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.
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