• R. Jochelson

Marta Russell's Influential in Critique of Criminal Justice Institutions

Law Professor, Ravi Malhotra’s New Book Sheds Light on the Legacy of Disability Activist, Marta Russell, Including her Contributions to a Critique of Criminal Justice Institutions

Marta Russell was an American disability activist who navigated the testy terrain of the (sometimes at odds) political left and disability rights movement (Malhotra 2014). Her contribution to disability activism is explored in an upcoming and insightful new book, edited by Ravi Malhotra: Disability Politics in a Global Economy: Essays in Honour of Marta Russell (published by Routledge for 2016). While I recommend checking out the volume (which in full disclosure I must confess I have contributed to), it worth pointing out that Russell’s work with Jean Stewart for Monthly Review (2001) provided a scathing critique of the US Corrections system, one that was prescient and ultimately predictive of the Canadian critical response to the intersection of corrections and disability. Russell’s insights into these intersections is echoed by later Canadian critical scholarship including the work of Comack and Balfour (2004, 2013, 2014), Hannah-Moffatt and Shaw (2000), and Ben-Moshe (Ben Moshe et al. 2014a, 2014b; Ben Moshe 2013). These scholars undertake to explain the ways the criminal process interpolates with disability in the corrections, courts and policing systems.

In the Canadian context, we have undergone a recent expansion of corrections and policing apparatuses; ameliorative programs have been decreased while incarcerated populations and capacities have increased (Jochelson et al. 2014). In this context the challenges facing inmates with disabilities have been well mined in Canada (for examples see John Howard Society of Alberta 2002; Boland et al. 2008; Canadian Human Rights Commission 2004).

Howard Saper, Canada’s Correctional Investigator in his annual report for 2014-15, noted that 27 percent of the federal inmate population spent time in administrative segregation, 48 percent of current inmates had experienced segregation during their present sentence – he reported an overuse of “segregation as a population management tool” (Saper 2016). In administrative segregation inmates are “[t]wice more likely to have a history of self-injury and attempted suicide” and “31% more likely to have a mental health issue” (Saper 2016), Some groups are harder hit by these issues including “mental health [communities], Aboriginal and Black inmates” (Saper 2016).

Saper also notes a crisis in mental illness, substance addiction and infectious diseases (Saper 2016). He notes that the “[s]ystem is facing capacity and resource challenges to provide for the increased health care needs associated with aging, chronic illness and end-of-life care” (Saper 2016). Suicide continues to be the leading cause of “un-natural death” in correctional populations (Saper 2016). Further, Aboriginal representation has increased “by more than 50% over the last ten years” as has the representation of federally sentenced women (Saper 2016). Saper calls for the curtailing administrative segregation especially in the context of the mentally ill and youth (Saper 2016).

Given the emerging Canadian context, it is worthwhile for us to reconsider some of Rusell and Stewart’s critiques. They noted that in the US experience there were high rates of physical illness, disability, cognitive disability, mental illness and poverty in US correctional populations (Stewart and Russell 2001). They warned that surplus populations were being managed by segregations and noted that such practices generated, created and exacerbated disabilities; this contributed to a class of “‘disabled’ whose bodies did not conform to the standard worker physique and whose labor-power was effectively ignored” (Stewart and Russell 2001). They warned of situations where “jails have become the primary ‘treatment’ provider for poor people with mental illnesses” and that in prison, persons with disabilities faced accessibility issues, confronted oppression and abuse, and were routinely not accommodated (Stewart and Russell 2001).

While these seemed radical critiques 15 years ago, Saper’s Correctional Investigator Report dovetails with the observations of Rusell and Stewart, and the critical academic voices that have followed in their footsteps during Canada’s corrections expansion. We must not allow these deficiencies in our system to further contribute to the production of disability and poverty in Canada when alternatives are possible. The struggle of persons with disabilities is significant enough a challenge in Canada without institutional exacerbation by our institutions of justice.

Disability Politics in a Global Economy: Essays in Honour of Marta Russell is available through Routledge or Amazon.ca.


Balfour G. and Comack E. (editors) (2014). Criminalizing Women: Gender and (In)justice in Neo-liberal Times. (second edition). Halifax and Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing

Ben-Moshe, L. (2013). ‘Disabling Incarceration: Connecting Disability to Divergent Confinements in the USA’. Critical Sociology 37 (7). 385-403. doi:10.1177/0896920511430864

Ben-Moshe, L., Chapman, C. and Carey, A. (eds.) (2014a). Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the US and Canada. With a foreword by Angela Y. Davis. Palgrave McMillan Press: London

Ben-Moshe, L. and Meiners, E. (2014b) ‘Beyond Prisons, Mental Health Clinics: When Austerity Opens Cages, Where Do the Services Go?’ Public Eye (special topic: neoliberalism). Online: <http://www.politicalresearch.org/2014/10/09/beyond-prisons-mental-health-clinics-when-austerity-opens-cages-where-do-the-services-go/#>

Boland, F.J., Burrill, R, Duwyn, M and Karp J. (1998) (‘Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Implications for Correctional Service’ Correctional Service of Canada, Online: <http://www.faslink.com/FASImplicationsforCSC.htm >

Canadian Human Rights Commission. (2003) Protecting Their Rights: A Systemic Review of Human Rights in Correctional Services for Federally Sentenced Women. Online: <http://www.caefs.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/fswen.pdf>

Comack E. (2000). ‘The Prisoning of Women: Meeting Women's Needs?’ In K. Hannah-Moffat and M. Shaw (eds.) An Ideal Prison? Critical Essays on Women's Imprisonment in Canada. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, pages 117-127

Comack, E. and Balfour, G. (2004). The Power to Criminalize: Violence, Inequality, and the Law. Winnipeg and Halifax: Fernwood Publishing

Hannah-Moffat, K. and M. Shaw (2000) ‘Gender, Diversity and Risk Assessment in Canadian Corrections.’ Probation Journal. 47 (3): 163-172. Online:<http://prb.sagepub.com/content/47/3/163.abstract>

John Howard Society of Alberta (2002) Inmate Education 1-4. Online: <http://www.johnhoward.ab.ca/pub/respaper/educa02.pdf>

Malhotra, R. Honoring Marta Russell (1951-2013). Solidarity Website. 2014. Online: <https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/4113>

Saper, H. Officer of the Correctional Investigator. Backgrounder. 42nd Annual Report to Parliament, 2016, Online: http://www.oci-bec.gc.ca/cnt/comm/presentations/presentationsAR-RA1415info-eng.asp

Stewart, J and Russell, M. (2001)."Disablement, prison, and historical segregation" Monthly Review. 53.3. 61-75

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