One kilometre west of the city of Prince Albert, the federal Saskatchewan Penitentiary sits on the site of a former residential school run by the Anglican Church of Canada. As in other prisons across the Prairie provinces, the 20-acre facility houses inmates predominantly of Aboriginal descent. This situation is not unique: Indigenous people represent only three per cent of Canada’s population yet account for 17 per cent of its prison population. As the last of the residential schools have shut down, penitentiaries have become the new form of containment for Indigenous people in Canada. In a 1988 study prepared for the Canadian Bar Association, Aboriginal rights advocate Michael Jackson stated: “The prison has become for many young native people the contemporary equivalent of what the Indian residential school represented for their parents.” Almost 25 years later, young Aboriginal men in Saskatchewan are now more likely to go to prison than to finish high school.
Despite the considerable attention these statistics have received, rarely do we consider them in the context of an ongoing colonial project. We must question how it is that Aboriginal people become tangled up in the justice system at all and why it is that prisons have come to be viewed, in the words of Angela Davis, as an “inevitable and permanent feature of our social lives.” How do institutions like schools, which are presented as disconnected from – or even antagonistic to – incarceration, shape a future of imprisonment for Aboriginal youth in Canada?