Negotiating a Coercive Turn: Work Discipline and Prison Reform in Ontario

By McElligott, Greg | Capital & Class, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Negotiating a Coercive Turn: Work Discipline and Prison Reform in Ontario

McElligott, Greg, Capital & Class


If the welfare state is now dead or dying, what has replaced it? Thirty years ago, James O'Connor thought a 'social-industrial complex' might emerge to make the state's legitimation efforts profitable for corporate providers (1973: 54). Twenty years later, Bob Jessop (1993) foresaw a 'Schumpeterian workfare state' that would 'subordinate social policy to the demands of labour market flexibility and structural competitiveness' (pp. 9-10). Visions of this sort have become even darker lately. Michael Hallett (2002) is one of many who have linked multinational prison companies to the 'penal management of poverty and inequality' (p. 388). Older Keynesian strategies were built on material legitimation (the 'social wage'), accommodation with organised labour, and formal commitments to greater equality. The new path seems to lead backward to 'crimefare states' that criminalise poverty, intensify policing, imprison on a mass scale, and subject the poor to malign neglect (Nevins, 2002: 143-144; Neocleous, 2000: 19, 72). In a transition that is eerily reminiscent of the move from outdoor relief to workhouses, welfare programmes have been gutted, and penal confinement is back in vogue. Bribery and persuasion are everywhere yielding to force and fear as the preferred methods of dealing with marginal populations.

This article (1) presents a contextualised case study of one attempt to ratchet up state coercion and move toward the penal management of poverty. Between 1995 and 2003, Ontario's provincial government undertook an exceptionally ambitious administrative restructuring that included (and relied on) major changes in corrections. This article focuses on the exemplary aspect of that initiative, and shows how its generic appeal to 'discipline' and its restoration of old-style 'deterrence' evoke past efforts to intensify the work ethic. Both features are consistent with a neoconservative political agenda that seeks to make state programmes even less accommodating for subordinate groups, and even more profitable for business. Governments under the influence of this agenda have degraded the state's legitimation role for over thirty years, at every step adding some new element of coercion (economic, administrative and/or legal) to replace the benefits revoked (O'Connor, 1973; Panitch & Swartz, 2003). This process has now reached the point at which, to cutting-edge neoconservatives, major institutional changes seem possible and/or necessary.

The two sections that follow set the political stage for the Tory assault, and then examine the historical and contemporary role of prisons in instilling labour discipline. The third and fourth sections describe bow a coercive 'Southern strategy' migrated north, taking on particularly exemplary and demonstrative aspects as it crossed the border into Canada. The final section show how the chosen tools of this strategy--high-tech 'superjails'--concentrate and advertise state power, while also exposing its limits and vulnerabilities.


The government under consideration here is that of Mike Harris, Conservative premier of Ontario between 1995 and 2003. His party had ruled the province without interruption for forty-three years between 1942 and 1985. During that period, the party had gained a reputation as a moderate, even 'bland' political force. But after ten years in exile, the revitalised Tories returned to power in 1995 with Harris's hard-line neoconservatives in charge. As had been the case in Britain, the ascent of an explicitly neoconservative party owed much to the failures of its social-democratic predecessor (Hall, 1987). Burdened by recession and fiscal crisis, Ontario's first New Democratic Party (NDP) government broke key promises, and avoided confrontations with international financiers by attacking its own supporters in the public sector. Upon its leaving office, its base--including most of the labour movement--was divided and demoralised.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Negotiating a Coercive Turn: Work Discipline and Prison Reform in Ontario


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?