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James Rus­ton is a mem­ber of the Toron­to Pris­on­ers’ Rights Project (TPRP), a pris­on­er jus­tice group with a long-term vision of prison abo­li­tion. He is cur­rent­ly liv­ing on day parole, as part of serv­ing a life sen­tence. Scott Neigh inter­views him about his expe­ri­ences of the prison sys­tem and about the work of the TPRP

Rus­ton was born in the ear­ly 1970s and grew up in the small sub­ur­ban city of Burling­ton, Ontario. As a teen, he was what you might describe as trou­bled. As a kid, he had seen his old­er broth­er die in an acci­dent right in front of him, and he had nev­er had the right sup­ports to deal with that trau­ma. His sep­a­rat­ed par­ents were lov­ing, but there was also plen­ty of dys­func­tion to go around. As he put it, I start­ed to get into a lit­tle bit of mis­chief – a cou­ple of prop­er­ty offens­es, a break and enter. I went joy rid­ing in cars.” 

When he was 17, he and a friend at the time came up with a plan that they saw as a way to escape – they would rob some­one. In the course of the rob­bery, said for­mer friend, accord­ing to Rus­ton, got car­ried away and wound up beat­ing the vic­tim to death.” Caught a week lat­er, Rus­ton was tried as an adult, and ulti­mate­ly sen­tenced to life with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to apply for parole after 25 years. 

Inside, Rus­ton had more sup­ports than many pris­on­ers, includ­ing a sup­port­ive fam­i­ly that stayed con­nect­ed, and access to coun­selling. He took advan­tage of edu­ca­tion­al resources and kept him­self phys­i­cal­ly fit. But even so, what­ev­er rhetoric its pro­po­nents might spin about prison as a site of reha­bil­i­ta­tion, in real­i­ty, prison caus­es harm and trau­ma. Despite his best efforts, after sev­er­al years inside, he devel­oped a pat­tern of some­times using drugs as a way to man­age that trauma. 

At some point along the way, Ruston’s sen­tence was reduced on appeal from life 25” to life 10,” mean­ing he was eli­gi­ble for parole ear­li­er. On mul­ti­ple occa­sions, how­ev­er, his eli­gi­bil­i­ty for parole was post­poned or his parole itself was revoked because he fell into pat­terns of sub­stance use that he had devel­oped pre­cise­ly as a response to the trau­ma of prison. 

Cur­rent­ly, Rus­ton has been out on day parole for about two years. He has worked tremen­dous­ly hard devel­op­ing a vari­ety of strate­gies to deal with his cir­cum­stances, includ­ing med­i­ta­tion, yoga, and music. Anoth­er impor­tant ele­ment, for him, as for many peo­ple deal­ing with the impacts of a long prison sen­tence, has been human con­nec­tion and rela­tion­ships – things that prison active­ly destroys and dis­cour­ages. An impor­tant source of that for him has been his involve­ment in the TPRP

Accord­ing to the group’s web­site, it brings togeth­er for­mer pris­on­ers, the loved ones of pris­on­ers, and a range of oth­er activists to shed light on the harms caused by incar­cer­a­tion and con­nect pris­on­ers with social, finan­cial, legal and health sup­ports. We are com­mit­ted to abo­li­tion and build­ing sus­tain­able com­mu­ni­ties root­ed in com­mu­ni­ty care, trans­for­ma­tive jus­tice, and accountability.” 

The orga­ni­za­tion has numer­ous projects on the go – a reg­u­lar­ly updat­ed resource guide for pris­on­ers, a crowd­fund­ed pan­dem­ic emer­gency sup­port fund for pris­on­ers, a recent­ly com­plet­ed food box pro­gram for pris­on­ers who are on parole or the fam­i­lies of pris­on­ers, a range of pub­lic advo­ca­cy cam­paigns (includ­ing active­ly sup­port­ing peo­ple on the inside when they take col­lec­tive action), a webi­nar series, and lots more. Rus­ton has been involved in a few dif­fer­ent TPRP-relat­ed ini­tia­tives, includ­ing a City of Toron­to-fund­ed effort to paint large murals in over­po­liced, under­ser­viced neigh­bour­hoods in the city. He has also been involved in work­ing as part of an inter­view-based research project on the human rights impacts of COVID pro­to­cols in pris­ons, and he reg­u­lar­ly does speak­ing engage­ments about his experiences. 

Rus­ton describes prison as a harm­ing sys­tem” that dam­ages peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties, and that doesn’t make any­body any safer. He acknowl­edges that the abo­li­tion­ist vision of a future with­out pris­ons can be a chal­leng­ing one. He said, the answer, I think, lies upstream, so to speak.” 

He con­tin­ued, The deci­sions peo­ple make that entan­gle them with the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem – these deci­sions aren’t made in a vac­u­um, these deci­sions are made in the con­text of social cir­cum­stances that are hap­pen­ing in the com­mu­ni­ty. Prob­a­bly one of the great­est influ­encers, I think, is the eco­nom­ic divide that we see. We know that our pris­ons are way over­pop­u­lat­ed by peo­ple who are poor, by Indige­nous folks, by Black folks. We’ve been blam­ing the peo­ple for the deci­sions they’ve made to steal, rather than look­ing at the con­di­tions which we have forced them into.” 

He said, I think if we put any human being in a des­per­ate, dis­parag­ing con­di­tion, you’re going to get a very sim­i­lar reac­tion from every­one. It makes life dif­fi­cult. And when life becomes increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult for peo­ple, that’s when it becomes dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to make healthy choic­es, when peo­ple are extreme­ly stressed, or trau­ma­tized. Which is most of the pop­u­la­tion of prison. All of the guys that I’ve met in prison over all the years that I’ve served – 26 of the last 32 years – have some sort of trau­ma, neglect, or abuse in their his­to­ry, [which are] the con­di­tions that they’ve made these choic­es in.” 

It’s easy for peo­ple who have done well to think of our soci­ety and our sys­tem as work­ing,” Rus­ton con­tin­ued, because it’s worked for them. And I don’t think peo­ple real­ize that there’s a rec­i­p­ro­cal to that, and for every­one who is doing very, very well, that’s tak­en resources away from peo­ple who are now not doing well.” A key ele­ment of the abo­li­tion­ist vision is social trans­for­ma­tion that undoes these many eco­nom­ic, racial, and colo­nial injus­tices. Every day I see on the news anoth­er high rank­ing politi­cian or cor­po­ra­tion that is some­how sub­vert­ing the sys­tem in order to cap­i­tal­ize finan­cial­ly, or to avoid tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion. … I think we need to real­ly seri­ous­ly revamp some of those conditions.” 

He con­clud­ed, You just need to put, you know, one Clif­ford Olson or one Paul Bernar­do on the news, and everybody’s run­ning to build anoth­er jail or anoth­er prison. But in real­i­ty, we’re putting our fam­i­lies in there – our grand­par­ents are in there, our chil­dren, our broth­ers and sis­ters. You know, these are us we’re putting in there. And they’re gonna come back out. … We put peo­ple in there with the idea that they’re going to some­how become bet­ter peo­ple from it, but we actu­al­ly harm them and peo­ple get more seri­ous men­tal health issues, you know, PTSD.”