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Prisoner justice – from speaking out to organizing on the ground

Prisoner justice – from speaking out to organizing on the ground

El Jones is a poet, educator, and organizer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is the city's former poet laureate. She is deeply involved in working for justice for prisoners through a combined prisoner-led radio show and community organization called Black Power Hour. Scott Neigh interviews her about the fight against the injustices of policing and prisons, and about the importance of not just speaking out on issues but of getting involved in collective efforts to make radical change on the ground.

When Jones started speaking out about issues in general and about prisoner justice in particular, over a decade ago, it was a much different political moment. Though there are long histories of prisoner justice organizing across the continent, particularly in directly impacted communities, there was less mainstream space at that point to name the harsh unjust realities of policing and prisons, and to name the white supremacy and settler colonialism built into them. Jones initially thought she was just stating the obvious by pointing these things out, but even more so than today these truths were met by aggressive denial from many.

Thanks to Black Lives Matter and to other important organizing emerging in large part from Black and Indigenous contexts, today it is at least somewhat harder to deny these realities. More people are willing to talk about how dehumanizing and awful prisons are. More people are willing to recognize the ways in which Black people in Canada are vastly overrepresented in prison, and in all stages of the criminal justice system.

While Jones started out by speaking publically, using her platform as a poet, her relationship to prisoner justice issues quickly evolved. Over the years, it has taken the form of Black Power Hour.

When the work that led to Black Power Hour started, she was actually involved in another radio show. She was also, by that point, poet laureate of Halifax, and her words were spreading more widely. A prisoner who had encountered an interview with her where she talked about prisoner justice got in touch and wanted to share his poetry on the radio, so she had him call into the show. Other prisoners heard that and got interested as well, and eventually it became a regular thing. This original show was not actually meant to focus on prisoners, so by request of the prisoners themselves – who by this point she was getting to know – they started a new show, Black Power Hour, focused on people in prison and on Black history and other Black content.

Black Power Hour grew from there. It continues to be a radio show driven and guided by the interests of folks inside, and sometimes including content from them. And it is also a community organization – again, one that is directed by people who are in prison. They do court support work for people. They engage in collective journalism projects about what's happening in jails, led by people on the inside. They organize political campaigns related to things like the conditions in prisons. And they engage in campaigns around wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice, particularly for African Nova Scotian prisoners. Their most visible such campaign has been against the detention and deportation of Abdul Abdi. That case reached the national media in early 2018, and at the time of publication of this episode his deportation had just been overturned by a federal court for the second time, though the struggle is ongoing. In the interview, Jones talks about the earlier stages of the campaign in support of Abdul Abdi and about several other campaigns.

Today, the political moment is quite different than when Jones first started speaking out about prisoner justice issues. The mainstream remains hostile, of course, but a lot more people are willing to say radical things about police and prisons, at least on social media. Jones recognizes the power and importance of social media – it has done a lot to drive the campaign in support of Abdul Abdi, for instance – but she is also wary of a political culture that often mistakes tweeting for organizing. The "woke industrial complex," she calls it.

We live in an environment that makes it hard to know anything about histories of struggle or about how to actually do the hard, unglamorous work of organizing for change, but she suggests that this work is exactly what more people need to be doing. She recommends starting out by getting involved with organizations that already do good work, even if it's not quite what you want to be doing, in order to learn how to do it. She recommends finding grassroots people already working on an issue and supporting them, rather than trying to start from scratch. And, similar to what she tries to enact with Black Power Hour, she recommends a political practice that is rigorously accountable to the people who are most directly affected by the experiences in question.

Image: The image modified for use in this post is in the public domain.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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