4 Decolonization and Prison

Megan Korchak

Title: Decolonizing Prison: A Framework and Practices for Revisioning Incarceration 


Colonization has had and continues to have significant lasting and damaging impacts on Indigenous peoples. More specifically, colonization within the justice system, including its correctional facilities, is pervasive and harmful as the two are closely intertwined. Extensive harms lie at the intersection of colonization and justice, including over-incarceration of Indigenous peoples. There is a fair amount of research on colonization and the prison system, but a lack of research on decolonization and the prison system. The importance of decolonization within the penal system is here explored against a background of what decolonizing prisons actually means and including examples of decolonized practices from around the world. Results show that attempts to decolonize prisons are beneficial, necessary and possible using a number of culturally informed methods.


Colonization deeply changed the way the world works. Through colonization, an outsider group takes over the land and assumes power over groups indigenous to the area (Monchalin, 2016). In the Canadian context European settlers took over Indigenous land now known as Canada, dispossessed Indigenous peoples, and forced them to become dependant on the imposed Western systems (Monchalin, 2016). In Canada as elsewhere in the ‘New World’, the colonizers stole land from Indigenous peoples, and imposed laws and policies to make it legal, such as through The Indian Act, and displaced children into residential schools, thereby damaging the family unit (Monchalin, 2016). This is only a short list of colonial practices and its impacts in Canada, and they certainly are not just a thing of the past. Colonization and its impacts plague every institution in society in various ways to date (Monchalin, 2016). One such institution is the justice system, which is a contemporary colonial structure targeting the ancestors of the once-colonized (McGuire & Palys, 2020). Indigenous peoples face undue harm due to the nature of the justice system as a tool aimed at safeguarding the colonial structure and Westernizing the Indigenous (Monchalin, 2016). It is crucial for colonized groups to regain power and deconstruct colonial systems that continue to oppress them (McGuire & Palys, 2020).

 Decolonization is the mechanism that will allow for restoration and conciliation of colonized groups who have had their power stolen (McGuire & Palys, 2020). Every system in society must be decolonized for this to occur, but particularly the Canadian Justice System (McGuire & Palys, 2020). This chapter will provide an overview of the colonial aspects of the correctional system, prisons and how they impact marginalized groups. This will include a brief introduction to what is currently being done to decolonize prisons. This paper will focus primarily on Indigenous peoples in Canada and offer an overview of decolonization and three promising decolonizing practices: healing lodges, prison theatre, and prison design.

Impact of Colonization

The deep and complex relationship between colonialism and the penal system can be traced back to the creation of penitentiary system and explored as an ongoing colonial legacy (Chartrand, 2019). Improper treatment of Indigenous peoples in the prison system is more covert than in previous decades as there are now more rules, regulations and oversight (Chartrand, 2019). Despite the rules and regulations that attempt to ensure proper and fair treatment in the penal system, however, Indigenous peoples have been targeted since the first implementation of prisons (Chartrand, 2019). The legal system is an “instrumental mechanism” for colonization (M. McGuire, personal communication, January 18, 2021). The causal nature of this mechanism affords colonial groups and the prison system domination over the colonized, which creates a power imbalance fueled by racial difference and socio-economic inequity. The institutionalized racism of colonialism is very prominent in the justice system (Agozino, 2003), and it has created a problem of Indigenous over-incarceration (Chartrand, 2019; Martel et al., 2011).

The way that Indigenous people are processed and handled within the justice system amplifies existing personal trauma and issues of injustice and also leads to longer and harsher sentences (Martel et al., 2011). Indigenous peoples face an ironic duality of their race contributing to the length and severity of their sentences in opposing ways (Martel et al., 2011). By identifying as Indigenous, they are categorized as high risk and high need too often, which qualifies them for both less and more programs (Martel et al., 2011). They are identified as having the highest need for certain programs because of their Indigenous ancestry, yet have less access to programming for the same reason. Indigenous ancestry makes a disproportionate number of offenders be categorized as high-risk on assessment scales, meaning they are too high-risk to participate in programs classified as lower- or medium-risk (Martel et al., 2011). Therefore, their over classification as high-risk due to systemic racism is a direct barrier to accessing several programs (Martel et al., 2011). This highlights how some of the policies within the penal system exacerbate colonialism. Indigenous people also face a loss of opportunity in the penal system because of their cultural background (Martel et al., 2011). For instance, Indigenous peoples are classified in higher risk categories and mainly sent to medium or maximum-security institutions, which offer less opportunity and freedom; while a disproportionately low number of Indigenous inmates are sent to minimum security institutions or are deferred to programs equating to that security level (Martel et al., 2011). This is a direct result of systemic racism in the justice system and continued colonization (Martel et al., 2011).

Further to this, imprisonment continues to damage important connections. There is a complete disruption in families when a loved one is locked away and isolated. Indigenous families living on reserves are often hundreds of kilometers away from the prison and therefore have limited access to loved ones (Withers & Folsom, 2007). This was also true of most residential schools. The targeting of adult Indigenous people for incarceration splits up a disproportionate number of Indigenous families which creates trauma that can be deeply damaging to the entire family (Griffiths & Murdoch, 2018). Having a parent sent away to prison creates single-parent families, which is difficult on the parent(s) and the children (Withers & Folsom, 2007). As well, it can create an intergenerational cycle of crime within the family, as children of an incarcerated parent are two to four times more likely to come into contact with the justice system (Withers & Folsom, 2007). Single Indigenous parents can be at an elevated risk of being arbitrarily deemed unfit and having their children unrightfully placed in care, making them over-represented in child protection. Foster care and other alternative-to-family ‘solutions’ are a colonial continuation of residential schools by separating Indigenous families and removing children from their culture (Monchalin, 2016). Incarceration continues the colonial legacy of breaking up families and causing intergenerational trauma. Prison is very damaging in several avenues of life and Indigeneity adds additional harms on top of the typical experiences in the justice system.

Aside from these damaged connections, criminal records impact one’s ability to gain employment. Many workplaces require a criminal record check to be conducted as a condition of employment. In this way, prison serves as a direct obstacle to reintegration back into the community (Heydon & Naylor, 2018). It limits the opportunities an offender will have once they are released from incarceration and return to the community and this limitation of reintegrative opportunities can be damaging (Heydon & Naylor, 2018). Employment is an essential part of living a productive life and limiting an offender’s employment opportunities also limits their capacity to avoid a criminogenic lifestyle (Heydon & Naylor, 2018).

The focus on punishment is a colonial ideal as opposed to Indigenous ideals of healing (Elliott, 2011). Prison is counter-productive and there is a cycle of recidivism when trauma goes unaddressed, and healing is pushed aside (Elliott, 2011). This is especially true among individuals afflicted by a legacy of unhealed colonial trauma (Elliott, 2011). Generational lack of healing, loss of culture, and trauma mean that root problems go unresolved and a web of crime and entanglement in the justice system can spin out of control (Monchalin, 2016). Many Indigenous peoples get stuck in a cycle of punishment and incarceration (i.e., the revolving door)—a result of colonial policies and practices keeping Indigenous people bound to/by the legal system (Elliott, 2011). Western ideals of justice prevent Indigenous peoples from healing in a culturally meaningful way, allowing the cycle of crime to continue (Monchalin, 2016).

Decolonization Overview

There are several ways to conceptualize and define decolonization. Lisa Monchalin defines it as “[T]he unlearning and undoing of colonialism. It is a process and a goal. It is a reimagining of relationships with the land and peoples” (2016, p. 293). We must actively undo colonialism by deconstructing the persistent colonial ideologies residing in systems. Decolonization is an interesting approach as it goes against typical ways of knowing, whereby you simply learn new information, such as in a history class. Decolonization is a deep and complex act of unlearning the colonial ideas you were taught (Monchalain, 2016). This takes learning to a whole other level as it requires more than just a passive deposit of knowledge. Rather, decolonization involves an active, intentional, and effortful process aimed at undoing colonialism (Monchalin, 2016).

            Decolonization can take place at the psychological, intellectual and/or physical levels and in macro or micro forms (Asadullah, 2021). Micro forms of decolonization are on a smaller and more personal scale and can include decolonizing the mind in part through reconnecting to language (Asadullah, 2021). Decolonizing the mind is an important step to healing (Ngũgĩ, 1986 cited in Asadullah, 2021). One must open one’s mind up to decolonization and work on reconstructing thought processes that break free from a colonized mindset (Monchalin, 2016). Decolonization should permeate everyday life by reaffirming ways of cultural existence and practices (Yellow Bird, cited in Monchalin, 2016)

Macro decolonization is the big picture (Asadullah, 2021). It is the dismantling of the colonizing tendencies of societal systems, institutions and policies (Monchalin, 2016). Decolonization on a macro level is much more complex as colonialism is reinforced through several different layers of each system (Monchalin, 2016). One of the massive organizational colonial structures is the criminal justice system, which has several layers. Decolonizing the justice system would mean decolonizing police, courts, sentencing, and prisons. That also includes all of the layers or subsystems such as practices and policies in each setting. It is an effortful process to undo colonial harms at such a grand scale. However, the process has to start somewhere, and small steps can lead to major essential changes.

A context-specific definition of a decolonized prison is difficult to formulate. There are already several different definitions and understandings of the term “decolonization”, including those introduced in this paper. There are also different understandings of “prison” and what it stands for. Some argue that prisons are for punishment while some argue that they are for healing and change (Elliott, 2011). The Oxford Languages online dictionary defines prison as “a building in which people are legally held as a punishment for a crime they have committed or while awaiting trial” (Oxford Languages Online Dictionary, n.d.). This definition takes on a Western view as it mentions punishment and no other concepts (Elliott, 2011). Prisons in Canada have a mandate to offer programming that “addresses individual criminal behaviour” and includes correctional, educational, employment and social programs (Correctional Service Canada, 2019, p. 1). This programming is supposed to assist in rehabilitating offenders away from criminogenic behaviours. However, prisons have been on a path away from rehabilitation, and have become overburdened, tougher and harsher, especially for Indigenous people (Ling, 2019). The prison system and the overarching justice system is stacked against Indigenous peoples; it is thus inequitable. This imposed rule of prison is clearly not working for Indigenous peoples.

There is no context-specific definition for the decolonization of prisons, so the meanings must be combined subjectively to create one. The decolonization of prisons can be defined as the undoing of colonial harms within the justice system, specifically prisons. It would mean creating a decolonized space to heal and repair harms done after a crime has been committed in society in a way that aligns with Indigenous values and ideals.


Decolonizing Prisons

The decolonization of prisons is an imperative step to reducing systemic racism in the justice system in order to produce fairer outcomes (Monchalin, 2016). Prisons that continue to reinforce colonialism inevitably create social harms and reduce any attempt at reconciliation (Monchalin, 2016). In order to align with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action under the justice section, decolonization is necessary (Monchalin, 2016).

Decolonization of prisons means more than simply Indigenizing spaces by adding more Indigenous workers within the prison system (McGuire & Palys, 2020). It also means more than simply accommodating Indigenous peoples by implementing cultural components to the system (McGuire & Palys, 2020).  Decolonization means that Indigenous peoples have control and sovereignty over their own systems (McGuire & Palys, 2020). Full autonomy is important for regaining control and power, rather than the current Western system exerting power over Indigenous systems in the form of funding and imposed policies (McGuire & Palys, 2020).

The decolonizing framework for restorative justice proposed by Muhammad Asadullah can be adapted to conceptualize the decolonization of prisons (2021). This would demonstrate underlying concepts important for a framework on how to go about the decolonization of prisons in a culturally informed manner grounded in respect (Asadullah, 2021). The proposed framework is a tree with four distinct components: roots, trunk, branches and fruit (Asadullah, 2021). Each of these will be outlined below in regard to decolonizing prisons.

The tree roots emphasize the action of consultation and active listening while attempting to do no further harm (Asadullah, 2021). It is also important to be trauma informed and engaged in non-oppressive techniques (Asadullah, 2021). This means that Indigenous peoples need to be actively consulted while attempting to implement decolonization in prisons. Any action without consultation violates basic respect and goes against the do no harm principle (Asadullah, 2021). There needs to be meaningful consultation across the entire process between the justice system and Indigenous peoples and their voices should be amplified rather than suppressed. Indigenous systems of justice existed long before the Western criminal justice system (Elliott, 2011). Therefore, they have valuable insight on how to apply justice to their own people and should be listened to (Monchalin, 2016). This would especially mean ensuring those with lived experience are heard, this means current and former prisoners. Indigenous voices within the prison system should be listened to, amplified and consulted about meaningful ways to achieve decolonization.

The trunk highlights local indigenous peoples and the action of relationship building and interconnectedness (Asadullah, 2021). People are interdependent and relationships are the key to this relational approach to justice (Llewellyn, 2011). There is an equality of relationships in this approach underscored by respect, dignity and concern (Llewellyn, 2011). Thus, meaningful relationships need to be achieved with those who are consulted in the indigenous community (Asadullah, 2021). It cannot be a superficial collection of one-sided information, or it would violate the importance and equality of relationships (Llewellyn, 2011). There should be a meaningful relationship between local Indigenous peoples and justice system officials. As well, there is an imbalance in the relationship between inmates and justice system personnel where inmates are seen as inferior to corrections workers (Griffiths & Murdoch, 2018). Decolonizing prisons would attempt to balance these relationships in the carceral facility and view everyone more as equals in order to achieve equality of relationships (Llewellyn, 2011).

The tree branches reach out to local and traditional wisdom for learning (Asadullah, 2021). Local Indigenous groups have capacity, wisdom and are experts in their own practices (Asadullah, 2021). There is much to be learned from locals and they should be co-creators of emerging knowledge (Asadullah, 2021). When researching how to decolonize the justice system and make it fair for Indigenous peoples, drawing upon local knowledge is crucial. Without this, any ideas would be uninformed and the opportunity to learn from the experts themselves, the Indigenous peoples, would be lost.

The tree’s fruit is the final element of the Decolonizing Tree and embodies sharing as the outcome if the earlier steps are successfully ed (Asadullah, 2021). Following the tree’s processes should create a locally informed and guided plan for decolonizing prions that is relevant to the specific culture in a given setting (Asadullah, 2021). Following all of these steps should lead to a decolonized framework that can be applied in the prison setting (Asadullah, 2021). Indigenous peoples should be engaged in and benefit from this process and they should be able to guide and inform their own processes as they evolve (Asadullah, 2021). This could look like a decolonized program or decolonized spaces in the prison setting, and even decolonized alternatives to prison.


Promising Decolonizing Practices

There will be a lot of necessary steps in the decolonization of prisons moving forward. Prisons need an overhaul in order to be transformed from colonial institutions to institutions of healing (Chartrand, 2019). Trauma needs to be addressed through relevant cultural programming and colonized groups need to be reconnected to their culture (Nielsen, 2016). Prison systems need to promote sovereignty of colonized groups and let them handle offenders in a culturally appropriate way (McGuire & Palys, 2020). Full consultation with Indigenous peoples is necessary when discussing changes to prison systems to ensure that decolonization is progressing in a meaningful way (Cunneen, 1997; Monchalin, 2016).

There are marginalized groups around the world who suffer from racialized over incarceration as a result of colonialism. This wide scope means there are also several decolonial practices in place and rooted in specific cultural contexts that aim to reduce the impacts of colonialism within prisons. These practices are not approaches that can be copied and reproduced for use in other cultures while expecting the same results (Asadullah, 2021), and doing so would result in further colonial harm by imposing culturally insensitive practices upon the group (Chartrand, 2019). Looking to other cultures’ practices relating to prisons helps us appreciate the value of decolonial practices. Different colonized groups may have different beliefs and histories, however, decolonial practices grounded in their own cultural contexts can show benefits for all (Monchalin, 2016). This section outlines three promising practices rooted in a decolonizing prison framework.

Healing Lodges in Canada

Healing lodges are an excellent attempt to decolonize prisons. They are culturally appropriate centres that promote healing and cultural connection and are shown to be beneficial for offenders who participate. (Nielsen, 2016). Healing lodges follow Indigenous customary laws which include values such as, “individual autonomy, non-coercion, collectivism, interconnectedness and healing” (Nielson, 2016, p. 324). Healing lodges are an alternative to a traditional prison. They create a path towards healing in a way that is culturally relevant and thus promotes empowerment and Indigenous sovereignty (Nielson, 2016). Despite the attempt to decolonize prisons through the use of healing lodges, Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) institutions are still overrun with colonial practices that negate the success of healing lodges (Nielsen, 2016; Boyce, 2017).  To make them more transformative, holistic and decolonized, healing lodges must be run by Indigenous groups (Nielsen, 2016).

            There are ten Indigenous healing lodges in Canada, all are correctional institutions designed to be culturally relevant for Indigenous offenders (Nielson, 2016). Four of the healing lodges are run by CSC and six are run under Indigenous groups (Correctional Service Canada, 2021). There are not enough healing lodges to serve the overrepresented Indigenous population incarcerated, so most Indigenous offenders do not get an opportunity to go to these facilities (Nielson, 2016). A very small number of people are able to attend these lodges due to severely limited capacities. In the 2017/2018 fiscal year, a total of 147 people attended healing lodges, 18 of the participants were non-Indigenous while the remaining 129 were Indigenous (Connolly, 2019). The need for more healing lodges is clear, considering Indigenous over-incarceration rates that year showed that a quarter of inmates in the Canadian justice system were Indigenous, despite making up only 4% of the general Canadian population (Department of Justice Canada, 2018). These numbers are only continuing to rise, confirming the extensiveness of Indigenous over-incarceration and how crucial access to culturally relevant programming is. Healing lodges are also minimum-security facilities, so only offenders categorized at that level qualify for a healing lodge, meaning many are turned away due to their disproportionately high classification (Nielson, 2016). Those who are medium risk are considered on a case-by-case basis, but from the low-capacity rates very few get in at that security level (Nielson, 2016).

There is an important bond and connection between staff and residents at healing lodges as well as a connection to the outside community (Trevethan, Crutcher, Moore, & Mileto, 2007). This bond is less hierarchical compared to the scales for offenders and corrections officers in a traditional prison setting (Griffiths & Murdoch, 2018). An analysis of the Pê Sâkâstêw healing lodge determined that clients were generally satisfied with the overall connection to culture within the centre and their overall experience at the healing lodge (Trevethan et al., 2007). The many opportunities at this centre include cultural arts, music, dance, ceremonies, and guidance from elders (Trevethan et al., 2007). Programs at this lodge revolve around substance abuse, emotion management, cognitive skills, family improvement and the In Search of your Inner Warrior program for an in-touch way of living (Trevethan et al., 2007). All programs are tailored to the Indigenous population and the particular problems they face as a result of intergenerational trauma and colonialism (Trevethan et al., 2007). Lower recidivism rates were also linked to attending and participating in the programming the Pê Sâkâstêw healing lodge (Trevethan et al., 2007).

The CSC’s mandate has several constraints regarding the application and utilization of such lodges as a culturally relevant program for healing (Boyce, 2017). Many of the CSC’s policies limit the scope of programming and restrict what is done in the lodges (Nielson, 2016; Boyce, 2017). Margaret Boyce analyzed Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge in Saskatchewan and found several issues linked to continued colonial control in the facility and weak accommodation counteracted through counterproductive policies (2017). Accommodation by the CSC is seen in its recognition of the importance of healing lodges to Indigenous peoples and creating a space for the practice (Nielson, 2016). However, the implementation is still overseen through a Western, colonial lens and is only done on a small scale (Boyce, 2017). Healing lodges are part of decolonizing the prison system but are themselves still somewhat colonized through the policies and practices that CSC puts forward to be followed (Boyce, 2017). Indigenous sovereignty calls for independent operation of these facilities without colonial oversight and counterproductive rules to follow (Boyce, 2017). The implementation of healing lodges sets a path for decolonization, but further work needs to be done. In time with changes, they may become increasingly decolonial institutions.

Prison Theatre in New Zealand

Prison theatre is another example of decolonizing prisons (Hazou, 2020). Prison theatre was used as programming in a prison in Auckland, New Zealand (Hazou, 2020). New Zealand has a colonial legacy where Indigenous groups such as the Maori were (and continue to be) colonized (Tauri, 2019). Maori offending has been linked to the lasting impacts of colonialism: loss of identity and displacement (Quince, 2007; McIntosh & Workman, 2017). These themes also resonate with Indigenous peoples in Canada (McGuire & Palys, 2020). The Maori peoples are disproportionately overrepresented in the justice system as a result of colonialism (McIntosh & Workman, 2017). Decolonization is an important part of healing and escaping the cycle of imprisonment (Monchalin, 2016).

In Auckland Prison, inmates took part in a play called Puppet Antigone (Hazou, 2020). Preparations for the play included weeks of rehearsal as well as workshops focused on mask work and storytelling (Hazou, 2020). The play conveyed themes of morals, right and wrong, and humility (Hazou, 2020). It was an old Greek play transformed as the theatre group was encouraged to draw cultural connections to it and input their own culturally relevant meanings. (Hazou, 2020). The group of prisoners was guided by a kaumatua, an elder Maori who led the group through cultural protocols in the play (Hazou, 2020). Facilitators of the theatre program ensured acknowledgement of Maori practices with efforts to not reinforce colonial practices (Hazou, 2020). This program was conducted with the Treaty of Waitangi in mind, in the sense that facilitators engaged in partnership and sought to advance Maori knowledge (Hazou, 2020). This decolonial approach to prison theatre allowed the group to explore and share parts of their culture stifled by colonialism (Hazou, 2020). There was an overall sense of pride and cultural connectedness amongst inmates who participated in the theatre program (Hazou, 2020).

The play employed the use of puppets, which served as a useful medium for free expression distanced from the individual (Hazou, 2020). Using the puppets, they were able to work on empathy and emotions and portray themselves in a different way (Hazou, 2020). There was a focus on repairing evil with ties to Maori culture and the impacts of colonialism (Hazou, 2020). Theatre in prison challenges colonialism and can help prisoners express themselves (Hazou, 2020).

Prison theatre is very transformative as it takes place in an environment where people are confined and controlled (O’Connor & Mullen, 2011). In a typical prison setting, inmates are encouraged to comply and conform to those in power (O’Connor & Mullen, 2011). Inmates also experience a sense of lost autonomy, liberty and control over their own bodies (O’Connor & Mullen, 2011). Theatre counters this by providing an outlet for self expression and roleplaying (O’Connor & Mullen, 2011). According to Hughes, the arts can be therapeutic, foster change in an individual and are linked to positive outcomes in the justice system (2005). Prison theatre is enlightening for those involved in the prison environment and can humanize relationships between staff and inmates for more understanding and cohesion (O’Connor & Mullen, 2011). With prison theatre, there is a focus on empowerment and transformation of the self in connection to others (Hartnett, 2011).

Furthermore, relating to the topic of the arts, culturally relevant music and songs have been used to keep individuals out of prison and stop the cycle of recidivism and (Bamarki, 2016). Decolonization includes cultural revitalization and institutional reform in corrections to allow traditional practices to take place (Bamarki, 2016). It also includes empowering Indigenous peoples to reclaim their culture and identity. Songs are an important part of Indigenous culture and are viewed as “gifts from spirits” (Bamarki, 2016, p. 8). Songs are a medium of decolonization in practice. This program is intended to prevent returning to prison but given its cultural relevance it would be a useful program to apply within the prison setting.

Indigenous inmates benefit from the use of theatre and the arts in prison as long as they are used in are culturally relevant ways. An example of this is performing plays written by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people. Playing these cultural roles can restore a sense of cultural identity and sense of self.

Prison-based program in the State of Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety, USA

Prisons are often thought of as a place of punishment (Elliott, 2011). The general image of a generic prison contains bland colours and concrete walls permeating a sense of dullness. The atmosphere and aesthetics of the prison environment have an overall impact on inmates’ attitudes and experiences (Griffiths & Murdoch, 2018). Prisons have been improving in recent years by adding more life to spaces through design (Wener, 2012). In progressive prisons, inmate cells have reflected more of a dorm room style (Griffiths & Murdoch, 2018). In Hawai’i, cultural teachings were incorporated within a culturally competent space, which resulted in more cultural engagement and set the tone for decolonizing prisons (Schar, Biewenga & Lombawa, 2020).

To reduce the over-incarceration of Native Hawaiians, a corrections model relevant to their culture was proposed (Schar et al., 2020). It was meant to connect the individual to family/spirit/land while promoting harmony/healing and ending intergenerational imprisonment (Schar et al., 2020). It was intended to be a culturally relevant and holistic approach to corrections. It was designed by local university students and faculty in consultation with stakeholders, members of the culture, and groups involved with decolonization worldwide (Schar et al., 2020). They made sure to intertwine relationships with prison design and upheld consultation with Native Hawaiians throughout the process (Schar et al., 2020). Creating the plan for what a decolonized prison for Native Hawaiians could look like was characterized by efforts of co-creation and partnership, rather than being imposed on Native Hawaiians (Schar et al., 2020).

            There were several goals of the framework for the integration of culturally appropriate design including, “‘Align the agency,’ ‘Partner with the community,’ ‘Create equitable exchange and representation, ‘Share cross-cultural knowledge’, ’Promote holistic health’, and ‘Design for relationships’” (Schar et al., 2020 p. 267). The framework also articulated the importance of cultural competency training for enhanced cultural awareness and understanding as well as the need for spaces devoted to cultural practices (Schar et al., 2020). The final tool was a document touching on relationships important to Native Hawaiian culture (Handy & Pukui, 1958, cited in Schar et al., 2020) and showing how designs can strengthen relationships (Alexander, 1998 cited in Schar et al., 2020). The use of biophilic design shows the connection between people and the land and how important this is in physical and visual spaces (Wilson, 2006; Browning, Ryan & Clancy, 2014). Bringing culture into the landscape of prisons is an important aspect of healing (Cook, Withy & Tarallo-Jensen, cited in, Schar et al., 2020). Loss of culture has created trauma and those wounded in this way need cultural healing (Cook et al. cited in, Schar, at al., 2020). There is a link between place and sense of self within Hawaiian culture, which highlights the importance of establishing a culturally appropriate prison environment in order to restore and heal this sense of self (Office of Hawaiian Affairs, 2012; Schar et al., 2020).

Some programming ideas emerging from this study include “[a] culinary institute, flower and tree farm, aquaculture center, aquaponics farm, coffee farm, masonry institute, recycling center, therapy community, arts and crafts academy, reforestation and woodworking camp…” (Schar et al., 2020, p. 266). These programs were identified as beneficial because they link to aspects of Native Hawaiian culture (Schar et al., 2020). As well, through an aspect called “talk story,” which is an informal sharing of stories, researchers inquired about how to implement Native Hawaiian models of reconciliation and a place of refuge (Schar et al., 2020).

Overall, this promising practice implemented a framework for how to involve Native Hawaiian culture in prison design and practice of a decolonial nature. Aspects of this, such as creating a culturally relevant physical space can be applied to any cultural group in a culturally relevant way and would be beneficial in other prisons. Indigenous peoples would benefit from a space consistent with Indigenous values rather than a primarily Western colonial prison space. Many prisons have special spaces for Indigenous ceremonies or sweat lodges while the overall prison remains Westernized (Griffiths & Murdoch, 2018). It is not enough to simply accommodate Indigenous peoples by adding a few Indigenous spaces (McGuire & Palys, 2020). Prisons need to be environments that are fully culturally appropriate, connected and relevant in order to promote healing (Chartrand, 2019).


There are several limitations to consider when it comes to decolonizing prisons. There is very limited literature on the topic of decolonization. As well, one must take into consideration that this paper only highlights published academic articles. There is more literature out there that is either not published or not academically published. Consultation with local indigenous peoples would have added to the decolonizing goal of this paper by adding the voices of marginalized people through consultation. However, due to the limited scope of this paper, direct consultation was not conducted. Another topic not explored due to limitation was the abolishment of prisons themselves. This movement has gained some ground, since prisons did not exist pre-colonization amongst Indigenous peoples (Monchalin, 2016). Further research is needed on the topic of the decolonization of prisons to better inform the practices of the legal system in a way that aligns with colonized groups. Further research is also needed to fill the immense gaps in literature.



This paper delved into the topic of decolonization of prisons, including the impact of colonization, an overview of decolonization, and three promising decolonizing practices: healing lodges, prison theatre and prison design. Colonization has vastly impacted Indigenous peoples and continues to damage their well-being. The Canadian justice system and prisons perpetuate colonization because our penal system was initially created as a colonial tool. Indigenous parents who refused to send their children to residential schools were arrested and sent to prison; both practices formed part of Canada’s assimilation policies institutionalized through the Indian Act. Indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately in the prison system due to colonization. Colonization in prions has several impacts on Indigenous inmates, such as damaging classification, limited opportunities, damaged relationships including with family often made worse by the distance of prisons from reserves, and lowered employment opportunities. Decolonization has several different definitions including the unlearning of colonial ways and the undoing of colonization. It is present in micro form on an individual level or in a macro form on a structural level. The two are deeply intertwined as micro decolonization at the individual level is arguably part of the systemic nature of colonialism – people’s ideas can inform laws and policies which in turn shape the larger systems in place. Societal mindsets must also be decolonized. The decolonization of prisons can be evaluated according to a framework that aims to engage consultation, listening, Indigenous peoples, relationships and the wisdom of locals to develop ways to decolonize prisons. This tree framework consists of four steps (Asadullah, 2021). If all of these steps are taken, an informed and culturally appropriate outcome to be implemented by Indigenous peoples to decolonize prisons should result. Missing any of the steps can contribute further harms through a failure to not engage in meaningful consultation. Indigenization and accommodation should not be relied too heavily upon. They are merely steps towards the ultimate goal of Indigenous autonomy and self determination. Several promising decolonizing practices for prisons are emerging. Healing lodges represent a culturally relevant alternative to traditional prisons. However, the lodge framework needs improvement to get rid of the many embedded colonial aspects. Prison theatre is a good way to build relationships and connect to culture. Spatial design is also crucial for a culturally relevant environment where Indigenous people can engage with their own culture. The many decolonization efforts around the world will help shape the future transformational efforts of decolonization.

Decolonization is an important aspect of reclaiming lost power and restoring power differentials within society. Indigenous peoples need a justice system that works for them rather than against them. Prisons have made attempts at decolonization but much more needs doing. New policies and practices must have decolonization in mind in the aim of stopping contemporary colonial practices and restoring the power to Indigenous peoples.

Discussion Questions

  • 1) What can you do on an individual level to help promote decolonization? What can society and its institutions do to help foster decolonization?
  • 2) What are your thoughts on the promising decolonization practices explored in this paper? What are some other promising decolonization practices you have seen or heard of?

Recommended Activities

  • 1) Watch APTN Investigates: Indigenous people in Canada behind bars at www.aptnnews.ca (Crozier, 2017). What were the key points about Indigenous-over-incarceration? What did they say needs to be done to combat this in terms of decolonization efforts? What barriers stand in the way of decolonizing prisons and the justice system?
  • 2) Do some research about penal institutions in your area. What are they doing in terms of decolonization practices?

Recommended Readings

Monchalin, L. (2016). The colonial problem: An Indigenous perspective on Crime and injustice in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within: Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.



Agozino, B. (2003). What is institutionalised? The race-class-gender articulation of Stephen Lawrence. In B. Agozino and S. Pfohl (Eds.), A counter-colonial criminology: A critique of imperialist reason. London: Pluto.

Asadullah, M. (2021). Decolonization and restorative justice: A proposed theoretical framework. Journal of Decolonization of Criminology and Justice, 3(1), 27-62.

Bamarki, R. (2016). Blocking their path to prison: Song and music as healing methods for Canada’s Aboriginal women. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 36(1), 1-27.

Boyce, M. (2017). Carceral recognition and the colonial present at the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge. Palmerston North, 14(1), 13-34. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.11157/sites-vol14iss1id345

Browning, W., Ryan, C., and Clancy, J. (2014). 14 patterns of biophilic design: Improving health and well-being in the built environment. Report. Terrapin Bright Green Corporation. Report. Retrieved from https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/reports/14-patterns/

Chartrand, V. (2019). Unsettled times: Indigenous incarceration and the links between colonialism and the penitentiary in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 61, 67-89. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjccj.2018-0029

Connolly, A. (2019, January 8). White and non-Indigenous offenders made up 11% of those in healing lodges last year. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/4825631/demographic-breakdown-healing-lodges-canada/

Correctional Service Canada. (2019, September 9). Programs for offenders. Government of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/002/002-index-en.shtml

Correctional Service Canada. (2021, March 20). Indigenous healing lodges. Government of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/aboriginal/002003-2000-en.shtml

Crozier, C. (2017). APTN Investigates: Indigenous people in Canada behind bars [Video]. APTN National News. Retrieved from https://www.aptnnews.ca/investigates/aptn-investigates-indigenous-people-in-canada-behind-bars/

Cunneen, C. (1997). Community conferencing and the fiction of indigenous control. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 30(3), 292-311. https://doi.org/10.1177/000486589703000306

Department of Justice Canada. (2018) Indigenous overrepresentation in provincial/territorial corrections. Just Facts. Research and Statistics Division. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/jr/jf-pf/2018/docs/nov01.pdf

Elliott, E. (2011) Security with care: Restorative justice and healthy societies. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing

Griffiths, C. & Murdoch, D. (2018). Canadian corrections (5th ed.). Toronto: Nelson Education.

Hartnett, S. (2011). Challenging the prison-industrial complex: Activism, arts, and educational alternatives. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hazou, R. (2020). Repairing the evil: Staging puppet Antigone at Auckland prison. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Heydon, G., & Naylor, B. (2018). Criminal record checking and employment: The importance of policy and proximity. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 51(3), 372–394. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004865817723410

Hughes, J. (2005). Doing the arts justice: a review of research, literature, practice and theory. In A. Miles and A. McLewin (Eds.). United Kingdom: The Unit for the Arts and Offenders Centre for Applied Theatre Research.

Ling, J. (2019, August 12). Canada’s prisons are failing. CBA National. Retrieved from https://www.nationalmagazine.ca/en-ca/articles/law/in-depth/2019/canada-s-prisons-are-failing

Llewellyn, J. (2011). Restorative justice: Thinking relationally about justice. In Downie, J. and Llewellyn, J. (Eds.), Being relational: reflections on relational theory and health law (pp. 89-108). Vancouver: UBC Press.

Martel, J., Brassard, R., & Jaccoud, M. (2011). When two worlds collide: Aboriginal risk management in Canadian corrections. The British Journal of Criminology, 51(2), 235-255. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/23639877

McGuire. M., & Palys, T. (2020). Toward sovereign Indigenous justice: On removing the colonial straightjacket. Decolonization of Criminology and Justice, 2(1), 59-82. Retrieved from https://ojs.aut.ac.nz/dcj/article/view/16/13

McIntosh, T. & Workman, K. (2017). Māori and prison. In A. Deckert & R. Sarre (Eds.). Australian and New Zealand Handbook of Criminology, Crime and Justice (pp. 725–35). Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan.

Monchalin, L. (2016). The colonial problem: An Indigenous perspective on Crime and injustice in Canada. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press (UTP).

Nielsen, M. O. (2016). Aboriginal healing lodges in Canada: still going strong? Still worth implementing in the USA? Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 48(2), 322–345. DOI: 10.1080/07329113.2016.1157377

O’Connor, P. & Mullen, M. (2011) Prison theatre: Letting the light in to disciplinary relationships Drama Australia Journal, 35(1): 133-145. DOI: 10.1080/14452294.2011.11649547

Office of Hawaiian Affairs. (2012). The Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force Report. Honolulu: Office of Hawaiian Affairs. https://www.oha.org/wp-content/uploads/2012NHJTF_ REPORT_FINAL_0.pdf.

Oxford Languages Online Dictionary. (n.d.). Prison. In Oxford Languages. Retrieved from https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/

Quince, K. (2007). Māori and the criminal justice system in New Zealand. In W. Brookbanks & J. Tolmie (Eds.). Criminal Justice in New Zealand. Wellington: Lexis Nexis

Schar, C. H., Biewenga, N. & Lombawa, M. (2020) Decolonizing prisons. Journal of Architectural Education, 74(2), 263-271. DOI: 10.1080/10464883.2020.1790936

Tauri, J. (2019). Reducing our prison population: Past failures and new approaches. Decolonization of Criminology and Justice, 1(1), 106-116. Retrieved from https://ndhadeliver.natlib.govt.nz/delivery/DeliveryManagerServlet?dps_pid=FL50344282

Trevethan, S. D., Crutcher, N., Moore, J. P., & Mileto, J. (2007). Pê Sâkâstêw Centre: An in-depth examination of a healing lodge for federally incarcerated offenders. Research Report. Correctional Service of Canada. Retrieved from https://www-deslibris-ca.libproxy.uregina.ca/ID/226471

Wener, R. (2012). The environmental psychology of prisons and jails: Creating humane spaces in secure settings. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Wilson, A. (2006). Biophilia in practice: Buildings that connect people with nature. Building Green, 15(7). Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/biophilia-practice-buildings-connect-people-nature

Withers, L., & Folsom, J. (2007). Incarcerated fathers: A descriptive analysis. Research Report. Correctional Service of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.csc-scc.gc.ca/research/092/r186-eng.pdf


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Decolonization and Justice: An Introductory Overview Copyright © 2022 by Megan Korchak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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