amplifying our everyday resistance to the prison industrial complex
Giselle Dias is a psychotherapist and anti-PIC organizer living in London, Ontario.
How did you first come to abolitionist work?
I went into my first prison through a non-profit organization called the Prisoner Arts Foundation (PAF). As part of a national competition, PAF collected artwork by prisoners and then matted and framed the work to bring into prisons across Canada. This was my first foray into prisons and I learned most of what I know about prisons from prisoners themselves. The summer after I worked for PAF I was introduced to the ‘Infinity Liaison Group’ that acted as a liaison to the men serving life sentences at Collins Bay Penitentiary. This is where I began engaging in solidarity work to bring awareness to the issues of men serving life sentences. Our work included helping lifers to prepare for parole hearings, doing public education, fighting legislation, fundraising, and coordinating a prisoner/community newsletter
From about 1997-2000 I was the coordinator at a small abolitionist organization in Toronto called Rittenhouse: A New Vision. It was around that time that I adopted an abolitionist perspective. When I came to understand what abolition meant I knew that I would have to live those politics with some integrity—and it felt really complicated. At the time, I was a young woman going into men’s prisons and wanting to have meaningful relationships with people in prison and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of mentors, specifically older women in the field who were openly willing to talk about their feelings or how they managed and negotiated relationships and the work/life balance. There were people doing the work but I am a ‘feeling’ person and needed to talk about what it meant to do this work from a grass roots perspective. I ended up building a lot of relationships with people in prison and I felt really isolated in my work. Additionally, while at Rittenhouse we were doing work on Transformative Justice and I was working with a woman whose daughter had been murdered. It was really powerful and overwhelming and I was so new to the work. I needed to be able to ask questions! These experiences inspired me to want to do things differently with newer abolitionists or prisoners rights advocates. I have wanted to try and make myself available to people who want to get involved in this work. I always say to people “let’s meet and talk.” If you’re struggling, just ask me and if I can help out I will. I don’t really want to be out doing public speaking at this point – I want to support those people who are most affected by the system those who actually have something to say from their experience. I want to help build a movement and to do that you need more people involved. I want to help build a base for people doing the work that needs to be done.
After Rittenhouse I began working for Prisoners with HIV/AIDS Support Action Network (PASAN). PASAN had lots of challenges and some really exciting dynamic work. While at PASAN, I participated in lots of grassroots organizing including Prisoners Justice Action Coalition (PJAC), Prisoners Justice Day events, Prison Art Shows for Peter Collins, and Prisoners Justice Film Festivals in both Toronto and London, Ontario. I was involved in Circles of Support and Accountability, JustUs, Journal of Prisoners on Prisons and International Foundation for a Prisonless Society.
Over the years I worked on building relationships with a lot of people in prison and I was also doing advocacy work on people’s cases. One of my greatest frustrations is that people in the community were asking for participation from prisoners for their events, journals, newsletters etc. but then not offering support to prisoners once they faced the consequences of that participation. Asking someone in prison to participate in ways that will lead to them doing longer sentences and then not offering to support them through advocacy efforts is really terrible!!
In 2010, I moved to London Ontario and now have a private psychotherapy practice. I knew that I needed to find a way of making a living that would support my anti-PIC work. Unfortunately I needed to make money but I also wanted to make sure that I continued to live with integrity as much as possible. Because of this I made sure to reserve spots for people coming out of prison who cannot afford therapy outside a community based agency. I receive many referrals from Victims Services and I am often sent ‘victims’ that may not be a good fit for other therapists. They often send me people who have experienced violence as sex workers and drug users as well as queer and trans people who have experienced domestic and sexual violence. I have also been working with murder victims families. This has brought the experience of ‘victims’ back into my life and I feel like it rounds off my anti-PIC work. From doing this work with ‘victims’ of violence, I began to see more clearly how the police associations have homogenized victims experiences by stating that all victims want the same things. Most victims groups represent white, middle class people but that’s not where most violence/harm happens. From my experience there is not a homogenous group of ‘victims’ who want the same things. More recently I have started to ask myself how do we support people who have experienced harm/victimization when we only have one system in place (criminal justice system)? Who am I to say that someone shouldn’t go to prison for a long time when this is what the ‘victim’ wants?
Answering these questions has been a great exercise because it’s made me re-think about the work I do and why I do it. I believe that something transforms in us when we become conscious of these things. Abolition work/anti-prison organizing is all I’ve ever wanted to do and so to get to talk about these things is really fun.
What does everyday PIC abolition mean to you?
This is such a great question because the question itself brings abolition into the daily struggle. I don’t think I have really thought about this in any detail for a long time. In many ways I feel like I made the commitment to everyday abolition almost 15 years ago and then stopped being conscious in the ways in which I do it. Thinking about this question has brought these ways of living back into consciousness which I think is essential to understanding myself and also helping further the anti-PIC movement. PIC abolition seems like such a far off goal and many people outside of the movement think that is unachievable. Asking ourselves how we live PIC abolition everyday gives us something tangible and creates alternatives to existing systems which is what PIC abolition is all about. This is the change we can see immediately and gives us something to hold on to until we can see PIC abolition around the world.
Can you give an example of a specific time where you have responded to something and realized that it was really informed by your politics of PIC abolition?
In 1998 I remember specifically thinking that if I was going to do work on Penal Abolition that I would need to find ways to living my politics. I did this in lots of different ways – having meaningful relationships with people in prison (relationships that were mutually respectful and committed to supporting/listening to one another) and I also made sure that I invited prisoners to stay in my home when they would get passes. I engaged in discussions about abolition where ever I went and tried to encourage people to get involved, go into prisons, write prisoners, learn about restorative justice etc. When I learned about harm reduction I remember thinking that this was another principle that I would incorporate into my life and when my long term partner became an illicit drug user I worked really hard to find ways of supporting him within our relationship but it was really complicated. There were no real supports for family members of illicit drug users who wanted to live with principles of harm reduction in their home. The only support I could get was from 12 step groups but I need more. This lead me to start talking to friends/colleagues to see what thoughts and ideas they had. It was a very vulnerable time.
There was a time when one of my nieces really started to struggle I suggested that we bring the entire family together and start talking about what was going on and how we can support her and my sister. This was an entirely different way of dealing with conflict and struggles in our family and was based in transformative justice principles.
As time went on and I began to learn more about the broader politics of the PIC movement and I began to understand my own privilege, racism, hetrosexism etc and my everyday PIC politics began to shift further. I began to find ways of resisting the PIC daily by trying to take up less space, doing more solidarity work with Indigenous communities (taking minutes at meeting, phone trees etc), be more conscious of my privilege in my organizing in general recognizing that how I participate in community now will represent how I participate post-PIC. I think one of the most significant things that I did was to start looking into my own history and understanding where I come from so that my present is rooted in my own cultural history, my own faith to ensure that I do not appropriate others culture or faith. This meant balancing ‘external’ and ‘internal’ organizing and resistance. Essentially trying to find ways to decolonize myself as an act of resisting the PIC.
Why does everyday abolition matter to you? Why are you committed to it?
I am not sure everyday abolition mattered to me until you asked me this question but now that you have asked it I know that it is essential to the way that I have lived my life. I knew when I became a PIC abolitionist that I would have to live my politics because otherwise I would feel like a hypocrite. How could I ask others to believe that this was even plausible if I weren’t living these values myself? So I found ways of incorporating PIC abolition into my life. I have tried to live with integrity and I don’t always do it well. I have been called out many times and it has been painful and also essential for my own personal growth and understanding of the world. I don’t want to live in a world that maintains is power through white supremacy, colonization, racism, imperialism, patriarchy (misogyny), capitalism, ableism, heterosexism, transphobia etc. Because of this I believe it is imperative that I challenge those systems every day.
How have your abolitionist politics informed how you build relationships?
When I am with someone I want to be completely present to them because that might be the only time I have with them. That ‘moment’ is the relationship and I try behaving in ways that treasure that ‘moment’ in time. Nothing else matters. My life is built on relationships. Everything else can fall away. Why we’re together doesn’t so much matter as the fact that we are together.
How have your abolitionist politics informed how you handle conflict and/or harm?
I was in a workshop a few years back and the man speaking said something about how we are taught to walk away from conflict as opposed to walking towards it. This was a great moment of learning for me. It brought a particular consciousness to ways that I deal with conflict. Interestingly I came from family that had a lot of conflict but there was also a great deal of love. I was taught to fight and then make up before you go to bed. Making up generally just meant apologizing but without really dealing with the conflict itself. When my step-mom came on the scene she would essentially ‘chase’ me around the house to resolve whatever conflict we had had. She wanted to talk about what was said, how either of us felt about it, why it wasn’t okay to say some of the things that were said (either on her part or mine) and then we could apologize and move forward. I think that the ways that she communicated with me really taught me about how to deal with conflict. I was never one to avoid conflict. I didn’t like it but I wouldn’t walk away from it either. Because of this earlier ‘training’ it made me much more apt to address conflict directly and head on. That doesn’t mean that when ‘harm’ happens (depending on the size of that harm) I don’t want to direct my ‘wrath’ at someone but I work hard against that instinct in myself. It can take a lot of work to manage that rage but I have spent a life time trying to keep that part of myself at bay otherwise I know it will swallow me whole.
What inspires you to resist punitive and punishment based responses/prevention to harm and violence?
I am not even sure what inspires me. I don’t know. I just know that there are times when I cannot give in to my rage or vengeance because I really believe it would consume me. I have such a large span from compassion to rage and that I have worked hard to nurture compassion – some of that was a conscious choice. I also think that compassion was taught in my household although it was unspoken. In 1974, my mother went into the hospital to have a hysterectomy and the doctors gave her too much aesthetic and my mom died. I was two years old. My dad raised me and my 5 sisters on his own for several years. My mother’s death was the doctors fault. They never took responsibility for their mistake although the inquest showed that it was a medical error. To this day when I ask my dad or my sisters if they were angry about my mother’s death the common response is that ‘it was a tragic mistake’. My dad was most angry that they lied to him about it. We received very little financial compensation for this loss because my mom ‘didn’t work’ – she was a ‘stay at home mom’ (of course she was – she had 6 girls). Anyway, about 12 years ago I wrote a chapter for a book on ‘medical errors’ and I said the only way I would write it is if I could talk about transformative justice (TJ). Inspired by this opportunity, I decided that I was going to write a letter to the doctors who were responsible for my mother’s death and ask them questions and tell them about our family. I wanted to know if they ever thought about us. I never sent the letter as most of the doctors had already passed away but the exercise of writing the letter was significant enough. When I wrote the book chapter I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t telling my mother’s story with no hope for change. The editor’s response to my request of talking about TJ was really positive. She included information on transformative justice in her book to show that there are other ways of dealing with ‘harm’ that involve taking responsibility and apologizing. I don’t know why I shared this story here but I feel like it is relevant in some way. Maybe it’s that my family has inspired me to resist punitive and punishment based responses to harm.
 I know how problematic this term is. I believe that anyone who faces state oppression is a ‘victim’ so I don’t know how to differentiate someone who may face state oppression AND harm/violence from another person more directly. I also don’t know if there should be a difference or what the difference in the definition might be. I will spend some time looking into this after this blog post. Any suggestions or thoughts would be welcomed.