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This article was published 10/5/2016 (1475 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Jeannette Tossounian has been a professional artist for her entire adult life. Two years ago, she was also an inmate.
Tossounian, 40, served two years in maximum security at the Vanier Centre for Women in Milton, Ont. She was convicted of arson for burning down her own art studio in St. Catharines, Ont. — a crime she says she didn’t commit. Confined to her cell, she documented life in jail. She recorded the stories of her fellow inmates, as well as the violence, abuses of power and corruption she witnessed. When she got out, she turned her experiences, and those of the women she met, into art.
Tossounian is in Winnipeg this week as part of the University of Winnipeg’s Placing Justice conference, which runs until Wednesday. She’s exhibiting her large-scale sculpture the Human Kennel, named after her second book, which she self-published a few weeks ago. The Human Kennel serves as the compendium Songs from the Slammer — a collection of her prison sketches and poems. It’s raw work, poignant and plainspoken. A sketch of a bleeding heart with a dagger through it is accompanied by a description: "This is a tattoo I designed for an inmate with missing front teeth. She paid me with a pack of 10 instant coffees and a bottle of hair conditioner."
The installation, meanwhile, features five stick figures — in the regulation green she wore for two years — behind bars. While the figures are faceless, their bodies communicate defiance, resignation, desperation. It was a concept she came up with while in jail. "It got me through my time," she tells me. "Focusing on (my art) kept me sane."
Tossounian is a gregarious woman with a generous laugh. She often speaks in fits and starts, her brain working faster than her mouth. For an hour, we talked about her trial, her life on the inside and her integration back into society.
She represented herself in her three-day trial. She didn’t testify. The Niagara Falls Review reported that court heard from 14 Crown witnesses — including three passersby who say they saw a woman with a gas can in her hand. Tossounian had a lighter on her when she was arrested and police testified she smelled like gasoline. Tossounian tells me she shut down when she saw her studio go up in flames; the judge said she should have been screaming, crying and begging for help. Tossounian was found guilty and sentenced to two years less a day.
She survived by making art and keeping detailed journals with golf-size pencils. She slowly collected coloured pencils, purchased from the canteen with money that relatives of inmates would put in her account. Full-size pencil crayons were a no-go because they could be weaponized, although she did see one shank made out of a toothbrush and a pencil.
"I wasn’t doing a personal journal — I was trying to be a journalist in jail, writing about what was around me so that people could understand," she says. She wanted to put out an account of jail that was real and human. She laughs about the fact Orange is the New Black, the hit Netflix series based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, debuted when she was still in jail. "I kept asking for the book when I was i jail, but I don’t think they wanted it in the library."
The stories she heard from fellow inmates are heartbreaking: about how they have kids or how they want to get married and have a normal life or how they are new to Canada and don’t understand why they are in jail. Tossounian says most institutional services are focused on addiction or mental health, not women looking to transition out of the system.
Tossounian has never been one to shy away from advocating for her fellow inmates. She was thrown in segregation three times for not wearing a bra; she ended up changing the mandatory bra policy. But that’s not the only legacy she’d like to leave. She’s hoping her books and her art change the way people think about incarceration in Canada.
"It’s a really crooked place. It’s all about power and control," she says. She’s met abused women who have wound up in jail themselves for defending themselves, thanks to Ontario’s mandatory charge policy in domestic assaults. She says she gained 60 pounds and developed physical problems. She’s blunt about the psychological effects. "Well, I’m going to be f--ed up for the rest of my life because of this."
Tossounian became a free woman two days after Christmas in 2013 — the first thing she did was order a chicken and rib combo from Swiss Chalet. She’s making art, and is engaged to be married, but life hasn’t been easy. Headlines calling her the "arsonist artist" are a Google search away, and she’s already been denied studio space in Ottawa. But she’s determined to get her stories out there.
"I’m hoping that eventually it will result in some sort of reform of the justice system," she says.
"Basically, the majority of people in jail shouldn’t be there," she says, noting that even if they have committed crimes — such as theft — there is usually a societal circumstance surrounding it. "It was a small percentage of women I met in jail who I found scary and wouldn’t want to see in society. Most of the girls who were in jail, it was a boyfriend who got them into drugs or prostitution."
Topping her wish list are bail reform, parole reform and a move toward restitution instead of punishment.
"People come out worse. They don’t come out better. If you treat people like human beings, something might actually develop in that person."
Tossounian speaks at the U of W today at 2:30 p.m. in room 2M70.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.