“A prison is no place for a pandemic”: Canadian prisoners’ collective action in the time of COVID-19

Published date01 January 2024
AuthorJessica Evans,Jordan House
Date01 January 2024
Subject MatterArticles
A prison is no place for a
pandemic: Canadian
prisonerscollective action
in the time of COVID-19
Jessica Evans
Toronto Metropolitan University, Canada
Jordan House
Brock University, Canada
Since the onset of COVID-19, social protest has expanded signif‌icantly. Little, however,
has been written on prison-led and prison justice organizing in the wake of the pandemic
particularly in the Canadian context. This article is a case study of prisoner organizing
in Canada throughout the f‌irst 18 months of COVID-19, which draws on qualitative
interviews, media, and documentary analysis. We argue that the pandemic generated
conditions under which the grievances raised by prisoners, and the strategies through
which they were articulated, made possible a discursive bridge to the anxieties and grie-
vances experienced by those in the community, thinning the walls of state-imposed soci-
etal exclusion. We demonstrate that prisons are sites of f‌ierce contestation and are
deeply embedded in, rather than separate from, our society. An important lesson
learned from this case study is the need for prison organizing campaigns to strategically
embrace multi-issue framing and engage in sustained coalition building.
prisoners, prisons, protest, collective organizing, COVID-19, Canada, porous prisons
Corresponding author:
Jessica Evans, Department of Criminology, Toronto Metropolitan University, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto,
Ontario M5B2K3, Canada.
Email: jessica.evans@torontomu.ca
Punishment & Society
2024, Vol. 26(1) 168186
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14624745231194276
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a host of structural inequities (Etowa and
Hyman, 2021). In response to the vulnerabilities exacerbated by COVID-19, a signif‌icant
rise in social activism occurred during the early months of the pandemic, much of which
was characterized by multi-issue and cross-sectoral framings of social grievances (Grant
and Smith, 2021).Prisons and jails were among the many sites of protestand social conf‌lict
(Hanan, 2021; Vance, 2021). While under normal circumstances, it has been easy for the
public to ignore prisonissues as outsideof their concern, the very natureof the pandemic
forced a reckoning with the fact that, despite all pretensions, prisons and prisonconditions
are woven into the fabricof society (Jahn et al., 2020). Duringthe f‌irs t year and a half of the
pandemic, prisoners in Canada, their families, and allies organized 74 collective actions,
including hunger strikes, work stoppages, and other forms of protest. This activism chal-
lenges the idea of the prison as a total institution(Goffman, 1961). Rather, prisons are
sites of f‌ierce contestation and are deeply embedded in, rather than separate from, our
society. The pandemic has highlighted what scholars and activists have referred to as the
porous nature of prisons, which we argue bears important on our understanding of
prison activism (Ellis, 2021). Specif‌ically, activism in the COVID-19 era demonstrates
that prison protest is not exclusively the result of internal prison conditions but is also
informed by broader social grievanceand struggle. These f‌indings speak to the importance
of infrastructure of dissentin thinning prison walls and building coalitions that can inte-
grate prison grievances into broader movements for social justice.
This article analyzes prisoner organizing in Canada throughout the f‌irst 18 months of
the COVID-19 pandemic. We argue that the pandemic generated a discursive bridge
which linked the grievances raised by prisoners, and the strategies through which they
were articulated, with the anxieties and grievances experienced by those in the commu-
nity. While only achieving modest wins, prison protests during COVID-19 pointed to
potentially fruitful strategies that could serve as templates for the prison justice
In the f‌irst sections, we outline our methodological and theoretical approach before
taking stock of the existing scholarship addressing prison protests. We then examine
the impact of COVID-19 on broad social grievance, as well as the parallel groundswell
of activism around anti-Black racism and colonialism. Next, we document the quantita-
tive volume and distribution of prison-oriented protests that occurred and discuss the
issues and demands raised therein. Our analysis focuses on the strategic framing and
coalition building that aligned insidegrievances with the overarching zeitgeist of dis-
content that was circulating in the general public. We close by considering the outcomes
of prisoner organizing throughout the pandemic, and point to important developments
that bear consideration for the future of prisoner activism.
Data and methods
Given the opaque nature of correctional institutions, prison protest is a diff‌icult phenom-
enon to study. While some forms of prisoner collective action are documented by off‌icials
Evans and House 169

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