I am out of jail; safe and sound.
I have been out of the house, wandered around the neighbourhood, in daylight and in darkness last night. It is good to be out.
Here is something I wrote last week.
“…any strength that i may have carried through this was brought in from the outside, borrowed from the people I have been honoured and privileged to fight alongside, derived from the communities and the earth that we fight for, it is derivative of our struggles, sent in from the outside word by word, letter by letter, from the people who have extended themselves into this enclosure to support, to keep of strength, to keep up the fight. all of the strength i have had in here has come from them, from you, from being able to stay connected to community, and in turn rooted to the earth.” (March 21, 2013)
All I really want to say right now is to extend my most sincere gratitude and utmost appreciation to everyone who has offered support to me and to my family and friends and to the various communities I and others who have gone through the same and similar experiences belong to, and to those who offer the same to the numerous other people going through similar experiences for numerous other but intersecting reasons who so rarely get the same, thank you, so much.
And especially to those who have been central and integral to the support i have received, more.
I have decided not write a list of names, cause I am sick of lists of names, and also because I do not want to forget or exclude anyone.
To everyone, see you in the streets.
One of the core features of authoritarian systems is the monopoly over the legitimate use of power. Only the authorities are allowed to exercise it. While prison is inherently an authoritarian institution, it is important to be able to recognize it as a microcosm of the ways that more encompassing systems function in our purportedly democratic state. The idea that power is rooted in a people’s consensus is but a fiction manufactured to elicit both complacency and complicity.
When people, imprisoned or otherwise, try to organize themselves — whether within or outside of the structures and procedures designated by authority as proper — if the goals of that organizing are counter to the interests of those who hold power, those organizers will be targeted and the so-called rights of people negated. Rights only exist in so far as they do not substantively undermine the needs and legitimacy of power, of those in charge. They do not want us to organize.
While I have been imprisoned at the CNCC, every attempt that I have made to act against the deteriorating conditions in the prison, though mostly in accordance with authorized structural mechanisms, has not only been negated or dismissed but also at times criminalized. This very much parallels some of my pre-imprisonment organizing experiences as well, where sometimes those efforts most in accordance with so-called “proper channels” were often those most targeted by authorities for criminalization.
In prison, this institution’s administration has repeatedly denied access to, or even the existence of, some of Correctional Service Ontario’s rules. I have been on multiple occasions threatened by guards and senior management. I have faced disciplinary action without even being accused of breaking the rules. Any attempts to appeal to the notion of rights or policies have been entirely negated, one way or another. None of these experiences are unique to myself. They are standard fare in prison, like in most authoritarian institutions and systems.
It is not a coincidence that the actions which led to the original conspiracy charges I faced, the breach of bail conditions I was re-arrested for, and the counseling charges I was forced to plead guilty to were themselves all seemingly protected by a doctrine of rights, yet criminalized because those rights were being exercised in a form that challenged the very legitimacy of the ways that power is monopolized in the neo-authoritarian statist system we are currently living under.
In such systems granted rights, guaranteed freedoms and democratic processes are only valid when used in ways that reinforce the legitimacy of power. So when people attempt to organize for individual or communal autonomy, or the decentralization of power, or to improve the lives of people in targeted communities which would undermine the system’s order, those efforts will be negated and criminalized. This is the system we live under. Prisons illustrate and embody, enforce and reinforce this authoritarian system.
In the federal prison system during the 1970s, in a series of riots, imprisoned people literally fought and died to challenge this type of systemic negation of their dignity as people who, though imprisoned, remain members of communities that collectively comprise an allegedly democratic society. One of the results of that period of resistance was the creation of inmate committees — currently institutionalized through Correctional Service of Canada’s Commissioner’s Directive 083 — which now serve as organizing bodies for imprisoned people and as an internal accountability structure within federal prisons.
A few months ago, several of us imprisoned at the CNCC decided that we wanted to try to establish something similar here, knowing that such a thing once existed in this very prison. In order to force the issue of accountability and input from imprisoned people for the day to day operations that dictate our lives here, we were going to simply submit request forms asking to start an inmate committee.
Before the request even made it past the guards, I was pulled off our range by one of them. Making explicit threats, he told me that such an effort would not be tolerated. He threatened to “search and strip” various ranges on the unit and to “put it all over me,” meaning that he would tell other imprisoned people that it was on my account that privileges would be revoked and cells trashed, meant to result in retributive physical violence against me. “I’m going to start doing your time and lots of other people’s time,” he told me.
Some of the people I had been collaborating with still wanted to push forward. We knew it was not a bluff from the guards but we were ready to see things escalate. However we had not done the work of building support on the unit for such efforts and knowing that people other than ourselves who had not consented to conflict would bear much of the brunt of the guards’ recriminiation, we took a step back to strategize.
The protest-action in December, that resulted in myself and two others being thrown in the hole, was a spontaneous response to worsening conditions in the prison at a moment near the culmination of that strategy. A week later we were almost ready to make our move, when I was then thrown back into solitary confinement on a “security hold”. I think that security figured out that something was about to happen. Nothing moved forward during the additional month that I was in segregation and by the time I returned the momentum had largely dissipated, tensions having been redirected to interpersonal conflicts among the imprisoned people.
One of the reasons we need an inmate committee here is to have space to deal with conflict between groups of imprisoned people. Another is to build a platform from which to demand accountability and to address issues including lack of access to books and programs, discrimination and racism, abuse of authority, and deteriorating living conditions. An inmate committee would be a representative body that would enable us to provide input for ways to decrease violence in the prison, to address needs, and to empower us to make our own lives better while we are in prison.
One of the preliminary strategic steps we took was an attempt to start a unit-wide inter-faith discussion group. This was to allow us to talk about racism within the prison population and in the broader world, misogynist attitudes that are prevalent amongst the population, discrimination and violence in the prison against people living with HIV/AIDS and queer and trans people; and to do work together to build, maintain and support connections and reintegration in our communities, as well as to give us experience and to foster an expectation of being able to organize together. This proposal was officially rejected because the prion is “understaffed,” but a member of the chaplaincy had forewarned me that the initiative would be turned down because the administration does not want to give us “space to conspire.” They don’t want us to organize.
Not only do they not want us to organize, they don’t even want us to know the rules. (This is part of why legal codes and procedures are so difficult to decipher and navigate.)
This prison has, on multiple occasions, literally removed from my mail the Ontario Ministry of Correctional Services Act and its attendant Regulations, Regulation 778.
A security manager here, Sergeant Beninger,told me that imprisoned people are not allowed to see the legislation for security reasons, and refused to discuss the appropriateness of this rule. When I asked why we are not given access to the Inmate Information Guide for Adult Institutions, all he could say was that people imprisoned here are supposed to receive copies upon admission. He would not comment on the fact that we do not.
When I wrote to the Superintendent, Robyn Kasha, formally requesting access to the legislation, she responded by saying that the request should be redirected to the Education department because the MCSA is “resource material” and we are therefore only entitled to have access to it during class time. This would mean that only the estimated 10-15% of people imprisoned here who are enrolled in the education program are entitled to see the provincial legislation, the laws that govern this place. When I challenged Deputy Superintendent Johnston and refused to accept his repetition of the “security reasons” mantra, he acknowledged that “of course” we have a “right” to have a copy of the legislation.
There is, however, quite a logical reason why the institution’s administration considers it a security risk for imprisoned people to have access to the MCSA. The act and its regulations — those passed in provincial parliament — dictate a very different set of rules than those which govern the lives of people imprisoned here.
Our granted rights are infringed upon and violated in systemic and institutionalized ways on a daily basis here. The terrible conditions on the Segregation Unit, for example, do not in any way correspond to the rights that have been guaranteed to us by elected parliamentarians. It turns out that the “rules” of provincial prisons are determined not according to the legislation, but by a lengthy document called the Institutional Services Policies and Procedures Manual which is authored by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services and has not been passed by the provincial legislature.
According to a January 24th letter that I received from Superintendent Kasha,”for security reasons the ISPP is not a public document.”
So apparently the Institutional Services Policies and Procedures Manual authored by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, which fundamentally undermines and contravenes the rights guaranteed to us by elected representatives, is a secret document. A more Orwellian negation of democratic principles could not be invented. And people wonder why I do not believe in electoral democracy.
Within an oppressive system prison can best be understood as an institution that both enforces and reinforces the established order. On the one hand prisons are an enforcement mechanism whose spectre breeds compliance and complacency. On the other hand, the systemic patterns of how, why, and who is imprisoned ingrains hegemonic norms and shows complicity. Further, when we understand prisons as microcosms that illustrate the functionality of order and authority, complacency and complicity, we can glean deep understandings of how power functions in both micro and macrocosmic systems.
One of the ways that we can see prisons operating as a systemic microcosm that shuts down the ability of people to organize is to understand the prison’s role as a warehouse. Prisons warehouse — they store away people whose participation in ostensibly democratic societies power seeks to deny. They keep people out of their communities thereby denying their participation. This is obvious when we look at who is primarily targeted for imprisonment: Black people, poor people,Indigenous people and people disabled by inadequate social support for denormalized mental health conditions.
Within the prison, the Segregation Unit functions as an internal jail where similarly warehoused are those whose presence is deemed undesirable in the General Population. In the Segregation Unit, also known as “the hole,” are people whose mental health conditions the institution is unable or has no interest in supporting, and those labeled as threats to security. Some people merely spend short terms in segregation as punishment for “misconduct” thus serving as disincentives for challenges against the authorities’ claims over people, enforcing order, and reinforcing complacency as well as the values of exclusion.
I recently spent five weeks in segregation because my endeavours to organize have caused me to be classified as “likely to endanger the security of the institution.”
Initially I was thrown in the hole on “misconduct” for “inciting a disturbance.” After a week in segregation where I was able to find ways to build support for prison hunger-striker David Cedeño I was returned to the General Population with a “reprimand” for my “non-violent” offence.
Once out of segregation I immediately started working to spread word of Cedeño’s actions amongst the population of imprisoned people. His strike was as much for the dignity and rights of all of us and against the oppressive nature of this institution as it was about confronting the ongoing attacks he was facing from the guards. Awareness of his struggle and support for it was a potential catalyst for broader resistance inside the prison and could have sparked the fuel to start an inmate committee here. It was also simply important for people to know about David Cedeño — knowledge is often the most dangerous threat facing authoritarian regimes.
It seems that as soon as the authorities became aware of these efforts, I was quickly thrown back in the hole, just 48 hours after getting out of segregation.However it has also been suggested by one of the guards that I was never supposed to have been let out in the first place. I was never given a “misconduct” for this occasion as there were no rules they could point to that I had broken. I was merely guilty of sharing information. Nonetheless I was held for another four weeks in solitary confinement under the vague notion of a “security risk.” After four more weeks in the hole, I found an opportunity to agitate against the authoritarianism of this institution — even from solitary confinement. I began to challenge the procedures and policies — the rules — that are in practice on the segregation unit. I told other imprisoned people about their so-called rights and I explained to the guards that the orders they were following are contrary to what the legislation accords.
One day I showed a guard a copy of the MCSA Regulations (that I managed to finally get my hands on). He agreed that it very clearly guarantees imprisoned people a standard of living that is grossly violated by institutional practice. An hour later a sergeant was at the door of my cell. I showed her the same section of Regulation 778. Her response was to inform me that the issue was “above her pay grade.” Two hours later, along with two guards and two sergeants, Deputy Superintendent Johnston was in my cell to talk to me.
It seemed that all of a sudden my “security review” had been completed and they were ready to return me to the general population. I guess they had to stop me from undermining the authority of the institution through teaching people about the legislation. However, being moved out of segregation did not come without renewed threats.
Johnston told me that if another “disturbance” occurred it would not matter whether or not it was “non-violent” (nor if I was actually guilty of “inciting”), not only would I be put permanently back in segregation and lose my “remission” (extending my sentence), but I would also be hit with new “serious criminal charges.”
If I am forbidden from even talking about “rules” and “rights” then obviously organizing is to be out of the question.
When we were arrested during the G20 summit a group of us were charged with “conspiracy” — not doing something, talking about something — a thought crime; meeting to plan protests (and yes, some of those protests included elements that are “illegal”). Over the 48 hours following the police raid on my house more than 1100 people were arrested. Fewer than 300 were ever charged, fewer than 50 convicted. Most of the arrests were totally unwarranted and obviously illegitimate (as if any armed kidnapping — which is what an arrest is — should ever be considered “legitimate”).
Less than half way through our preliminary inquiry, the Crown wanted to drop charges against two thirds of the Main Conspiracy Group defendants and to have six of us plead guilty to “counseling” charges, to sharing information. I pled guilty to two counts, one stemming from a series of activist workshops, one for compiling a list of potential protest sites. For this I received a 20 month prison sentence.
At one point while I was out on bail, I was arrested for participating in a speakers’ panel that was arranged to talk about post-G20 organizing and movement unity. Allegedly this constituted a breach of the order not to participate in any public demonstrations — a “demonstration” being defined as any public meeting in which any moral or political matter is discussed.
And allegedly, this is not an authoritarian state.
The premise that the authoritarian power holders of our society do not want us to organize is a system-wide reality. By “us” I mean anyone who through their actions, or through their very bodies and identities, challenge the system’s dominant norms. For example: people of colour in a white supremacist society, trans people in a cis-supremacist heteronormative society,Indigenous people in a settler society. I hope that people can see that.
We are living with a mounting slew of measures from all levels of government that undercut the power of unions, of environmental groups, of cultural groups, of community organizations, of advocates, and of anyone who would organize to improve the lives of people in targeted neighbourhoods and communities. The very practice of non-governmental, non-corporate organizing — from unions to NGOs to community groups — is under attack.
While I have been able to document some of the recent attacks on the efforts of imprisoned people to organize at the CNCC, and to narrate some of the resistance to those attacks, there is nothing new or unique to this story.
This purportedly democratic state has a long history of criminalizing dissent and the organizing of people(s) who have been cast as peripheral to the hegemony of the dominant normative culture. Whether through historical and ongoing attacks against Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty, the over-policing and stigmatization of neighbourhoods of colour, or the myriad ways that austerity cuts are eliminating opportunities for poor people to organize in their own neighbourhoods, this state has always sought to prevent targeted people from being able to organize. And not only do I hope that people can see that, but I hope we are ready to fight back.
The last piece that I posted on this subject was written in this prison a couple of months ago, before I’d been thrown into “the hole” on administrative segregation. I wrote about the prison’s banning of reading material, which they have classified as “anarchist.” Security here has been removing such items from my mail. Prior to that posting I had written about a newly enforced policy at the CNCC that functionally prevents books from being sent in from the outside.
In the days immediately after that policy became effective – a policy that we are still trying to fight – the prison was in the position of having a backlog of books to still deliver to people in prison here, books that had arrived at the facility before the date chosen to enact the policy. In delivering those books, the same kind of discrimination was employed as that which I wrote about in regard to my mail. Books identified as “anarchist” were denied, including a book of poetry by Kelly Pflug-Back and one authored by the Curious George Collective titled Anarchy in the Age of Dinosaurs.
Discrimination against “anarchists” is not the only kind displayed by this prison’s administration in their censorship and banning of books, as the title of this piece suggests.
A couple of us were going to file applications to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal as one of the very few possible grievance mechanisms available to those of us imprisoned here. However, the multiple copies of the application that have been sent to me here seem to have been intercepted by the staff and not one has made it into my hands.
* * * * * *
In my last piece, titled Anarchist Material Removed, I noted that one of the articles that the CNCC wanted to prevent people imprisoned here from reading was an interview with Shane Bauer in which he spoke about solitary confinement practices in the United States being in some respects more severe than those in Iran, where he was imprisoned. We know very well that the Ontario Super Jails are styled after American prisons, this one having been run by an American corrections corporation for a time, with most practices left untouched or in some cases made even harsher.
In that article Bauer talks about the Secure Housing Units (SHUs) at the Pelican Bay Prison in California. He mentions that one of the things which results in people being thrown in the SHU there is the identification of so called “gang-related material” in their possession or in their mail.
Bauer explains that in at least one instance, Black liberationist political material – an essay by W.E.B. DuBois – was labelled by Pelican Bay Security as “gang-related material” and resulted in the person to whom the essay had been sent getting transferred to the SHU, where they will be held in indefinite solitary confinement.
* * * * * * *
Adrian Nolan, 31, is another person imprisoned at the CNCC who has had books denied to him because management here have alleged that some of the content sent to him violates their security protocols. The reason he was given was that the books constituted “gang-related material.”
Unfortunately, the notes from my interview with Nolan, like all of my notes, letters and papers, were confiscated when I was placed in solitary confinement on January 21 for unspecified “security reasons.” Fortunately, I do remember much of the content of that conversation.
Nolan said to me that it is wrong to consider the books “gang related”; rather, he described them as “urban books.” He used that term to draw attention to the fact that a sergeant here had employed it when explaining what Security defined as “gang related”: “You know: urban books,” said the sergeant.
Nolan and others were quick to name this as the obvious racism that it is.
Abdi Mohammed, 23, told me that the only difference between these so called urban books and many of the books currently read by people imprisoned here is that these are written by Black authors with Black characters and set in Black neighbourhoods.
Adrian Nolan agreed with this assessment. He talks about one of the book series which he was trying to bring in, which he told me were nearly indistinguishable in genre from many John Grisham or James Patterson books (which are very popular here) – they are thriller mysteries, they’re about crime, like many novels are.
There is also another type of book that is in wide circulation here at the CNCC which Nolan compared to those which were rejected by security: the evangelizing Christian books provided by the Chaplaincy. Ironically, these are for the most part the only books available to people stuck in “the hole” (other than Bibles and Christian self-help books). It seems that this rule may have been quietly and partially – for those of us on “administrative” rather than punitive segregation – repealed since I first wrote about it several weeks ago.
The general outline of these Christian books is that the story is told by formerly imprisoned people who have found religion and become devoutly faithful. The first half (or more) is always full of drug use and violence and then late in the novel the author-narrator finds Jesus and starts to live a religious life.
Nolan pointed out that this is very similar to some of the books he tried to have sent in (and to share with other people), the primary difference being that they are not pushing Christianity, they are about Black people.
Abdi Mohammed told me that it is unfortunate that the CNCC administration is blinded by racism because unlike most of the books available here, ones Nolan wanted to share are “books we can relate to.” I remember Mohammed saying this with reference to himself and other young imprisoned people of colour.
Sadly though, this discrimination does not surprise Mohammed. He says that racism is pervasive at the CNCC. He has felt it himself and witnessed it many times.
I wish that I had access to my notes and Mohammed’s own words available. One thing I do remember him saying is that as a Somali Muslim he has experienced racism because of his colour, his country and also his religion.
Mohammed said that racism is a serious problem at non-urban jails like this one in Penetanguishene.
The staff here are almost excusively White, in stark contrast with prisons located in the GTA. The difference is palpable and Mohammed says this results in both systemic and day- to-day racism.
* * * * * * *
There is a tragic irony in the comparison of books allegedly containing “gang-related material” with evangelical Christian books that are numerous in this and other prisons.
The practice of having only Christian books available to people imprisoned in segregation here is itself a notable colonizing act in a country with a history of violent Christianization.
Indeed, racism is a pervasive factor in the CNCC’s war on books. But as Abdi Mohammed pointed out, the racism in the so called justice system is much deeper than just this front. A deeply ingrained systemic racism – from the over-policing of neighbourhoods of colour to the normalized hegemony of Whiteness – is but reflected in this prison’s policies that deny imprisoned people access to books.
* * * * * * *
A couple of things need to be said about trying to file an application with the Ontario Human Rights Commission – a couple of things in addition to the fact that our efforts have thus far been thwarted by the CNCC, which has prevented me from receiving the application.
Resorting to this kind of application is a tremendous compromise. It is a soft reformist measure at best. “Human rights” discourse is an inherently liberal doctrine that appeals to the authority of the state to define and grant people’s so called “rights” and reflects privilege in terms of who gets access to those rights.
That said, I still find it alarming that when I called “Offender Issues”—also known as the Client Conflict Resolution Unit and which is supposed to be our first recourse for human rights issues in the provincial prison system—they said that access to books is not a serious enough issue for them to care about. More alarmingly, they also said that discrimination against political ideology is not a human rights issue. They refused to talk to me about racism and that complaint stemmed from an incident involving another person.
The application, as a tactic, was not an attempt to portray discrimination against White anarchists like myself on the same plane as racism against people of colour. Rather, it was part of a strategy that is attempting to put the issue of systemic abuse of people’s “rights” onto the table for discussion.
Racism, denial of rights based on political ideology, contesting freedom of thought through the censorship and banning of books and other reading material; these are all happening in the Ontario prison system.
That racism and political identity might be similarly targeted by state institutions merely reaffirms the notion that there is a real necessity for organized resistance against this colonial system that employs prison justice as one of its primary weapons.
Racism is an endemic feature of Euro-American capitalist colonial culture and statehood. It is inevitable that this manifests in the way prisons are run; prisons playing a central role in maintaining and enforcing that system. The CNCC is not only no exception but, as Abdi Mohammed explained, it is actually one of the more racist prisons in the provincial system.
Note: The policy of making non-religious books unavailable to people imprisoned on the segregation unit—for which there now seems to be an exemption for people here on “administrative segregation”—is not a policy that either the chaplaincy or the guards are responsible for. Like most problems, this one is a problem with those in charge.
[January 26th 2013]
On the evening of January 21st, I was brought back to the hole. Not on misconduct this time, but to what is known as Administrative Segregation because the Security Manager has decided that having me on range, where I can associate with other imprisoned people, constitutes a threat to security. That is only after having spent a week in the hole for “inciting a disturbance likely to endanger the security of the institution.” I was returned to Unit 5 on the order of the provincial adjudicator. I was placed on one end of the Unit where only [some] did not participate in the protest action here that occurred on Jan 12th. I have not been provided with any basis for being removed from general population aside from the vague notion of security measures, nor have I been given any justification for being stripped of any of my so-called privileges. All I know for certain is that it was the personal prerogative of Security Manager Martin Krawczyk. On the way to the segregation unit, the Sergeant said if I didn’t write so well, I wouldn’t be in this mess – or something to that effect. Perhaps Krawczyk and the CNCC administration have adopted the Harper-esque notion that bad public relations are synonymous with a threat to security. Regardless, it would appear that I am to be held in solitary confinement potentially indefinitely. Regardless of any particular reasons, it seems that being an anarchist organizer is now being understood as an inherent threat warranting segregation and the loss of most privileges. Given that the primary basis for this may very well be the writing I have been posting to this blog since–and prior to–my imprisonment, it feels appropriate to now post a piece I have been waiting for the right time to release. It is titled “Anarchist Material Removed.”
“Anarchist Material Removed”
Prison mail and the Ontario Human Rights Code
I receive lots of mail in here. But occasionally letters or photocopied material sent in are screened out by Security. On November 13, the words “anarchist material removed” were scrawled across a letter I received that day.
Material being removed by Security and mail being interrupted in general is a problem here at the CNCC. Worse than the fact that correspondence and community connection are disrupted is how rarely people are informed that it has happened or why. In my case it seems to be because Security has decided that their labelling of something as “anarchist material” is enough to warrant its removal.
On November 22 I saw my friend’s picture in the Toronto Star. “Jailhouse rights complaint launched by G20 activist,” read the headline. It was an article about my co-accused, Mandy Hiscocks, who was freed from the Vanier Centre for Women on December 3 after serving ten months in prison.
Mandy’s application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal is based on the harsh fact that the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Service’s system of assigning the maximum security designation to prisoners is discriminating against people of colour, disabled people, people with non-conforming mental health needs, as well as people with anarchist and anti-capitalist political beliefs.
Mandy’s lawyer, Niiti Simonds, was quoted as saying, “The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario’s case law is unresolved as to whether political beliefs are included in ‘creed’ as a prohibited ground of discrimination.”
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary’s relevant definition of creed is, “a set of principles or opinions, especially a philosophy of life.” To me, it seems that anarchism definitely qualifies. Section 1 of the Ontario Human Rights Code says, “every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discrimination because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status, disability or the receipt of public assistance.”
It is my contention that the CNCC and (by extension) the Ministry of Correctional Services have violated my Ontario Human Rights Code right to be free from discrimination based on creed in several ways. They have violated lots of people’s rights, lots of ways. This post is about the mail.
I have been trying to talk to someone here about the “screening of mail” and “letters and material not received” almost since I arrived here. I sent three requests to the Security Manager between July 27 and September 17 (“request” forms are the only way to communicate with management if you are a prisoner in the system), followed by another three to the Superintendent between September 18 and October 8. None of these received any response from the institution.
Throughout my time here, I have found out from friends and family that I have not received many of the letters that have been sent to me. Occasionally I have received envelopes that have no postal markings, but have my name and a security stamp on the outside and a letter to me within. In those cases it has been clear (from the letters) that there had been photocopied materials included in the original envelopes, and the conclusion being that, despite no indication from the institution, Security had removed something but did not inform me. Only once did a guard ever discuss something she had removed—guards do the preliminary screening, though my problem seems to be with the secondary screening done by security (more on that below). And only once did I ever receive formal notification—a “Halted Mail Notice”–which does however prove that such a thing exists (and is obviously the proper way to deal with legitimate instances of security screening).
The Inmate Information Guide for Adult Prisoners put out by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services says, “Institution staff can check letters you write and receive. The Superintendent can refuse to send a letter that affects the security of the institution, threatens someone or might upset the person it is being sent to. If this happens, the staff will tell you why your letter was not sent. The letter will be returned to you. You may rewrite it or have it stored with your property.”
I am aware of at least two occasions that letters of mine had items removed or were not sent out, though I was not notified by staff, and I definitely did not have the letters returned to me.
The Inmate Information Guide goes on to say, “If someone sends you a letter that is threatening or unsuitable, the letter will be returned to the person who mailed it. The Superintendent will write and tell the person why the letter is being returned. You will be told if a letter is not given to you.” Well, the one time I was told about something not given to me, the person who sent it did not receive a letter or have the item returned to them. A few times people have had things returned to them—books, zines, magazines, photocopied articles (all things that have got in at other times)–with vague explanations (“excessive”) or outright lies (“we do not accept books”) scribbled on to sticky notes. But on these occasions, I was definitely not informed.
The solitary “Halted Mail Notice” that I did receive (dated September 24)–clearly a formal document with Ministry header and a Province of Ontario logo in the upper right corner—said, “On this date an envelope, addressed to you was received at the facility from… A review of the envelope’s contents revealed material(s) deemed to be unacceptable, for security reasons. Due to…” and then in pen, in the two lines of blank space provided for an explanation, was the single word, “magazine.”
The typed form continued, “this letter has been interrupted. The unacceptable material has been returned to sender or placed in your property, which you will receive upon your release from our facility. It is your responsibility to make efforts to prevent this type of unacceptable material to be transmitted through correspondence at CNCC. Further infractions may result in all fo your correspondence being subject to more rigorous screening; this will likely result in additional delays in sending and receipt of your mail.” OK, no magazines or they will screen my mail, which they’ve been doing since I arrived here anyway.
(How “Due to magazine” constitutes “unacceptable for security reasons” warrants its own questions, but whatever…) Scrawled in pen on the page were the letters “FYi” (sic).
On November 13 I received three letters that each had material removed from them. They all had the standard “CNCC Inmate mail opened by:” stamped on them, accompanied by a message written in pen indicating that they had been forwarded to Security, and a second stamp, this one reading, “Cleared by Security.” Postage marks on the envelopes indicated that all three had been sent in the closing days of October. One of the envelopes had the message written on it, in red pen, in all capital letters, “ANARCHIST MATERIAL REMOVED.”
All three of the letters indicated that they had originally included photocopied material—of which I receive much—though the envelopes arrived containing only the handwritten letters. From one was removed an article from Mother Jones magazine and the transcript of an interview from Democracy Now!, both featuring Shane Bauer, one of the American hikers who had been imprisoned in Iran, comparing his experiences there with what he learned about prisons in the United States. Another was missing a zine composed of a chapter from the book, “The Secret Life of Plants.” The last envelope, the one with the message about “anarchist material” being “removed,” was missing a couple of articles forwarded to me by one of the editors of Iconoclast magazine—probably articles about anarchism.
Shortly after receiving these letters sans articles, I went to speak with one of the guards. I told him that content (rightly or wrongly) being deemed as “anarchist material” did not seem like a legitimate reason to prevent me from receiving it, and that I was pretty sure that this could be construed as discrimination based on creed. He told me that he does not care what I read, and that he would have a Security Manager come talk to me. A little while later he brought me a printout of an e-mail he’d received from Security. Here is the entirety of the text: “Please see excerpt of the ADI’s and pass along information to Mr. Hundert… In order to maintain the security, safety and good order of Institutions, restrictions will apply to material which: portrays excessive violence and/or aggression which is likely to incite violence or other criminal acts; contains information on the fabrication of weapons or the commission of criminal acts, or could endanger the security of the institution or the safety of any person; depicts or describes procedures for brewing alcoholic beverages or manufacturing illegal drugs; glamorizes or condones substance abuse; glamorizes self-injury or suicide; or endangers the security or safety of an institution or the community (e.g., by describing escape methods or containing blueprints or technical information relating to security devices, etc.).”
Now, I’m quite certain that to suggest content violates any of these conditions simply by virtue of its having been deemed to be “anarchist material,” and for that reason disrupting my mail and preventing it from reaching me, is a pretty flagrant example of discrimination against creed.
The printed e-mail had an electronic signature: “Martin Krawczyk, Manager, Security and Investigations, CNCC, 705 549 9470 ext. 2863.” Since November 13 I have sent him another three requests in an attempt to discuss the matter. As per usual, Security has been unresponsive. I encourage people to call him to express their reaction to all this. For my part, I am in the process of filing an application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
My “human rights” aside, this situation reveals a much deeper and more structural problem. Imprisoned people are not being told when their mail is “interrupted.” And this is not a problem because of the Orwellian nature of screening people’s mail (this is after all a maximum security prison and some Big Brotherish behaviour is to be expected, I suppose). It is a serious problem because not telling imprisoned people that their correspondence has been disrupted is a real sabotaging of their connections to family and community.
If that wasn’t bad enough in principle, in practice, the broken bridges that are resulted from this type of disruption are major contributors to the patterns of recidivism that are so endemic amongst imprisoned people. It is all but impossible for people getting out of prison to rebuild their lives when the foundations of community support and family connections have been damaged by the institution’s refusal to do something as simple as letting people know when and why their mail has been intercepted and disrupted.
Further still, when people who are imprisoned think that their loved ones (or others that they are depending on, or who depend on them) are not responding to their letters, their personal frustrations and stress levels obviously become elevated. Elevated personal stress in here leads to heightened interpersonal tension, which inevitably leads to increased conflict and violence. Given that many of the degradations of our quality of life in here—for example, being locked out of our own cells all day—are ostensibly premised on allegedly reducing violence, and given that one of the primary goals of “corrections” is purportedly to prepare people for “reintegration into the community,” the disregard for these concerns in this matter merely points back to the arbitrary abuse of authority that is so characteristic of these institutions.
The guards are not the problem in this case; they do not care what I read. But my name is on a list that relegates me to enhanced security protocols, including more rigorous screening of my mail, which sometimes gets forwarded to the Security and Investigations office. It would seem that it is in this department, or perhaps even higher up the hierarchy, that being an “anarchist” marks me for targeted discrimination. This is especially unacceptable in a system that denies that it has political prisoners.
Now, all imprisonment is inherently political. The criminalization of poverty and mental health disability, the racist over-policing of targeted neighbourhoods and communities, binary gender categorization in prisons, the persistence and widening of economic disparity, and the inclusion of imprisonment as part of a so-called justice system—these are all inherently political decisions. The criminalization of political ideology is also, obviously, a political decision.
But, since I have not had conferred upon any designation as a political prisoner, therefore the categorization of my mail as “anarchist material” and for that reason alone deeming my receiving it as a threat to security, that is an explicitly political decision and also a clear form of discrimination, and therefore a violation of the promise in the Ontario Human Rights Code that all people be free from discrimination based on, amongst other things, creed.
The screening of mail, assignment of maximum security designations, denial of parole—these are not the only ways that anarchists have been discriminated against by Ontario prisons and the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, nor by any means are anarchists the only ones discriminated against in this system. I hope that last point is obvious.
Endemic to these places (and to the broader system) is day-to-day racism and deeply entrenched systemic discrimination against poor people, against migrants, against trans people, against disabled people, and others. And therefore the recrimination that I will be seeking in my application to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal will most likely be a system-wide audit of all provincial prisons with respect to the Ontario Human Rights Code. We’ll see what happens.
Post-script: This has been a post about mail. I want to extend my most sincere and humble gratitude to everyone who has sent me mail while I’ve been in here. To family and friends, to allies and supporters, and especially to other imprisoned people, thank you all so much for your continued relationships and solidarity; it makes it easy to be here in what could otherwise be a quite horrible place.
Update Jan. 30 from Alex: “As of January 30th, David Cedeno is on Day 24 of his hunger strike. Right now supporting David is the most important thing people can do to support the rest of us in prison here.”
Update, Jan. 22: Alex is back in the hole (in administrative segregation). The provincial adjudication from a few days ago was overruled and Alex has been declared a ‘security threat’. It is unclear if and when he will be out of solitary confinement, it could be up to 9 weeks (the remaining time left on his sentence). He is doing okay though and says hi to all.
Yesterday I was found guilty of inciting a disturbance likely to endanger the security of the institution, for my role in the protest and direct action that occurred on January 12th on Unit 5 at the CNCC. Once again I have been labelled as a ringleader. Since the incident I have been on the segregation unit here, in solitary confinement, more commonly known as ‘the hole.’ The protest was against the ongoing degradation of our living conditions here, which was a culmination of dissent after a week where we had been locked down for all or part of every single day. The direct action was to take back half an hour of our day; several months ago our nightly lockup was moved from 8:30 to 6:30 PM. That extra half hour is valuable to imprisoned people, as after 6 PM is the only time that many people can call their families—phone rates can be prohibitively expensive during the day, which is also when many of our family members are at work or at school. The existing policy is one that discriminates against poor people, who are already disproportionately targeted for imprisonment. The action consisted of all of the people on most of the cell blocks on Unit 5 refusing to lock up in their cells at 6:30 PM as per the regular routine. The confrontation occurred on cell block 9A, when the guards were met with defiance from all of the people imprisoned there who refused to move when ordered. The sergeant arrived and the spokesperson informed the white shirt that there were units in lockup in protest of all that has been taken away from us lately–from access to our cells during the day, to the two hours every evening–we were finally taking something back. Even having been informed that our intention was to voluntarily return to our cells at 7 PM, at ten to 7, fifty to sixty guards were brought onto the range to force us into our cells. Despite our spokesperson explicitly saying that we were not interested in escalation, ours was to be a peaceful protest, the sergeant decided that it was worth risking the safety of imprisoned people as well as corrections officers in order to ensure that the guards finished their shifts on time. Management had told me that despite appearances, the reason we lost the 2 hours, though having to do with “shift alignment,” was not as a result of the funding cuts causing cutbacks on staffing. While claiming it has nothing to do with austerity, no other explanation has been provided. When the guards stormed the cell block, one imprisoned person was assaulted and taken down to the floor, where he was kneed repeatedly before being handcuffed and taken off the unit. He too is now in the hole, just a few cells down from mine, waiting to be taken to the hospital for x-rays.
Down the hall from me in the other direction is another imprisoned person who is fighting back against the injustice of this institution. David Cedeño, 29, is on day 12 of a hunger strike. While my contact with him has been very limited by the circumstances of the segregation unit, I can say that his demands include proper medical treatment, the opportunity to continue with highschool coursework, resolution regarding a complaint he filed against a guard, and consideration for all the time he has spent in segregation as a result of incidents related to those complaints. Cedeño has underlined concerns about the way the jail is run, and emphasises that his related demands are more important than those concerning himself. He recognises that the combination of this facility’s size and systematic funding issues results in a pervasive pattern of unaccountability and indifference while coming from a minority of the staff, running unchecked with no available effective grievance process. He has been disregarded by management, by the folks at Offender Issues, also known as the “Client Conflict Resolution Unit” who told him his hunger strike is an internal issue with this facility, and by the always useless provincial Ombudsman’s Office, who said that it isn’t their problem. I heard a sergeant tell him that his concerns can only be addressed by the Deputy Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Why the Superintendent did not address them–I would think that she would at least meet with him–I don’t know. If the way this facility is run is any indication, perhaps it is due to incompetence, or maybe it’s just another instance of institutional indifference. Cedeño’s demands for the broader facility include better quality food, better air filtration, the ability for imprisoned people to purchase and use phone calling cards which might make calls affordable, access to existing facilities such as the gym and library, and improvements to the conditions in segregation. He has not eaten a thing in 10 days. The institution’s negligence in this case, I would think, is verging on criminal. Cedeño lives with sleep apnea and requires a machine to breathe at night. The jail’s unwillingness to responsibly accommodate his life-threatening condition is what led to conflict with the guards in the first place, and in turn the circumstances he now finds himself in. Given that, perhaps he’s being naive in thinking that even a hunger strike is capable of breaking through such systemic injustice. I would prefer to think of him as courageous and principled. To the extent that I have been able to speak with him, he wanted to make it clear that the stand he is taking is not just for himself but for all imprisoned people in here. Rarely have I witnessed such a spirit of resistance here in the state’s darkest of dungeons.
While I do want people to know that I have been unscathed by my time in segregation, my mind, heart, and spirit remain strong, this place—the hole—is truly quite horrendous. The hallway is filled with cries of rage, anguish, and pain, and the near-constant sound of people tapping on the doors of their cells. To even talk to the person directly across the hall, we have to yell through the cracks between the iron door and its frame, people’s faces visible only through a window about 4 inches wide and often partially or totally covered with a metal screen on the exterior; by yelling to each other, the words barely audible, it merely contributes to the noise. I try not to be troubled by the overwhelming racket, remembering always that I am in solidarity with those imprisoned people whose last recourse is to scream and bang on the door. If I were not aware of how unpleasant it is for other people in this very frightening place, I would join them in their protest. It is clear that this segregation unit largely imprisons people living with severe mental health issues, suffering from having to live with them in prison. My heart wrenches from some of the things I have seen and heard in the week I have been here. While in truth many of the guards on this unit treat most people with a reasonable degree of care and decency, no amount of care could make up for these intrinsically utterly indecent conditions. My cell is covered with graffiti, some of violent and nasty, some of it pained and laden with hopelessness, and stains also cover the walls.
One of the things about this segregation unit that troubles me most is the policy that I understand to have been very recently implemented. Even on LOAP, which stands for Loss of All Privileges, people imprisoned here have traditionally been entitled to a bible or Qur’an—scripture, as the Chaplain calls it—now, however, the policy is that even for people not on LOAP, no books other than scripture are allowed. On the cart which we’ll pass on the way back to our cells from the showers, which we are supposed to get every other day, there are books we are able to select from and have one in our cells. However, there are no books on the cart other than bibles and evangelical Christian books of various sorts. What atheist, non-Christian Indigenous people, or any people of non-Abrahamic faiths are supposed to read is unclear. Perhaps they are just supposed to suffer. As a person registered in the system as Jewish, I’m obviously entitled to a bible. As a person with a religious studies degree I can actually find interest in any religious text. I have been fine. But my concern regarding access to books for imprisoned people has never been about me. And in the hole, I can not imagine a place where a good book could do more good for a person than here. The implication of this policy in practice, that the only books available to people are evangelising Christian books, is the perfect, almost cliched example of the way that the prison functions as a colonising institution. This tactic normalises the hegemony of Christianity while hegemonising its normalization. The other person from my range who was thrown in the hole for the protest on Unit 5, is a non-Christian, Oji-Cree Indigenous person from Fort Hope First Nation. He is stuck either reading a book that is designed to convert people to Christianity, or the bible, or nothing. This, given the circumstances, is a direct and explicit violent act of colonialism. Needless to say this should not be permitted. A few months ago before this new policy was in place, another person I know who has recently discovered Indigenous heritage, was put in the hole on LOAP. When he asked for a bible, he was told that he was not entitled to one because he had been attending the daily smudge ceremonies provided through the Native Institutional Liaison Office. That denial was a racist form of punitive discrimination, and also a gross colonial, settler ignorance that fails to recognise that government institutions, from schools to prisons, have for more than 200 years been institutions of violence to Christianise Indigenous people and that many Indigenous people are of both Indigenous and Christian faith and yet to force a person to choose between them is itself yet another act of colonial violence. What happened to that person as far as I know could be an isolated incident, but it is not the only incident of racism against Indigenous people that I am aware of in the prison, and also part of a broader societal pattern of settler ignorance manifesting as colonial violence. The situation my friend from Fort Hope currently finds himself facing is itself systemic and institutional. This needs to be stopped, and the policy needs to change. In this place, in the hole, we should be allowed to read to preserve our sanity. Here, like in all parts of this institution, imprisoned people should have access to reading material, because books have the power to repair people’s spirits, expand their minds, and to change their lives.
Colonialism is not something that is experienced only by Indigenous people. This Western culture and its institutions colonise many minds and bodies in many ways. For example, the prison system violently enforces the binary gender paradigm, one of this culture’s primary components, an act of colonial violence against trans people. Disablism is a dis-abling of people with de-normalised bodily or mental health needs, is another face of colonialism, one that hegemonises a particular mode of productive functionalism that peripheralises anyone who does not conform, and it is seen viciously in the prison system, particularly in segregation units like this one. The disproportionate presence in this place by people disabled by inadequate cultural and structural support for their mental health needs, and the horrible state of existence for them here in the hole, literally screams out, signalling a dire need to build better grassroots mental health support in our communities, as well as build a total and holistic resistance against all the many faces of colonialism. As I have said, don’t worry about me, I have remained well in here. Remarkably, as I have written, I have rarely felt such a spirit of resistance as here in this dungeon. I am inspired and honoured to be imprisoned alongside people like David Cedeño, my friend from Fort Hope, and many others who are constantly smashing their cages with unrelenting rage against this unjust institution in solidarity against the colonial system.
Update: Alex has been moved back to general population.
“I’ve been put in the hole, charged with something along the lines of “inciting a disturbance and jeopardizing the safety and security of the institution.
It was a peaceful protest on Unit 5 against the ongoing degradation of the quality of life inside, specifically against early lockup following a week of having been on lockdown for part or all of every day.
The sole demand was to reclaim 30 minutes at the end of the day (lockup at 7 instead of 6:30) so people could have more time to use the phones to call their families when the rates are significantly cheaper. That is also when relatives and friends are home from work and can take calls.
The protesters had indicated they would voluntarily return to their cells at 7:00 but at 6:50, fifty to sixty guards stormed the range and forced everyone into their cells. One guy was tackled, assaulted and dragged off the range in cuffs.
Once everyone was back in their cells, the guards came back and charged me, took me to the hole and I’ve been here since Saturday night.”
“We were to undergo our hunger strike also in solidarity with Spence and the Idle No More Movement and some of us will still be undertaking a 24 hour fast on January 11th with that in mind. We invite others outside this prison to join us.“
On January 11th more than a dozen imprisoned people at Ontario’s Central North Correctional Centre were to stage a one-day hunger strike against provincial austerity measures, specifically the cutting of the Community Startup and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB), a grant provided by Ontario Works for people in immediate need of resources for housing costs and assistance re-establishing themselves in the community. This cut inherently targets imprisoned people and people getting out of other institutions as well as people who are trying to lead a peaceful household and any poor or marginalized people trying to avoid finding themselves without a home.
On December 27th, in response to months of campaigning by community activists, the Liberal government announced that two-third of the funding that was to be eliminated is now to be spared. For now, our action here is being called off as the most severe CSUMB cuts have been averted, at least in scope. However, the situation is still dire. Responsibility for these funds is being abdicated by the province and downloaded to municipalities. One third of the monies are to be permanently eliminated.
The CSUMB remains cut and 2013 is to be is to be a “transition year” before the new Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative (CHPI) is scheduled to come into effect in 2014. The CHPI is, at best, an inadequate patchwork of decreased stop-gap funding. Absent a province wide strategy or mechanism to alleviate homelessness and dire poverty, both will inevitably continue increasing in occurrence and severity in this current and coming era of austerity.
In the wake of the Liberal announcement, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty released a statement entitled “Mobilization to Save Community Start-up a Big Victory But a Long Fight Ahead”. That statement recognized partial victory in a battle that is part of the war against austerity, capitalism’s newest front, and that community mobilization and protest remain effective strategies and tactics. And while they’re right that it is to be understood as a victory — though partial — they also know that we will not be appeased by partial victories.
January 11th also marks the beginning of what might be a second month in the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat and the date that Prime Minister Harper has announced he will meet with her and other indigenous leaders. Our action here in the prison was to be taken in recognition of, and with respect to Spence and the Idle No More Movement as well. Several of the would-be hunger strikers are Indigenous people and while most of us are settlers, myself included, we recognize that solidarity against capitalism is meaningless without solidarity against colonialism.
We recognize that the CSUMB cut, like many aspects of colonial government austerity measures, will disproportionately impact Indigenous people. We were to undergo our hunger strike also in solidarity with Spence and the Idle No More Movement and some of us will still be undertaking a 24 hour fast on January 11th with that in mind. We invite others outside this prison to join us.
As imprisoned people, we know that it is necessary to recognize that the CSUMB cut also targets women and children trying to leave abusive households and violence and with respect to that we also have to recognize the responsibility we each have as individuals to challenge and combat the normalization of the pervasiveness of violence against women in patriarchal cultures, an endemic feature of both capitalism and colonialism.
As imprisoned people, it could not be more obvious to us that both the austerity and so-called “tough on crime” agendas symbiotically constitute an intentional attack on poor people and communities of colour. Consequently, our hunger strike was not to be a protest just against yet another heartless austerity cut, but also in opposition to capitalism and racism, two defining features of Canada’s colonial culture.
With the December 27th announcement and subsequent statement from OCAP, we have called off our anti-austerity action – for now; however, we do very much see the provincial Liberal Party convention upcoming at the end of the month. It is still too soon to know exactly what the cuts and the downloading of responsibilities to municipalities will mean, though some things appear more likely than others, if not certain.
With total spending on homelessness or loose intervention being drastically decreased, rates of homelessness will rise and it will become more difficult for people to access social assistance. Fewer people in already targeted communities and fewer people coming out of prisons and other institutions will be eligible. For example, Toronto has already announced to factor it’s part in a new patchwork- only people who have been imprisoned or hospitalized or in rehab or otherwise institutionalized for longer than six months will be eligible for the funding that will replace the CSUMB. This means that many people getting out of various kinds of hospitals or serving short prison sentences will be tossed out onto the streets.
As one imprisoned person put it, “This means guys will end up pleading guilty to more serious offenses (and staying in prison longer than necessary) just to be eligible (for something) when they get out, because it only takes a month or two for us to lose our housing in many cases and Community Start-up is the only support many of us get for a chance at a different kind of life.”
There are potentially also serious concerns for how this cut will impact communities in Northern Ontario, where municipalities are much less likely to have their own existing infrastructure for dispersal of such funds and neither the downloaded responsibilities of the transition year nor the new CHPI have funds earmarked for “Community Start-up costs”.
A hole in the patchwork in Northern Ontario is but one example of how this provincial cut will disproportionately impact indigenous people despite the fact that provinces see a tremendous share of the government’s profits from stolen land and broken treaties. Coupled with the disproportionate rate of over-incarceration for indigenous people, this is yet another example of how capitalism and colonialism continue to work in tandem to entrench wealth and privilege in the hands of settlers at the expense of indigenous peoples.
Austerity reveals that, at least in the Canadian context, capitalism and colonialism have become inextricably linked even though resistance against one necessitates effective resistance against the other.
Austerity is premised to an extent on covering the cost of bailing out the capitalist system after the economic “crisis” of 2008. And while that may be a specious excuse for a classical systemic attack on those already bearing the brunt of capitalists obsessed with colonial domination, I wholeheartedly agree with the call coming from OCAP’s campaign against austerity: “Stop the war on the poor, make the rich pay”.
Solidarity against capitalism, solidarity against colonialism.