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Back in the hole: 'Anarchist material removed'

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[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 of 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.

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