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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!

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