Monthly Archives: April 2014

Joel’s Blog: Carrots and Sticks

April 20, 2014

This week I was finally transferred from Unit 5 to Unit 6, a move I was
dreading.  In jail, change is a bad thing and can cause a great deal of
stress.  It feels like whenever I begin to feel comfortable on a range, my
roots are pulled out from under me and I have to readapt to a new space.  Most
inmates agree that these constant transfers, along with the fear of the
unknown, makes our lives much more difficult.  When the time came for the
transfer, I was strip searched in the shower stalls (boxers off, open your
mouth, turn around, and touch your toes) and had my possessions sorted

Many of my belongings were trashed or confiscated pushing me to say to a
guard, “This isn’t ok, we have rights.”

She responded, “You gave up your rights when you decided to commit crimes.”

I challenged her on this because I found the response ignorant and
insensitive.  It was also filled with a reactionary disrespect for me as a
human being.

“If we don’t have rights, why are we given three meals per day, given beds
to sleep in, or brought to yard every day?”

 Of course we have rights, I don’t think there is any debating this.  Many
of our rights have been won through struggle by inmates before us just how
wage earners enjoy rights won by workers before them.  If we don’t
constantly assert those rights, those who have power over us will do their
best to take them away.

I am now writing this from Unit 6, which is advertised as the “privileged”
unit by staff.  There are benefits to being here (like fewer lockouts and
access to books), but I’ve observed that the privileges are dangled in
front of us like carrots in order to keep us in check and passive.  The
interesting thing is that we do not have many of the things that are
standard on Unit 5 like weight bags, workout equipment, or adequate laundry.
Most people on Unit 6 don’t want to accept the status quo for fear of being
moved back to Unit 5.  I’ve also noticed that, here, we are babied and
observed a great deal more.  It’s interesting how authoritarian systems use
privilege as a way to better control populations.

After getting settled a Canadian Border Security agent came to see me.  The
purpose of the meeting was to arrest me so I can’t walk out the front door
of the jail.  Instead, when my sentence is complete, I will promptly be
deported.  Most likely, they will drive me to the border and leave me there.
He also told me that if I’m granted parole in August, the same thing will
happen.  I will simply get deported with the one condition that I am never
to return to Canada.  He also said that being American will work in my
favor because they would rather get rid of me than continue to pay for my

It’s definitely tempting to get my hopes up, but I don’t think things will
be that easy for me.  Even though my chances of returning to jail are
essentially zero, I believe that people high up in government (both
Canadian and US) want to make an example out of me.  They call it a
“deterrence factor”.  Why would they set a global precedent for extraditing
a US citizen across an international border for property damage charges,
and then just let me go at the earliest possible date?  It’s very tempting,
but I’m not getting my hopes up.  I refuse to let them crush my spirits by
letting them take away something I might desperately want.  This isn’t to
say that I won’t apply for parole in earnestness; I’m just trying to be
realistic about the potential outcomes.  Besides, it’s not so bad here –
what’s another six and a half months in the grand scheme of things?

Joel’s Blog: Weapons Search Lockdown

April 8, 2014

As I write this we are in our fifth straight day of lockdown.  We haven’t
been out of our cells since Thursday night (today is Tuesday).  The reason
for this lengthy lockdown is a “weapons search”.  The search was declared
on Friday, began on Monday, and just finished this morning.  We haven’t
been given access to showers since Thursday night and were only given
canteen orders today after the search finally ended (we usually get them
every Friday).  This lockdown has affected the entire unit: 6 ranges that
hold approximately 180 of us.  The guards claim they couldn’t perform the
search until yesterday because they were “short staffed”.

Since the start of my journey through the Canadian provincial jail system
“short of staff” has been the ubiquitous justification for locking us down
and taking away what little freedom we have.  To many of us, this weapons
search is clearly an arbitrary denial of our rights masquerading as a
security exercise.  If there is actually a dangerous weapon somewhere, the
guards are not acting logically to address that risk.  If there were a
dangerous weapon somewhere wouldn’t it make sense to find that weapon
immediately instead of making us languish in our cells for days before the
search even begins?  Why give someone with a weapon advance notice of a
search and then give them days to dispose of it?  Common sense dictates
that if they wanted to find a weapon, they would try to catch us by
surprise.  Finally, if the jail is short staffed, why is that so?  If one
or two guards don’t show up to work, apparently hundreds of men must get
punished as a result.  Jail is already cruel on many levels, particularly
the isolation and separation.  Locking us up in cages for 24 hours a day
without showers is beyond the pale.  Apparently, forcing us to stew in our
own filth for days on end counts as rehabilitation here in Canada.

To protest our treatment and assert our rights as human beings, we refused
to return our plastic trays after lunch yesterday.  After protracted
negotiations with “blue-shirts” (low ranking corrections officers) a “white
shirt” (high ranking official) was brought in to deal with us.  His
warning: if the guards did not receive our trays within 15 minutes he would
lock us up for another week and we would eat all meals out of bags.

After days of lockup, we decided to concede.  Our only recourse at this
point is to write a letter to the ombudsman, a strategy that has proven to
be ineffective at changing anything.  The end result:  our rights are
violated and there is nothing we can do to improve our conditions without
suffering severe consequences.

Joel’s Blog: Comradery Behind Bars

From March 1st

Governments and the mainstream media have created a myth: if you go to jail, you must be a bad person.   During my stay here, I found the opposite to be true.  Most of the guys on my current range are good-hearted and amicable individuals.  Some of them have made mistakes and some of them are drug addicts who need treatment, but the majority of inmates here are victims of unjust socioeconomic conditions.  If the war on drugs ended tomorrow and if poverty was properly addressed by society, these jails would empty out overnight.

My current cellmate, Rick, is a 65 year old Buddhist who has been in and out of jail his whole life.  He has over sixty convictions, mostly related to drug use and distribution.  He is in jail now on charges related to an unarmed bank robbery.  I like doing time with him because he spends most of his time reading – an activity I also enjoy immensely.  He tells me that jail has only exacerbated his criminality, quite the opposite of correcting it.  He is a heroin addict and also suffers from Alzheimers disease.  Most of his crimes occurred to fund his drug habit.  He is an ideal candidate for treatment and jail has only worsened his life.  He’s probably one of the kindest and most harmless people I’ve met in or out of jail.

I’ve noticed myself developing a comradery with the other prisoners here.  There is an unspoken understanding that we are struggling together through an unjust experience.  One of the most interesting and likable characters here is a Somalian guy, Ali.  He has been targeted, along with others, around the Rob Ford drug scandal and was a target of ‘Project Traveler’.  When news arrived there was a video of the Toronto mayor smoking crack, police agencies from various provinces launched a major investigation into the source of the drugs.  Ali shared the story of how a SWAT team raided his family’s house with machine guns traumatizing and injuring his relatives, and then giving him the beating of his lifetime.  He has been in this jail for over eight months now.  He is soft-spoke and well educated – a completely different character being portrayed by the media.  He expresses frustration at a system that intends to convict him before he has even had a chance to see the evidence against him.

Jaimie is 43 years old.  He has AIDS, Hepatitis C, and is hypoglycemic.  Previously, he spent a few months in a cell Alex Hundert.  He is constantly asking other people in here for juice crystals (packets of sweetener for our water) to balance his low blood sugar.  He says he’s been in and out of jail for years.  When he gets out, he has nothing and often feels the pressure to survive… ultimately resulting in him being charged with dozens of crimes.  He then sits in jail for six months to a year, and the charges inevitably get dropped.  When he gets out, the cycle repeats.  His situation is urgent and he needs the basics:  food, housing, and medical care.  I told him I don’t believe there is much I can do for him other than get his story out.  If you are compelled to help him by sending a letter, or more, his name is Jaimie Simpson and he is at the Toronto West Detention Center.

Joel’s Blog: On Patriarchy and Homophobia

March 28, 2014

A few things have been bothering me about jail life.  I found myself getting along with other prisoners but some things annoy me; namely, the copious amounts of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia on display here.  I’m not in a position to confront people on these issues so I’ve resorted to writing to vent my frustration.  First, on the issue of misogyny, in here it is common to hear women described as things, “bitches”, and “sluts”.  It’s also common to hear guys brag about the sexual things they would do to a woman if given the opportunity.  These things are often very derogatory.

This is done to demonstrate masculinity and affirm heterosexuality in a place that is overtly homophobic.  Much of this behavior is, without a doubt, rooted in insecurity and an overwhelming desire to fit in with the pack.  Regarding homosexuality, there seems to be an accepted consensus that being gay is bad.  I’ve had a few disagreements with other inmates regarding gay marriage or any reforms that would progress gay rights.  The folks I spend time with outside jail are mostly all progressive on social issues so I’m having difficulty gauging whether jail culture is objectively more misogynistic and homophobic than mainstream culture.  My theory is that these behaviors are just more condensed and highlighted in here.

I also have a theory that homophobia in jail is a response to mainstream stereotypes around sexual assaults behind bars.  Most people, when you tell them you’ve been to jail, will wonder – if not ask directly – whether you’ve encountered rape and violence during your incarceration.  It appears that the homophobia here might be a way to discourage and neutralize sexual assaults before it happens.  Sexual assault within the Canadian provincial jail system is essentially nonexistent and that is mainly because inmate culture has zero tolerance for it.  Perhaps this intense homophobia is a crude reaction to the fear of sexual assault.  Asserting one’s masculinity through sexism might be another reaction to such a fear.  That wouldn’t make these behaviors justifiable but it would help explain them.

What is most peculiar is the existence of anti-authoritarian ideas and anti-gay/anti-woman ideas among inmates.  I’m opposed to all oppressive systems that are designed to empower one group of people over another.   This goes for economic as well as social systems.  These are ideas I’ve spent quite a bit of time refining and thinking about.  I’m just not on the same page as my fellow prisoners on these matters.  Unfortunately, I’m not in a great position to agitate for change in here.  All I can do thus far is disassociate myself from the situations that make me uncomfortable.

Written by Joel Bitar, an American activist serving a 20-month sentence in Canada for charges stemming from the 2010 Toronto G20 protests.

Joel’s Blog: What’s it Like?

From March 14, 2014

Folks have been asking me what it’s like being in jail and I’ve been wondering how to go about describing it.  It’s a much different experience than I imagined it would be.  In my last piece I said that this place is awful, however that was more in reference to the physical environment.  I think Alex Hundert described this jail most accurately when he called it a human warehouse because the buildings we are housed in are literally constructed in the style of warehouses.  Picture high ceilings, rafters, an overhead speaker, and constant echoing.  When I arrived it felt like I was walking into a Home Depot.

Socially I’m finding jail quite stimulating and, in a weird way, satisfying.  The other day one of my fellow prisoners had me laughing so hard, tears ran down my face.  I was preparing for a lonely, depressing experience filled with sorrow and sadness.  It’s quite the contrary.  The jailhouse camaraderie creates a thriving, rich social environment that you won’t find in many other places.

In her blog, Mandy Hiscocks, wrote that jail made her feel diminished as a human being.  There are the rare moments where I experience that.  For example, when I’m strip-searched and have to get naked, lift my sack, bend over, spread my cheeks, and cough.  The last time it happened to me, the corrections officer performing the search made an offhanded comment to a colleague that “it’s pretty gross” to have to stare at another man’s private parts.  When you are paid well enough, I guess such a thing becomes less objectionable.

The majority of time, however, I feel pretty good.  My experience is unique because I’ve had charges hanging over my head like a dark cloud for four years.  I feel a sense of relief being in here.  Each day is one day closer to putting this episode behind me.  Instead of looking at my sentence as a punishment, I see it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to perform an anthropological/sociological experiment into the nature of authoritarian systems that exist outside of mainstream consciousness.  I’m studying this place all the time, much like an outside observer, while simultaneously allowing myself to be an active participant in the experience.  In here, I feel like I can be myself and other inmates understand and respect me for what I’ve done and who I am.  It’s a much different feeling than the loneliness and alienation I feel living in a capitalist society where insane ideas have become legitimized and normalized.

Please don’t take this post as encouragement to come to jail or prison.  I would not choose to be here under any circumstance and would much rather be home with my family.  I feel myself longing for freedom all the time, but while I’m here I need to make the best of it.  Part of me might even be trying to convince myself that things are good as some sort of defense mechanism but, hey, it’s been a month and it’s worked for me thus far.

Written by Joel Bitar, an American activist serving a 20-month sentence in Canada for charges stemming from the 2010 Toronto G20 protests.

Joel’s Blog: Penetang, Home Sweet Home

From: March 5, 2014

Early this morning I was told to collect my possessions for my transfer to Central North Correctional Center in Penetanguishene, Ontario.  When my name was called I said my goodbyes to the guys on my range.  It’s only been three weeks but I’ve definitely established some friendships.  I will miss many of the people I’ve met.

After being shackled, a group of us were brought to the paddy wagon.  The ride up to Penetang was not a pleasant one.  The heat was on ‘high’ and I sat next to a man with a psychological disorder.  He rambled on about nonsensible things causing me to eventually close my eyes and begin meditating.  I transport myself to a wonderful place.  I take myself to a beach in a faraway place – I’m playfully running from a beautiful woman through sand dunes on the edge of the world.   The wind blows hard, stinging my body.

Suddenly the vehicle learches to a halt – we are here.  After processing, a group of us sit waiting in a room to be brought to our ranges.  We still have our canteen items so we pull out our cards and begin an impromptu game of spades that is quickly cut short.

I’m in my new cell now, on my new range.  I can safely say, now, that this place is awful.  Unlike the Toronto West Detention Center, this place feels like a stereotypical jail.  It’s a huge bland “super-jail” and a shining example of Canada’s movement toward mass incarceration.  I will most likely spend the next twelve months here.  I will now lay down with a candy bar and a book to do some time.

Home sweet home.

Written by Joel Bitar, an American activist serving a 20-month sentence in Canada for charges stemming from the 2010 Toronto G20 protests.

Joel’s Blog: Overcrowding and Drug Addiction

From March 16, 2014

I just laid my head down to get some sleep as I feel a cold coming on and all of a sudden I hear a ruckus. I look up from my book to see a corrections officer unlocking our cell door with a very miserable person next to him holding a mat. The sick looking man says to the C.O. “I asked to be put in segregation because I’m going to be coming down from my addiction tonight.” The C.O. responds saying, “It’s not my fault you’re a crack-head” and closes the cell door behind him. So the man comes into our cell and puts the mat on the floor.

Overcrowding is a big problem in these remand facilities and is often the source of a lot of tension amongst the inmates. A few cells on this range now have three men in cells designed for two people. Factor in that we are either locked in or out of our cells all day, sometimes for multiple days at a time, and you have a recipe for disater. The brutality of this system is becoming more and more evident. This man in my cell right now is a drug addict who needs treatment and care, instead he’s trapped in a cramped cage about to have major withdrawal symptoms.

I was unable to sleep all night because the man, coming off a prescription drug addiction, groaned and gasped in agony for hours. Anyone who is under the illusion that the prison system has anything to do with rehabilitation needs to come experience this for themselves. This especially applies to those who make a living filling these cages: the judges, prosecutors, and police. Jail is the antithesis of rehabilitation because inmates are dehumanized and treated like animals. This creates a feedback loop of anger, resentment, and ultimately, criminality.

Written by Joel Bitar, an American activist serving a 20-month sentence in Canada for charges stemming from the 2010 Toronto G20 protests.

Joel’s Blog: Locked-in and Free as a Bird

From February 26, 2014

We are locked in today. Lock-ins are typically done randomly and arbitrarily. The justification is that the guards are understaffed. It’s a nice break from the drama and tension of the range (all though my range is pretty calm and free of drama). I’ve been working out pretty hard since I’ve gotten here. I view self-care in here as a form of rebellion and resistance. This place is designed to destroy our bodies and minds via atrophy so anything you can do to stay physically and emotionally healthy is a counterattack. I’ve been preparing for this experience by learning bodyweight exercises, yoga, and meditation.

Since we were locked in, I invented a cardio-based routine to get the heart pumping. I literally ran in place for about an hour, mixing in jumping jacks, gate lunges, and a couple of other things. I then did 30 burpees and an ab-workout (nothing too crazy because this is a light day). I got satisfaction knowing I was more productive than all the guards in this place.

Later, before bed, I will do some yoga and meditation to relax my mind. I’ve also been acquiring threads from various places to floss since the jail has deemed it – floss – a banned item. Every tooth crevice I clean is a victory and every time the thread breaks, I curse under my breath.

Escapism is also a helpful tool in passing time. I’ve been reading magazines and watching some movies on the common TV. Yesterday, the entire range was watching “Blue Streak” where Martin Lawrence is a jewel thief who poses as a Los Angeles Police detective. A movie that makes nonstop fun of police is a pretty big deal in a place like this.

I’m expecting a visit from a wonderful friend on Tuesday so I’m excited about that. The food here at Toronto West Detention Center is excellent because there’s a legitimate kitchen. I’ve gotten comfortable here, but I’ll be moved soon. I’ll definitely be writing about that experience when it happens.

Written by Joel Bitar, an American activist serving a 20-month sentence in Canada for charges stemming from the 2010 Toronto G20 protests

Joel’s Blog: ‘Portal into Another Dimension’

from February 26, 2014

So, I’m finally through. My greatest fears have come to light. For the past four years I have been terrified of the prospect of being thrown in a cage. Bad dreams, constant anxiety, and a lurking fear in the back of my head have been my masters and it’s great relief to finally begin my sentence. It was extremely empowering to politicize my case through my statement to the judge. The Canadian legal system has been trying to depoliticize the G20 cases by turning up the statistics. I feel as if I was able to resist their efforts, at least on a small level.

After my sentencing I was handcuffed and brought through the courthouse. The court officer arresting me took me to a door with a slit just for the eyes and then knocked, like a bouncer at a hip, exclusive club. We passed through a door which could well have been a membrane into another dimension. The walls suddenly became dirty, desks dilapidated and ceilings were falling apart. I was brought into a room, surrounded by three massive court officers where I stripped, squatted, spread my cheeks and coughed (humiliation and domination are the foundation of the prison system).

The reaction to my case in the bullpen was interesting. People approached me to ask what I was in for. When I responded that I broke windows of police cars, I was treated to high-fives and even a hug. This was by far the best bullpen experience I had because I realized that – in this place – I was going to fit in. It was quite the opposite of the alienation I feel walking around the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We waited in the courthouse bullpen for about seven hours until we were brought to a paddy wagon and then transferred.

After processing I was brought to my range. On the ride over a few inmates struck a bit of fear into my heart by warning me that I might get picked on or have to fight someone. When I finally arrived in my cell, my cellmate, a forty-year-old Ukrainian father of two, showed me true kindness. He gave me extra sheets and blankets that he had collected and asked one of his friends for extra paper that I am now writing on. We spent the rest of the night discussing topics like Anarchism, the Russian revolution, the EU crisis, and the failure of the US war on drugs. It turns out he was a major student organizer for the movement for Ukrainian independence before the fall of the Soviet Union.

My first day could have been worse.

Written by Joel Bitar, an American activist serving a 20-month sentence in Canada for charges stemming from the 2010 Toronto G20 protests.