This article is part of a broader month-long series on prison reform. Check here for other articles in the series.

We are facing a global prison crisis. Over 10.74 million people are incarcerated worldwide, and in most regions over the last two decades, prison populations are on the rise.

Prisoners are subject to abuse, psychological harm, violence and torture. Public safety reports stress that, in addition to their cruelty, such treatment largely fails to mitigate crime. Moreover, imprisonment harms not only the incarcerated but also their families.

Studies have also linked incarceration to lasting negative health outcomes. Amid the current health crisis, COVID-19 has not spared the incarcerated. During the initial outbreak, infection rates in Canadian prisons were roughly 15 times higher than among the general population.

The costs of incarceration are borne unequally. Among global prison populations, the disadvantaged and marginalized are consistently overrepresented. In Canada, Indigenous people account for roughly five per cent of the general population yet makeup over 30 per cent of the total inmate population as of 2020—up from 25 per cent four years earlier.

Other vectors of privilege, such as class, also affect the probability of being incarcerated. A 2015 study found that, before their arrest, incarcerated people in the United States had a median income 41 per cent lower than that of the non-incarcerated population. Over-policing of poor and racialized neighbourhoods, inadequate housing, steep bail fees, disproportionate entry into the child welfare system, and educational inequalities increase the likelihood of marginalized individuals entering the prison system.

This is a symptom of a more fundamental issue pervading criminal justice systems. Criminal law is a reflection of the society in which it is created. Social biases inform its design and generate punishments that discriminate against marginalized people and perpetuate disadvantage.

In short, rather than protecting social well-being, modern prison systems seem to enforce economic and social hierarchies.

A crucial step to addressing this prison crisis is to reflect more deeply on the nature of these institutions and avenues for change. In the coming weeks, the Political Theory Writers at the McGill Journal of Political Studies (MJPS) Online will publish a series of articles on the nature of prison systems and proposals for their reform.  From systemic racism in the criminal justice system to unequal access to adequate legal representation, the difficulties we face are complex. While no-single solution will suffice to address these deep-seated and structural injustices, we hope that these articles contribute to the ongoing discussion about the future of our carceral systems.

Edited by Eyitayo Kunle-Oladosu.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Featured image includes images by Jason Hargrove – licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0, Tim Dennell – licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0, Thierry Ehrmann – licensed under CC BY 2.0, BBB World Service – licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0, Joe Piette – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Association of Medical Illustrators – licensed under CC BY 4.0, and Washingtonnydc – licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.