Prisons, incarceration, philosophy, and Canada

Over at Gender, Race, and Philosophy last week, Ron Sundstrom posted an interesting reflection “Philosophy and the Carceral Society” that has generated some correspondingly interesting (but, alas, longer …) comments since then from Jeffrey Paris, Rebecca Gordon, and Eduardo Mendieta that are worth reading in full. In the post, after acknowledging the work of philosophers like Mendieta, Angela Davis and Michel Foucault, Sundstrom says

While there are political philosophers and philosophers of race working on the issue of prisons, it is not a subject at the center of the debate. For example, in the most influential recent analytic accounts of racism, prisons are hardly mentioned. Racial profiling and other such issues are mentioned, but prisons, surprisingly, are not! I suspect that philosophers, myself included, have seen prisons as symptoms, as outcomes of institutional racism and distributive justice at other levels of society. Thus, while educational and residential segregation are regularly addressed, prisons as a subject are neglected.

Given that prisons have become a major institutional source of downstream, transgenerational inequality and marginalization, their relative neglect by philosophers otherwise concerned with justice, oppression, and race here is striking. In his comments, Jeffrey Paris has some especially interesting things to say on this.

What’s the deal in Canada, both on the ground and “in the mind”? While race ain’t quite the category in Canada that it is in the US, consider the following statistics on incarceration rates amongst persons of aboriginal descent from 2004-05 (see Prison Justice for the gorier details):

22% of admissions (vs 3% of the adult population in the 2001 Census)
70% or more of the prison population in each of Saskatchewan, the Yukon, and Manitoba
54% of the female prison population in Alberta (~4% of the provincial population)

Institutional segregation comes in a variety of forms, some explicitly coded (e.g., training centres for the “mentally defective”), some not–like prisons vis-a-vis race, ethnicity, and heritage, and some (like residential schools in Canada) inbetween. One effect of this segregation is a kind of invisibility, and a corresponding death of imagination in the minds of those envisioning what sorts of people there will be, as a result. (Or maybe not: in some cases of institutional segregation, the future vision was all too clear–and THAT was part of the problem … more on this another time.)

If anyone knows of Canadian philosophical work on prisons, incarceration, and differential cultural impact, please share, or let us know why you think this ain’t on the philosophical map, if it ain’t.


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