Solidarity with prisoners, not OPSEU 248
By Devin K
The Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre or Barton Jail as it is more commonly known, has been on lock-down for over week now due to a ''labour dispute" between guards and upper management. The guards, members of OPSEU local 248, are alleging health and safety concerns, and have refused to search cells after a piece of metal fixture went missing in the jail on Monday August 13th. The guard’s refusal to work has lead to a lock-down situation with management taking over operations of the jail.
While news coming out of the jail has been sparse, disturbing details have emerged concerning the situation. Several inmates managed to contact the Hamilton Spectator, which on August 15th reported that they had not had access to clean sheets or clothing for a week. Stories have been leaked of inmates being given a choice between "a shower or a phone call", lawyers have been denied access to their clients, and visitors have been barred from entering the facility. One family held an impromptu protest, holding signs that read "Time to Judge our System" and "They are not animals" outside the jail in support of their loved ones locked up.
With the lock-down now well into its second week, the scene at the prison is what one might expect at any workplace experiencing a strike: union members have gathered outside the workplace day after day, drinking coffee, and heckling management as they enter the facility. But, the differences between the situation now unfolding at Barton Jail and a standard strike or work refusal are immense - because prison guards are not workers. If we understand prisons as a workplace, it is inmates themselves who are either doing actual productive labour (textiles, manufacturing, printing, etc) or work required to run the facility (laundry, janitorial, etc). Prison guards on the other hand, are a primary factor determining the working conditions and enforcing disciplinary measures. In any other workplace, these factors would define a relationship between workers and management.
Why then are jail guards represented by the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union? Unions are meant to be organizations for the defense and advancement of our interests as a class. Allowing jail guards into our labour organizations is in immediate contradiction to this purpose and a long-term liability for our movements.
As austerity measures continue to intensify and our prison system expand, this question becomes particularly pressing for workers, students and the unemployed. The Omnibus Crime Bill C-10 became law earlier this year, making sweeping changes to legal landscape and is projected to increase the prison population at a provincial level by up to 32% a year. The state has prepared to accommodate this increase by pouring an estimated $4 billion into the proliferation of the Prison Industrial Complex by building new prisons and expanding existing facilities. These provisions are especially heinous as they are imposed parallel to the ongoing gutting of job opportunities, benefits, education, social services and welfare. Austerity will inevitably lead to deepening social conflict within our communities, and have the most severe impact on the vulnerable among us who will provide the bodies to fill the new prison beds.
Increased precarity, incarceration, general social conflict and insecurity will potentially see the rise of numerous mass movements in the coming years. The nature of these movements however, is yet to be determined. If we hope for militant labour and community organizations that are built to fight for our interests as a class, we need to clearly define what those interests are and how they will inform the composition of said movements. If we intend for our movements to fight for anti-racist and feminist ideals, an equal standard of living for all, and an end to exploitation, opposing the Prison Industrial Complex is absolutely integral to these goals. The potential for building true class-wide solidarity is realized in isolating and rejecting the unionized functionaries of the prison system from labour or community solidarity , while also supporting the prisoners who are on lock-down, organizing work stoppages, or on hunger strike.