Counter-Archiving the Prison-Industrial Complex in Toronto

Counter-Archiving the Prison-Industrial Complex in Toronto
Kenley Ku Ferris

Queer and trans Black, Indigenous and people of colour (QTBIPOC) in and around Toronto have made countless important contributions organizing against the carceral logics, apparatuses, mechanics, cycles of harm, violence, and exploitation that we often refer to as the prison industrial complex (PIC). As illustrated by social movements in Toronto more broadly (documented in earlier collections by the Marvellous Grounds collective), QTBIPOC activists, organizers, and ways of knowing are crucial to any substantive theory, history, or practice of abolition and critical resistance, in the city and elsewhere.’

The “prison-industrial complex” (PIC) has emerged as a conceptual framework to comprehend the increasing rates of incarceration in light of prison privatization, carceral-corporate collusion, racialized modes of surveillance and oppression, neoliberal political economy, labour markets, systemic violence, and governance strategies. The term “prison industrial complex” originates from the Prison Research Education Action Project’s 1976 abolitionist handbook, Instead of Prisons. In addition to highlighting the profitability of incarceration in a post-Fordist regime, the framework also explains who goes to prison and why. For example, Angela Davis and Cassandra Shaylor elucidate that “the proliferation of prisons and prisoners is more clearly linked to larger economic and political structures and ideologies than to individual criminal conduct and efforts to curb ‘crime’”. 1 Other activist scholars, too, have highlighted how the state and the law have historically defined “crime” as belonging to Black and brown bodies, communities and spaces, often punishing trans women of colour and others ‘offending’ against the colonial gender binary to deadly effect. 2 Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it very simply: “While common sense suggests a natural connection between ‘crime’ and ‘prison,’ what counts as a crime in fact changes … Defined in the simple terms of the secular state, crime means a violation of the law. Laws change, depending on what, in a social order, counts as stability, and who, in a social order, needs to be controlled”. 3

It has been argued that the very act of incarceration—that is, punishing an individual by detaining them in a location away from society and under surveillance—came to prominence as the practice of corporal punishment (i.e. whipping, flogging, execution, and so on) fell out of favour amongst “liberal” states (i.e., Canada, the US, Europe). This turn toward imprisonment came as the result of Enlightenment discourses of human rights and “humanitarianism” that spread across Europe and North America throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and were promptly exported globally as a tool of supposedly “humanitarian” colonial governance. 4 5 In these contexts, incarceration and detention practices have served colonial nation-state projects such as Canada by relegating those deemed exterior to acceptable forms of citizenship not only “civilly dead” (deprived of rights), but “socially dead”. 6 These conditions of “social death” (alongside the very literal horrors of death and torture within prisons) engendered by the prison system and its many cousin institutions—psychiatric hospitals, residential schools, etc.—unto BIPOC peoples have coalesced into a “genocidal carcerality”, a carcerality inherent in the PIC that is disproportionately and specifically inflicted upon BIPOC individuals, and particularly upon Black and Indigenous peoples. 7 Numerous scholars have argued that in the era of purported legislative colour evasiveness, the prison industrial complex and the turn toward mass incarceration function as vestigial proxies of anti-Black violence, drawing incisive comparisons between the North American PIC and the “Jim Crow” laws in the southern United States, 8 the racialized geographies of the “ghetto”, 9 and chattel slavery. 10 11

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  1. Angela Davis and Cassandra Shaylor, “Race, Gender, and the Prison Industrial Complex: California and Beyond,” Meridians 2, no. 1 (2011): 2.
  2. Eric A. Stanley and Nate Smith, Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex (AK Press, 2015).
  3. Ruth W. Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Oppositions in Globalizing California (University of California Press, 2007): 12.
  4. Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Sisters Press, 2003).
  5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (Pantheon Books, 1977).
  6. Joshua M. Price, Prison and Social Death (Rutgers University Press, 2015).
  7. Andrew Woolford & James Gacek, “Genocidal Carcerality and Indian Residential Schools in Canada,” Punishment and Society 18, no. 4 (2016): 400-19.
  8. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010).
  9. Lois Wacquant, “The New Peculiar Institution: On the Prison as Surrogate Ghetto,” Theoretical Criminology 4, no. 3 (2000): 377-389.
  10. Dennis Childs, “‘You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet’: ‘Beloved,’ the American Chain Gang, and the Middle Passage Remix,” American Quarterly 61, no. 2 (2009): 271-297.
  11. Viviane Saleh-Hanna, “Black Feminist Hauntology: Rememory the Ghosts of Abolition?,” Penal Field 12 (2015). Online.