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In the criminal justice sector, there’s a growing abolitionist movement seeking to do away with prisons. So why has immigrant detention trended the other way?

Whether you’re a tough-on-crime hardliner or you believe in a more rehabilitative approach, it is generally agreed that prisons are expensive to run and time in prison has a lasting negative affect on the detained individual. Acting to prevent crime – by tackling its social, economic, and political causes – is seen as a much more effective approach.

Why, then, do we not treat migrant detention in a similar way by seeking to reduce expensive incarceration and adopting a more proactive or compassionate approach?

This was a question circulating around Robert Sutherland Hall Room 202 recently, as Queen’s Law played host to the “De-Carceral Futures: Bridging Prison and Migrant Justice” workshop. Over 100 scholars, practitioners, and activists came to campus on May 9 and 10 to discuss how countries like Canada can better protect the rights of those who are detained as they enter our country.

“Those working on issues of migration governance have things to learn from those working on prison justice and abolition,” says Professor Sharry Aiken, one of the organizers. “There’s a huge movement to rethink how we deal with the problems that underlie crime so we can do away with prisons all together. On the immigration side, the discussion has instead been about reform.”

While many may think of immigrant detention and imprisonment as issues that go hand in hand, migrant detention was systematized in Canadian law relatively recently - in the 1970’s.

Migrant detention was typically used to detain individuals who were believed to be a security risk, often for a few days or weeks at most. In the decades since, the apparatus supporting migrant detention has grown significantly. Nowadays, some undocumented people in Canada are held for months or even years without being either released into society or returned to their home countries. According to Prof. Aiken, Canada detains approximately 8,000 migrants every year, including children and whole families, and sometimes these individuals are placed under even greater restrictions than inmates doing “hard time.”

“We don’t only have increasing detention due to the war on terror – we also have more and more exclusionary immigration policies reducing the number of successful permanent residency applications,” says Harsha Walia, one of the workshop’s keynote speakers who is a community organizer in the migrant justice movement. “The vast number of people who come to Canada are temporary migrant workers doing low-wage work and, if they don’t leave when their work is done, they get caught up in this web of detention and deportation.”

The De-Carceral Futures workshop sought to reimagine detention policies, recognizing that, beyond a public safety, security, or justice issue, this is first and foremost a human rights issue where people who have not commited any crime are being indefinitely detained.

“We are working towards a world where no one loses their liberty,” Prof. Aiken adds. “I recognize, on the immigration side, it’s a not a vision that will be implemented tomorrow but if we don’t start talking about it, we will never get there.”

Policy Options Magazine’s podcast recorded an episode from the conference floor – listen in for more interviews with organizers and attendees:

A live stream of the keynote addresses on Facebook Live can also still be viewed: