Reaching beyond bars

Forms of carceral harm reduction in Manitoba

Stony Mountain Institution, a federal correctional facility northwest of Winnipeg

Photo by Keeley Braunstein-Black

Manitoba has the highest incarceration rate out of all provinces in Canada at 231 adults per a population of 100,000 – a problem that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak. Organizations advocating for drastic changes to the justice system cite these rising issues as a substantive case to look towards other options. 

Kate Kehler is the chair of the Restorative Justice Association of Manitoba, an organization that seeks to bring transformative change to the criminal justice system. She says the carceral system is not only incredibly expensive but also does more harm than good for victims and offenders. 

“It doesn’t work to promote resolution. It doesn’t work to promote healing,” she says. “It’s as bad for victims of crime as it is for offenders.”

By connecting victims and offenders, Kehler says restorative justice offers a chance for victims to understand why they were victimized while at the same time, demanding accountability from the person who caused harm. Rather than prescribe a sentence as a “punishment” for crime, she says it locates the root causes of why people enter the criminal justice system. 

“Here in Canada, we know that (nearly all incarcerated people) grew up in poverty,” she says. She adds that many people who are incarcerated have dealt with unemployment and often lack a Grade 12 education.  

Bar None Winnipeg, a prison abolitionist organization, is the organizing body behind the prison rideshare project that pairs volunteer drivers with those who wish to visit their friends and loved ones in Manitoba prisons. Organizer Buck Doyle says offering rides is a form of harm reduction. 

“Taking people out of their communities and families is very destructive,” they say. Doyle says that keeping family and friends connected to people in correctional facilities is Bar None’s way of mitigating some of the damage done to communities. 

Fostering connections between drivers and riders is also a key part of Bar None’s vision.

“It’s more likely that people who have cars and time to drive will be removed from the context where they know somebody who is in prison,” Doyle says. “It’s a way for drivers to get to know people. You realize everybody is just people trying to survive.” 

When communities, victims and offenders are affected by an act of crime or conflict, Kehler says restorative justice can offer a sense of balance, rather than a carceral approach that merely looks to punish the offender.

“Crime and conflict happen when there’s an imbalance,” she says. “What restorative justice seeks to do is to try and restore that balance.” She says providing better support to both victims and offenders is needed to do so. 

“It’s not rocket science. It’s mentorship, it’s support, it’s employment and education,” Kehler says. 

Interested in volunteering or becoming a driver for Bar None? Email [email protected].

Published in Volume 75, Number 07 of The Uniter (October 29, 2020)

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