Review in Herizons

Coming Back to Jail
Women, Trauma, and Criminalization

By Elizabeth Comack  

Elizabeth Comack, a scholar whose work concerns the Canadian justice system and Indigenous peoples, has produced an insightful book about the criminialization of Indigenous women. The women’s personal stories – Comack interviewed 42 incarcerated women – inform Comack’s feminist anti-colonial analysis and her critique of the justice system. This system is racist rather than neutral; it is an institutional apparatus of the colonial state that is thoroughly infused with biases toward Indigenous, racialized and impoverished people and with patriarchal biases towards women; it individualizes the experiences of its captives, so as to avoid both understanding the systemic features of Canadian institutions, and Canada’s complicity in producing them; and it is poorly constructed and funded to execute its putative and contradictory missions of both punishing and rehabilitating prisoners. Importantly, Comack makes the case that imprisoned Indigenous women and the state’s delivery of carceral services have been negatively impacted by capitalist globalization, economic restructuring and welfare state retrenchment. Thus, official accounts of Indigenous women’s cases often miss the back story – one that can include homelessness, the loss of one’s children, addiction, victimization by abuses in childhood and adulthood, isolation from community, lifetimes of normalized inter-generational dysfunction constructed by colonialism and impoverishment. As Comack argues, these factors, combined with the toxic racism in both civil society and in the justice system, produce conditions that increase the odds that Indigenous women will fail at rehabilitation and at successful social reintegration. Therefore, once they are enmeshed in the criminal justice system, Indigenous women are likely to continue “coming back to jail.” Face with these limited conditions, women such as those in Comack’s study can be seen a negotiating dystopic conditions in order to survive. Hopefully, research like Comack’s will amplify the voices demanding better lives for Indigenous women who are criminalized. As Comack notes, women should not be forced into contexts that punish but do not rehabilitate, and that replicate the deep structural processes of colonial and patriarchal power in Indigenous lives.

— Joyce Green for Herizons Magazine

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