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.

Writing to Joel has Never Been Easier!

We are happy to announce a brand-new way for supporters and comrades to send Joel mail! No need to figure out international postage or scrounge for an envelope! Simply e-mail your letter to solidaritywithjoelbitar [at] gmail [dot] com with “Letter for Joel” in the subject line, and we will print, address, and mail the letter to Joel for you! Please remember to include your return address if you wish to receive a reply.

Writing a letter to a political prisoner is a concrete way to support those imprisoned for their political struggles. A letter is a simple way to brighten someone’s day in prison by creating human interaction and communication–something prisons attempt to destroy. Beyond that, writing keeps prisoners connected to the communities and movements of which they are a part, allowing them to provide insights and stay up to date.

We encourage everyone to write to Joel, and now it is even easier than ever! However, if you prefer to send a letter yourself, his current address is:

Joel Bitar
Central North Correctional Centre
1501 Fuller Ave.
Penetanguishene, ON
Canada
L9M 2H4

Joel’s Blog: What’s it Like?

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

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

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

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.