Building an Abolitionist Ethic
A Roundtable with the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project
On August 5, 2021, Karl Gardner sat down with four members of the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project to discuss the organization’s ongoing work to support prisoner organizing across Ontario, develop mutual aid networks, and build a movement committed to prison abolition. Together, we reflected on the organization’s achievements, challenges, and strategic approaches to prisoner solidarity and abolitionist organizing.
Jessica is a member of the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the Toronto Metropolitan University.
Alannah Fricker is an abolitionist community organizer, artist, caregiver, and harm reduction activist. She is a member of the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project and Abolition Coalition and is a Registered Social Worker studying Social Justice Education at OISE.
Rajean Hoilett is a prison abolitionist and community organizer. Rajean is a member of the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project and the Abolition Coalition, a national network of abolitionist organizations that recently launched the Choosing Real Safety campaign.
Lindsay Jennings is a person who survived the carceral system. She is a committed advocate passionate about bringing positive changes to those involved with the correctional and criminal justice systems by ensuring that substance use, mental health, and basic needs are addressed as immediately as possible once they have been admitted into custody and throughout their incarceration.
When and why did The Toronto Prisoner’s Rights Project (TPRP) emerge? What are the key issues, campaigns, or actions that TPRP takes up?
Jessica: In 2019, a few of us were at the Decarceral Futures conference held at Queen’s University and connected with some folks from the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), a collective that challenges all aspects of criminalization through public education, socially-engaged research, and activism. Afterward, we wished there was something like CPEP in Toronto so we put out a call to different community organizations, and asked if there were existing projects, or if creating something like CPEP would fill a gap. That’s when we met Lindsay who was working with Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN).
Lindsay: When TPRP initially started I was working for a non-profit organization, where it was very difficult to voice your personal opinion and advocate in certain situations because the carceral system is great at keeping people silent: both the folks inside and also service providers that work within the jails. I thought TPRP would be a great opportunity because prisoners aren’t talked about enough, and conditions inside are not talked about in any sort of compassionate way. Even if someone is a victim when they are incarcerated, the narrative always comes back to why the person is in jail in the first place. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit we entered crisis-mode. Ontario was one of the only provinces that didn’t offer prisoners free masks, and when people were being released, nothing was open, shelters were full, and it was chaos. So this group has been really important in mobilizing and organizing to bring prisoners’ issues to the forefront in a compassionate way.
Rajean: There are a lot of other prisoner-services organizations that exist in Toronto, but we found there wasn’t the kind of grassroots advocacy organization that would do the work of holding truth to power. A lot of us have loved ones inside, or have been incarcerated, or work with prisoners regularly. We wanted to build a community from which to take action and channel the same kind of power that was mobilized by movements like Black Lives Matter. We saw that prisoners were being left out of a lot of conversations on the Left.
One of the first issues we mobilized around was the exploitative prison phone system. Until recently, Bell Canada held a monopoly over the phones inside prisons in Ontario. They charged prisoners, their loved ones and support networks hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars every month to stay connected. To make matters worse, the phone system only allowed prisoners to contact landlines. While Bell masqueraded as a mental health champion, the truth is that they made a lot of money by putting up barriers to communication between prisoners and their support systems. Through a freedom of information request, we learned that Bell’s contract with the Ontario government was up for renewal in 2020. This was a really clear issue for us to bring more people to prisoners rights advocacy. We used Bell’s Let’s Talk 1 campaign to draw attention to the ways that Bell and the Ontario government jeopardized the health and wellbeing of prisoners for profit.
But we were never under the illusion that Doug Ford or Sylvia Jones––who, as Solicitor General, is responsible for overseeing prisons––were going to do the right thing and make telecommunications free for people who are incarcerated. We did not expect this kind of action from any of the political parties. But even under this regressive government, we were able to raise awareness about the issue. As a result of the continued organizing we’ve seen minor improvements to the phone system and the Ontario government did not renew its longstanding contract with Bell Canada.
Jessica: The Bell campaign was really important in that it humanized folks that are criminalized and incarcerated, something the mainstream media does not do a good job of. And a lot of people can connect to hating Bell, right? Given the corporate oligopoly that exists in Canadian telecommunications, the general public has long been incensed with Bell over outrageous telecom prices. This was an effective bridge that allowed folks on the outside to empathize with the plight of incarcerated people for whom communication with family, friends, lawyers and social services is essential to their mental health connections. This campaign was important to help people become aware of the issues inside different correctional spaces, prisons and jails.
Alannah: We started with an advocacy and education approach to organizing. We were doing weekly webinars about incarceration and lots of government-focused advocacy. When the pandemic hit, our work shifted toward mutual aid. We’re still doing all three––education, direct action, and mutual aid––but the mutual aid has grown and brought a lot of people into the work. We’ve expanded our group and its reach, which has allowed us to connect with a lot of new people and provide meaningful support to prisoners.
What are some of the main political commitments and approaches to organizing that TPRP uses? What do practices like abolition, and mutual aid mean to your organization?
Lindsay: I have experience of being incarcerated, and I hadn’t met people who talked about abolition, capitalism, or any of that. So I approached the work from a place of frustration. I know the feeling of being silenced, and the indifference of people who don’t care about what happens to you inside because they think you deserve to be there. So, for me, the importance of this work is to empower folks inside, and for them to know that there’s a group of people outside that care about them, who are aware that they’re alive, and want to put pressure on the system to improve their conditions. This humanizing element is so important. TPRP gave me a little bit of relief.
Jessica: One important piece to our approach is reframing innocence and guilt. The defund the police campaign is intimately connected to the work that we do. But it can rest upon mobilizing an assumption of innocence. We want to defund the police because oftentimes they fuck around with innocent people. But, an abolitionist approach means that even if you’re guilty, you’re still a person, you still have rights, and you don’t deserve the violence of the state. For a lot of people, the idea of guilt is sometimes where the buck stops, so to speak. We’re trying to push back against this, and to insist that incarcerated folks deserve care, respect, and dignity, and shouldn’t be incarcerated in the first place.
But the reality is, people are incarcerated, so we have to take cues from the folks inside. Sometimes that means finding meeting points between our abolitionist end-goals and reforms that can be meaningful for incarcerated folks right now. This is a constant balancing act. Trying to pursue reforms that provide material relief in the moment but don’t bolster the existing system. Reforms that don’t legitimize or contribute to the expansion of existing carceral systems.
Rajean: Fundamentally we’re moving in solidarity with incarcerated people, and we are an abolitionist organization. That’s the void that we’re filling in Toronto right now. Many other organizations get funding to communicate with prisoners and provide support, but they are not expressly abolitionist. In fact, they sort of tiptoe around abolition as a way to maintain their access and their funding. Being here for abolition means building a community that sees an end to incarceration and police violence. And something fundamentally important to TPRP is that we believe we will win. It’s an exhausting fight. But folks continue to come through.
Something I really love about TPRP is that we are building a transformative community space. And this is especially important given the nature of this work: some folks come and go. We have members who are here one day and incarcerated the next. And we’re trying to deal with the cop inside of our head and to create a community that cares for each other, even if folks might have engaged in acts of harm.
Alannah: For us, abolition means that everyone is welcome and everyone is valued. We all bring different things to the work, and it’s okay when people are in the process of learning about abolition. Lately, we’ve paused to look back at what we’ve accomplished in the last year and realized we’ve built an incredible group that’s in it for the long haul. This is a lifetime long––lifetimes long struggle. Abolition is not something we’ve arrived at; it is a process that involves building communities that keep us safe where we take care of and value each other. So now, when we need to take breaks and support one another in our group, we are internalizing an ethic of mutual aid and practising the gentleness and care we want to see in the world.
Rajean: We keep saying the words “abolitionist organization,” and that is a really important part of our work. But not everyone in TPRP fully embraces abolition or identifies as an abolitionist. I think the fundamental thing that unites us is that we care about prisoners. We’re in solidarity with prisoners. I think that this journey unavoidably takes us toward abolition. But we have this ethic that we need millions of people in this fight, so we have to navigate the tensions that arise when not everyone has the same political views.
Jessica: That’s very central to an abolitionist ethos, right? People can commit harm, people can be volatile, people can fuck up, people can have disagreements. But that doesn’t mean that we remove their humanity. We are still in community with them and that’s fundamental to abolition.
I understand that TPRP emerged just before the COVID-19 pandemic. How has the pandemic specifically affected prisoners? How have prisoners and groups like yours responded?
Lindsay: Fucking masks! It’s absurd that in the middle of a pandemic, we had to start a campaign to get incarcerated people access to masks. The pandemic meant mobilizing people to bring these basic survival needs to prisoners who are in life or death situations. But it shows that the government truly doesn’t care about the life or death of prisoners.
I found it interesting seeing people compare COVID-19 lockdowns to prison life. For the majority of people, we were locked down in our homes with tv, music, a fridge full of food, telephones, laptops, windows, fresh air, soap, showers, pets, books, access to information about COVID-19, access to masks, and other protective equipment. But imagine being stuck in small cell with your bed, bathroom and sink all in that space. Imagine not having windows, and if you do have a window it is frosted so you cant see outside. Imagine not listening to music at all. Imagine not having easy access to doctors or nurses when sick with COVID-19, all you get is solitary confinement with random check-ins from the on duty nurse or a correctional officer. While we watched stories and cried with families that couldn’t visit their dying loved ones in the hospital, yet prisoners inside might suffer and die alone, and the family would only be told after the fact. The atmosphere inside jails and prisons is harmful and inhumane. You can’t even protect yourself from what could happen to you inside.
While one is too many, we are lucky that there has only been one death in Ontario thus far. It was an 85-year old man who was arrested and was awaiting a mental health assessment, and he caught COVID-19 while inside and died. Sadly, this tragedy wasn’t surprising, but it did give us momentum within the community to mobilize email zaps, open letters, op-eds. We make sure to stay in touch with and take direction from folks inside, which means the world to the people who are stuck in the system. This goes a long way to combat the fear that people have inside, that nobody gives a shit about them.
Jessica: The majority of our organizing has been during the pandemic. In a way we had to create new strategies, but we were also born through these strategies. During the pandemic, people were glued to their TVs, to the news, and our ability to get media coverage was really important. People were consuming information in a way they didn’t before: webinars and online events were much more popular. Before the pandemic there was a myth that the public is apathetic, but the pandemic has proven this not to be the case: people sometimes just don’t have the time to get involved in movements. And the pandemic provided an opportunity for people to actually start paying attention to things and engaging in a more accessible way.
One obstacle we faced was that frequency and intensity of lockdowns for prisoners. Sometimes, people would only get out of their cells for 20-30 minutes a day, and not even every day. Our phone calls from prisoners and our ability to get information about what was happening inside became scarce. Because, on top of the cost of phone calls, people first and foremost want to call their loved ones to make sure everyone is okay. So, one of the things that we did in response was to start a jail hotline that services a number of different institutions in the GTA. The hotline allows prisoners to make calls to us free of charge, and helps us connect with folks and get information about the conditions inside.
Rajean: COVID-19 exacerbated the harms of capitalism, the state, and criminalization across the board. But for the people inside who are continuously harmed every single day, the conditions became even more life-threatening. We saw that the state doesn’t have any regard for the predominantly Black and Indigenous people who are locked up inside human cages. We saw this in outrageous statements by Premier Doug Ford and Federal Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, who publicly stated that vaccinating prisoners was not a priority despite public health recommendations. This is not to mention the valid issues that Black and Indigenous people inside might have with vaccines administered by a prison, and the inadequate public health information received inside.
Lindsay: It’s important to understand that people inside only get access to 30-second clips on CP24 2 about the pandemic and changing public health protocols. They don’t have access to real public health information. They’re just able to watch quick news clips about the lockdowns, different vaccines, people dying from blood clots, etc. which fosters an environment of fear. Incarcerated folks wonder why they can’t get masks or sanitizer, or the general hygiene products that they need. The confusion and the excessive lockdowns aren’t good for their mental health either. They are terrified of getting sick because they believe if they get COVID while inside, they’re going to die. People are living in this kind of fear every day.
Alannah: The conditions inside prisons and jails were worse than we’d ever known. There were also changing conditions of release. While prison population numbers are starting to climb again, we saw 30 percent of provincial prisoners released during the first wave of COVID-19. But folks were being released with no support. So, we started the Prisoner Emergency Support Fund and the Good Food Box program to help people getting out. Most jails are in remote communities and buses were barely running, so sometimes, we had to pick people up ourselves. There were really inadequate release supports before the pandemic, but even they crumbled and there was really nothing left for people. That’s where our mutual aid projects came in, to fill the gap between incarceration and being in the community.
Rajean: Through the Prisoner Emergency Support Fund we’ve raised over $200,000. So many people want to donate and give money to the people inside. This contradicts what we hear from Conservative politicians; that people who are incarcerated aren’t a priority or that they aren’t who we should direct resources toward. And we also saw how threatening this was to carceral institutions: they were actually blocking money that we sent to prisoners. Even though they were going to spend that money in prison!
These actions have dispelled any notion that the state cares about the people they’ve locked up, and has therefore put abolition on the table. We quickly went from saying, “we deserve to have free phone calls with our people inside,” to saying, “no one needs to be locked up and we need to start freeing people.” During the first year of the pandemic, there was a big reduction in provincial prison populations in Ontario and similar numbers in provinces across the country. And the world didn’t fall apart, right? It proved what we have been demanding, that abolition is possible.
What are some major victories or significant outcomes of your work so far? What have you found are some of the most challenging aspects of your work?
Jessica: One big success is the popular support for the Prisoner Emergency Support Fund. We’ve heard from folks through letters and phone calls that this money has been life-changing, not only financially but just to know that people out there give a fuck and are willing to support them.
We’ve also had a lot of success garnering media coverage of issues faced by prisoners. I don’t want to underplay the importance of that because, while it hasn’t shifted government policy, it has created a real shift in public awareness about the conditions faced by people who are incarcerated. It’s no small feat getting big media outlets to report on this. We’ve been pretty consistent in our ability to channel information about hunger strikes or outbreaks within prisons to major media outlets.
For example, since the outbreak of COVID-19 there have been more than a dozen hunger and labour strikes in both provincial and federal institutions in Ontario. While a labour strike in a prison or jail may garner minor media coverage, hunger strikes often begin and end without the general public ever knowing. As a result, prisoners’ bargaining capacity is next to nothing, and the general public remain completely unaware of the conditions that exist inside our provincial jails and federal prisons. One of the central ways we organize to assist striking prisoners is through our jail hotlines which currently service five institutions in Ontario. Through word of mouth and strategic flyering, our hotline number has gotten around and prisoners can call us free of charge to communicate to us what’s happening on the inside. If a strike is going to happen, for example, this hotline allows us to reach out to our media contacts to cover the story so that the Ministry of the Solicitor General cannot just quietly ignore or squash organizers’ concerns.
Rajean: The fact that we continue to grow as an organization is a success. People now have a place to go to participate in prisoner advocacy and can plug into this work in many different ways. A lot of us have talked about this as being a lifelong struggle, and now we have built a home for this work. And we’ve built relationships with other communities and organizations, like folks fighting anti-Black racism, those fighting for #LandBack and Indigenous sovereignty, Palestinian organizers, folks organizing within the street community and for harm reduction, folks organizing against gender-based violence. Now, people organizing in these like-minded groups are incorporating an analysis of prisons and are talking about prisoners and the harms of the prison industrial complex.
Lindsay: Prisoners face a lot of consequences for organizing on the inside and have little to no supports once they are released. Prisoner’s Justice Day is a perfect example of how prisoners are silenced when they protest or speak up against the human rights violations they face while incarcerated. Prisoners’ poems, articles, letters are all thrown out and not allowed to be mailed out of the facility. We have seen entire institutions be locked down due to the Prisoner Justice Day actions––like hunger strikes and refusals to work––that are organized to honor and remember all those prisoners who have died within the walls of our jails. We have also seen prisoners that get their phone calls, visits, and other privileges taken away due to speaking the truth and speaking out. Prisoners also get punished if they submit or even ask for a “blue form,” which is a complaint to the Ontario Ombudsman. Despite all this, we have seen more provincial organizing inside than ever before. The pandemic pushed people inside to organize hunger strikes in order to speak out about the excessive lockdowns, no masks, no visits, no programs, the heat, the water, and other inhumane conditions.
And it hasn’t just been in Toronto: we work closely with CPEP in Ottawa, we’ve connected with Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project in Hamilton, and a massive group of families and loved ones mobilizing in London, Ontario. It’s about educating people and bringing together different perspectives to think about a life beyond incarceration. We encounter some groups that bring it back to reform, you know, like “we need a new jail,” or “we need more police officers.” But TPRP pushes those conversations toward the need to defund the police and prisons and demonstrate what abolition looks like. We push people to question what they value in their communities.
Once people are released they sometimes contact us to say thank you and to connect with our group. And it’s really empowering for people to connect with grassroots organizations when they are trying to rebuild their lives, because they can feel like they are building a community and making a difference, like they are a part of something. So the value of our group is also more personal. It is special to have people across the country that believe you and care about you when you tell them stories about what happened to you in jail.
Alannah: We’re also doing a lot of political advocacy responding to provincial and federal governments that are planning to invest more and more into prisons. One campaign we’ll be launching soon is our 500 Possibilities report, which responds to the Ontario government’s decision to invest $500 million into prisons and jails over the next five years. We also launched the We Keep Each Other Safe project, which included a series of community forums on alternatives to policing and practical skill-building workshops, including trainings on overdose prevention, suicide intervention, mental health first aid, and more. In addition, we’ve developed many creative opportunities in our group, including an abolitionist mural project and a prisoner art exhibition. I think one success we’ve had as a group is making abolition accessible for many people and offering different ways to get involved.
Do you have any advice for organizers interested in joining the fight for prison abolition?
Rajean: We need, to paraphrase Mariamme Kaba, “a million experiments,” if we’re going to create a world in which it is unthinkable to lock someone away inside a cage and cut off their connections to their support networks. It’s important to start learning and do research on these issues, but that should not be a barrier to entry. We need your energy; we need your love; we need your compassion now.
So if you’re reading this and you’re not doing some kind of prison abolition work, this is your invitation: do it. Prisons affect everybody. We are all complicit. We all have a responsibility to think about how to take an abolitionist ethic in the places we live, work, and organize. There’s something you can do to reduce the amount of people that are getting locked up in our communities.
Jessica: For folks that want to get involved, join an abolitionist organization or start your own. But that can’t be the only space where this work happens, because abolition is multi-faceted. This means you have to bring an abolitionist ethic to your immigration support work, your gender equity work, your work in queer communities or in labour unions. How does the work you’re already doing intersect with the process of criminalization and abolition. We don’t just need one abolitionist movement, we need this ethic to penetrate the whole spectrum of organizations and organizing work that is already happening.
Lindsay: We can return to the famous saying: “nothing about us without us.” You have to take the time to include the folks and the voices of those experiencing incarceration. You have to be creative. And it’s going to take a lot of people. So, this cannot be siloed work. Non-profit work in prisons is really siloed because of the competition around funding and access. But prison abolition has to be a collective effort; it can’t be siloed and it has to encompass everyone.
Alannah: I’m thinking about Dean Spade’s book on mutual aid which was really instructive for me, and how it echoes what Rajean and Lindsay have said: we need hundreds of millions of people to abolish the police and prisons, and build a society where we keep everybody safe. We need this many people to enact climate justice and save our planet and each other from extinction. These are massive projects that we’re trying to undertake. This is not going to be done by a few professionalized organizations or individuals with specialties and degrees. For me, it’s about recognizing our power and our worth in this work and that we don’t necessarily need to be trained, or specialized, or well-read in any particular thing to be valuable to this movement.
I’ve been learning a lot from Kwame Ture’s speeches and thinking about the difference between organizing and mobilizing. Mobilizing people is important, but the importance of organizing comes from its ability to sustain and grow a movement through capacity building. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to organize to the extent where I’m not really needed. It’s not to say that we should not be integral to the movement or do the work, but rather that if something happens to us or our capacity is reduced, the movement and the momentum shouldn’t disappear. Creating leader-full organizations is necessary and it is a matter of disability justice and sustainability.
Jessica: Right now, Canada is in its largest prison building campaign since the Great Depression. This has been going on since 2010, and every year, there’ are another five or six new or expansion-based projects. These are costing billions of dollars. So, raising awareness about budgeting is important too, and that’s where politics becomes an important point of intervention. You can go to budget proposal meetings, submit your own proposals, and hold your councillors, and representatives in provincial and federal government accountable.
Lindsay: We are in a really critical time, we have an election coming up, and we need to be mobilizing and asking the right questions for the folks inside. There’s momentum right now that can help us really push our communities to think about the direction we want to steer for the next few years of our lives. The pandemic has shown that we can make massive changes in our society. So we need to mobilize people we believe are going to invest in the community.
Rajean: We also need to acknowledge that movements don’t happen over the course of a few months, or even a few years. Prison abolition takes lifetimes and generations of struggle. But we’re changing the conditions every single day and the work that we do today is incredibly important. I think just remember that it’s not all on you and the people that you know, to change the world in a day, but you’ve got to be a part of the change right now.
So, at some point in the future, they’re going to tell a story about what we all did in this moment. Do yourself a favour: be on the right side of history. Be a part of the movement of people that said, “this isn’t right,” and that laid the foundation for us to abolish prisons and free people. *
A note for our readers who are currently incarcerated:
Get in touch through our TPRP Jail Hotlines for free advocacy, referrals, information and support! We are currently operating Monday-Saturday from 9-11 am EST and 2-4 pm EST.
For the Toronto South Detention Center, Toronto East Detention Centre, Maplehurst Correctional Complex, Ontario Correctional Institute, and the Vanier Centre for Women call 0-416-307-2273.
For Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre call 0-519-642-9289.
Send us a letter for advocacy, release support, art and writing submissions, and pen pals:
Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project
PO Box 291 Toronto P
Toronto, ON M5S 2S8