Harm Reduction and Rittenhouse

watercolor brush stroke

Joan Ruzsa Interviewed by Hannah B

Joan Ruzsa is the coordinator of Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse is an abolitionist organization that promotes community-led alternatives to incarceration, as well as providing support and advocacy to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

Hannah: Let’s start with some basic definitions so that everyone can be on the same page! What exactly does Transformative Justice mean to Rittenhouse?

Rittenhouse: From a very young age most of us are taught to defer to authority. As kids this means when we have conflict, we go to our parents or teachers or other figures who are seen to hold power, rather than building our own capacity to find solutions. This primes us to buy into our current legal system, which replaces parental figures with the police, courts and prisons. Social harms are seen as crimes against the state and dealt with through punishment and exclusion. Laws and institutions are designed to protect some communities while targeting and criminalizing others, which is why our prisons are disproportionately filled with people of colour, Indigenous people, people living in poverty, people who use drugs, queer and trans people and people who disrupt the state through political and social action. Our legal system does not allow for meaningful involvement of victims; on the contrary it marginalizes and re-victimizes them. It is reductive: perpetrators of harm are called “murderers”, “rapists”, “thieves”, without looking at the context and circumstances that led people to where they are, or acknowledging that many people who perpetrate harm have also been victims of harm. It falsely equates punishment with accountability and community safety. It does not make a distinction between crime and criminalization.

Transformative Justice is about finding community-based solutions to social harms. All of the processes with which people might be familiar: sentencing circles, mediation, community conferencing – are all based on Indigenous justice practices. Transformative Justice (TJ) brings together the people most affected when a harm/conflict occurs to talk about 1) what happened, 2) the impact of what happened and 3) collectively coming to decisions about what to do moving forward. Critiques of TJ often are based on the belief that engaging in this type of process means that people don’t have to be accountable for their behaviour, but sitting in a room with someone you have harmed, looking them in the eye and hearing about how your behaviour affected them requires a huge level of personal responsibility. Transformative Justice is based on the premise that community members, not state institutions, are in the best position to resolve harm in ways that strengthens communities and makes them safer.

H: Can you define what Harm Reduction means to Rittenhouse?

R: Harm reduction is about supporting people to manage the risks associated with sex, drug use and other behaviours that potentially have harmful consequences. Unlike abstinence-based models which impose a one-fits-all approach (stopping the behaviour), harm reduction practices are on a broad spectrum and are focused on meeting people where they’re at instead of telling them where they should be.

In regards to drug use, harm reduction can take a lot of forms in the community: providing harm reduction materials like clean needles and safe crack kits to individuals who are using, to outreach workers and to dealers who can distribute them to customers; sharing information and resources about safe use; training people to use Naloxone to prevent overdose deaths; and the creation of safe consumption sites like Insite in Vancouver where people can use in a safe environment. On a systemic level harm reduction can involve working to raise awareness of and to change laws and policies that criminalize people who use drugs. Drugs laws, who they target and the ways in which they are enforced can cause much more harm than drugs themselves.

H: Where do these two things meet up for Rittenhouse (why are they connected for you)? Are there times when these two ideas come into conflict with each other?

R: The majority of people in prison in Canada are there for convictions related to drugs or property, and eighty percent of prisoners are drug users. So harm reduction, including the decriminalization of drug use, is definitely an abolitionist/transformative justice strategy. We also found that community organizations, even those which are mandated to work with marginalized populations including drug-using communities, were often replicating punitive and exclusionary practices through the use of barring or service restriction

In 2013, Rittenhouse surveyed people who use drugs who had been barred from community agencies.They identified issues including increased risk of unsafe drug use and violence; lack of access to harm reduction programs, health services, and other important services; and increased contact with the police and the legal system. These factors increase the risk of HIV transmission and lead to the over-incarceration of people who use drugs. People in prison have had little access to the social determinants of health (including proper health care) prior to incarceration, and the prohibition on harm reduction materials in prison has resulted in rates of HIV that are fifteen to twenty times higher than in the general population. Given that the vast majority of prisoners will be released into the community, this situation has serious public health and safety implications.

In an effort to address/reduce some of the risk factors identified in our research, Rittenhouse implemented a Transformative Justice/Harm Reduction Pilot Project which was funded by the City of Toronto Urban Health Fund. The goal of the project is to build the capacity of drug-using communities to resolve conflicts – within both community agencies and the larger community – in order to reduce the risks identified above. The project involves three phases. The first phase is a 6 six week arts group with the goal of building community relationships and introducing conversations about justice and harm reduction. The second phase involves recruiting and hiring service users/members of community agencies who have been targeted by the legal system and who have used drugs currently or in the past. Participants are trained to be TJ facilitators, using a circle model and learning specific skills like the iceberg model of conflict, de-escalation and open-ended questions. The third phase involves the trained facilitators implementing these conflict resolution strategies in the agency and in the broader community. We ran the pilot at St. Stephen’s Corner Drop-In and WoodGreen Community Services, and we are now part-way through the training phase at the Parkdale-Activity Recreation Centre. Many people and organizations have been fundamental in developing, implementing and supporting this project to be successful, including Molly Bannerman, Sarah Ovens, Cara Fabre, Sarah Prowse, Jill Robinson, St. Stephen’s Corner Drop-In, St. Stephen’s Conflict Resolution and Training, WoodGreen Community Services, PARC, the Toronto Urban Health Fund, the Ontario HIV Treatment Network, and all of the current and former participants of the program who are practicing transformative justice in their communities.

Hannah B is a person who lives in Guelph and works with homeless youth and LGBTQ+ youth (both at times). She loves the youth she works with fiercely and has big dreams for all of them. Big ups to homeless and LGBTQ+ youth in Guelph!

Spying on the woman who birthed me

Black and white illustration fo apricot on a tree branch

By Ali R

i saw her again today
she was behind a fence
smoking a cigarette
in a faux leopard print
short fur coat
looking at nothing
except to bring
her cigarette to her lips
Heavily medicated by the
approved drugs now
Effectively captured
this too-wild woman
When i was a kid,
i thought i had
killed my mother
the neatly type-written page
that came with me
upon the shady birthday transaction
said she had cervical cancer
when she was pregnant with my twin and me
Which wasn't true:
she was a drug using
street level sex worker
who got knocked up
by an undercover cop.
She carried us.
Her warmth, her movements.
Two little fruits
connected thru a tree of life
These were East Hamilton fruits
Those berry bushes that persist
at the back of an industrial yard
or that apricot tree that stands
at the edge of the strip club's paved lot
It takes some hardness to grow in that kind of space
A jaw tightened in resolve, never laxed at a breast
They felt it best
if she didn't keep her kids, those
Well meaning folks
She had all the undesirable traits.
i lived much of my adult life like a junkie anyways
Without having to push it into my own veins
It's there still.
i pick at my skin in obsessions
and live in scarcity and fear
and desire of her
who i never knew outside of her
i'm still afraid of making any big movements
afraid to kick up trouble
less catecholamine cascades and vascular tightenings
it pulled me to to Vancouver in my early 20's
took supplies from the rich hospital on the north shore
to fervently 'fix' those ten times sicker
on the streets of the DTES
while walking home from night shifts
Not at all knowing
that i was also chasing your bones
the ghosts you left in your path
and with my sisters
scattered across this country
Even my most staunch altruism is rooted within.
so when i finally saw you
decades after we were surgically excised from you 
in premature haste
bored butcher surgeons mistaking
my twin and i for your demons
when i finally saw you,
you lived in East Hamilton again.
five minutes away from me
you could have been anywhere
You still walk the streets
with giant eyes
i saw you from the outside
for the first time,
around the same time as
i started to heal from within
time being on my side like that.


ari r
ali r is a poet who writes about finding her powers, her childhood memories, her birth mother and the power of queer love.

Intoxication Spaces

illustration of a person holding their heart and thought bubble showing a GPS pointed location

Mental Maps of Substance Use

by Clementine Morrigan

      Space is not natural or neutral. It is designed and mapped in particular ways. These dominant maps are colonial, racist, ableist, queerphobic, (trans)misogynist and capitalist. These dominant maps attempt to shape and control the way that space is used and who can use it. Superimposed onto these dominant maps are the mental maps of people who use space. These mental maps can reinforce the dominant maps by re-inscribing the intended use of space. They can also resist, subvert or undermine the dominant map by creating new meanings and uses of spaces. Intoxication culture is a dominant culutre which produces a particular standard of substance use, social drinking, as a norm which people are then expected to live up to. Intoxication culture has its dominant maps which shape space in order to encourage social drinking, and exclude or punish non-normative relationships to substances such as active addiction, specific forms of drug use and sobriety. The dominant maps of intoxication culture have especially harmful consequences for Black, Indigenous and people of colour substance users. Reflecting on my own history of active addiction and current sobriety, from the position of a white settler, I note how two very different mental maps are produced, and how these maps differ from the dominant map of intoxication culture. The mental maps of non-normative substance users are superimposed over the dominant map of intoxication culture, revealing that our relationships to substance use shape our relationships to space.

     In the introduction to Race, Space and The Law, entitled “When Place Becomes Race” Sherene Razack (2002) suggests that we can  “reject the view that spaces simply evolve, are filled up with things, and exist either prior to or separate from the subjects who imagine and use them” (p. 8). Rather than understanding space as natural and neutral, which is a colonial imagining intended to justify violence, Razack (2002) suggests that space be understood, in Lefebvre’s terms, as “perceived, conceived and lived” (p. 9). Thinking of space as perceived allows us to consider the everyday uses and practices which shape space. Understanding space as conceived allows us to think of space as intentionally designed by planners, architects and governments. Reflecting on space as lived allows us to consider the ways that users of space interpret the perceived and conceived uses of space in order to create meanings of space. Razack’s (2002) analysis of space helps us to understand that space is not simply ‘there’ but is created through intentional design, everyday practice, interpretation and representation. Space is conceived in the interests of colonialism, white supremacy, capitalism and ableism. Users of space interact with the conceived or intended uses of space, perceiving space in their own ways and living their own meanings of space into being. These meanings can reinforce, undermine, resist or confirm the intended use of space as it was conceived.

     In “Narratives of Place: Subjective and Collective” Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette and Yolanda Retter (1997) suggest that “there are maps that report the physical geography of a landscape and more subjective maps that exist ‘in our heads’” (p. 55). Following Razack, I argue that the maps which report the physical geography are no more objective than the maps which exist ‘in our heads’. Physical geography, as Razack (2002) explains, is conceived in particular ways. It is useful, however, to note the differences between these dominant maps and the mental maps which exist ‘in our heads’. Mental maps map what Razack (2002) refers to as lived space. They are maps which vary from person to person, though members of particular communities and social locations will experience similarities in their mental maps. These maps lay out the ways in which users of space navigate and negotiate with the dominant maps. Ingram, Bouthillette and Retter (1997) write “Each person’s ‘map’ is usually part autobiography, part mythology, and part the embodiment of tensions concerning forms of marginality, such as sexual politics, gender, race, ethnicity, or culture” (p. 56). Mental maps allow us to understand how the same space may be experienced entirely differently by different people. They reveal “‘differential cognition’ of the same places and different ‘affinities’” (Ingram et al, 1997, p. 59).

     Dominant maps set out the conceived and intended uses of space. Within intoxication culture, space is conceived in particular ways with relation to substance use. In Towards A Less Fucked Up World: Sobriety and Anarchist Struggles Nikita Riotfag (2010) defines intoxication culture as “a set of institutions, behaviours, and mindsets centered around consumption of drugs and alcohol” (p. 4).  Intoxication culture is a culture in which people are expected to partake in a particular type of substance use, social drinking, and are excluded or punished for other relationships to substances such as active addiction, certain types of drugs use or sobriety. The standard of normative consumption, and the construction of non-normative consumption, will shift and change depending on context and social location. For example, drinking to the point of drunkenness is acceptable on a Friday or Saturday night but not on a Tuesday morning. Also, white youth drinking in a park might receive a warning from police while Black, Indigenous or otherwise racialized youth may experience criminal charges, incarceration or police violence for the same activity. A joint may be acceptable to pass around at a party and still be considered normative consumption, a crack pipe would not. The shifting construction of ‘normative consumption’ produces different mental maps of spaces of intoxication. The dominant map of intoxication culture is a map which privileges white settlers and criminalizes the same behavior for Black, Indigenous and other racialized people.

     In “It Can’t Be Fixed Because It’s Not Broken: Racism and Disability in the Prison Industrial Complex” Syrus Ware, Joan Ruzsa and Giselle Dias (2015) discuss the 2011 passing of Bill C10 also known as the “Safe Streets and Community Act” in Canada. This bill is made up of nine separate bills including the “Penalties for Organized Drug Crimes Act.” Ware, Ruzsa and Dias (2015) write “[f]or the first time ever, changes to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act included new mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking, import/export, and production” (p. 23). These laws illustrate the ways in which non-normative substance users, specifically Black, Indigenous and other racialized addicts and drug users are punished and harmed under intoxication culture. As Ware, Ruzca and Dias (2015) point out “these laws predominantly target people most marginalized, including those who are poor, Indigenous or racialized drug users” (p. 23). For these non-normative substance users who fall outside of intoxication culture’s standard of normative consumption, mental maps of intoxication often include targeting by the police, surveillance and incarceration within the Prison Industrial Complex. While all non-normative substance users experience some form of consequence under intoxication culture, the consequences are not the same and produce very different mental maps.

     While walking in the Queen Street West neighborhood and thinking through the intersections of space, mental mapping and intoxication culture, I am struck by my awareness of two overlapping mental maps. Currently, it is day time and I am using the space as it is designed to be used. I am running errands, shopping, engaging in capitalist consumption. I engage with the space as it is mapped. I hurry past crowds of window shoppers, moving from store to store to spend money. Yet, out of the corner of my eye, I am aware of another map. Years ago, I used this same space for very different purposes. During my years of active alcoholism, this space carried different meanings and had a different mental map. Markers on my alcoholic mental map of Queen Street West included: coffee shops that let me use the washroom without buying anything, alleyways I could get away with pissing in, good and contested spots for panhandling, likely places to pick up weed, parks where the police frequented, parks where the police were less likely to come by, places to pass out where I was more or less likely to be sexually assaulted, the ‘sally van’ spot where we could access free food, bars I was banned from though I didn’t usually drink in bars, and of course, the Wine Rack, the Beer Store and the nearest LCBO.

     This mental map of my alcoholic use of the space is not the intended or sanctioned map. At the same time, my alcoholic mental map is not the only mental map of non-normative substance use. My alcoholic mental map is shaped by my social locations: my whiteness and my position as a settler mean that my experience of policing was extremely minimal compared to Black, Indigenous and people of colour substance users, my experience of being read as a woman means that my alcoholic mental map includes consideration of sexual violence, my position as a street involved alcoholic with mental health issues produces a different alcoholic mental map than that of an alcoholic who drinks in the clubs or bars of the area. Now that I am three and a half years sober, I no longer use my alcoholic mental map, but it remains in my mind, superimposed over this sanctioned map of capitalist consumption.

    My sobriety does not mean, however, that I have come into alignment with the dominant maps of intoxication culture. As it gets later in the evening, Queen Street West ceases to be a space of shopping and transforms into a space of drinking. The bars which line the streets become the only sanctioned spaces to socialize. Social drinking, meaning controlled drinking under socially sanctioned circumstances, becomes the expected and demanded activity. As a sober alcoholic, the space becomes a mental map of exclusion. I cannot partake in the activities which the space is designed for. The coffee shops close early and if you aren’t drinking or comfortable being around large amounts of drinking, there are few places to go. My mental map of sobriety is entirely different from my alcoholic mental map. It includes: bars I don’t feel safe or welcome in, events consistently including drinking resulting in my leaving early or not going at all, finding the few coffee shops which are open later, an awareness of the 12 step meetings happening in the area and a recognition of other people in 12 step recovery programs who I see on the street, share knowing looks with and pass in respect for anonymity. Again, my mental map of sobriety is different from the mental maps of other sober people due to a number of factors including the reasons for our sobriety, whether or not we attend 12 step meetings, practice another form of recovery, or remain sober in other ways, and how comfortable we feel around drinking. My mental map of sobriety, while strikingly different from my alcoholic mental map, is simultaneously quite similar. Both maps are superimposed on the dominant map of intoxication culture. Both maps require navigating and negotiating with space that was mapped to exclude me.

     Space is not simply ‘there’, organically evolving into what it happens to be. Space is conceived of and produced in particular ways in service of colonialism, racism, ableism, queerphobia, (trans)misogyny and capitalism. As Razack (2002) explains, space is conceived with intended purpose, perceived through daily experience and lived as a negotiation with and interpretation of conceived and perceived uses of space. As Ingram, Bouthillette and Retter (1997) point out, mental maps map subjective experience of space based on social location and lived experience. These mental maps can affirm, resist, undermine or re-inscribe the dominant maps. Intoxication culture has its own dominant maps. Non-normative substance users who are excluded or punished by intoxication culture have mental maps which do not align with the dominant maps of intoxication spaces. For Black, Indigenous and other racialized non-normative substance users the consequences are most severe and the mental maps of intoxication spaces may include the Prison Industrial Complex. I have reflected on my own experience as a white settler non-normative substance user, first as an active alcoholic, then as a sober alcoholic. My experiences reveal two very different mental maps, neither of which aligns with the dominant map of intoxication culture. These maps are only two examples of the vast number of mental maps which are produced through normative and non-normative relationships to substances. Thinking through substance use in terms of mental mapping reveals that our relationships to substances shape our relationships to space.




  1. Ingram, G.B., Bouthillette, A., & Retter, Y. (1997). Narratives of place: Subjective and collective. Queers in space: Communities, public places, sites of resistance (55-61). Bay Press.
  2. Morrigan, C. & geoff (2015).  Deconstructing intoxication culture: Community, accessibility and sober spaces. Retrieved from http://clementinemorrigan.com/deconstructing-intoxication-culture-community-accessibility-and-sober-spaces/
  3. Razack, S. (2002). When place becomes race. Race, space and the law: Unmapping a white settler society (1-20). Toronto: Between the Lines.
  4. Riotfag, N. (2010). Towards A Less Fucked Up World: Sobriety and Anarchist Struggle. Self-published.
  5. Ware, S, Ruzsa, J. & Dias, G. It can’t be fixed because it’s not broken: Racism and disability in the prison industrial complex. Captive genders: Trans embodiment and the prison industrial complex (1-42). AK Press.


Clementine Morrigan
Clementine Morrigan is a queer femme sober-addict witch, writer and artist. They are a white settler living on colonized land known as Toronto, Turtle Island. Clementine’s work spans genres and mediums, including essays, poetry, creative non-fiction, zines, illustration, short film, self-portraiture and sculpture. All of their work aims to undermine hierarchies of knowledge production by blurring distinctions between art, academia and DIY culture making. More can be found at www.clementinemorrigan.com