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Multiculturalism Under Confinement: Prisoner Race Relations Inside Western Canadian Prisons



What do race relations among Canadian prisoners tell us about national mythology, liberal multiculturalism, and racial colour-blindness? Drawing from almost 500 semi-structured interviews conducted with male prisoners inside four provincial institutions in Western Canada as part of the University of Alberta Prison Project, we analyse prisoners’ perceptions of race and detail how their beliefs in Canada’s national mythology – particularly multiculturalism – foster racial colour-blindness in daily prison life. Our data speak to both support for, and critiques of, liberal multiculturalism as a lived political philosophy. For instance, racial colour-blindness helps reduce ethnic conflict and encourages inter-group relations among racially diverse prisoners. As critics of liberal multiculturalism suggest, however, our participants individualized racism, focusing on what is often called ‘overt racism’ (such as white supremacy). Few participants acknowledged ‘structural racism’ or dwelled on the overrepresentation of people of colour in the prison system (even when housed on a unit that could contain over 60 per cent Indigenous prisoners). Some prisoners expressed a belief that Canada had overcome racism.
2020, Vol. 54(3) 534 –555
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DOI: 10.1177/0038038519882311
Multiculturalism Under
Confinement: Prisoner Race
Relations Inside Western
Canadian Prisons
Justin EC Tetrault ,
University of Alberta, Canada
Sandra M Bucerius
University of Alberta, Canada
Kevin D Haggerty
University of Alberta, Canada
What do race relations among Canadian prisoners tell us about national mythology, liberal
multiculturalism, and racial colour-blindness? Drawing from almost 500 semi-structured
interviews conducted with male prisoners inside four provincial institutions in Western Canada
as part of the University of Alberta Prison Project, we analyse prisoners’ perceptions of race and
detail how their beliefs in Canada’s national mythology – particularly multiculturalism – foster
racial colour-blindness in daily prison life. Our data speak to both support for, and critiques of,
liberal multiculturalism as a lived political philosophy. For instance, racial colour-blindness helps
reduce ethnic conflict and encourages inter-group relations among racially diverse prisoners. As
critics of liberal multiculturalism suggest, however, our participants individualized racism, focusing
on what is often called ‘overt racism’ (such as white supremacy). Few participants acknowledged
‘structural racism’ or dwelled on the overrepresentation of people of colour in the prison system
(even when housed on a unit that could contain over 60 per cent Indigenous prisoners). Some
prisoners expressed a belief that Canada had overcome racism.
Canada, gangs, Indigenous, multiculturalism, prison, race and ethnicity, racism
Corresponding author:
Justin Tetrault, 5-21 HM Tory Building, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, T6G 2H4
882311SOC0010.1177/0038038519882311SociologyTetrault et al.
Tetrault et al. 535
Multiculturalism, Race, and Prisoner Culture
Canada enjoys a reputation as a multicultural society and haven for immigrants (Reitz
et al., 2015), something that is a source of pride for many Canadians (Reitz, 2011: 18,
21). It also celebrates difference in a culturally, racially, and socially diverse society with
relatively diverse political representation; currently half of the 31 Canadian cabinet
members are female and eight are people of colour.
Some, however, see Canadian multiculturalism as largely a ‘symbolic project’ masking
racism and segregation. Harder (2010) and Winter (2014), for example, point out that
Canada is often imagined through narratives of the white, patriarchal (Christian) family;
leaving limited space for racial minorities to express their identity (Modood, 2011). Further,
on almost every possible measure, Indigenous peoples in Canada fare worse than Black
Americans in the United States (Gilmore, 2015). Racial inequality is particularly pro-
nounced in the prison system, where Indigenous people are 10 times more likely to be
incarcerated than the national average (Gilmore, 2015).
Despite these divergent opinions on the topic, empirical studies on the lived realties
of liberal multiculturalism are rare (see also Koopmans and Statham, 1999: 658, 659),
with critical commentary tending to be dominated by cultural critique. This article stems
from the findings of the University of Alberta Prison Project (UAPP), and provides
empirical insight into the perceptions, experiences, and consequences of Canadian mul-
ticulturalism, and how it manifests in the unique setting of Western Canadian prisons.
Drawing from almost 500 semi-structured interviews conducted with male prisoners1
inside four provincial institutions in Western Canada, we analyse prisoners’ perceptions
of race, detailing how their beliefs in Canada’s national mythology – particularly multi-
culturalism – foster racial colour-blindness in prison life. Such a focus is particularly
important in light of the widely recognized fact that relationships among prisoners are
key to how order is maintained in prison, and how the day-to-day realities of prison life
are structured (Crewe, 2007, 2009; Sparks et al., 1996).
This research contributes to scholarship on racial-colour-blindness, liberal multi-
culturalism, and the sociology of prisons. First, almost all our participants espoused
colour-blind attitudes about race, asserting that they ‘don’t see race’, that race is insig-
nificant to everyday prison life, and that inmates encourage a racially and ethnically
tolerant environment.
Second, our data speak to both praise for, and critiques of, liberal multiculturalism as
a lived political philosophy (Kymlicka, 2018) in several ways. Our participants, for
example, view ‘multiculturalism’ as equality of treatment irrespective of differences, and
consequently equate racial colour-blindness and tolerance with practising the colour-
blind philosophy. Enacting racial colour-blindness helps reduce ethnic conflict and
encourages inter-group relations among racially diverse inmates. However, as critics of
racial colour-blindness suggest, our participants individualized racism, focusing on what
is often called ‘overt racism’ (such as white supremacy). Few participants acknowledged
‘structural racism’ or the overrepresentation of people of colour in the prison system, and
some (prisoners of colour) even expressed that Canada had overcome racism. For us, this
was often a jarring assertion given that many living units contained over 60 per cent
Indigenous prisoners. Our findings support the theory that liberal multiculturalism and
racial colour-blindness sometimes fosters ‘post-racism’ views (see Bonilla-Silva, 2014;
Satzewich and Liodakis, 2013).
536 Sociology 54(3)
Our findings also contribute to the sociology of prisons. We argue that racial colour-
blindness complements the ‘prudent individualism’ (Crewe, 2009: 229) that character-
izes provincial prison culture and is enacted through how prisoners police racism among
their peers, as overt displays of racism create unwanted conflict in daily prison life and
disrupt gang business.
Our findings are at odds with numerous maxims in prison research. For example, we
show how race and ethnicity are of little consequence to prison life in our settings,
sharply contrasting American research which suggests race profoundly structures daily
prison life. Our findings also challenge the scholarly trope that racialized gangs have
undermined ‘inmate solidarity’, as our participants demonstrated a strong shared inmate
culture despite the presence of racialized gangs.
Minimal research focuses on prisoner relations, especially race relations among pris-
oners (Phillips, 2008: 315) and little empirical research exists on Canadian prisons in
general. The reluctance of Canadian correctional officials to allow independent research-
ers into their facilities has resulted in few published works derived from qualitative
research inside Canadian prisons (Pelvin, 2019). Canada provides a heretofore unex-
plored research setting to study the dynamics of race relations.
Social Context: Multiculturalism and Race Relations in the Prairie Regions
in Western Canada
While we focus on micro-level analysis, prisoner race relations are inseparable from
Canada’s unique history and structural conditions. As we show, many inmates connect
their perceptions of race to Canadian multiculturalism, a political ideology we outline
below. Furthermore, while research on gangs in Canada’s Prairie region is limited
(Chalas and Grekul, 2017: 365), our findings suggest multicultural ideology might
help explain why the prison gangs we encountered are racially fluid (while still racial-
ized). In short, to understand race relationships among inmates, it is necessary to
appreciate political factors external to the prison. We identify some such factors here,
recognizing that a litany of other external, contextual, and historic factors undoubtedly
play a role in shaping the racial dynamics in the prisons we studied, including most
conspicuously assorted manifestations of Canada’s settler colonial history.
Canada’s multicultural policy was introduced in 1971, and today functions as a sym-
bolic gesture giving rise to sets of economic, political, and social practices designed to
maintain the ethnic and cultural identities of Canadians (Satzewich and Liodakis, 2013:
160, 161). It exalts diversity in the pursuit of national interests and encourages cultural
pluralism. This is exemplified by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comment that Canada
could be the world’s first ‘postnational state . . . there is no core identity, no mainstream
in Canada’ (Foran, 2017), and by the motto inscribed on Toronto’s coat of arms: ‘Diversity
is our Strength.’ While praised for its progressive ethos, the multicultural policy has been
criticized for ignoring and sanitizing systemic racism and social inequality, for dissolving
inter-group relations, and threatening the coherence and stability of a pan-Canadian iden-
tity (Day, 2000; Satzewich and Liodakis, 2013: 160, 169). Critics see multiculturalism as
pacifying critical thinking about Canada’s race relations, particularly as it pertains to
Indigenous peoples in Canada, who have long been disproportionally affected by poverty,
poor health, and incarceration (Gilmore, 2015). Critics portray multicultural rhetoric as a
Tetrault et al. 537
political veneer that downplays Canada’s settler-colonial history (Razack, 2002). Among
other injustices, this includes the high number of Indigenous women in Canada who have
been murdered or gone missing and the corresponding failure by authorities to seriously
prioritize this crisis (Anderson et al., 2010). It also encompasses the infamous practice of
forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families and placing them in residential
schools or foster care. The multicultural policy also appears to detract from the right to
self-determination and sovereignty among Indigenous communities (see Satzewich and
Liodakis, 2013: 174). By simultaneously rendering ethnic groups as ‘Canadians’ working
towards shared interests, yet as unique cultures worthy of equal political consideration,
many argue that multiculturalism disengages with the reality of racial inequality in Canada
(Ku et al., 2019).
Critics argue that liberal multiculturalism’s simplistic approach to race is more likely
to foster racial colour-blindness among Canadians, rather than critical ‘race-conscious’
politics. Proponents of ‘racial colour-blindness’ insist they do not notice skin colour – a
position which denies how historical legacies of racism affects life chances (Bonilla-
Silva, 2014: 26; see also Bell and Hartmann, 2007). For adherents of colour-blindness,
‘racism’ is a problem of intolerant individuals, manifesting in singular acts of ‘hate’
carried out by fringe elements of the population unrepresentative of the status quo
(Bonilla-Silva, 1997; Gallagher, 2015: 45). Racial colour-blindness is often connected
to ‘post-racist’ thinking: the common-sense belief that western countries have con-
quered racism, that race and ethnicity no longer matter; and that ‘the problems afflicting
people of colour are fundamentally rooted in their pathological cultures’ (Bonilla-Silva,
2014: 13).
Traditional prejudice (overt racism) in Canada has declined, with pro-immigrant atti-
tudes, for instance, having been particularly strong in Canada over the last 20 years (see
Reitz, 2011: 20). Yet there is no material basis for suggesting a ‘post-racist’ era (St Louis,
2015: 120). Racial inequality has not decreased significantly (Bonilla-Silva, 2014: 60),
and is perhaps most starkly apparent in Canada’s criminal justice system, where
Indigenous peoples and people of colour face different treatment from their entry into the
system to the point of exit (Henry and Tator, 2010; Razack, 1998; Roberts and Doob,
1997; St Lewis, 1996; Wortley and Owusu-Bempah, 2011). Task force reports, commis-
sions of inquiry, and scholarly work show that people of colour are under-policed when
victims of crime and over-policed when viewed as perpetrators (Satzewich, 2011: 75).
Moreover, Indigenous adults account for 28 per cent of admissions to provincial and ter-
ritorial prisons and 28 per cent of federal admissions, despite only representing 5 per cent
of the of the Canadian adult population.3 Overrepresentation is even more pronounced
for Indigenous women, who account for 43 per cent of female admissions nationally
(versus 26 per cent for Indigenous men) (Maleakieh, 2018). In the federal system,
Indigenous women account for 31 per cent of admissions to sentenced custody (versus
23 per cent for Indigenous men) (Reitano, 2017: 5). Similarly, the federal incarceration
rate for Black Canadians is three times their representation rate in general society
(Blaney, 2015).
Despite being housed in arguably the most racially unequal setting in Canada, our
participants were nearly unified in their commitment to Canadian multiculturalism and
their beliefs in a post-racist Canada. Our findings suggest that provincial inmate culture
538 Sociology 54(3)
valorizes racial and ethnic tolerance, even among prison gangs, sharply contrasting dom-
inant prison scholarship, as the following section illustrates.
Race in Prisons
A common narrative in prison research suggests that solidarity among inmates – in the
form of cohesive norms upheld by prisoners to govern daily life inside (also known as
the ‘inmate code’, or ‘prison subculture’) – has been undermined by the rise of racial
conflict and racialized prison gangs. This argument is most popular in the United States,
but few have systemically studied inmate culture, often making terms like ‘codes’ and
‘solidarity’ simple abstractions. Moreover, gang and race politics can be distinctive to
each institution, complicating the generalizability of assertions about how gangs have
transformed prison culture. Outside of early research from scholars such as Sykes (1958),
there is limited detailed empirical analysis of how ‘inmate solidarity’ works in practice
(but see Crewe, 2005, 2009). Scholars writing on this topic often take solidarity among
prisoners for granted and focus on what leads to its reduction. For example, Conrad and
Dinitz (1977) and Jacobs (1977) documented how pervasive conflicts among prison
gangs reduced inmate solidarity. The early works of Carroll (1974) and Scacco (1975)
also found that racial conflict decreased prisoner solidarity. Contrasting these characteri-
zations, our findings demonstrate that despite the presence of racialized gangs4 the pro-
vincial prisons we studied are characterized by a loose but cohesive ‘inmate culture’5
with minimal racial conflict.
Sykes’ (1958) classic book Society of Captives is an inescapable reference point when
studying the inmate social system. He focuses on social roles in prison culture, where
inmates categorize one another based on reputation and personality traits (such as
‘toughs’, ‘rats’, ‘center-men’, ‘gorillas’, and ‘punks’, etc.). For Sykes, inmate groups and
hierarchies involve the intersection and coordination of these roles, reinforced through a
loose commitment to a normative ‘inmate code’. Conspicuously, he did not address
questions of race, despite a considerable over-representation of Black inmates in the
prison he studied. While Sykes’ social roles have been taken up and nuanced by others
(Atchley and McCabe, 1968; Einat and Einat, 2000; Hensley et al., 2003), some modern
scholarship suggests such individualizing typologies are less important in today’s inmate
culture. In other words, the ‘old con power structure’ defined by personal reputation and
a general sense of ‘convict solidarity’ (Carroll, 1974; Jacobs, 1977: 5, 159, 226; Sykes,
1958), has been largely displaced by entrenched inmate groups vying for power. Jacobs
(1977: 159) documents early signs of such collective power struggles in his study,
Stateville, arguing that the emergence of racialized gangs in the late-1960s undermined
inmate unity and ‘balkanized the inmate social system’ (see also Carroll, 1974). The few
empirical studies on inmate socialization appear to reinforce Jacobs’ (1977) contention,
where scholars suggest that inmate relationships are structured foremost by collectivist
markers like racial and ethnic identity or gang affiliations, rather than through individual
reputation and the social roles identified by Sykes (1958) and others (Skarbek, 2014). As
Irwin (1987: vi) puts it: ‘There is no longer a single, overarching convict culture or social
organization, as there tended to be twenty years ago . . .’ Most research supporting this
perspective comes from California.
Tetrault et al. 539
In the 2015 case of Johnson v. California, the Supreme Court in the United States
struck down the practice of formally segregating prisoners by race, although it unof-
ficially remains a common practice in many institutions, reproduced through both
inmate culture and prison administration. Californian prison authorities had argued
that pervasive gang membership was so strongly demarcated along racial and ethnic
lines that efforts to ‘racially mix’ inmates inevitably resulted in violence (Trulson
et al., 2008: 275). Noll (2012: 854) characterizes Californian prisons as ‘hyper-
racialized’ spaces while Goodman (2008: 748) found race to be the leading rationale
for conflict in such institutions. Richmond and Johnson (2009: 573) place race at the
absolute centre of prison life, characterizing inmate culture as ‘Racially Organized
Prison Politics’ (ROPP), defined by a system of racial segregation where, as one ex-
inmate puts it: ‘everything, absolutely everything is decided upon and based upon
your ethnicity’. While there is much evidence for ‘ROPP’ in Californian prisons,
there is a near-absence of scholarly work directly studying inmate perceptions of
race and race relations in such institutions or in prisons more globally (Goodman,
2008: 741; see also Goodman, 2014; Walker, 2016; Phillips, 2012b).
Popular media depictions of prison life also tend to reproduce an image of California’s
distinctive inmate culture. At an international level, however, strict racial segregation is
more likely the exception, rather than the rule. Some European research suggests racial-
ized groups and gangs are almost insignificant to daily prison life. For instance, Fassin’s
(2016: 63) study of a short-term institution in France found that while Black and Arab
men were overrepresented in the prison, racial and ethnic differences were insignificant
to the inmate culture.6 He also found minimal evidence of gang activity. Similarly, in
her study of a young offenders prison in the United Kingdom, Phillips (2008: 316, 321)
found ethnic diversity to be ‘unremarkable’ and ‘unproblematic’ to prison life. In a sub-
sequent study, however, Phillips (2012a) found that solidarity among Muslim prisoners
– often stereotyped as ‘Muslim gangs’7 – provoked conflict among inmates and anxiety
for staff concerned about radicalization (see also Liebling et al., 2011). While racial-
ized, Phillips (2012a) argues that loyalty and affiliation among Muslim inmates has
more to do with stigmatized religious identity, territorial allegiances, and rival street
collectives, rather than race8 (see also Ellis et al., 1974; Phillips, 2012b). Crewe (2009)
makes a similar observation in his study of Wellingborough prison in the United
Kingdom. These findings contrast the experience in the United States, where, for
instance, Hamm (2013: 49) portrays the typical convert to Islam in prison as a ‘poor
Black man upset about racism’.
The evidence shows that racial and gang politics vary by institution and region. As
Phillips (2012a: 54) puts it, American prison gang variants (and by extension, race poli-
tics) cannot be transposed to the United Kingdom. Inmate culture, at some level, is also
always embedded in the local cultural and political landscape (see Phillips, 2012b). In
this article, we turn our attention to the Canadian setting.
The data from this article are derived from the largest independent qualitative study
ever conducted on prison life in Canada. For this article, we draw upon close to 500
semi-structured interviews with male prisoners inside four provincial institutions in
Western Canada, analysing factors shaping prisoners’ perceptions of race, how racial
beliefs are enacted on the living units, and how prisoners deal with racism. In doing so,
540 Sociology 54(3)
we detail how our participants import ideas about Canadian multiculturalism and sub-
scribe to racial colour-blindness. Further, we demonstrate how prisoners police overt
displays of racism (particularly white supremacism), as such behaviour generates
unwanted conflict in daily prison life and risks disrupting gang business.
Methodology and Setting
Our data are derived from a multi-year study of life experiences inside prisons in Western
Canada – the University of Alberta Prison Project. For this article, we focus on the inter-
views with the 495 male prisoners in our sample.
Provincial prisons house inmates sentenced to two years of custody or less, and/or
remanded inmates (people who have been arrested but are legally innocent and await-
ing trial). In Canada, anyone who has breached parole conditions for failing to pay a
speeding ticket, for example, to someone who has committed multiple homicides or
is charged with a terrorism-related offence, will serve their time awaiting trial in
remand facilities. The great majority of participants in our sample were remand pris-
oners (N = 426).
Two of the prisons in our study were remand prisons, one was a mixed facility, and
one was a sentenced facility. Except for the sentenced facility, each housed male and
female prisoners. The prisoners in remand generally had little to no programming and, at
one institution, were locked in their cells for 23 hours per day. Two of the prisons were
severely overcrowded, requiring three prisoners to share cells designed for two people
(with one sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor).
Our data collection at each institution lasted three to four weeks, with a research
team comprised of the two principal investigators and six to eight graduate students.
The team consisted of 10 interviewers, split evenly by gender. The interviewer’s
gender had noticeable effects on how inmates responded to the project, with male
inmates tending to prefer female interviewers.9 Team members had varying ethnic
backgrounds, though all could be perceived as white (one team member was half
Indigenous, one half Iranian). As a researcher’s positionality and background can
influence building rapport with research participants (Ferrell, 1997) it is possible a
more ethnically diverse research team might have garnered more varied answers
regarding race and other issues (see Phillips and Earle, 2010). That said, the racial
composition of the research team did not appear to affect our participation rate. On
most prison units, nearly all inmates signed up for the study and were often unspar-
ingly candid in their observations on various aspects pertaining to their biography
and life in prison.
To recruit participants, we made in-person announcements to prisoners on their living
units and posted sign-up sheets. Designated staff initially accompanied us to the unit
entrances, but we quickly built enough rapport with the prison staff to be allowed to navi-
gate the prisons at our own leisure.
Our interviews were semi-structured and used a generalized prompt guide. Interview
questions centred on daily prison life and personal experiences with other inmates and
staff. Race and discrimination were not the initial or primary foci of our research, but
over the course of hundreds of interviews and several months of field research these
Tetrault et al. 541
emerged as recurrent topics. This included discussions about the racial politics of a unit,
different racialized groups, and cliques in prison. We asked about prison stereotypes,
which often led to discussions of race: ‘What was the biggest surprise for you when you
first came to prison?’, ‘How is this place different from what you see in movies?’
Discussions about relationships with correctional officers also occasionally addressed
issues of race and discrimination. Finally, we asked our participants who had served time
in American prisons to compare those experiences to Canadian prisons, which quickly
turned to discussions about race.
All interviews were audio-recorded, took place in private interview rooms,10 and typi-
cally lasted around 90 minutes. We transcribed all recorded interviews verbatim and
coded the documents using Nvivo Pro 11.
Racial Segregation and Pro-Tolerance Attitudes
While the living units were racially diverse, we were initially surprised by the near-
absence of racial segregation among inmates. We conducted surveys at two of the four
prisons, inquiring about demographic information relating to our participants. Almost all
participants identified as Canadian, with 43.1 per cent being Indigenous, 45.5 per cent
white, and 9.4 per cent were of other ethnicities, with the dominant ‘other’ ethnic groups
being Somali, Sudanese, and Vietnamese. This pattern appears to roughly reflect the
prisoner population in Western Canada more generally. Despite this fact, there were no
discernable cliques or groups strictly based on race or ethnicity (including on gang units).
This was consistent across all four prisons.
When discussing racial segregation (or the lack thereof), our participants often
explained that while most people are attracted to their ‘own kind’ (culturally, racially,
ethnically), racialized cliques in the prison are informal and fluid. The following excerpt
from Mitko11 represents a common characterization of these racialized groups. This was
Mitko’s first time in jail, and he was particularly attuned to how people organize when
arriving on the living units:
Yeah, you’ll see a lot of cliquey types of things on different units [. . .]. The Natives12 will
automatically stick together. Say a new Native guy comes in. His first instinct is looking around,
seeing all these doors, all these lights, and this big room. It’s intimidating. The first thing you
see are a couple Native guys who look like you, so your first instinct is – you get drawn towards
them. If you try to talk to them and they don’t like you, then they probably slough you off or
something. It’s always been like that. The white guys will go to the white guys, and the Black
guys will always go to the Black guys. It’s always coloured in jail.
Mitko recognizes race as a social fact (‘it’s always coloured in jail’) yet acknowledges
its informal character as a ‘cliquey-type of thing’ and as a coping mechanism for
newer inmates adapting to the stressors of incarceration (see Crewe, 2011). Robert,
another first-timer in prison, outlines the comparatively relaxed nature of prison racial
542 Sociology 54(3)
Robert: Yeah everybody hangs out. And in this unit, we’ve got an Indian, a
Chinaman, a white guy, a Hebrew guy and a white supremacist, they’re
all sitting at the same table playing poker. You know. That’s a perfect
example right there.
Interviewer: Is the white supremacist guy in a group or anything?
Robert: No, he’s not. He’s done all that stuff. When he was younger he got the
tattoos, and he was into that when he was 20 or 30. The guy’s 50, 60
years old now. He’s still got the hate tattoos on, but you know. Like . . .
‘Kill all Black people’ on him, and there’s an Indian guy sitting right
across from them.
Interviewer: Do you see a lot of those white supremacist guys around?
Robert: No, not too many white supremacists, no. Mostly just Muslims, and
Chinese, Taiwanese, whatever you wanna call it. Everybody gets along
in here.
While Robert makes crude racial distinctions, he, like Mitko, emphasizes their negligible
consequence on the living unit. Similarly, Abdullah highlights the fluidity of racial and
ethnic groups inside, which he describes as casual, mostly welcoming, and at the very
least indifferent to ethnic or cultural distinctions. Individuals of all ethnic groups articu-
lated such views. Abdullah, who has served time in multiple prisons (as he puts it: ‘I’ve
spent more time in jail than I have [out] since ’99’) accentuates this point:
I’ve seen on the other units that the Black guys will hang out with the Black guys. They’ll play
ball together and do their little thing, but it’s not that they won’t talk to other races, and it’s not
that the whites won’t talk to them. You do see cultures kind of stick together a little bit. Even in
the federal jails, you see your Muslims with their Muslim groups. Bowden Institution [federal
prison] has so many groups. They’ve got Muslims. They’ve got Jewish. They’ve got a whole
bunch of different groups. Everybody’s welcome to come join the groups.
Matthew is another experienced prisoner who identifies similar themes, contrasting the
prison’s informal racialized cliques to TV stereotypes:
you know some of the Natives tend to stick together a bit [. . .] And um, you know we mingle
and shit, you know? It’s like there’s groups, but we mingle, right? But it’s not like what you see
on Sons of Anarchy and shit, where it’s like ‘Yo, I’m going to join the Mexicans’, or like, it’s
not like that in here at all.
When asked to elaborate on interracial mingling, many participants of varied ethnic
backgrounds referred to abstractions like Canadian multiculturalism and diversity –
‘This is Canada’, or similar sentiments were a frequent response to questions about racial
divisions and segregation. Owen, who has spent time in three provincial prisons, equates
multiculturalism to racial diversity and the absence of racism:
Interviewer: Have you ever seen any racism between inmates?
Owen: Not really, no one is racist. It’s a pretty multicultural place, there’s all
sorts of races here. We live in a pretty multicultural environment – that
Tetrault et al. 543
stuff has ended a long time ago. But there’s still racism in the commu-
nity, but not really here. There’s no prejudiced people on the unit that
I’ve noticed.
Many participants contrasted their experiences to stereotypes of hyper-racialized
American prisons.13 Caleb, an older and more experienced inmate (having completed sev-
eral sentences in federal prisons), expressed distaste for the United States’ (perceived)
hyper-racialized inmate culture, making clear ‘It’s different in Canada. That’s all American’
because ‘America sucks, that’s how they are down there.’ Caleb’s negative opinion of the
racial politics of American prisons was nearly universal to our sample. This is perhaps
predictable given that a leading attribute of Canadian national identity is a sense that
Canadian culture and values are in some important respect different and superior to those
of the United States (Stewart, 2014). This ‘not-American’ patriotic/nationalistic narrative
contributed to prisoners expressing disdain in their perceptions of the more violent, radical,
and racist prison subcultures in the United States, which they explicitly and consistently
distinguished from the Canadian context. The United States consequently served to under-
score the superiority of Canadian prison race politics, which were presented as more
sophisticated and refined. As Adam explains, grouping up by race is an American phenom-
enon, where provincial inmates in our study foster relationships using different criteria:
Interviewer: How are people forming friends or groups?
Adam: I don’t know, man. There’s all sorts of. . . Not really race. That’s more
the States. It’s mostly to do with the outside, or friends you previously
had in jail. Some dudes will stick to their own little group, because
they have these drug friends on the street. It’s pretty much all different.
Everything’s different. Nothing is the same.
At the end of this excerpt Adam suggests that, unlike how race operates in the United
States, there is no racial master category determining how inmates organize in the pro-
vincial system (Wacquant, 2000). Instead, ‘everything’s different’ – prisoners may group
up based on street friendships, criminal enterprises, or shared addictions. In other words,
individual reputation and biography foregrounded interactions among our participants.
Altogether, we found racial and ethnic divisions to be informal and not determinative
of everyday life inside. This also extended to Muslim prisoners who seem more segre-
gated in the prison systems in France and the United Kingdom (Crewe, 2009; Phillips,
2012a). For example, Kayden, a highly educated first-time inmate, was initially taken
aback by the ethnic and religious tolerance among his incarcerated peers:
in my previous dormitory, there [. . .] were a couple of Muslim fellows and so they do their
sunrise and sunset prayers every day. And they quietly head over to one window, carry on, and
[. . .] I was surprised – really nobody called them out on it, or made an issue out of it. And it’s,
it’s been one of the few heartening things about being in here.
While participants portrayed race relations as casual and spontaneous, and sometimes
rooted in cultural or religious rituals like the Muslim prayer, many also expressed a
544 Sociology 54(3)
commitment to maintaining an atmosphere of racial tolerance. In other words, racial ideol-
ogy materialized through norms and rules enacted on the living units. In the following sec-
tion, we show how prisoners policed overt racism, particularly white supremacism.
Racism and Anti-Racism
Most participants conceived of ‘racism’ as overt expressions of racial prejudice or as a
general hostility to certain groups (as opposed to a focus on racialized forms of social
and structural inequality) (see Bonilla-Silva, 1999). Many inmates (mostly white)
explained that racial slurs would be (somewhat) tolerated or excused on a unit if voiced
when confronting an inmate who is being disruptive or unreasonable, as Caleb tells us:
I don’t know, I’m not a racist or what not, I don’t care what colour you are: you’re a retard,
you’re a retard. If you’re good, you’re good. Whatever the colour is. Some people, I don’t
know, it’s a little bit like that in the federal system [referring to racial segregation]. I think
everybody has got a bit of racism instilled in them. [If] Some Black guys come to me [in a
confrontation], I would call them a fucking nigger. It’s bad, but it’s the first thing that comes to
mind. Which is bad. But it’s just the first thing that pops into my mind. But it’s not cuz I’m
racist. But I think a little bit of racism like that, everybody has it in them.
While Caleb previously expressed his distaste for American race politics, he explains
that racial animus is sometimes unavoidable, particularly in heated confrontations
between inmates. For our participants, however, such isolated incidents (such as racial
slurs used in fights or casually in jokes) do not rise to the level of ‘racist’ (see also
Phillips, 2012b: 103). Alex – a prisoner who held influence over a gang unit – also
expressed this sentiment when describing a situation where a prisoner used a racial slur.
We asked him whether such situations escalate the conflict:
Alex: That’s basically it. [They] get in a fight and someone drops the N word,
you know what I mean? Or calls a white guy a cracker or. . .
Interviewer: So just in the heat of the moment?
Alex: Yeah [. . .] But there’s no. . . I’ve never seen a fight that was like to do
with religion or skin colour. It’s always to do with something else,
right? Like the way you carry yourself, if your word is good. [. . .]
Some participants, like Alex, were proud of their belief that Western Canadian provincial
inmate culture transcends racial prejudice. For almost all participants, ‘racism’ was a
problem of hateful individuals and fringe groups. Consequently, discussions of ‘racist’
inmates focused almost exclusively on white supremacist gangs or individuals.
We did not find any gangs organized around white supremacism in the prisons we
studied, and inmates who self-identified as racist or white supremacist were outliers. The
contrast with the American prison situation could not be starker (Blazak, 2009; Goodman,
2008; Hamm, 2013). We did, however, interview several prisoners who: (1) were mem-
bers of white power groups when they were young; (2) had affiliations with white power
groups in federal prisons (although some of these groups had since disbanded), and/or;
(3) were affiliated with motorcycle gangs that allegedly adhered to white supremacism.
Tetrault et al. 545
One reason white supremacism is not tolerated on the living units is because it can
create needless and counter-productive racial tensions. Jackson, a 46-year-old inmate
who has been in and out of prison his whole life, explains how he had to distance himself
from white power groups, despite his personal racist beliefs:
Interviewer: Have you ever seen Nazi guys around?
Jackson: Yeah, you got one [referring to himself].
Interviewer: Yeah?
Jackson: I’s got a swastika tattoo above the head about this big. Its covered up
Interviewer: What made you get into that?
Jackson: Around personal preference. And I kept my mouth shut about it when
I covered my tattoo. I didn’t gang up. I hung out with bikers, right. And
most of them are all, you know, white supremacist or whatever, right.
My opinion always stayed to myself and that was the only way it was.
At the risk of violence from their peers of colour, inmates like Jackson tended to conceal
their beliefs and affiliations, and sometimes denounce their racist markings. Such meas-
ures, however, were not necessarily required for them to be tolerated by the broader
prisoner population. Some of our participants indicated that racist inmates could be
accepted if they simply keep their beliefs to themselves. James, who has also been in the
prison system for most of his life, outlines this point in describing how white suprema-
cists are policed by prisoners of colour:
Interviewer: What about the guys that have swastika tattoos?
James: [. . .] I’ve met a few guys in here with it. They either try to hide it or
say ‘that was in my bad days. I’m over that now, but I’m going to cover
it or something.’ Still in their hearts they believe it, but they know not
to bring it out in here. Some guys’ll hide it, and some won’t.
Interviewer: Because they’ll get suppressed [by other prisoners]?
James: Yeah.
Interviewer: If you have a tattoo, and a Black guy on the unit is like, ‘Hey, what’s
that?’ and you say it was your younger days, that’s enough for the guys
to leave you alone?
James: Yeah, most of them. [. . .] As long as you’re not preaching out to
As many participants explained to us, while gangs can provide members with a sense of
identity and belonging in prison, organizing around white racism and white power groups
attracts hostility from individual inmates and rival gangs (see also Phillips, 2012b: 103,
104). Moreover, the number of prisoners of colour and non-supremacist white prisoners
vastly outnumber those few who might be inclined to organize around white supremacism.
As one white participant put it when asked about organizing such a group: ‘We’re a minor-
ity! What the fuck are we gonna do? We have no power’ [referring to white inmates].
Benjamin, another older and more experienced inmate, and an Indigenous person, scoffs at
546 Sociology 54(3)
the idea of white racist groups in provincial prisons, arguing how absurd and futile it would
be to organize around white supremacy in such a racially diverse and hostile setting:
Interviewer: These white supremacist guys: Have you seen them mistreat other
minorities in prison at all? [. . .]
Benjamin: Yes. I’ve seen it in Drumheller [federal institution]. But let me tell you
this. If you’re a white supremacist guy – and they used to have units in
Drum[heller] for white supremacist guys – they do not have the num-
bers to run around shooting their mouths off. Think about it. If I’m on
this unit, and I’m a white supremacist; and there are about 15, 20 white
supremacists – let’s make it bigger. Let’s say there are 40 or 50 in the
jail. Do you think 40 or 50 white supremacist guys are going to deal
with 30 or 40 or 50 Black guys, and about 500 Natives? You can’t. You
don’t. You just sit back there, and you go, ‘Yes, I’m white supremacist;
but don’t tell anybody.’
Interviewer: But some of them are tatted and stuff, right?
Benjamin: Well, yes, they’re tattooed, and they’re doing all that; but they’re very,
very quiet about it. They don’t go around, ‘Yes, I’m white supremacist.’
Interviewer: So, do you guys just kind of leave them be?
Benjamin: We ignore them completely.
Interviewer: Okay. So, it’s not like, if someone has a swastika tattoo on them, you
guys are going to . . .
Benjamin: No. Worst comes to worst, if a guy’s walking around here acting like
he’s all that, we check him off real quick [force him off the unit].14
‘Hey, buddy, take your white supremacist shit to a different unit’; and
the guy’s got to leave. It’s either that or – think about it. You’ve got 40
Natives, you’ve got 50 Natives; saying you’re white supremacist.
These Native guys aren’t going to tolerate it. Those five Black guys, I
know for a fact aren’t going to tolerate it. You’re by yourself – or even
if there’s two or three of you. It won’t go that far, because eventually
they’ll say, you know what? Buddy, take your white supremacist stuff.
You can go to a different unit. But it’s not going to happen here.
Our findings suggest that white supremacy is an ineffective belief system for building a
prison gang in the provincial system. The number of individuals who might join white
supremacist groups appears to be comparatively small. By needlessly stoking racial ten-
sions, white power groups cannot provide members with the comfort, security, and support
offered by other prison gangs. Put another way, rather than providing protection, joining
such a group is more likely to increase one’s risk of violence from other prisoners.
Organizing around white supremacy also detracts from the established expectations
of gang membership. Prison gangs encourage members to ‘rep’ their colours – that is,
express or parade their gang affiliation – as a display of power, and to attract new recruits.
In our research settings ‘repping’ white power symbolism is more likely to invite vio-
lence or unwanted attention, rather than intimidate or inspire followers and potential
recruits. Moreover, restricting membership based on race limits the ability to compete
Tetrault et al. 547
with other gangs. Larger gangs tend to be more powerful gangs. As many participants put
it: ‘prison gangs are a numbers game’. While the prison gangs we studied were racial-
ized, they did not restrict membership based on race or ethnicity. Henry, a 33-year-old
inmate who has dealt with prison gangs throughout his adult life, expresses confusion
about the racial diversity of such groups:
Henry: I’ve heard of white guys being in that gang too.
Interviewer: Yeah.
Henry: You know, so I don’t really get that part either, right. So, um, yeah, the
gang [called] ‘F.O.B.’, you know, this is known as a Chinese gang.
And [their enemies] the ‘F.O.B. Killers’ is known as a Chinese gang
– they were two Chinese leaders.15 And now you know, after they
grew, there is every kind of race in that gang, even Natives, was all in
that gang. So, I don’t get it. I think with every gang, there’s different
set of races in there. If it’s a white gang, there’s a Black guy in there.
If there’s a Native gang there’s a white guy in there, you know.
Interviewer: So, it doesn’t matter.
Henry: I guess they just want their numbers to be up there.
Although the dominant prison gangs had historically been configured around shared race
and ethnicity, those factors did not figure into low-level recruitment in the provincial
system (but could play a role in advancement and leadership). For example, the dominant
gangs in three of the prisons we studied had clear ties to Indigenous heritage, demon-
strated in their gang names, symbols, and/or the shared ethnic heritage of their founding
members. Regardless, these groups contained members of different ethnic heritage and
recruited across all racial and ethnic backgrounds. This even applied to the ‘White Boy
Posse’, a gang with neo-Nazi ideological leanings that had previously disbanded in our
research settings. One of our participants, a former leader of that group, explained that
the group’s far-right politics had been secondary to their drug dealing, and they had
begun recruiting prisoners of colour to increase the number of members available to
perform roles in the drug trade.
Lastly, inmates pay close attention to the types of charges other inmates face. Some crimes,
referred to as ‘bad charges’, are seen as particularly reprehensible, or indefensible. Classically,
these would include crimes against children, sex crimes, elderly abuse, and forms of ideologi-
cal extremism, such as belonging to ISIS. Prisoners facing such ‘bad charges’ are assaulted by
other prisoners and/or are ‘checked off’ the living unit for their own protection. In our settings,
it was generally accepted that ‘hate crimes’ – which involve any number of crimes motivated
by bias, prejudice, or hate pertaining to such things as race, nationality, language, or country of
origin – now fall into the category of ‘bad charges’. Prisoners facing such charges tried to keep
this situation secret or asked to be transferred to a protective custody unit.
Our findings show that provincial inmates import beliefs about Canadian multicultural-
ism into the prison subculture, particularly racial colour-blindness. This is evident in
548 Sociology 54(3)
their anti-racist attitudes which help discourage racial conflict, overt racism, and organ-
ized racism (in the form of strict racial segregation or the creation of racist gangs). Such
manifestations of racism can be particularly unwelcome to the extent they disrupt daily
life and prison gang business, specifically the drug trade. Our findings contrast the ste-
reotype that inmates organize predominantly through collective markers of race, ethnic-
ity, or gang affiliation. This is in line with other research in our local setting which has
focused on gangs outside of the prison. Grekul and LaBoucane-Benson (2006), for
example, argue that street gangs in Edmonton (Alberta’s capital city) started as groups
of ethnically homogeneous friends, family members, or acquaintances. As the gangs
expanded, membership and alliances were determined rationally, rather than on the
basis of race or ethnicity. In those groups ‘the best partners are those who may best
enhance and increase the wealth and power of the gang’ (2006: 19). In Edmonton, the
police’s Gang Unit also concluded that most street gangs in the city are comprised of
mixed races (2006: 20).
While race and ethnicity influence the prison politics in our setting, individual reputa-
tion is the key determinant for how inmates are treated, how they relate to one another,
and how they organize (based on types of charges, street affiliations, behaviour inside,
and the like). The social weight of personal integrity signifies strong and consistent col-
lective values among our sample, contrasting the popular notion that racialized prison
gangs undermine inmate solidarity. It also stands in contrast to research on race in the
American prison context which has consistently found that prisoners group together
along fairly strict racial lines (Jacobs, 1977; Skarbek, 2014; Walker, 2016). As Wacquant
(2001) observes, race is the master status for American prisoners. How do we explain the
differences in racial attitudes between prisoners in the United States and Canada?
Theorizing about inmate culture has traditionally focused on the importation and dep-
rivation models developed by Clemmer (1940), Cline (1968), Ellis et al. (1974), Poole
and Regoli (1983), Sykes (1958), Thomas and Foster (1973), among others. Importation
theory argues that prison subcultures (i.e. inmates’ collective values, ethics, and rituals,
etc.) are ‘imported’ into the institution from the outside. For instance, this perspective
suggests inmate culture is violent because prisoners bring their ‘criminal behaviors’ into
the institution (Thomas and Foster, 1973: 230). By contrast, deprivation theory asserts
that the prison environment predominantly produces inmate culture itself (Sykes, 1958).
Using the same example, deprivation theory suggests that prisoner violence results from
the stressors of confinement, rather than the ‘importation’ of violent individuals (see
Useem, 1985). These models are not dichotomous, nor exhaustive in how they explain
inmate behaviour. While dated, the deprivation and importation theories offer a helpful
starting point for understanding race relations in our sample.
While some claim that prison subcultures tend to be ‘at odds with society’s values as
a whole’ (Richmond and Johnson, 2009: 569; Santos, 2004: 98), our findings suggest
that inmate attitudes relating to race come close to reflecting the dominant culture. Put
another way, our participants ‘import’ mainstream Canadian values about race and eth-
nicity into the prison, adhering loosely to liberal multiculturalism and post-racist think-
ing – hallmarks of Canadian race politics (Ambrose and Mudde, 2015; Berry and Kalin,
1995). Our findings also reinforce some concerns raised by critics of multicultural pol-
icy. First, Canadian nationalism underscored many of the responses to racial segregation,
Tetrault et al. 549
and stereotypes about prisons in the United States often served as a moral scapegoat to
explain racial conflict (or the lack thereof). As race scholars like Stewart (2014: 24) put
it, there is a longstanding belief that Canada is ‘not as bad’ as the United States on mat-
ters pertaining to race (see also Reitz, 2011: 18, Reitz and Breton, 1994). Many partici-
pants responded to questions of racism and racial segregation with ‘this isn’t the States’
and ‘we’re a multicultural society’. As Stewart (2014: 67) explains, Canadians often
draw comparisons to the United States to reinforce the ‘unsupported national story of
Canada’s victory over racism’, reflected in Owen’s comment: ‘that stuff has ended a long
time ago’. It is also possible that the multicultural mythos is heightened for prisoners
because of Canada’s skewed prison demographics, as prisons are significantly more
racially mixed than the country’s general population.
Second, our participants consistently articulated racially colour-blind and post-racist
attitudes. While prisoners acknowledged the social reality of race, they emphasized its
negligible effects on daily prison politics. As they explained, while race and ethnicity
provide social comfort and easy initial mutual identification for some, racialized groups
are informal and do not reflect the broader culture of racial coexistence in prison. While
race politics have little direct impact on daily life, racial attitudes are enacted through
how inmates police overt racism. Almost all participants overlooked structural racial
inequality and defined racism as an individual attribute – oftentimes synonymous with
white supremacism. Fixating on racism as personal prejudice or political ideology is key
to post-racist discourse. As critics like Brown (2006: 142) explain, power relations disap-
pear when intolerant individuals are treated as the agents of racial conflict and attitude is
treated as its source. Some participants implied that the absence of white supremacists on
the living unit signalled the absence of racism. It was the absolute exception to discuss
racism in anything other than individualizing terms, and even in those rare occasions, the
discussions were generally couched in reference to oppressive state power, rather than of
structural or institutional racism. Further, while we certainly heard about racist guards,
these complaints were again, scarce. Prisoners were much more likely to talk about cor-
rectional officers abusing their power, independent of race.
While our findings support the argument that liberal multiculturalism pacifies critical
thinking about racism and race relations, racial colour-blindness also helps minimize
ethnic conflict in prison. The culture of racial co-existence contrasts the critique that
multicultural ideology discourages intergroup relations by hardening stereotypes and
devaluing special interest groups (Satzewich and Liodakis, 2013: 169). On the contrary,
our participants supported specialized prison programmes, such as those designed for
Indigenous inmates, and many non-Indigenous prisoners regularly participated in
Indigenous cleansing ceremonies, known as smudges. Respondents were also sensitive
to unique religious practices. We found little evidence, for example, of anti-Muslim big-
otry, and many expressed a desire for more programmes related to different cultural and
ethnic heritages.
While inmates import and reproduce ideas about Canadian multiculturalism, racial
co-existence must be partially attributed to institutional confinement (as deprivation
theory suggests). Unlike ethnic groups outside the prison, inmates are deprived of their
privacy and ability to self-isolate, having little choice but to mingle with their ethnically
diverse peers. This speaks to Allport’s (1954) contact hypothesis, which suggests that
550 Sociology 54(3)
prejudices rooted in race, religion, or sexual orientation tend to be reduced when interact-
ing with members of groups against whom you hold prejudices (see also Phillips, 2012b:
103, 106, 107). By virtue of being confined to a small space for often long periods of
time (we interviewed a number of prisoners in remand who were awaiting trial for two
years and longer), our participants naturally interact with each other. While this is also
true for American prisons, the difference in our setting may be that our participants
embrace the Canadian narrative around multiculturalism and the desire to distinguish
their situation from American prisons (whom they view negatively). Moreover, the tem-
porariness and transitory nature of the provincial and remand prison system may also
explain participants’ commitment to individualism and racial tolerance. Comparatively,
provincial inmates spend a short time in prison (two years or less), and consequently may
be less inclined to organize and break rules.
Santiago, a highly educated inmate, explains how racialized divisions conflict with
the prison code admonition to ‘do your own time’:
Interviewer: What about cliques, in terms of race and things like that, ethnicity?
Santiago: That doesn’t really matter in here. You know, there’s some, some guys
that will [. . .] try and act like ‘oh, you know, I’m all this because I’m
this race and, you know, I got all these buddies because I’m this race.’
But it really doesn’t matter [. . .]. It’s kind of one big collective in here.
We’re all inmates, right, we’re all in here doing our own time, right.
So, there’s no purpose of – why would you want to clique with a bunch
of Black guys, or why would you want to have a bunch of skinheads,
or whatever you call them? It’s one big happy – well, not really ‘happy’
– that’s not the right word to use, but you know [. . .] it’s basically like
a family in here, right. [emphasis added]
Like Santiago, many participants identified a collective interest among inmates (who
were not affiliated with gangs) to make ‘doing time’ as easy as possible. While prisoners
often sought to circumvent or subvert institutional rules, they typically tried to do so
within carefully calibrated limits, not wanting to prompt punishments from officers (such
as extended lockup periods or revoked privileges – like phones and television) which
made life inside more difficult (see Crewe, 2007, 2009). Consequently, most participants
avoid interpersonal dramas and group politics to minimize their risk of infractions and
conflict with other prisoners. Crewe (2009: 229) argues that this logic leads to a culture of
‘prudent individualism’, which encourages self-interest and self-governance among pris-
oners (see also Phillips, 2012b: 86). Formal organization among inmates – whether politi-
cally, racially, or through gangs – complicates daily life and makes ‘doing time’ harder.
Colour-blind thinking complements this individualist institutional culture. For instance,
while racial slurs can be tolerated during interpersonal conflicts, displays of white suprem-
acy disturb the code of ‘doing your own time’ by inviting conflict from rival gangs and
racialized conflict from prisoners of colour. By contrast, racial colour-blindness exalts
individualism, where individual reputation is the master category determining how
inmates ought to interact. In other words, race is subordinate to prisoners’ street reputa-
tion, charges, and their comportment inside. Racial colour-blindness also benefits prison
Tetrault et al. 551
gang politics, as gangs are free to recruit based on individual reputation and skills, rather
than limiting their membership by race. In short, racism is counter-productive for gangs
in prison because it limits their ability to expand and conduct business.
Our participants identified with and valued Canadian multiculturalism and subscribed to
racial colour-blindness as outlined by critics of the policy. It is undoubtedly the case that
there are more nuanced gradations in how racial colour-blindness manifests among the
prisoner population that deserves to be the focus of further research. Our data suggest,
however, that as a general orientation, racial colour-blindness helps reduce ethnic con-
flict and encourages inter-group relations among racially diverse inmates. As critics of
racial colour-blindness suggest, our participants individualize racism, focusing on what
is often called ‘overt racism’. Few participants acknowledged ‘structural racism’ or the
overrepresentation of people of colour in the prison system; some even expressed that
Canada had overcome racism.
Moreover, there is no evidence that racialized gangs have undermined ‘inmate unity’,
as other studies have found. While ‘prudent individualism’ may affect political solidarity
(such as activism and political resistance among prisoners) (Crewe, 2009), inmate unity
manifests in other ways, such as valuing ‘easy time’, to which racial harmony plays a
part. Moreover, collective morals are explicit in discussions about individual reputation,
evidenced in most inmates’ disdain for white supremacy and prisoners with ‘bad charges’
(like sex crimes and hate crimes).
Racial colour-blindness benefits prison gang politics, as overt racism can create need-
less conflict, potentially hindering the business aspect of gangs (i.e. in our context: the
prison drug trade). Restricting gang membership by ‘race’ places gangs at a numbers dis-
advantage when competing with others recruiting from all racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Thank you to the men and women who shared their time and insights with us, and to Aryan Karimi,
and to members of the University of Alberta Prison Project, including Ashley Kohl, Luca Berardi,
William Schultz, and Tyler Dunford. Thanks also to the reviewers for their helpful comments and
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article: this project was supported by the Social Science and Humanities
Research Council under Grant IG 435-2017-1051.
Justin EC Tetrault
1. We use the expressions ‘prisoner’ and ‘inmate’ interchangeably as our participants disagreed
on which term was less stigmatizing.
552 Sociology 54(3)
2. ‘Indigenous’ refers broadly to peoples of long settlement and connection to specific lands
who have been adversely affected by colonialism (Indigenous Foundations, 2018). We use
‘Indigenous’ to refer specifically to the first inhabitants of the land pre-dating Canada, includ-
ing First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.
3. No official statistics specifically identify a prisoner’s race in provincial prisons.
4. By ‘racialized’ we mean that a gang is made up predominantly of one ethnic group. This
does not mean that they explicitly restrict membership based on racial.
5. We conceptualize ‘inmate culture’ as encompassing patterns of norms, ethics, and values in
daily prison life, as identified by our participants.
6. Fassin’s (2016: 62) data on racial demographics come from his own census conducted in
7. Phillips (2012a: 54) argues that Muslim solidarity in the prison setting does not function like
a ‘gang’ in the traditional (American) sense.
8. Where Phillips (2012a, 2012b) emphasizes inmates’ pre-prison life and the role of community
affiliations in her study on United Kingdom prisoner race relations, our research was focused
on the lived realities of prison, and as such prisoners did not often dwell on characterizing
their communities outside of prison.
9. While some participants preferred to be interviewed by someone of the opposite sex, it was
impossible to identify any larger consistent pattern of ‘interviewer effects’ given that we were
working with a large research team that varied in terms of age, ethnicity, sexual orientation,
gender, physical appearance, research experience, and other pertinent biographical factors
that could conceivably shape the interview dynamic.
10. Most living units featured open-concept layouts. Two or three officers who were typically on
duty were located behind a desk and visible to inmates. On some units, officers were stationed
in a room attached to the unit, where they could observe inmates through opaque windows.
These usually had private interview rooms adjacent to the officer station.
11. All names are pseudonyms.
12. Colloquially used among our participants to refer to Indigenous prisoners. Indigenous prison-
ers often referred to themselves as ‘Natives’ as well.
13. Many participants explained that racial segregation and racialized prison gangs were more
prevalent in federal prisons.
14. This refers to when inmates force other inmates to transfer (‘check-off’) to a different living
unit, often under the threat of violence.
15. The leaders were actually Vietnamese.
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Justin EC Tetrault is a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, in the Department of Sociology.
His dissertation is a semi-ethnographic study of the contemporary right-wing nationalist move-
ment in Canada. He has written about the limits of ‘hate’ for understanding right-wing groups in
Current Sociology. He is also a senior researcher and project manager of the University of Alberta
Prison Project. His other research interests include race and ethnicity, social theory, visual sociol-
ogy, and surveillance studies.
Sandra M Bucerius is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the University of
Alberta. Dr Bucerius is a crime ethnographer whose research focuses on revealing the intricacies
of settings that are difficult both to access and understand: prisons, police organizations, and mar-
ginalized street and newcomer communities. Her book, Unwanted: Muslim Immigrants, Dignity
and Drug Dealing appeared with Oxford University Press and she co-edited the Oxford Handbook
on Ethnicity, Crime and Immigration. She is also the OUP Criminology Handbook Series Editor.
Bucerius is the co-director of the University of Alberta Prison Project – a large qualitative study on
Canadian prisons.
Kevin D Haggerty is a Killam Research Laureate and Canada Research Chair. He is Professor of
Sociology and Criminology at the University of Alberta and editor of the Canadian Journal of
Sociology. He is co-director (with Dr Bucerius) of the University of Alberta Prison Project. He and
his co-author (Aaron Doyle) have recently published the book 57 Ways to Screw Up in Graduate
School, which conveys a series of professional lessons for the next generation of graduate students.
He has published on topics relating to prisons, opioids, surveillance, governance, research ethics,
policing, and risk.
Date submitted October 2018
Date accepted September 2019
... Despite massive racial inequalities in imprisonment on par with the United States (Gilmore 2015), Canada is widely celebrated for its racial politics and enjoys a reputation as a "political utopia" or "progressive paradise" (Beauchamp 2016;Deconstructed 2019), an identity that many Canadians take pride in (Reitz 2011, pp. 18, 21; see also Stewart 2014;Tetrault, Bucerius, and Haggerty 2020). While attitudes toward Indigenous peoples have slightly improved (Neuman 2016, p. 12) and the Canadian government has taken steps to highlight and address some Indigenous issues, little progress has been made overall regarding the material well-being of Indigenous people concerning housing and poverty. ...
... As we have detailed elsewhere(Tetrault, Bucerius, and Haggerty 2020), western Canadian prisons are not racially segregated like their American counterparts and more closely resemble the prison politics of Western European countries. While racialized gangs are prominent in Canadian prisons, race plays a comparatively marginal role in daily interactions. ...
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Mass incarceration of Indigenous peoples is a fundamental Canadian human rights problem. One response since the 1970s has been to “Indigenize” prisons by teaching Indigenous culture and history, facilitating spirituality, involving Elders and communities in rehabilitation, and creating special prisons called “healing lodges.” Criminologist proponents of “critical prison studies” are widely dismissive of these programs, with some arguing that Indigenized programming advances cultural genocide. They are wrong. University of Alberta Prison Project researchers interviewed nearly 600 prisoners in six prisons across western Canada, of whom 40 percent self-identified as Indigenous. Respondents generally praised Indigenizing initiatives for teaching them about their history and culture and helping them feel empowered and proud of their Indigenous identity. They said the initiatives helped them feel better able to cope with colonial traumas, including residential school and foster care system experiences; created a support network between Elders and fellow prisoners; and facilitated basic religious accommodation. Respondents’ criticisms focused on prison management, particularly security restrictions and staff prejudice that can prevent access to Indigenized resources. Indigenized programming supports the dignity and religious rights of incarcerated Indigenous peoples. Participants wanted expanded, more easily accessible cultural programming.
... This lack of understanding corresponds with a general decline in empirical research on prison life in North America more generally (Simon, 2000;Wacquant, 2002). In Canada, where we do our work, there is a notable lack of independent social science research conducted inside of prisons (but see Bucerius & Haggerty, 2019;Pelvin, 2019;Tetrault et al., 2020). A major reason for this is because, in many jurisdictions, it can be challenging to secure research access to prisons (Britton, 2003). ...
... Muslim individuals tended to seek each other out, and even innocuously socializing together to play cards, or lining up together for meals, could raise anxieties (see also Liebling & Williams, 2018). Such worries were apparent even in prisons where individuals from the same ethnic groups commonly socialized among themselves (Tetrault et al., 2020). In light of this perceived Muslim/terrorist connection, relatively mundane markers of the Islamic faith could draw an officer's attention, including having Arabic reading materials in their cells, growing a beard, wearing a taqiyah (skull cap), or writing out verses from the Quran. ...
The number of people incarcerated for extremist actions has grown over the past decades. The resulting prospect of prison radicalization has contributed to widespread risk responsibilitization among prison staff. Low-level correctional officers now perceive themselves as being directly responsible for detecting radicalization on their units. Consequently, radicalization has become a meaningful topic for prison staff, one which shapes their daily actions and perceptions. However, officers' under-standings of radicalization may not conform with accepted definitions. Through 131 sem-istructured interviews with Canadian correctional officers, we demonstrate how radicalization functions as a floating signifier in prison, influencing officer thought and behavior in meaningful ways while eluding easy definition. Officers redefine radicalization to fit interpretive frames around religion and race, gang membership, and mental health, irrespective of whether stereotypical extremists exist in a given prison. We demonstrate how radicalization, when operating as a floating signifier, can significantly influence officers' perceptions and front-line prison operations.
... Such research is particularly pressing in a political and institutional context in which ethics protocols , escalating professorial workloads, and risk-averse correctional officials make it more challenging to conduct ethnographic research in prison (Simon 2000;Wacquant 2002). In Canada, the result has been a conspicuous gap in our understanding, as Canadian scholars have produced surprisingly few in-prison ethnographies (but see Comack [1996] and more recently Tetrault, Bucerius, and Haggerty [2019], Bucerius, Haggerty, and Dunford [2021], , ). ...
... There is no in-between, as people need to choose sides, or run the risk of being deemed a "hood hopper" (Lopez-Aguado 2018, p. 105). There are mixed reports about the significance of race outside the United States, particularly in Canadian (Tetrault, Bucerius, and Haggerty 2019) and British (Phillips 2012; Maitra 2020) prison systems. ...
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A prison gang is a durable group that shares a collective identity, maintains a locus of custodial influence, exhibits collective behavior, and engages in a pattern of illegal activity. Prison gangs proliferated in recent decades for reasons that remain unclear. The classic view of prison gangs—conspiratorial, hierarchical, monolithic, predatory, and rule bound—is outdated; contemporary research reveals far greater heterogeneity in forms and functions. There is a nascent micro-macro paradox about gangs and (dis)order. Misconduct, especially vio-lence, is concentrated disproportionately among gang populations, attributable to group processes rather than to individual propensities. Countervailing claims that gangs bring order and disorder remain at best speculative and await more rigorous research. About 15 percent of US prisoners are affiliated with gangs; a much larger proportion maintain associations by virtue of homophily and institutional constraints. Emerging evidence suggests that prisoners enter and exit gangs while incarcerated. Prison officials have constructed intelligence apparatuses to document and manage gang populations. There is no consensus whether concentration or dispersion strategies produce safer prisons, although gang affiliates are overrepresented in solitary confinement. Evidence is too sparse to reach any conclusions about the effectiveness of promising liabilities-and obligations-based rehabilitative programs.
... Our larger data set encompasses people who are held in custody because they could not afford bail or missed paying speeding tickets, to people who are heavily gang involved or have committed multiple homicide. For further details, see Tetrault et al. (2019) or Bucerius et al. (2020). ...
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Policing organizations are currently experiencing more pressure than ever to address systemic racism and police brutality. Advocates and academics have suggested a range of changes, such as defunding the police, moving towards more body-worn cameras, ensuring higher educational levels of new recruits, implicit bias training, and so on. Our article draws attention and advocates for a different avenue: moving our understanding of crime towards a public health issue. By drawing on some data from the University of Alberta Prison Project, we argue that looking at justice clients with a public health lens would significantly change the way police are trained and respond to incidents. We believe this would have monumental consequences for both justice clients and policing organizations: justice clients will benefit from a police service that is trauma informed, compassionate, and understands their client base, while policing organizations will arguably increase their trust relationship with the public, therefore building legitimacy in the community.
... 1 Although it is difficult to generalize about prisons, as institutions differ starkly in terms of appearance and daily routine, these facilities are reminiscent of stereotypical American prisons, although less racially segregated (see Tetrault et al., 2020), as opposed to the more progressive institutions associated with Nordic countries (Eriksson & Pratt, 2014). 2 There are many reasons why people who are incarcerated can stay for a prolonged period of time. For example, legally, if a case has not been heard and decided by the court within a 2-year window, the charges are dismissed. ...
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To outsiders, prisons vacillate between visions of regimented order and anarchic disorder. The place of rules in prison sits at the fulcrum between these two visions of regulation. Based on 131 qualitative interviews with correctional officers across four different prisons in western Canada, we examine how correctional officers understand and exercise discretion in prison. Our findings highlight how an officer's habitus shapes individual instances of discretionary decision‐making. We show how officers modify how they exercise discretion in light of their views on how incarcerated people, fellow officers, and supervisors will interpret their decisions. Although existing research often sees a correlation between “rule‐following” by incarcerated individuals and official statistics on such misdeeds, our data highlight that official statistics on rule violations do not easily represent the rate or frequency of such misbehavior. Instead, these numbers are highly discretionary organizational accomplishments. Our findings advance an appreciation for correctional officer discretion by focusing on the range of factors officers might contemplate in forward‐looking decisions about applying a rule and how they rationalize the nonenforcement of rules.
... It is seemingly paradoxical that leaving prison would result in elevating radicalism intentions among those who identify race as the most important social group. One would expect that the underlying pressures of the total institution should subside in the community [77,78]. Yet racial distinctions could be heightened in the community where the racial order diverges from that of the prison. ...
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There is considerable speculation that prisons are a breeding ground for radicalization. These concerns take on added significance in the era of mass incarceration in the United States, where 1.5 million people are held in state or federal prisons and around 600,000 people are released from prison annually. Prior research relies primarily on the speculation of prison officials, media representations, and/or cross-sectional designs to understand the imprisonment-extremism nexus. We develop a tripartite theoretical model to examine continuity and change in activism and radicalism intentions upon leaving prison. We test these models using data from a large probability sample of prisoners (N = 802) in Texas interviewed in the week preceding their release from prison and then reinterviewed 10 months later using a validated scale of activism and radicalism intentions. We arrive at three primary conclusions. First, levels of activism decline upon reentry to the community (d =-0.30, p < .01), while levels of radicalism largely remain unchanged (d =-0.08, p = .28). What is learned and practiced in prison appears to quickly lose its vitality on the street. Second, salient groups and organizations fell in importance after leaving prison, including country, race/ethnicity, and religion, suggesting former prisoners are occupied by other endeavors. Finally, while we identify few correlates of changes in extremist intentions, higher levels of legal cynicism in prison were associated with increases in both activism and radicalism intentions after release from prison. Efforts designed to improve legal orientations could lessen intentions to support non-violent and violent extremist actions. These results point to an imprisonment-extremism nexus that is diminished largely by the realities of prisoner reentry.
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Many observers describe prison subcultures as inherently and irredeemably antisocial. Research directly ties prison subcultures to violence, gang membership, and poor reintegration. In extreme cases, research has also suggested that prison subcultures contribute to incarcerated people joining radical groups or embracing violent extremist beliefs. These claims, however, ignore key differences in the larger cultural and social context of prisons. We examine the relationship between prison subcultures and prison radicalization based on semistructured qualitative interviews with 148 incarcerated men and 131 correctional officers from four western Canadian prisons. We outline several imported features of the prison subculture that make incarcerated people resilient to radicalized and extremist messaging. These features include 1) national cultural imaginaries; 2) the racial profile of a prison, including racial sorting or a lack thereof; and 3) how radicalization allowed incarcerated men and correctional officers to act outside the otherwise agreed‐to subcultural rules. Our research findings stress the importance of contemplating broader sociocultural influences when trying to understand the relationship between radicalization and prison dynamics and politics.
Can second-generation racialized Canadians cross racial and class boundaries into middle-class mainstream society? Currently, neo-assimilation theory anticipates identificational and socioeconomic assimilation into the mainstream, while segmented-assimilation theory argues that racial and economic structures inhibit racialized groups’ assimilation. An emerging strand of assimilation theory – racialized incorporation – hypothesizes that, for racialized individuals, higher sociocultural capital leads to socioeconomic upward mobility, while their identificational and socioeconomic assimilation remain constrained by racial hierarchies. We draw on 118 qualitative interviews with second-generation Somali-Canadians to assess which of these perspectives best describes their subjective experiences of assimilation in Canada. Though we find support for the racialized assimilation hypothesis, our participants’ socioeconomic achievements exceed the predictions of this perspective. We, therefore, argue that, under Canadian multiculturalism policies and ideology, race is an attitudinal hurdle to navigate rather than a structural barrier against assimilation. We invite future research to consider the contextualized effects of race on assimilation.
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“Canadian Experience” is a paradox for many immigrants in Canada and contributes to their exclusion from the labour market. Through an analysis of Canadian English print media, from 2006 to 2011, we illustrate how “Canadian Experience” discourse places the responsibility of immigrant labour market integration on immigrants themselves and constructs their experiences of exclusion as non-racial. This is theorized as a “post-racial” strategy that relies on anti-racialism (avoidance of racial references) to deny the existence and effects of racism, thereby allowing the Canadian public to maintain its façade of innocence but perpetuates “racism without racists”. The discourse de-historicizes postcolonial racial hierarchy and promotes a de-racialized neo-liberal model for immigrant inclusion. This has implications for anti-racism and settlement service provision.
Currently in Canada, there are more legally innocent people in custody in provincial/territorial prisons than there are sentenced prisoners. This group, known as remand prisoners, constituted 37% of the total prison population – federal and provincial/territorial – in Canada in 2015. Despite growing public attention and legal awareness of the remand problem, little is known about the human costs of pre-trial detention. I outline some of these costs to individuals through a discussion of three distinctive dimensions of remand imprisonment: arrest, court appearances, and daily life in custody. Based on interviews with 120 remand prisoners (60 male, 60 female) at four maximum-security provincial prisons in Ontario, I demonstrate that the system imposes many punishments on individuals long before – and often in the absence of – conviction. The consequences of remand custody have implications for our understanding of the nature of punishment before conviction and for contemporary legal debates in Canada on the issue of pre-trial credit.
Administrators and frontline workers in correctional centers and in the community search for effective gang prevention and intervention programs. To this aim, semistructured interviews with 175 male and female adult (ex) gang members in correctional centers and community corrections exploring a range of topics were conducted. Presented here is an overview of the childhood experiences of the sample, gang experiences, and prevention and intervention strategies identified as helpful by participants. Street–prison gang connections and the impact of gang desistance are explored, as is the influence of local context on the types of gangs and the implications for programming.