My name’s mandy, and I’m here today to talk about zoos, labs, factory farms and the prison industrial complex. I feel like in the room there’s a lot of folks who are pretty aware of the issues with zoos, factory farms and labs, so I’m going to focus a little bit more on prison, because I’m making an assumption that that’s something that maybe people are less familiar with… do folks feel like that’s a fairly accurate assumption to make?
[Nods from the audience]
Okay. Cool. I was asked to speak because, like Alanna said in the introduction, I spent most of last year in Vanier Centre for Women which is just down the 401 in Milton. It is a women’s jail and it’s also a provincial jail, so just for some context: a provincial jail is one where you would go if you were convicted of something that got you two years less a day, or less, as a sentence.
So basically, not your most violent crimes. It’s also a place where you would be if you’ve been charged with something and you haven’t been convicted yet – you haven’t even gone to trial yet – but you haven’t been able to make bail.
According to the latest statistics about 60% of all prisoners in provincial jails in Ontario have not yet been convicted of anything. So that’s an important fact to keep in mind when we think of who the people are who are incarcerated right now in this province. So a little run down of who, more specifically, those people tend to be: basically if you are one of the 60% that couldn’t get bail, you couldn’t get bail because you are not considered to be a respectable enough person, you don’t have a good enough background, you don’t have enough “potential”, and mostly, that your friends and your family are not considered to be upstanding enough or wealthy enough to post bail for you and to be able to keep you under control while you wait for your trial.
So you can imagine who those people are, who don’t have those things, and who they are not. In a nutshell, people who are marginalized in society are going to be the ones who end up in jail, not necessarily because they committed any crimes (whatever that really means) but simply because they can’t get bail. So those are poor people, and they’re people of colour, they’re Indigenous people. They’re almost – I would say almost exclusively – people with a lot of trauma, a lot of people with mental health issues and they’ve been charged or potentially sentenced for things like sex-work, small time drug dealing, shoplifting… things that in a lot of circles are called “survival crimes”.
If you live in a place where the state is not mandated to provide a basic living for everyone, and capitalism – in its wisdom – requires that 10% of unemployed people, so that capitalism can function, and you’re one of those 10%, then you’re going to do other things to get by. And the more those things are criminalized then the more likely you are to end up in jail, just for trying to survive. And then the convenient thing for the state and for the capitalists is that once you’re in jail, you have to work for free! So it’s like, you don’t have to have a job on the outside, nobody has to provide that for you or to make sure that you can survive, but they can criminalize your behaviour such that you’re put in jail and then you can work for them. And then the money goes not to you, but to the state or to the corporations. It’s an important thing to keep in mind and it also kind of sums up this idea of the Prison Industrial Complex: that there’s a whole industry built around the prison system and the cops and the courts, and a lot of people make a lot of money off that.
To be honest, you know, one feeling that I had often in Vanier was that it really didn’t matter who these people are. It doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant. It just that there needs to be people in those beds. Those beds need to be full so that this whole system can carry on. And so, when you look at things like the statistics that say that violent crime in this country is going down and yet the numbers of people in prisons is going up, that makes a lot of sense when you look at it in terms of, well, this is a profit-making machine, right? Those beds need to be full, people need to make money off this. If people aren’t committing those violent crimes then we’ve got to criminalize other things and make sure that more people go to jail for them. And make sure that people aren’t given probation, and make sure that people are sentenced for longer. So all of these things start to make sense when you see prison not as a place for rehabilitation, or even for punishment, but actually just a place to make money.
So what was prison like? It’s infantilizing, it’s monotonous, it kind of chips away at whatever sense of dignity you may have had before you got there. But I want to make it clear that if you’re like me, for example, I had a lot of visits and I knew when I was going to get out. And I also could make phone calls, and I knew exactly why I was there. And so I tried to think a lot about what that would be like if I didn’t know those things. What if I was in a cage in a laboratory, or a zoo, or a factory farm – how would that be? You don’t know why you’re there… nothing makes sense. And the isolation that I felt, I could kind of reason through it, but animals can’t really do that.
I thought a lot about that, actually, when I was in that cage. One thing that I thought about when I was trying to write this talk… I remember this time when a group of students came through the jail. I don’t know what they were studying to be. We were having lunch, so we’re all out on the range, nobody’s in their cells, we’re all out there and we’re eating from the plastic tray, and they come by and they all have their little visitor badges on and they walked by and they all kind of sat there like this and they just, like you said, gawked. And I was like, “I am in a zoo right now… Maybe we should throw food at them.” But it was really weird and I was like, “Woah, I really do feel like an animal in a cage right now.”
But that’s kind of just a little aside… I know there’s not a lot of time but I want to direct people, I wrote this article in this issue of Shameless, which is the Spring/Summer issue of this year – not because I’m plugging it but just because I went through a lot of what it’s like in there – so if people are interested you could check that out. But I guess what I wanted to talk mostly about today is that basically people and animals are both in cages to serve a colonialist, capitalist system. I feel like most of the people that have spoken today have alluded to this. Animals live and die the way they do for profit. So, animal research? Totally profit-based. You know, people talk about animal research saving lives and all that, but there’s a lot of research that has nothing to do with that – they’re testing new products for the market, products that already exist, they just want a different company to make a slightly different one, so that company can make more money. The University of Guelph has a lot of research like that.
And there wouldn’t be animals in the entertainment industry, obviously, if it wasn’t profitable. It’s the same thing for people. There’s a lot of people in the world that capitalism can’t make any use of, and the only way it can make use of them is when they’re behind bars. And so, you know, if you are doing sex work or you are involved in the drug trade no high up CEO is making any money off you. So that cannot be allowed – that’s got to go, and you need to be quickly forced not to do that kind of work. Because not the right people are making the money off of that. So yeah, so that’s how I define the Prison Industrial Complex, basically.
And the other thing that happens is that when the government puts so many people in jail all the time then they can be like “Look! Look at all these criminals. We need more prisons, we need tough-on-crime.” This is how they get their votes because people really buy into this. I think it’s really important for people not to buy into that logic and to look at maybe what are these people actually in jail for? So what are these crimes that the government is all like “Oh yeah there’s all these crimes being committed” – but what are those? The people that I was in jail with, were people who shoplifted, people who were sex workers, people who breached their conditions. There’s no reason… nobody’s safer because these people are in jail.
pattrice, earlier in the keynote, spoke of the logic of domination and how it divides the world into these opposites and places one side above the other. Imprisonment is a system that totally feeds off of that. You have the good people and the bad people, you have the law-abiding people and the criminals, and when you talk about animals then you have humans vs. animals. And even further you have the animal species that we love, like Dusty here, and then you have the animal species that we exploit – and even that’s a dichotomy. We have to be really careful of these dichotomies but we perpetuate them as activists, all the time. One of the most simple ways that we do that is we say things like “The cops behaved like animals”. I hear this all the time, all the time. And even there’s a chant: “Get those animals off those horses.” I’m sure people have heard it. And we call cops ‘pigs’, and we call snitches and informants ‘rats’. You know? I think we need to be really careful of that because as was mentioned also earlier, any time you want to insult a certain group of people then you use an animal name and I think as activists, whether we’re animal rights activists or not, we need to be really careful that we’re not doing that.
Also we should never have cages outside zoos, or Marineland or whatever, that say “Cages are for criminals.” This is not a good sign. Don’t have that sign. Because then we fall into this trap, right, and we’re justifying the Prison Industrial Complex. This morning in the keynote, pattrice said this really awesome thing, you know, let’s think about rights and if we really want to have animal rights then are we going to enforce those rights by using guns and the legal system? I think that’s a really really important point because we all do this… there’s a lot of feminists out there who clamour for maximum jail penalties for perpetrators of violence, right? Like absolutely, in jail for as long as we possibly can. And there’s also a lot of animal rights activists who demand imprisonment for people who abuse animals. But it’s so problematic, because the cops and the courts are oppressive institutions and they’re designed, as was also mentioned – everything I say was already mentioned – they’re designed to protect private property and the wealthy and they criminalize marginalized people and communities and they criminalize people who fight alongside those communities. And so we don’t want to support that. We don’t want to have anything to do with that. We don’t want to make it seem like there’s anything good about these institutions, because there isn’t.
Not only that, jails don’t even rehabilitate anyone. That is a farce and if you spend any time in jail you’ll realize what a total, absolute… nobody believes that. The guards don’t believe that, the administrators don’t believe that, no one believes that there’s rehabilitation going on. And it doesn’t deter other people. So if you put a rapist or a dog fight organizer behind bars, you’re not stopping rape and you’re not stopping organized dog fighting. You’re really not doing anything. I think that we need to look at things like restorative justice and transformative justice and healing circles as solutions to these problems, not imprisonment.
There’s one example that I did want to mention because it’s fairly recent, I think it’s from a couple of years ago, where the animal rights folks really were so excited and celebrated these arrests that happened in a – I don’t even remember exactly what it was, it was like a… Butterball turkeys… do people remember this?
[Nodding in the audience]
Okay. So there was this prosecution, and basically the people who were arrested for animal cruelty were migrant workers. These people are poorly paid, working in these chicken catching facilities is horrible, it’s a horrible job. The fumes are nauseating and you’re not given protection, and you’re basically paid to work as fast as you possibly can. Migrant workers don’t have the kind of leverage that other workers tend to have in terms of unsafe labour and unethical labour and saying no they’re not going to do stuff. And so the Butterball corporation, and whoever owns it, weren’t punished. Migrant labourers were punished, and folks in the animal rights community thought this was great – “animal cruelty being punished!” I think we have to be really careful, really careful of stuff like that.
So while we’re on the topic of migrant labour, it has already been mentioned also, what lauren was talking about earlier about people who pick our food… She was talking about the context of the US but that also happens here. Southern Ontario is rife with migrant labourers who work on the farms. Downstairs there’s a table which has a whole bunch of information about that, and they also have at that table information about a migrant detention strike that’s happening right now in Lindsay, Ontario. For folks that aren’t familiar I’ll be brief, because I’m going to run out of time, but these folks are on strike – some of them are on hunger strike – basically fighting indefinite detention which technically is not allowed in Canada, but if you don’t have status there’s a little loophole and some of these folks have been in jail for 7, 8 years. Not necessarily based on any crime that they have committed or have been charged with, but just because they don’t have status and they’re considered unreleasable and also undeportable. So they’re in jail, basically in limbo.
When I was in Vanier there was a lot of people on immigration holds and a lot of people don’t realize that the Canada Border Services Agency and Immigration Canada use the prison system to detain and to process these people. That is also an important thing that people should know. So we don’t want to see any credibility given to this system. Mohammad Mahjoub, detained on a Security Certificate, which is a CSIS process which is horribly unfair – secret evidence, no access to the evidence against you, indefinite detention, horrible bail conditions. Yesterday, at his reasonability hearing, the judge decided that the certificate was in fact reasonable so his 13 year ordeal at the hands of the Canadian government is not over, as we were all hoping that it would be, yesterday.
So we don’t want to give credibility to that system, and we don’t want to give credibility to a system that sees 40 people arrested at a blockade in New Brunswick, mostly people from Elsipogtog – if you look behind you there’s a beautiful banner supporting them. Basically this blockade was to prevent fracking on their land. Why are we putting these people in jail? If you’re not familiar with that, you should check out the issue of the Two Row Times that’s on the table at the back. So really briefly: some ways that we can undermine the Prison Industrial Complex instead of advocating for it and upholding it. The very first one that I would like to mention is to respect diversity of tactics in our movements. Remember that what’s legal and what’s illegal is defined by the state, and people with power. So don’t play into that thing that’s like “We’ve got good protesters and bad protesters”, don’t say things like “The anarchists made the cops come down hard on the peaceful protesters” – all of that plays into their game and we shouldn’t be doing that.
Also know that having really privileged activists in jail is a really good way to do solidarity work with other folks who don’t have those privileges who are also in there. I kind of advocate that at any given time we should have one activist on every range… so just putting it out there… because we have access to a lot of stuff. We get phone calls, people will pick them up, people can pay the long distance charges. We know people in media, we know people who are and who know lawyers. We speak the language, we understand the forms. We can help people out in ways that seem really simple but are really, really helpful. A lot of people in Guelph have been working really hard with the migrant strike detainees, and got this message recently from one of the detainees that was just like “I can’t thank you enough” – he just said thank you for 4 minutes, basically, and he was like “We didn’t think anybody cared. We didn’t think anybody cared about us.”
Prison solidarity is really, really important and it’s really easiest to do it if you’re in there. I’m just saying!
I’m just saying that we need to really not be afraid of jail. People need to assess where you’re at in your life, what your life is like, what your health is like, what kind of challenges you may find – and read up about jail to see what it’s like, because there are challenges. But for the most part if you have privilege, it’s important to remember that your privilege comes at the expense of other people. Not only that, but the consequences for you, if you stand in solidarity with people and get arrested for it, are far less severe than they’re going to be for the people that you’re standing in solidarity with. There’s absolutely no way that prison is as bad as a zoo, or a lab, or a factory farm. No way. And there’s absolutely no way that if you have money, and a house to go back to, and maybe even a job to go back to, that your prison experience is going to be as bad as a whole lot of other peoples’. I think that we should be careful of being really afraid of this stuff. I think we need to see what we need to do in our animal liberation and our human liberation movements, and I think we need to do those things that are going to be effective.
So blockade the road, liberate the animals, disrupt the airport when the planes are going out deporting people. We can do those things. I think most importantly, healthy privileged people who go to jail, they need people on the outside to support them. So if you can’t be one of those people that can lay it all down and take the consequences whatever they may be, then be one of those people on the outside supporting the people on the inside – whether they’re activists or not, or whether they’re just oppressed, marginalized people that are in there because the system pushes them down at every turn. I think that the main thing, in the end, is that our fear of going to jail, and our fear that our friends may go to jail, is a far, far, far more effective means of restraining us than prison actually is. So do what you need to do.
mandy hiscocks got involved in animal rights activism through the punk scene in high school, because it’s an easy first thing for privileged white kids to take on. she identifies as an anarchist and has organized around poverty, tuition fees and the corporatization of campus, housing, militarism and police, environmental justice, globalisation, and Indigenous solidarity. she spent most of 2012 in jail serving time for having organized against the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto, so has some recent personal experience with cages and a renewed respect for human and animal liberation movements.