the criminalized drug market to selling sex.

The Vancouver Police Department ‘Beat Enforcement Teams’ in the Downtown Eastside have a policy of checking IDs three times per block. This systematic harassment of poor people allows the police to run names for warrants, and make arrests on ‘Failure to Appear’, parole and no-go violations, the kinds of administrative ‘crimes’ clogging the prison. So in the Downtown Eastside you can get ticketed for vending or a minor drug possession charge, then when you eventually miss a court date or violate ridiculous conditions or release – like a no-go for an area where you access services or where you work in the informal economy or where you procure drugs to which you are addicted– you can actually be jailed.

A combination of starvation welfare rates, drug war policies that criminalize people for what they put in their body, and the criminalization of people for vending, jaywalking and other bylaw violations make the Downtown Eastside a gold mine for the cop bosses looking to increase their budgets on the basis of ‘high crime rates’, and individual cops looking to make a career with high arrest rates.


Mass incarceration is not simply a question of the ‘Harper Agenda’ or following the U.S. lead. Its a policy shaped by the current structural realities of capitalism and by the balance of class forces. Mass incarceration is embraced by the ruling parties in Canada – the Liberals only came out against the mandatory minimum legislation after they lost the power to block it – because it is the social control policy that fits with the current logic of capitalist profitability.

Surplus Population

Capitalist profitability relies on a ‘reserve army of labour’ (high unemployment) as a downward pressure on wages Bosses love to be able to say “there are plenty of people out there who would love your shitty, low-paying job”. That’s why capitalist governments don’t really promote full employment, why people are forced off the land in periods of industrialization and why immigration policy is so profoundly linked to labour markets.

Maintaining the reserve army of labour is necessary to bolster profitability, but it’s also a problem for the Capitalist State. The ‘surplus population’ needs to be kept miserable and impoverished to the point that they serve as a deterrent and a symbol to workers of what could happen to them if they ‘cause trouble’. But this surplus can also become destabilizing if they begin to rebel, especially if this rebellion takes on a political character. Just starve them and they tend to get disruptive or even turn to revolution. The other option is to provide them with enough ‘welfare’ to keep them relatively contained, but this requires dipping into either profits or into the wage earnings of the employed working class, which can create it’s own conflicts. The last option is to terrorize (criminalize) the ‘surplus population’ to such an extent that they will not resist their miserable condition. This option is not particularly cheaper than the welfare state option, but since the expenditure goes to building and operating privatized or semi-privatized prisons, and to buying cars and guns for cops and border guards, it is more lucrative to (at least some) capitalists than the direct redistributive option.

In the period after World War 2, the welfare state option, with relatively high rates of unionization, unemployment insurance and other redistributive programs was the preferred option for social control for the Canadian capitalist state. The basis of this policy framework was a high degree of government intervention and regulation, relatively high rates of unionization and redistributive programs like unemployment insurance, public health insurance and welfare. Historically this ‘compromise’ was shaped domestically by the experience of the depression and the specter of working class militancy and internationally by the ‘threat’ of a socialist alternative embodied at that time by the USSR and China in particular.

The welfare state began to be dismantled in the 1970s, giving way to a new economic regime – neoliberalism. The main target of neoliberalism was progressive taxation structures and redistributive programs. The dismantling of the welfare state has proved very profitable to the rich, especially the top 1% who have become much richer. In the context of the global economic crisis, it also means that greater social friction and class conflict are inevitable and a new regime of social control is required. Class conflict can take a lot of shapes at this stage. It can be the yuppie condo owner who doesn’t like the look of the poor people on the street outside his building and calls the police. It can be increasing rates of theft and sabotage in the workplace. It can be the occupy movement. What is sure is that the ruling class, at its most strategic and forward thinking levels is looking for a new regime of social control to deal with the ‘social breakdown’.

The new regime of social control is mass incarceration. It is supported by the ruling class as a whole because it is a long term strategy to warehouse and incapacitate the surplus population, and a signal to the poor of what awaits them if they challenge the current distribution of wealth. It garners support from corporations who want to make profits off privatization of prisons, and from police seeking to increase budgets under the ‘tough on crime’ regime. It is also supported by a portion of the middle class and the more privileged strata of the working class, expressed as concerns about property crime and ‘public disorder’, and fear and hate towards drug users and other poor people. These ‘middle class’ folks, if not won over to a more compelling social justice politics become the ‘mass support’ for the mass incarceration agenda.

New Regime of Colonial Control

The disproportionate incarceration of Native people, who make up about 4% of the population but about 20% of incarcerated people, indicates that there is another structural dimension to this process of mass incarceration aside from the necessity of containing unemployed workers. As an internal colony, Native people play a special role within the ‘reserve army of labour’. During periods of economic boom they can be incorporated into the labour force, particularly in the extractive industries and as cheap labour. When unemployment is high Natives can be marginalized on reserves or in urban ghettos.

However, this doesn’t explain the rising disproportionality of incarceration, which begins following World War 2. To understand this disproportionality we have to look at colonial policy, and particularly the shift from the policy of assimilation, stripping native people of their national rights by gradually ‘incorporating’ them into Canadian society, to a policy of extinguishment – the strategy of stripping indigenous people of their historical and national rights through legislative measures like the Comprehensive Land Claims Policy and the treaty process. In this sense the disproportionate mass incarceration should be seen a successor system to the residential school system and a component of the ongoing genocide policy against Native people in Canada.

It is a successor system in the sense that many of the people currently incarcerated and those who will fill the new prisons are survivors of residential schools, or children or grandchildren of residential school survivors. Their incarceration is often linked to their use of illicit drugs and alcohol – a response to individual physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and to colonization and genocide.

It also needs to be seen as a successor system in terms of being an alternative to residential schools as a mechanism for social control. Young native people often experience the police or RCMP as an occupying army in their communities. Forty-one percent of all federally-incarcerated Native people are under the age of 25. The Canadian State and colonial Canadian society have a fear of young, angry Native people. The ‘civilizing’ mission of residential schools was one strategy for colonization and social control of this group and it appears that mass incarceration will be a key part of the next one.

How We Should Resist

We need to demand changes in the drug laws, to demand de-incarceration and to build political power to reign in the police to prevent them from mining our neighbourhoods for bodies to fill their prisons. And we should engage in immediate struggles for redistributive programs as a concrete alternative to mass incarceration: homes not jails! daycare not jails! education not jails!

The groups demonized and terrorized by this legislation – people who use drugs, immigrants and refugees, youth, and Native groups – should take the lead in this immediate fightback. They have the most stake in defeating these particular policies and building in longer term movements to address the systemic roots of the policies – the drug war, the immigration system, systemic racism in Canadian society, police brutality and harassment and so on.

Finally, because capitalism and colonization are at the structural root of these injustices we need to fight for systemic change, to tip the balance of power between the colonial state and oppressed Native nations, between the bosses and workers, between the ruling class and the rest of us, so that we can begin to dismantle this sick system and replace it with one based on solidarity, social justice and liberation!

December 15, 2011

* Author Aiyanas Ormond is active with Alliance for People’s Health, an ILPS-Canada member organization


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