“No Justice, No Peace”
This piece was originally intended to be released by August 1st. It was first drafted in late July. However, in accordance with the wishes of the interviewee, who, despite having used an alias to conceal his identity, fears recriminations for telling this story. It seems rather fitting to delay publication though, for this way, the release can be timed in conjunction with Prison Justice Day 2012.
When I write the words “Riot 2010″, the last thing I expect comes to people’s minds is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. But shortly after I received my first bail, for the charges on which I am now incarcerated, in the same complex that first held myself and more than 16 others accused in the G20 main conspiracy group, there was a riot in Maplehurst. This too was a politically motivated riot, but of a very different kind than the one that reclaimed the streets of Toronto in June of 2010.
Almost 2 years ago, just days after Prison Justice Day 2010, what is now known as the Ramadan Riot went off on Unit 8 of the Maplehurst Correctional Centre in Milton, Ontario. The aftermath of that riot saw both Maplehurst and the Vanier Correctional Centre for Women on total lockdown for four and three days respectively and thirteen prisoners from Maplehurst sent to the hole for forty days before all being shipped out to various prisons across the province.
Fasting—from dawn ’til dusk during the month of Ramadan—is one of the five pillars of Islam. The federal and provincial prison systems are supposed to accommodate the religious faith of those people they have incarcerated. In order to accommodate Ramadan, Muslim inmates who wish to observe are supposed to be delivered their meals not during the day but just after sunset and again before sunrise. Given that one of the lessons of Ramadan’s fast is to help adherents develop self-control and to overcome selfishness, laziness, and greed (amongst other temptations), one would think that the so-called corrections systems would whole-heartedly support the practices of the faith. However, the Ramadan Riot of 2010 and some subsequent experiences of adherents trying to observe behind bars have suggested that the prisons’ efforts to accommodate the fast are often tokenistic at best.
NM, 23—whose name has been concealed to protect him from potential fallouts from this piece—was very reluctant to sit down with me to talk about what happened at Maplehurst in the summer of 2010. This, despite knowing that I too had been briefly held there that summer, though on a different unit. The unit that I and my co-accused were on had actually been cleared out of other inmates to make room for the G20 rioters who had drastically escalated their street protests against the austerity agenda, which has since led to similar protests around the world. NM, like me, was labeled as one of the “ring-leaders” of a riot in the summer of 2010.
When I asked NM about observing Ramadan in jail, he tells me that “there is no difference where you are or your surroundings.” he continues, “The one thing that I can say about fasting in jail is that you get more of a reward because it is a harder environment to starve in.”
When I reflect on what NM has told me, I understand that it is harder because in here we are already starved for so many essential things—responsibility, affection, nature, freedom. His story of the riot and this sentiment that he has imparted to me will both be in my heart and mind among the things I will contemplate during my own fast on August 10 for this year’s Prison Justice Day 24-hour hunger strike.
In August of 2010, Ramadan started immediately after Prison Justice Day, and from the start, at Maplehurst it was obvious that the jail had no intention of taking seriously people’s right to observe their religious faith. The evening meals (which were supposed to be served hot) were arriving cold. On the second day, Muslim inmates spoke to the Imam who comes to the prison to lead prayers. According to NM, the Imam told them that unfortunately, in jail, “they don’t accommodate.”
On the third day of Ramadan, the Islamic inmates on Unit 8—all 20 of them—requested “blue letter” complaint forms that are the formal procedural means for filing grievances with the provincial ombudsman responsible for ensuring prisoners’ rights in all Ontario jails. However, in all my conversations with other inmates, I have never once heard a story of the ombudsman doing anything to rectify a complaint at the provincial level, not once. In this instance, the letters would have told the ombudsman about meal portions that were way too small and delivered all at once in the evening (instead of twice a day—once after sunset, and then again before dawn).
On the fourth day, the letters went out in NM’s words saying, “The food was cold, no one is helping us, we’re starving.” He tells me that each day they had tried talking to a different captain, but “no one cares [because] you’re Muslim,” he says. That night, when one inmate became irate, he was taken to the hole. The next day, NM tells me, “we rioted.”
The initial plan had not been for a riot. Those who had instigated the protest initially called for it to be “peaceful,” whereby they would sit down on the range and refuse to go back to their cells until the captains agreed to bring them the appropriate food at appropriate times. Evidently, though, on one range—E block—people were too upset for that degree of restraint, and their response to the plan was, “we’re rioting.” On A block, the inmates refused to participate, saying that it would all be futile because “they” would merely “smash you up and ship you out,” “they” meaning the guards.
On the fifth day of Ramadan, August 15 2010, when lockdown was called for, “E block went off.” As NM describes it, the guys were all “masked up” as they massed at the wall-sized windows that separated prisoners from the guards in the panopticon formation that is the boiler-plate design for both the Maplehurst and Penetang superjails. When the guys on other ranges saw this, “then everybody went off.”
On three separate blocks of Unit 8, inmates refused to go into their cells, and started to cover the cameras and windows in their ranges. When the captains came to try to talk down the prisoners, NM tells me that they were told that they’d been warned. When the first captain stepped onto E block, he got knocked out cold, as did one of the guards who trailed him.
The response from the guards was swift and violent on E block, as nearly 100 corrections officers poured onto the range. When the other ranges saw their fellow inmates getting brutalised by the guards, most stopped rioting and tried to return to their cells.
One of the things that stands out for me, from NM’s telling, is while on the one hand it was not just Muslims who were rioting, on the other, guards were beating people who weren’t themselves actually participating, as well as those who were. When I ask him about this further, he tells me that “people were rioting because jail is bullshit; people understood that Muslims were getting mistreated.” One of the lessons here is that whether it’s within the confines of an institution or out on the streets, solidarity will always be a major factor in any riot. That’s part of why the state and its institutions will always attempt to systemically break down solidarity between individuals and between communities.
In the end, NM and 12 others were taken to the hole. He tells me that while they were dragging him there, the guards banged his head off nearly every pillar along the way, one of them taunting him with racist slurs each time. He spent the fifth night of Ramadan naked in a cell with two other battered prisoners. It was only in the following days that they were gradually given back some clothes and mattresses to sleep on, and moved into their own solitary confinement cells. They spent 40 days in the hole—a month of punishment instead of a month of prayer—before being shipped out to other prisons. I imagine though, that without prayer and faith, that time in the hole would have been even more punishing. But it was bad. While in the hole, their food came drenched in urine, says NM. It was so bad that as they were leaving Maplehurst, some of the guards actually apologised.
At Maplehurst the next year, apparently Ramadan was handled with more care. There was more food, and it was served hot and at the right times, according to the Imam, NM tells me. Unfortunately, he also tells me that here at Penetang, “it’s garbage.” They don’t get enough food, and he has to rely on food items ordered from the canteen to get by. He told the Imam, who NM says, “is looking into it.” But people are angry, he tells me.
I ask him if he thinks this is a problem of systemic racism, and I’m actually surprised at his response. He says that it is “laziness” more than racism, and also a genuine “lack of understanding.” In my analysis, ignorance can be a kind of racism. But for NM it is simpler than that. “They don’t care,” he tells me. “At super jails, there are so many inmates, they don’t care.”
When I ask why he’s been so reluctant to sit down and do this interview, he gestures out the window and tells me, “they’ll do your time.” By this he means that there is, according to him and others, a pattern of behaviour here whereby guards target prisoners for excessive punishment if they are viewed as troublemakers or making too much noise.
At this point, I need to state that so far I haven’t personally witnessed much malicious behaviour from any of the guards here, especially when compared to the Metro West Detention Centre where particular guards are notorious for brutal violence and even for killing several inmates there. Here, though, so far, the guards have treated me decently (other than the whole keeping me locked up situation), and with professionalism. I hope they don’t now decide, as NM puts it, to “do my time.”
The last question I asked NM is, “what would it take for things to get better?” His response—“a riot.”
Post-script: As I wrote a preliminary draft of this piece, well after dark one night, food for Muslim inmates was delivered nearly an hour after the day’s fast was supposed to have been broken. At that point, there were still 3 weeks left of Ramadan, and Prison Justice Day was still 2 weeks away. When we got off lockdown the next day, NM told me that the morning meal never came at all. Things need to change around here.