A Conversation With Toronto Prisoners' Rights Project
Posted on April 5, 2022
Image Credit: Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project
In my last blog post for SpiritLive, I wrote about a very educational conversation I had with a former inmate of Joyceville Institution in Kingston Ontario, Kevin Belanger. While incarcerated, Belanger had served as the Inmate Committee Chairman and had a lot to say about how the incarceration system was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. When I had initially reached out to Belanger, I had been referred to him by the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project. This is a volunteer organization that is working to support current inmates, past inmates, and families affected by incarceration.
After speaking to Belanger and hearing his first-hand account of what life was like inside Joyceville, I reached out to TPRP again. This time, I hoped to speak with one of their advocates to learn more about what is happening on the outside to support inmates. One of their representatives, Kristi Lemke, kindly got back to me and was willing to speak with me on the subject. Within The Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Program, Lemke aids in supporting the Prisoners Emergency Support Fund and the Survival Drive as well as organizing communications with political figures, leading the online shop and general support for members and supporters of the organization. When I asked Lemke what it is that the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Program is working towards, they said, “Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project is a collective of people from a bunch of different lived experiences and walks of life […] have all come together as this collective to basically say, you know what? Prisons are harmful. We recognize like the really detrimental impact that these institutions have on people and there has to be another way”. From there, Lemke went on to talk about how TPRP is an abolitionist organization, which means their end goal is to see the abolishment of prisons. This idea is based on the notion that funding for prison systems could be better distributed into areas of the community that would prevent individuals from turning to criminal behavior. On this Lemke said, “[w]e’re capable as a society to hold folks who are perpetuating harm with deep care and compassion and moving through it together.”
After learning about the values Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project holds, I was interested to hear how they are advocating for the rights of inmates. Lemke outlined a few of their initiatives, including the Jail Accountability and Information Line, which is a resource where current inmates and families of inmates can call and report human rights violations occurring inside institutions. Lemke also outlined the Prisoners Emergency Support Fund, which is a one time stipend of $225 meant to aid newly released prisoners and their loved ones in the transition back into the community. Along with these initiatives, the group has been contacting political leaders who have the power to make changes in the incarceration system. But as Lemke describes, this has not resulted in any action. When I asked them about it, Lemke spoke about Sylvia Jones the Solicitor General of Ontario who has made no changes despite the countless issues that have arisen within the incineration system since the COVID-19 pandemic. Lemke says there has been, “[n]o changes. Which is so sad. We’re just fighting and saying the same thing and it’s redundant. And it sucks because it’s like, how can you listen to people’s experiences and not do anything about it?”
Nearing the end of our conversation, I asked Lemke what the public could do to help, they responded by explaining that one of the best things people can do is to better educate themselves on abolition and incarceration. To this, Lemke said that “[t]he biggest thing is to understand your own biases that you have and where they’re coming from. And is being further fueled by the media you’re consuming?” Taking this into consideration, I think it is important to reflect on the types of television, films and types of media that are influencing the way we perceive the incarceration system and inmates. I myself found that in having this conversation with Lemke, as well as the conversation I had with Kevin Belanger, I was able to step away from the preconceived notions I had and reflect on where those ideas came from. And in that, I had to think about the stories I heard growing up and the way my family, friends and society as a whole had conditioned me to feel about inmates. I think that it is important to understand the concept of prisons being for rehabilitation – not for entrapment. The idea is to give people the resources to reintegrate into society in a productive and healthy way. And then in turn, thinking about the concept of abolition in regards to prisons, opens up a whole new perspective into the way we as a society combat crime. Is it really the best use of our resources to fund incineration systems? Or should we be working harder to prevent the need for crime? All in all, I hope anyone who has taken the time to read this, may also take a moment to reflect on their biases and consider the idea of abolition.
Link to more information on the Toronto Prisoners’ Rights Project:
Link to the article outlining my conversation with Kevin Belanger: