Ruth Rittenhouse Morris
1933 - 2001
Ruth Rittenhouse Morris was a Canadian Friend who was one of the world’s leading advocates for prison abolition.
She was born in Buffalo, New York and educated at American universities. Her activism began as a response to the Vietnam War, racism and poverty. In 1968, she moved to Canada and began focusing on the justice system and penal reform.
She quickly came to the conclusion that the traditional system of ‘retributive justice’ was an expensive, unjust and immoral failure. Its focus was on the questions of ‘who did it?’ and ‘how should they be punished?’ rather than on ‘who has been hurt?’ and ‘how can we heal them?’ As such, it failed to recognise the needs of either victim or offender.
Morris was deeply impressed by Howard Zehr’s book Changing Lenses and the work of Mennonites who were advocating Restorative Justice. However before long, she began to question whether even restorative justice went far enough. Firstly she was concerned that restorative justice assumed (at least implicitly) that there was a pre-existing state of justice that could be restored. Secondly, it ignored society’s responsibility for structural injustices that could lead to offending behaviour.
In developing her concept of Transformative Justice, Morris was influenced by the practices of both Native Canadian Healing Circles and New Zealand’s Community Group Conferences. Both forms of justice bring communities together – not just victim and offender – and recognise the harm done to the victim, the accountability of the offender and the social roots of the problem.
In Morris’s words: “Transformative Justice uses the power unleashed by the harm of the crime to let those most affected find truly creative, healing solutions.” This includes healing, not just for victim and offender, but for the community at large.
In 1979, Morris was asked by the Ontario government to set up the Toronto Bail Programme. She founded Toronto’s first bail residence, as well as a halfway house for ex-offenders.
Morris was a member of the Quaker Committee on Jails and Justice (a sub-committee of the Canadian Friends Service Committee), now called ‘Quakers Fostering Justice’.
In 1981 this became the first religious body in the world to endorse prison abolition, declaring:
"The prison system is both a cause and a result of violence and social injustice. Throughout history, the majority of prisoners have been the powerless and the oppressed. We are increasingly clear that the imprisonment of human beings, like their enslavement, is inherently immoral, and is as destructive to the cagers as to the caged."
Morris was also a founder of the International Conference on Prison Abolition, which began in Toronto in 1983 and has been held biennially since, in countries from Nigeria to Costa Rica.
In 1990, she founded ‘Rittenhouse – a New Vision', a campaign organisation committed to penal abolition and the promotion of transformative justice, and was its educational director from 1995 until 2001.
She described her mission in life as being, "To help all of us to include those who fall into the cracks of society, and to transform negative forces into resources for change." She considered her failures as important as her successes, and was proud that she was fired twice from justice system jobs for her human rights stance.
Ruth Morris died of kidney cancer in 2001, a few months after being awarded the Order of Canada for her work in justice reform. Her citation described her as “a model for those who seek to serve others.”
Her published books include Transcending Trauma (2005), Stories of Transformative Justice (2000), Penal Abolition: The Practical Choice (2000), Street People Speak (1987) and Crumbling Walls: Why Prisons Fail (1989).