Can This Pandemic Propel Us Away from Prisons?

Trapped in our new realities, we hope that on the other side of this pandemic, we will see fundamental changes to our socio-economic structures and to how we value human life and work.

We hope that our governments will implement significant policy changes, lessons of Covid-19. But we also know that, on many fronts, that hope is merely an illusion, a shimmery silver thread that glimmers far away in the darkness and is gone when daylight or normalcy returns.

One of these illusions relates to prisons and our notion of punishment, where the need for transformative change is urgent, but the likelihood a mere fantasy. Canada has been sorely reticent in addressing the threat of Covid-19 in our jails, let alone use it as a platform for long-term change.

Weeks ago, other countries began the release of prisoners in an attempt to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in jails. But Canada has only recently taken timid steps, while the virus mercilessly spreads among prisoners and correctional officers across the country, even closing down a Brampton jail as of April 20, with the inmates all being transferred to the already beleaguered Toronto South Detention Centre, a prison that has been widely criticized for its inhumane conditions and treatment of inmates, with one judge describing the situation as the state engaging in a “deliberate form of misconduct.”

Canada’s approximately 39, 000 prisoners are already living in horrid conditions, for the most part: over-crowding, insufficient access to medical, rehabilitative, and mental health resources, little to no access to family, and constant lock-downs are daily realities for many inmates. Now add under-staffing, the fact that half the population suffers from mental illnesses, many have been abused or lived through trauma, and that Indigenous peoples and the poor are over-represented in our prisons, and you have a noxious cocktail that simply cannot satisfy the objectives of sentencing: rehabilitation, reintegration, and reparation.

What’s more, there is nothing here that is conducive to properly dealing with a pandemic within the prison system.

There is no room in our jails for social distancing.

There are no hand sanitizers or masks for inmates.

Jail Cell

Image by Ichigo121212 from Pixabay




There are short-term steps that can be taken now to alleviate the threat of Covid-19 to inmates. Depopulating prisons, a call that has been largely ignored by our provincial and federal governments, will help more immediate terms, but is not the transformative, long-term shift that we need in our criminal justice system.

We need to permit this pandemic to change how we think about prisons and punishment.

Depopulate prisons now, but then use the opportunity to think about how we can build a more effective, humane, rehabilitative system of “punishment,” one which is more healing to offenders AND to victims.

But how do we transform a beast that has been integrated into our notion of justice for centuries?

The good news is that, with or without Covid-19, there has always been an alternative to jails.  Restorative justice has been proven to improve rehabilitation, reduce recidivism, instill accountability, and provide greater healing to victims.

Restorative justice brings together the offender, the victim, and their supporters with highly trained professional facilitators for meetings. Participants share stories, ask difficult questions, and agree to an appropriate resolution. Restorative justice has been used for centuries among Indigenous peoples.  It has proven effective not only in simple cases of assault and theft, but also in serious cases, such as drunk driving, home invasion, and sexual assault.

At its core, restorative justice is about healing and helping those involved in the criminal justice system.

But its other invaluable benefit is that it breaks our addiction to jails, giving us the ability to reduce, drastically, the number of people rotting in our ineffective and overcrowded prisons.

And that, in turn, will mean that during a pandemic or other national emergency, we will be in a better position to protect inmates, staff, and the public.  It’s win-win-win, and it’s been staring us in the face for decades.

The pandemic is forcing us to rethink our traditional assumptions, and our business, health, and education models.  The time is right to do the same with punishment and prisons.

Will our politicians have the courage to make the change?  Will we have the drive and compassion to demand it?

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Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: a Call to End Charity?

This article was first published in the Canadian Jewish News on August 18, 2018

Are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a call to end charity? To most Jews around the world, that message sounds contrary to our experience of the Jewish New Year. That is because, traditionally, the High Holidays are not only a time of celebration, renewal, and atonement — they are also a time of giving. Be it through the tradition of bidding for aliyot, or making Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur pledges, Jewish congregants spend this time of year giving tzedakkah to their synagogues and to Jewish and secular charities that serve the larger Canadian or international community.

But what if the Torah and our prophets’ words enjoin us to aspire to a world with no charity? In fact, Jewish teachings do just that — directing us to build a world where there is no need for charity. No need for charity because we have implemented socio-economic and political structures where people, be they seasonal workers, minimum wage earners, or seniors, live with dignity and financial security.

The Torah says: “There shall be no needy among you.” This statement commands us to build a world where there is no tzedakkah, as we use the word today (i.e., charity only). There is to be no needy among us because we have true tzedek, meaning righteousness, graciousness, justice. An important example of this ideal is reiterated in the Bible verse, “The wages of a labourer shall not remain with you until morning,” which immediately follows the injunction against defrauding or robbing our fellow. And so, one could argue that not only is it clearly wrong to withhold wages, but that withholding fair wages is a breach of this commandment, too.

This commandment is particularly relevant in the 21st century. Even in our relatively progressive society, workers are often not paid for their work or are so underpaid that it’s akin to their wages being withheld every morning. People work at low wages that prevent them from being able to afford rent, food, and the basic necessities of a dignified life. Precarious and seasonal jobs aggravate instability, inequality, as well as the mental and physical health of workers and their families. And we regularly purchase products that are made by overseas workers who are horribly underpaid and work in inhumane conditions — conditions which create the needy among us.

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Bannock and Matzah, Our Breads of Affliction

This article was first published in the Canadian Jewish News on March 29, 2018

As Jews, many of us are aware of the parallels between the histories of Indigenous peoples and the Jewish people. Throughout history, Jews have been subjugated and expelled. We’ve been the target of hate, prejudice, ignorance, and genocide. Assorted regimes have disdained us, enslaved us, expelled us or sought to kill and annihilate us.

Similarly, Indigenous peoples have endured hundreds of years of deliberate, state-sanctioned, and state-orchestrated attempts to annihilate them. In Canada, cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples started pre-Confederation, and accelerated after 1867. The political and social institutions of Indigenous peoples were undermined and destroyed, and their lands were seized.  Many nations were forcibly or fraudulently transferred onto land that wasn’t fertile and didn’t provide them with access to their traditional sources of food, which was closely connected to their cultures, spirituality, and health.

Our country’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, began a deliberate attempt to form a Canada free of native culture, language, and traditions. Residential schools were established with the purpose of separating Indigenous children from their families and stripping them of their identity.

The unabashed attempt to rob Indigenous peoples of their languages, traditions, identity, and government nearly resulted in a cultural genocide. It has caused traumatic, long-term, and intergenerational harm. And the pernicious legacy of colonialism continues in the form of both overt and institutional racism in Canada. 

But while there are parallels in Jewish  and Indigenous experiences, there are also some stark differences. That’s because after 400 years of slavery, the Israelites were spectacularly emancipated from Egypt and given Canaan. And following the worst chapter in Jewish history, the Holocaust, the Jewish people established a very concrete form of deliverance and hope: the State of Israel. The joy and pride of statehood, independence, and sovereignty, and the ability to be masters of our own fate, give Jews a tangible success, and a strong sense of reclamation and renewal.

By contrast, while Indigenous peoples have made tremendous achievements in music, art, politics, and culture in a hostile and racist environment, there hasn’t been a single, defining, and indisputable “reward” that underscores and celebrates their independence, reclamation, or sovereignty. Land disputes are ongoing. Indigenous lives are treated as less worthy than others.  Our governments and corporations continue to make decisions (particularly around mining and the oil industry) that have a significant negative impact on lands occupied by First Nations. The devastation caused by wilful, if not criminal, neglect of mercury in Grassy Narrows water and land persists. And many First Nations communities do not have access to clean water. When it comes to sovereignty over land and the benefits of independence, Indigenous and contemporary Jewish experiences have been vastly different.

At a recent event at my synagogue, restaurateur Shawn Adler, owner of the Pow Wow Café, in Toronto’s Kensington Market, and Flying Chestnut Kitchen, in Eugenia, Ont., spoke with humour about growing up Jewish and Indigenous. Adler is both a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and the son of residential school survivors, but his tone that day stood in contrast to his family history of victimization and oppression. He was there to talk about food.

In his talk, Adler spoke about bannock as a staple food of many Indigenous peoples. But bannock is not entirely uncontroversial. It was brought to North America by European colonizers. None of its ingredients – flour, sugar, milk, baking powder, salt, and, often, lard  – were indigenous to the land or Native peoples’ diets. In fact, it appears that First Nations adopted bannock because they were denied access to their own food. Forced transfer of people onto uninhabitable and infertile land meant they could no longer hunt, grow, or enjoy their traditional foods. 

Centuries later, bannock is now considered comfort food for many Indigenous people. But, like matzah, it’s also a bread of affliction. Like matzah, bannock was first eaten because there was nothing else to eat. And that’s why, just before Passover began, I took my two daughters to eat bannock (made without lard) at Pow Wow Café.

With my daughters at Pow Wow Café

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The Shelter Crisis Forces Us to Ask Hard Questions About Society

This article was first published in the Huffington Post on January 8, 2018

In what kind of society do we want to live?

This is the question many Canadians, and especially Torontonians, may be asking themselves, as we have struggled with a shelter and housing crisis that has left our fellow residents out in unbearably cold weather for the past couple of weeks.

Do we want to live in a society driven by frugal Scrooge-like governance, which leaves many of our neighbours behind? One driven by a singular focus on (imaginary) savings, leaving gaps in essential human needs, such as food, shelter and basic health; gaps which are then partially made up by charitable individuals and groups? Or one where we, and our government, build a society in which everyone’s well-being is respected, their needs are accounted for and where no one is left behind?

Do we want a society where we rely on charity, or one where there is no need for charity?

I opt for the latter.

I am not chiding charity. I believe in it. I have spent thousands of hours, since my early teens, volunteering at charitable organizations. Charity has been at the foundation of our civilizations. Rooted in religious conviction, charity is the most humane and compassionate aspect of all religions. And while our society is no longer as religious as it once was, religious organizations, as well as individuals and non-profit groups, continue to embrace and advocate for charity year-round.

From Out of the Cold programs run by religious coalitions to food banks to “mobile” (read van) services for the homeless to individuals handing out sleeping bags or chipping in to pay for hotels for homeless people during a frightfully frigid winter, charity is weaved into the fabric of our social democratic society. Without charity, we would more starkly resemble the desperate Dickensian poverty from which we think we have distanced ourselves.

But what’s more, our governments rely on charity to do the work that they are unwilling to do.

Our governments don’t put enough money into building assisted housing for people with disabilities, so families turn to charities for help. We don’t put enough funding into repairing or building new affordable housing, so families crowd themselves into small apartments ripe with problems that are harmful to children or the elderly.

When our governments act, they do so in tepid, small measures, putting off what is essential now for the next election cycle. Our governments are afraid of articulating, or making, the connection between the ballooning wealth of the few and the endless struggle of the many to make it into the middle class, so people in precarious or minimum wage jobs are forced to turn to charity to stay afloat.

But this reliance on charity is neither the most just, nor logical, way of governing a social democratic society.

If we build the systems and structures we need to take care of all of our residents as if they were a beloved member of our family, then we would need less charity. A society that builds inclusive neighbourhoods that truly and meaningfully provide for members would include: mental health support at the early stages when the needs arise; schools that provide kids with the skills and education they need, so that their family’s inability to afford a tutor or extra-curricular activities does not put them at a disadvantage; housing that is available and affordable to people of all income levels in all parts of the city so that homelessness is history.

That society will not need charity.

What’s more: for those who want to keep government expenses low, the evidence shows that it costs us less to prevent problems and be proactive than to respond retroactively or to emergencies. And, as the recent efforts of those kind-hearted Torontonians who used their own money to put up homeless people in hotels overnight confirms, taxation and proper governance will generally cost less than charity.

Charity has its foundation in established religion. But so does the concept of notneeding charity. “There shall be no needy among you,” is but one exhortation from the Bible that commands us to build a world where, in effect, there is no charity because there is no need for charity.

The notion of a “just society” should presume the equity and compassion needed to build inclusive communities. Fairness and empathy must be weaved into the very fabric of a just society, including its governance, so no one is left out at night, ever. Our elected representatives must have the courage to be just, so we can live in a world with no charity.

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Canada Doesn’t Need to Fix Its Justice System: It Needs a New One

This article was published in the Huffington Post on May 1, 2017

How do you reform Canada’s criminal justice system? Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and her provincial and territorial counterparts held an urgent meeting on April 28 to discuss “priority responses to further reduce delays in the criminal justice system.”

There was scant information available to the public about the meeting. It appears, however, that there was no agreement on any substantive solutions. All we know is that several key areas face some kind of revision. Mandatory minimums, the bail process, the reclassification of offences and the administration of justice all seem to be on the table. Sadly, the reckless elimination of preliminary inquiries is also still an option.

The ministers have gone so far, it seems, to label their efforts as “transformational” — at least that is how their objectives are described in the Canadian Intergovernmental Secretariat News Release.

Indeed, depending on what is proposed, many of the prospective changes are necessary.

Necessary, but ultimately inadequate. Necessary but insufficient in resolving the inefficiency, the delays and the inhumanity of our criminal justice system. Necessary, but not “transformational.”

That is because what our criminal justice system needs is not mere fixes that further entrench the status quo and the adversarial, punishment-oriented and individualistic process we have now, but true transformational change. We need transformational change that will not only dramatically reduce delays and backlogs in our criminal justice system, but will revolutionize it to make it more meaningful to both victims and offenders.

The most imperative of these transformative options is the mainstream implementation of restorative justice. Restorative justice is a process that brings together (in appropriate cases) the offender, the victim and their supporters with highly trained and professional facilitators for one or more meetings, usually conducted in a circle. During these encounters, the victims tell their story, describe how the offence impacted them and seek answers from the offender. In turn, the offender listens, and relates his or her own story. The focus is on “why” rather than on “who,” and on healing rather than on punishment. The group often works together to find a resolution, not a punishment.

By and large, restorative justice works. There is plenty of proof, including in Public Safety Canada’s own records, that restorative justice is a better alternative to our system. It helps victims recover more quickly from post-traumatic stress disorder. It sometimes results in collaboration between the offender, the victim and the connected community to assist both the offender and the victim move forward. It holds offenders accountable and gives them a better chance at moving in a more positive direction.

And restorative justice seems to reduce recidivism. This is all in stark contrast to the impact of our current criminal justice system: costly, dehumanizing and generally ineffectual in rehabilitation, reintegration, and in reducing recidivism.

Rather than have accused persons (and victims) go through a harsh, degrading and impersonal court process and face a punitive, overly individualistic response, we should bring both willing accused and willing victims into the restorative justice process at the earliest possible stage. We should replace our adversarial, punishment-oriented system with restorative justice — and not simply at the sentencing stage, which is where the dearth of our restorative justice activity lies now.

While replacing our court process with a restorative process would be transformative and revolutionary for our western notion of justice, restorative justice, itself, is not revolutionary. It has its roots in many Indigenous communities. It has been tried, in one form or another, in other jurisdictions, from England to New Zealand (where restorative justice has replaced the adversarial system for youth since 1989), and on a smaller, more timid scale across various parts of Canada, as a part of the sentencing process.

Other solutions, such as reducing the number of charges laid and the number of cases that wind their way through the courts, eliminating solitary confinement, and keeping the mentally ill out of the criminal justice system are essential and will also significantly make the criminal justice system more just, more efficient and less costly. Yet none of these appear to have formed part of the discussion of our ministers of justice last Friday. Ultimately, no other “fix” will be as transformational as restorative justice.

Restorative justice is such a meaningful response to our criminal justice woes that any other solution pales in comparison. More judges, more Crown attorneys, eliminating preliminary inquiries… they are all diversions. They are Band-Aid solutions implemented when we (and our elected officials in particular) lack the will to confront the foundational challenges to our notion of justice and the courage to implement transformational change.

Our ministers of justice will be looking for fixes to our broken justice system. Instead, they should focus on creating a new one. A truly just justice system.

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From Bikinis to Burqas: We Need an Honest Conversation

“Women in the West are sexually exploited. They are portrayed indecently in their media.”

That’s a paraphrase of the words printed on the inside cover of my Grade 5 school book in Iran. And while I don’t recall the precise wording, the message made a lasting impression on me.

 Even then, however, I did not buy into the conclusion that the note was asking us to draw: that the imposition of modest attire, including the hijab (not niqab or burqas) required by the Islamic Republic of Iran, were, therefore, more respectful to women than Western standards.


I instinctively felt that objectification of women in the West did not justify subjugation of women in the East.

What I read in that textbook in 1981, and what I learned in Iran in many contexts, did contribute to my looking critically at how women are treated and sexualized in Western media and culture. And when I came to Canada with my family in 1983 at the age of 12, I could see, in ways that some of my peers could not, the impact of fashion magazines and the movie and television industries on girls’ free will, on our conduct, and certainly on how we dressed.

As a result, every time we have a “debate” in this country about burqas or other religious garb (including the Quebec government’s attempt to legislate “social cohesion” and equality through Bill 62), I recall that passage in the textbook. And I arrive at the same conclusion each time: what we need now is conversation, not coercion.

Bikinis or burqas: is one a sign of greater emancipation and one a sign of greater oppression? Is it outrageous to ask the question?

There are vast differences between the institutions and value systems that permit or require these extremes. Still, neither system grants us women complete autonomy. And neither frees us from objectification or coercion.

Neither the protectionism of religion nor the liberation of secularism; neither the modesty of a long, flowing dress, nor the freedom to go shirtless on public streets; neither the building of a closer relationship to G-d, nor the legislation of gender equality; none of these have succeeded in granting women complete autonomy over our bodies and our choices.

None of these have freed us from sexual harassment and assault. None of these have stopped the rape of women and girls in war. None of these have stopped abusive marriages. None of these have stopped the trafficking of young girls and the marriage of young girls to much older men. None of these have placed us on an equal footing in high-powered jobs and in the boardroom.

I am not arguing that as a progressive, inclusive society, we should embrace or even permit all religious practices or restrictions. We do not and we must not. And I am not arguing that the political, religious and cultural institutions that permit bikinis or require burqas have equal impact on women’s rights or even equal moral legitimacy. They do not.

But unlike theocracies or extreme interpretations of religion, progressive liberal democracies give us the freedom to engage in meaningful discussion instead of coercion. And that is precisely why the liberal democratic state should not overstep its role and irresponsibly legislate what women cannot wear.

What could we discuss?

My views may seem irrelevant to some — after all, I am not even Muslim (I am Jewish) — so who am I to offer my opinion? Yet for years, I adhered to and internalized the Iranian State’s values with regards to modesty, so much so that when we first arrived in Spain after leaving Iran, I refused to remove my hijab. In Canada, I resisted wearing shorts. And I did not wear a bikini until my late 20s. Many Jews, as well, adhere to a strict notion of modesty in dress. So I have had my own discussions about these complex issues, and have arrived at my own conclusions. I have clearly and consciously chosen progressive, liberal democracy, despite its shortcomings in achieving gender equality, over state-sanctioned or culturally imposed religious authority.

I know the undeniable value of discussion and citizen engagement in a robust democracy.

Dialogue over dogma: we need to have an open, honest and civil discussion about bikinis, burqas and everything in between. It is incumbent on us to have this conversation, for the sake of our democracy and the rights and freedoms we cherish. This is a discussion we need to have, before we think about whether there is a need or justification for a next step.

But the people having this discussion first should not be decision-makers who then impose broad discriminatory laws. They should be women, primarily. We should be having the discussion about bikinis and burqas. We — women — must engage in an open, meaningful exchange about our choices and challenges; societal and cultural pressures and freedoms; oppression and liberation; sexism and misogyny; and whether bikinis or burqas are appropriate in certain circumstances. We, including burqa-wearing women. We must make every effort to have respectful discussions in the absence of a sense of moral or religious superiority.

Through dialogue, understanding and mutual trust, we will achieve better social cohesion.

So when it comes to bikinis and burqas, let’s seek conversation, not coercion.

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Toronto Police Services Board About to Give Its Blessing to Institutional Racism

(This article was published in the Toronto Star and in the Huffington Post on April 14 and 15, 2015.)

“Fair and bias-free policing.”

That was the promise of Toronto’s Chief of Police less than a year ago. At the time, Chief Bill Blair was hailing the Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER) report. According to Chief Blair, the report was a “comprehensive review.” It was written by the police and made recommendations on how to eliminate racial profiling and bias from policing in Toronto.

While many felt that the report did not go far enough, Chief Blair echoed the sentiments of Professor Atiba Goff of the Los Angeles Centre for Policing Equity, who said that PACER “is about as good as you can ask for.” The Chief signaled his and the force’s intention to implement the recommendations of the report, including one that required officers to issue “receipts” to those residents (disproportionately young black or brown men) whom they stopped and questioned, even if they were not linked to an offence.

That particular measure proved incredibly effective: the requirement to issue receipts resulted in a dramatic drop in the number of random stops, proving that most of those stops were not essential for public safety, and that, more importantly, officers who are held accountable are less likely to stop and harass people without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion.

The goal of the PACER report was to make Toronto police a “world-leader” in bias-free policing. And in committing to its goals, the Chief made the promises that were morally and ethically required of him. He asserted, “We do not tolerate racism or racial profiling in the Toronto Police Service…It is essential that we do everything possible to ensure that bias does not influence our decisions.” [Emphasis is mine.]

But in the 10 months since Chief Blair wrote those promising words in a Toronto Star opinion piece, the police have reverted to denial and resistance. Inexplicably, the Chief and his boss, the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB), which includes Toronto’s new mayor, participated in a closed mediation. The result: the TPSB is now set to vote, this Thursday, on a policy that is offensive and insidious. This new policy not only eliminates the requirement to issue receipts, but it takes us back even further than we were a few months ago.

So we’ve gone from refusal, to resistance, to resignation, to recognition of the problem, to partial resolution (the PACER report) and now, to retraction, recalcitrance and regression.

Where is the commitment to a fair and equitable society, to bias-free policing?

When our police force and the TPSB were initially faced with undeniable proof of racial profiling, they could shield themselves with claims of, “We did not know the extent of the bias. We are not racist.” Indeed, in the PACER report, the police drew a valid distinction between bias and racism. And Chief Blair, in his Toronto Star piece, declared, “We are not racist but we are all human. The science of bias teaches us that even the best-intentioned, most decent and honourable people can be influenced by the implicit bias we all have.”

But the police can no longer hide behind good intentions and claims of “mere” bias. We know that racial profiling occurs and that it is discriminatory and harmful. While human nature makes us prone to bias, institutional policies can either prevent that bias or promote it. We had taken some steps to rectify the problem. And now we have reverted.

When we reverse our efforts to eliminate or drastically reduce bias, and come up with mechanisms that will condone it, we are no longer “merely” biased. We are now something much worse. We are knowingly, recklessly, and irresponsibly permitting racial profiling. This is institutionalized racism.

Is this the wish and the legacy of the Chief who once said, “Good enough won’t cut it” when addressing racial profiling? Is this going to be the legacy of a Mayor who ran for “One Toronto?” Is this the direction of an oversight body and a civilian boss, the TPSB, that was once committed to diversity and fair treatment?

If the Board approves the Chief’s proposal on Thursday, the answer will be a loud and alarming, “Yes.”

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