OPINION – Prison Activism is a Scam

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By Jeannette Tossounian

November 13, 2018

So I was all set up to present to a bunch of Algonquin College students at the end of November about my experiences in jail, as I often do to inform the public about injustices while selling books to pay my bills because it’s nearly impossible to survive when you’ve been criminalized, when I was muscled out of my own talk by a group of criminology professors so they could present a panel of professionals on what they are doing to help those poor marginalized vulnerable criminals….. ummmm……

This is not the first time something like this happened to me, I get this all the time.

People have the wrong impressions about jail and the inmates they hold. What we see on TV is not reality. While incarcerated for two long hard years, I got to know all the inmates and hear all the stories and it is so obvious that not many women in jail were dangerous murderous people at all, but your average person stuck in some system, by no fault of their own. I had to experience this myself to know it’s not an excuse, but the truth.

Take example a recent situation where a woman was violently removed for dancing at a Fleetwood Mac concert in Ottawa. She was not only beaten in front of her two children by police, but also in public where everyone watched. The other concert goers knew she didn’t do anything wrong, but no one did anything to intervene and continued watching the concert with discomfort. Often these situations lead to charges, like assaulting a police officer when you try to shield yourself from the blows. This is how your average person ends up in jail.

I ended up in jail after several years of tackling issues involving rape culture in the Niagara Region. I was gathering victims and empowering them to start taking action. Next thing you know, my art gallery was being torched and I ended up in jail for it with no evidence against me or investigation.

Jails are places for the undesirables to go.

I sat in jail, wrongfully convicted, planning my return to the public to fight this injustice, because there wasn’t much I could do to fight inside a locked cell. I would pace my cell wondering how to tell the public that police are abusively gathering anyone with the tiniest excuse and locking them up, no questions, leaving people stuck to find their own way out. That is not unlike what the Nazi’s were doing, gathering Jews and other undesirables and locking them up, right in front of everyone. The citizens of Germany either bought the BS that the Jews were bad people and deserved it, or didn’t buy it but sat there and allowed it to happen. Then there were those who risked their lives to stop it.

Actually, while incarcerated, I read books written by those who survived Auschwitz. They described how those who escaped the death camps at the start of the holocaust, would run back to their villages warning others about what awaits them, but everyone would just write them off as some crazy person ranting and raving for some strange reason. I knew the same fate awaited me for my release, but I was still determined to try.

I started reaching out to the prison activists while I was still in jail. I was often held in solitary confinement for standing up for my rights which inspired other inmates to stand up for themselves. Mostly I was kept in maximum security, pretty much the same thing as solitary, because giving people self-confidence is considered a danger to incite a riot. Occasionally I had a cellmate or was let out on the range, but in my fight for justice, I was alone like everyone else. I wrote letters to every possible organization out there for prisoners’ rights, every politician who might have a stake in the issues, individuals who stood up for something, lawyers, advocates, activists. All I got was the occasional letter apologizing that they could not help me, perhaps suggesting another organization who might help and wishing me good luck.

No one whose mission statement it was to support prisoners, were supporting prisoners.

Barely any of the prisoners even heard of these organizations I kept reaching out to, except maybe a few inmates who have been caught in the revolving door system for a while and had reached out at some desperate point. However, with no continuous support, no one even remembers who helped them because nothing significant happened worth noting.

I was left in solitary confinement fighting on my own, for human rights. I eventually won after a hunger strike which changed policy and sparked the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to hire a human rights specialist to go over all their policies to ensure they were up to code.

But going on a hunger strike was torture, albeit self-inflicted. Where were the activists? Why did they leave me alone so I had to get to that point, when I made them aware of my struggles? Why didn’t they support me while I was actively making the changes they keep talking about doing? Well, the activists all seemed to be based out of Ottawa, mainly in the Universities. So Ottawa was where I went to, straight out of jail.

What I found in Ottawa was sad. The main prison activists were so consumed with activism, they were clueless about the cause. I told them about the torture I went through. I told them about the torture of other prisoners I witnessed in jail. I told them I was fighting alone. I told them the people in there right now are suffering alone and there is no one helping and that it was (and still is) possible to help them right now. Their response was to tell me that they are working really hard to end the suffering and if it takes 20, 30, 50 years to make one small change, then they accomplished something. So basically I was assured that there a lot of people working hard to accomplish, well, nothing. But apparently that’s okay if there are plenty of award banquets so people feel good about it. It was futile pointing out that if we all took a firm stand, then great things could truly happen, after all, who am I, but just some marginalized criminal. No one was interested and so they started to push me away. That’s okay, I’m used to rejection. Isolation into poverty is my payment for making changes, so who would want that?

The ex- prisoners chosen to speak publicly are just a select few among the masses incarcerated. When a prisoner starts talking rights, those few get referred to the little University group activists, who then takes the ex-cons enthusiasm to fight the system and exploits them for the cause. They pit ex-cons against each other, competing for who has experienced the most abuse, the most hard time, did the worst crimes, was wronged the most; trying to classify them to fit into politically correct buzz phrases, like ‘years in solitary confinement,’ or being ‘Indigenous’ or ‘LGBTQ2.’ As a victim of rape, I was supposed to sit next to a convicted rapist and fight for our freedom together, politely without question. The results of this is that you end up with a few hard-core lifelong hardened criminals that are willing to say anything the Universities want them to say publicly. That does nothing to serve the innocent masses trapped in jail suffering, nor does it serve to warn the public about what could await them.  Actually, the only one this serves is the government who is responsible for the mass incarceration.

So basically, the prison activists, or at least the most public ones who appear in charge, work for the system they say they are against. I mean, it should be obvious right? They get their pay cheques from Universities and get government funding for all their volunteer work that helps their resumes so they could get full tenure.

It doesn’t matter. I got my own voice.

Good thing while I was in jail I documented everything that was happening to me and around me. Since my entire career has been in the arts, I was trained to be the media that influences. Again, with very little support, I published three books about jail and went out into the public to inform and warn everyone about the injustices that are happening in hopes to find a way to stop it. The sad thing is, I did have a way to stop it, but getting involved with the prison activists made me lose it. You see, one of the first things I did when I got out of jail was set up a mailbox so the friends I made in jail could write me about what was going on. I was ready to set up a phone so they could call me collect from their ranges and inform me of situations as I gave them instructions and information to fight from the inside while I fight from the outside. To stop the torture of individuals, you have to name the individuals. You have to talk to them personally and know them as a human being in order to specifically identify who is hurting them and how they are being hurt. The reason why these people are being hurt over and over again is because no one is stepping in to stop it. So if you can identify them and the problem, you can step in and stop it. If every activist on the outside were fighting for every prisoner on the inside, then eventually the whole system would crash. Then what’s left is a few dangerous criminals who now could get the proper attention they need. The leaders of the activist group were aware of my tactics and instead of helping me, they stopped me from renewing my mailbox and said they would take care of setting up mailboxes and phones through them which was never successfully done. This caused me to completely lose my connection to the women still trapped inside, my biggest regret. It was a score for the system for dismantling what could have worked. Lives could have been saved.

This is a war. It’s here. In Canada.

These so-called prison activists out there all get their pay cheques from the same source as the prisons. They all just play off each other as they are paid to dupe the public so they could torture people and get away with it. It’s a sadistic power and control game that the public somewhat accepts, after all, there is no need to stand up and help those needlessly incarcerated when told there are already watchdogs taking care of the problem.

Good thing I am aware that it’s only a handful of activists being promoted. I don’t need their attention or approval to be an activist myself. There is a whole world out there filled with people. So with my jail connections severed and the burdens of being criminalized, I took my stories that I published out of the Universities and into the general public, setting up book signings at Chapters and speaking at libraries. I thought the public would marginalize me the way the criminology elitists had, but instead it turns out most people are battling different parts of the system one way or another, many have family members trapped in the criminal justice system as well. People know the feeling of being isolated and bullied by the system designed to make people submit to injustices so they could live in some sort of peace. However, when they see me fighting, and they see me winning and they talk to me in person; when they realize they are not alone in being alone, I can sometimes inspire someone to stand up for themselves and carry on.

I became a prison activist not because I want to set all the prisoners free, some people are seriously dangerous, but because I see the cruel game that entraps people. Focusing on one stereotypical dangerous offender and amplifying their crime as high as it could go, deafens society to the sounds of thousands of people suffering in jails for no reason at all.

Selective activism only narrows in to specific causes that fit an agenda. It’s exploits people, chew people up and spit them out for the cause. I totally understand that a lot of good people have put tons of full time effort into making changes, but if the goal is to hopefully make a little change after a lifetime a work, then nothing is being done at all – efforts are better spent elsewhere.

So the criminology professors can have the University audience for their panel. Most students are sheltered in the academic world so much they are unable to relate to the average persons’ struggles to survive anyway. After all, they are being trained to be the future oppressors for what they are taught is the good of us all. The last thing their professors want me to do is burst their bubbles, especially when they have watched me get through to some young minds already. This is what classifies me as a dangerous person.

PS… thank you for those few who have lent me a hand, I have not forgotten you.

Jeannette Tossounian is the author of three books written about the criminal justice system from inside her former jail cell and now published by Ankle Bone Books.



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