In 2012, Julie Bilotta went into labour while in a segregation cell at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre. Instead of being provided with the necessary assistance to ensure a safe delivery, she gave birth alone to a son named Gionni who tragically died a year later due to respiratory problems, which Bilotta has attributed to the complications of his breech birth. Only one staff member, a nurse who was assigned to 200 inmates at the time, faced any disciplinary action following the incident, and the lawsuit filed by Bilotta against the province, jail, and several employees was settled outside of court.
Bilotta was not the first mother to receive unconscionably negligent treatment while in a Canadian prison, nor has she been the last (in 2017, a young Indigenous mother was denied access to a breast pump for three days while detained in a police cell). This is because sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a pillar of the Canadian carceral system, not a defect of it.
As Angela Davis explains in Are Prisons Obsolete?, prisons have served as a vehicle of social control since their emergence during the era of Black slavery—they not only fail to ‘rehabilitate’ the prisoners that pass through their walls but, in fact, “reproduce the very conditions that lead people to prison.” In Canada specifically, the historical role of the prison system in advancing colonial expansion continues to result in the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people across the country. For example, 50% of Manitoba’s inmates are Indigenous, compared to 12% of the province’s population in general.
The injustices of the carceral system are further compounded for women, trans, and non-binary people, particularly those of colour. Over the past two decades, the number of women in prisons has sky-rocketed, resulting in overcrowding, greater difficulty accessing resources (such as treatment for substance use disorders), and an increase in the frequency of use-of-force incidents by staff.
But SGBV in prisons is not a new byproduct of rising numbers: it has long been weaponized by the carceral system as a way to maintain order. Women in prison already tend to be punished at higher rates than men, and, in Davis’ words, while guards are not legally permitted to sexually abuse prisoners, the lack of accountability of offending officers indicates that sexualized violence has been “effectively sanctioned as a routine aspect of the landscape of punishment.”
A recent Canadian example is that of Brian Wilson, a guard at the Nova Institution for Women in Truro, Nova Scotia, who was indicted on six charges of sexual assault against inmates in May 2020. Wilson is the exception rather than the rule—only a fraction of sexual assaults in prison are ever reported, as prisoners are often disincentivized from speaking out. In the case of Wilson's survivors, it took several complaints over a five-year period before an investigation was launched, and many of the women who filed reports against him faced consequences for doing so—one inmate was even forced to apologize to Wilson for lodging a complaint in the first place.
Sexual violence in prisons runs deeper than being the work of ‘a few bad apples.’ As Davis points out, without the legitimating power of the uniform, many routine disciplinary practices like the strip or body cavity search would be seen for what they really are: sexual assault. It is these forms of everyday violence, built into the foundation of the system itself, that can’t be addressed by a police investigation.
The ability of the carceral system to exercise absolute coercive control over prisoners’ bodies is a source of trauma for queer, trans and gender non-conforming people inside. Over the course of Canada’s colonial history, LGBTQ2 people (especially those who are Black or Indigenous) have been the subjects of state violence, continuing to be over-policed and over-represented in the carceral system.
For many trans inmates, harm begins with the housing assignment. Until recently, Correctional Service Canada was authorized to house trans prisoners in women’s or men’s institutions on the basis of their assigned gender. This power was wielded to devastating effect in the case of Moka Dawkins, a Black and Indigenous trans woman. Dawkins was kept in segregation until she agreed to be housed in a men’s prison where she faced transphobic harassment from both guards and fellow inmates, as well as being denied access to gender-affirming medical support, clothing, and makeup.
While a 2017 reform by the Trudeau administration has since granted federal prisoners the right to self-identify their gender and therefore housing assignment, many provinces have failed to follow suit (including Manitoba). Furthermore, not only does CSC’s continued reliance on the gender binary fail to address the needs of non-binary people, but the reform also coincided with a $56.6 million allocation of federal funding toward prison expansion. This situation demonstrates the urgent necessity of what abolitionists refer to as ‘non-reformist reforms’: measures that reduce the scope, power, and legitimacy of the carceral system, rather than adding to their resources and authority. Additionally, it is crucial to ask: what leads vulnerable groups to be over-incarcerated in the first place? And how can the massive amount of resources currently eaten up by the prison system instead be invested in these communities to better serve their needs?
The critical work of decarceration is underway across the country, largely helmed by racialized women and trans people, many of whom are or have been incarcerated. Such groups include Joint Effort, a women’s abolitionist prisoner solidarity group in BC; Free Lands Free Peoples, an Indigenous-led anti-colonial abolition organization in the Prairies; Women’s Wellness Within, an Nova Scotian abolitionist organization primarily serving incarcerated pregnant people; and Bar None, an abolitionist prisoner solidarity group on Treaty 1.
In the long-term, the solution to SGBV in the prison system isn’t finding more inclusive ways to surveil and coerce prisoners. Rather, it’s an end to strip searches, an end to segregation, and ultimately, an end to the entire institution of incarceration. While the abolition of prisons may not be a panacea for the exploitation and violence faced by women, trans, and non-binary people in broader society, there can be no end to sexual and gender-based violence without it.
Allegra Chiarella (they/them) is a Filipinx settler on Treaty 1 territory, homeland of the Métis Nation. They are a community organizer and current undergraduate student in History at the University of Manitoba.