El Jones asks us to think about incarceration in terms of health, not punishment.
I just got off the phone with a man in Quebec – a lifer – who has recently been transferred from a maximum security prison to a medium security prison. This means that he can have more freedom of movement, more access to programs, and more opportunities for interaction with other inmates. It also means that he has two weeks to find a job. If he doesn’t have a job by then, he will be locked in his cell during work hours.
He applied for a number of jobs that weren’t available – the job postings were outdated. He applied to work in the prison hospital, but he was turned down because he was perceived as a “risk.” He applied to work as a range cleaner (sweeping and mopping housing areas) and as a food server.
The one job he doesn’t want is a job with CORCAN, which he describes as a “sweatshop.” CORCAN is Correctional Services Canada employment “training” program. CORCAN work mostly involves mass manufacturing of such things as mattresses, pillows, blankets, office furniture, and other products that are sold primarily to federal government departments.
A former member of the inmate committee at a federal institution, describes CORCAN jobs as exploitative. A prisoner who works for CORCAN will be working in a highly supervised environment, in a job that offers no real skills training, without labour benefits or incentives, and where there are quotas that have to be met. Black inmates who work for CORCAN describe their experiences of exploitation as analogous to slavery.
Other jobs offer more freedom and perks. A landscaper, for example, gets to spend more time outside. Some jobs in lower security institutions even allow prisoners to leave the facility. Jobs that offer, however briefly, the “feeling of not being in prison” are highly prized.
For this man, having a job is very much about health and well-being. Without a job, he will be locked in a cell for most of the day. This will limit his freedom of movement and will make it more difficult for him to interact socially. Financially, if he isn’t working, then he isn’t making money that he could use to buy things, such as “non-institutional” toothpaste, other hygiene products, or canteen food. The pay for prison work is between $2.50 to $6.90 a day. This money can also be used to buy time on a phone card to maintain contact with people on the outside, which is important for building and maintaining relationships. Further, one can have pride and satisfaction knowing that he is limiting his dependency on others by paying for as much of his needs as he can.
We tend to think of incarceration in terms of justice. But what if we thought about incarceration in terms of health?
Usual talk about health in prisons tends to focus on medical conditions (for example, the prevalence of diseases such as Hepatitis C.). Frequently, there is also talk about mental health conditions and the disproportionate number of mentally ill people in prison. Beyond that, we might think about prisoners having to travel to hospitals for medical care in shackles and with guards. Or, we might think about access to basic health care in terms of the frequency of provider visits. Or, we might think about inmates (perhaps especially those serving life sentences) and their need for palliative care. These are all important issues.
By comparison, there is considerably less talk about the trauma suffered by people as a result of imprisonment, or about how prison affects one’s self-esteem. What about the condition of not being free and having a captive body as foundational to thinking about health in prison?
How do prisoners maintain a healthy sense of self? For example, if a body is locked up, can a person have a healthy sexual relationship or even a healthy sexual identity? Personal visits offer limited opportunities for conjugal visitation. There are legitimate concerns about prison rape and contracting aids and opportunities for self-love are restricted.
Is it possible for prisoners to love themselves or to self-care in an environment where they are identified as criminals and are being punished?
The man I mention above frequently refers to “feeling human,” which he uses to variously mean feeling respected, feeling loved, being treated fairly, or feeling connected to the world outside prison. He refers to his sense that he is “evolving,” which he uses to mean that even though he is in prison he is still living a meaningful life. This is one reason why having a job where he doesn’t feel exploited is important to his sense of self.
Thinking about incarceration in terms of health can lead towards transformative justice ideas. Instead of thinking about crime and punishment, we might think about healthy and unhealthy communities and how best to pursue healing.
El Jones is a spoken word activist and the Halifax Regional Municipality Poet Laureate (2013-2015).