There are 43 federal prisons in Canada, incarcerating 14,015 individuals (Correctional Services Canada 2018a). Behind bars, food holds great importance; it is a source of nourishment, a valued commodity within the informal economy, a tool of both punishment and healing and a means through which to express one’s identity (Godderis 2006a, Timler and Brown 2019, Jimenez Murguia 2018). Smith goes so far as to argue that food is “symbolic of the prison experience” (2002: 197). Food has also become a site and tool of contestation and power relations (Brimasn 2008). From hunger strikes to farms and garden programs, food is a means through which to resist state violence and re-imagine post-carceral futures. 

Given these diverse roles and meanings, carceral food systems provide a unique and compelling area of study that implicates a range actors and organizations both within and outside of correctional institutions. Despite this, little research has been carried out to understand and analyze carceral food systems, particularly as a site of contestation and possibility, and within the Canadian context.

In response, this project will explore food as “contested terrain” (Brisman 2008) within the Canadian prison system, seeking to (1) map the key actors and relationships implicated in carceral food systems and (2) to analyze particular moments and sites where food has been taken up as a tool to contest the treatment of prisoners and articulate alternative possibilities.

It will identify and examine the possibilities for, and limits to transformative food justice within carceral food systems in Canada. In doing so, this research project will illustrate the complex interactions between food and carcerality and highlight possible points of solidarity and tension between social movements advocating for food justice (food movement) and those advocating for prisoner justice (transformative justice movements). The focus will be at federal level, with the possibility of select comparative analysis of provincial jurisdictions (namely Ontario and Quebec).

Two specific case studies have been identified for in-depth analysis: resistance to the Food Services Modernization Act (2014) and the campaigns surrounding the closure (2009) and re-opening (2018) of Canada’s prison farms. Both of these cases were, and remain, notable moments where a) significant changes were made to carceral food systems and b) the debate and ‘contested terrain’ of prison food spilled over into public and popular discourse. 

Drawing on a mixed qualitative methods approach, including interviews, participant observation and review and analysis of federal governments documents, this project will map and critically analyze contemporary carceral food systems in Canada, highlighting the diverse ways in which food is being used to enact diverse possibilities within and beyond prisons. This project will also undertake a historical analysis to chart notable shifts in Canadian carceral food systems to better understand what possibilities they cultivate and foreclose.

The project is led by Professor Amanda Wilson, in the School of Social Innovation at Saint Paul University. It is funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.