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Reimagining Safety, Advancing Visions for a Decarceral City: Dispatches from Community Organizers

by Carceral Studies Research Collective*

The following piece is a part of Progressive City's Planning for Decarceral Spaces for Collective Action series, which addresses how planners and activists can actively engage in designing, creating policies, and/or advocating for the creation of decarceral spaces which promote safety, reduce harm, and are accessible.

“We’re talking about reinvesting in communities by addressing the root causes of violence and other consequences of these different systems of oppression. We can address injustice, improve our communities where we adequately fund social programs, housing, education, health care, and mental health resources and support, and ultimately make policing obsolete.”

– Member, Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition

“…reform is not what we want. We don’t want there to be more police officers and jail guards. We don’t want there to be more cop shops and bigger jails. At the same time, we also want to make sure we are reducing the harms for the people who are targeted by these carceral systems.”

– Member, Criminalization and Punishment Education Project

Carceral present: a line of Ottawa Police cruisers that can be found around the carceral city

Beyond spaces of policing and prisons, the expansion of carcerality in the city appears in places often associated with care. In schools, shelters, hospitals, harm reduction sites, treatment centres, and the like, those who are perceived to be out of place or engaging in behaviour deemed problematic are increasingly subject to surveillance, coercion, control, displacement and even containment. Often framed in terms of public safety, these dehumanizing state and corporate practices of exclusion diminish our collective well-being and safety. 

The following dispatches and images from community organizers on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin Territory, known colonially as Ottawa, aim to make visible how carcerality is at work and how safety is being reimagined outside of carceral frameworks. This initiative stems from a research project called Resistance and Advocacy in the Carceral City involving members of the University of Ottawa’s Carceral Studies Research Collective and community members involved in police, prison, penal and carceral abolitionist organizing. 

The project documents carcerality in the city, the possibilities and constraints of organizing, and how community groups envision and work to build decarceral futures.  In their own words, these dispatches from community organizers reimagine safety through housing and community spaces, removing barriers to accessing and implementing supports, building capacity for collective action and mutual aid, and advocating to “change everything.”  


“We need an end to the viewing of housing as commodity. We need to continue to call for the immediate end to evictions, predominantly for Black and Brown people. […] What we’re seeing here at Herongate and elsewhere in the city is limited supports for tenants, houses being demolished, and families being evicted all at the peak of a homelessness crisis. The evictions continue just as we continue to organize against them.” 

– Member, Herongate Tenant Coalition

“If we properly invest in housing as a community, people are going to be able to sustain living. Instead, we keep investing in policing and defund from the rest of these other things which keeps us in this state of violence due to poverty and a lack of access to resources.” 

– Member, Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition

“We want to create a dialogue between and spaces for Black folks in the city and build capacity within the Black community by being able to offer more space, resources, services, opportunities, and to see them grow.” 

– Member, Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition


“Ultimately our goal is to remove the artificial systemic barriers to services like bus passes for elderly, going to and from appointments, food security, and I.D. renewal for newly released folks. These services can be extremely challenging to navigate.”

– Member, Hit the Streets 

“We need more safe supply and more mental health supports without barriers that meet people that they are serving where they are. We don’t need more rigid structures that only service the structures themselves, that exclude people and deny, instead of expand, access to harm reduction supports that can keep them alive.”

– Member, Anonymous Youth Group

“Calling the cops should not be the first option.”

– Member, Overdose Prevention Ottawa


“It’s important to provide material support to young people from basic necessities to things like laptops and art supplies to help them pass the time or pursue interests that they have. We also need more free access to recreation opportunities. For instance, in our work we have seen how youth having access to horses has had phenomenally positive impacts on their lives.” 

– Member, Anonymous Youth Group

“We were supporting one woman and her family by organizing people to support her in different ways like delivering food to her, going to appointments with her, and taking her children to school and ensuring they come home safely.” 

– Member, Ottawa Sanctuary City Network

“We came into existence just to feed people who we saw on the street. Now we also hand out essentials, such as clothing, hygiene items, furniture, entertainment items, and more. We need to be doing more work in Black communities – really extending their networks and mutual aid, doing a lot of prisoner support such as getting them supplies upon release and advocating for them during and beyond the COVID pandemic.” 

– Member, Ottawa Street Medics


“Instead of prisons and the penal system, we could use transformative justice and keep providing space for everybody instead of excluding and shunning people which perpetuates the system that we don’t want.”

– Member, Anonymous Youth Group

“We need to dismantle this white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist, patriarchal society.” 

– Member, Herongate Tenant Coalition

“The only thing that can save us is a cultural revolution – we need a culture of sharing and compassion.” 

– Member, Ottawa Street Medics


Decarceral Future: a sign that reads “What is your relationship to the land?” It was used in a solidarity workshop between migrants and Indigenous youth called Pagkakaisa that challenged the continued colonization and destruction of the land on which we dwell

What this intervention illustrates is that there are already concrete alternatives to carcerality that are working to enhance community well-being and safety. There are existing visions and actions to produce real material safety for all through additional supports, effective responses to interpersonal harm, and the provision of necessities of life currently unmet due to structural violence. 

Bringing these dispatches from the carceral city and visions for a decarceral city together is a call to learn from community organizers, take stock of their experiences and insights, and reflect on the pervasiveness of carcerality in our lives. This intervention is a call to action to all community members to demand and fight for liberation, to decrease community reliance on carceral actors, practices, and spaces, while bolstering capacity to deliver real safety and ensure the necessities of life are readily available to all. 

* This compilation of community dispatches was prepared by Victoria Morris, Nima Hussein, Sarah Gelbard, and Justin Piché. The Resistance and Advocacy in the Carceral City project, which was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, was developed in collaboration with and includes contributions from members of:

Anonymous LGBTQ2+ group

Anonymous Youth Group

Asilu Collective

Coalition Against More Surveillance

Criminalization and Punishment Education Project

Drug Users Advocacy League

Herongate Tenant Coalition

Hit The Streets

Horizon Ottawa

Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition

Ottawa Sanctuary City Network

Ottawa Street Medics

Overdose Prevention Ottawa

University of Ottawa’s Carceral Studies Research Collective




We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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