Individuals passionate about criminal justice and prison reform now have a platform to effect change. Founded in 2017, Students Taking a New Direction (S.T.A.N.D.) for Prison Justice is a newly-developed McGill organization, founded and run entirely by members of the student body. The first McGill group to focus specifically on criminal justice, S.T.A.N.D. hopes to encourage productive criticism of the North American prison systems on campus.
Since its founding, S.T.A.N.D. has attempted to facilitate campus conversations about the hardships faced by Canadian and American prisoners. In Fall 2018, the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG) granted S.T.A.N.D. seed money, which allowed the group to recruit members and plan events. Sarah Petrick (U1 Arts) and current leader of the McGill chapter of S.T.A.N.D., wants to see the organization grow outside of the McGill bubble and spark or contribute to a national conversation about how the Canadian criminal justice system can be improved.
“It would be amazing to get involved in the Montreal community or pair with different NGOs,” Petrick said. “Ultimately, we really just want to provide a safe space to facilitate discussions.”
In North America, mass incarceration rates, overcrowding in penitentiaries, overrepresentation of minority groups, lack of rehabilitation, vast expenses, and unjust processes are often ignored due to a lack of public knowledge. Canada spends over $2 billion a year on its 53 penitentiaries, which board more than 1 out of every 1,000 Canadian adults. Grace Sarabia (U1 Arts), communications director for S.T.A.N.D., hopes that the organization will become help to expose the cracks in the current judicial system.
“Now is when we need to question everything and really look at how our system is failing us,” Sarabia said.
S.T.A.N.D. executives are passionate about educating society on the overrepresentation of minority communities in prison. Currently, black and indigenous communities make up a high percentage of incarcerated individuals in the Canadian prison systems; indigenous women are the fastest growing demographic in Canadian prisons, making up 36 per cent of the population of females in federal prison in 2011. Similarly, there is a disproportionate number of LGBTQ+ individuals incarcerated in American prisons: members of the community make of seven per cent of the general population, but 20 per cent of the prison population.
Advocates for reform argue that prisons should be rehabilitative, and they seek to replace the traditional prison model with alternative forms of justice, which they believe will be more effective and cost-efficient. For example, indigenous healing lodges use a holistic and spiritual approach to provide guidance and support while preparing individuals for reintegration into the community. S.T.A.N.D. founders believe their organization provides the perfect forum to brainstorm these new approaches.
“We could consider different forms of justice, like healing [lodges] which are growing in popularity within indigenous communities.” Sarabia said.
S.T.A.N.D. members hope that, by the end of their university careers, they will have gained experience in contributing to legal reform. Julia Volpe, U2 Arts, and member of S.T.A.N.D., joined to get involved in a unique organization that provides insight into Canada’s justice system.
“There are so few courses offered at McGill related to prison reform,” Volpe said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity [S.T.A.N.D. has] given me to learn more about the issue.”
Moving forward, S.T.A.N.D. is working to hold events, such as film screenings and panel discussions, that will raise their public profile on campus. For members of S.T.A.N.D., the organization serves as a great way to take back the power stripped for incarcerated individuals and a step towards reforming a system that needs adjustment