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Timing is Everything: Prison Panel Coincides with Police Action

Presentation presses on despite police raid on one panelist's home

by Laura Shepherd

Prison abolitionist Jean Catherine Steinberg during the panel discussion, "Prying into Prisons: Critical Perspectives on the Canadian System", Tuesday, March 3 at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University. [Photo: L. Shepherd]
Prison abolitionist Jean Catherine Steinberg during the panel discussion, "Prying into Prisons: Critical Perspectives on the Canadian System", Tuesday, March 3 at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University. [Photo: L. Shepherd]

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - Coincidentally (or otherwise) scheduled to speak at an evening panel at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law called “Prying into Prisons: Critical Perspectives on the Canadian System”, Drew Butler found himself instead entertaining an unscheduled visit from the SWAT Team based on an anonymous and erroneous tip. Butler was the subject of a recent media profile in The Coast, whose coverage of Mr. Butler’s Kafkaesque experience on Tuesday is a must-read in its own right as well as the other half of this story. Needless to say, Butler was otherwise detained and did not appear on the panel as was hoped for.

The panel appearing before the jam packed Law School amphitheatre Tuesday night included Cape Breton Elizabeth Fry Society Executive Director Darlene MacEachern, Halifax Poet Laureate and Dalhousie/Acadia lecturer El Jones, and prison abolitionist and prisoner ally Jean Catherine Steinberg. Scheduled panelist Francene Perrio of the Mi’kmaq Legal Support Network was also unable to attend.

The first hour of the panel was a powerpoint presented by MacEachern, valuable to the audience of mostly law students as an overview of the incidence and experience of women in custody in Canada, and a vignette of three more or less well-known cases of national relevance: Kimberley Rogers, Ashley Smith, and Kinew James, all of whose deaths can be traced to their experience in the conflict and chaos of the provincial and federal criminal justice juggernauts.

More provocative in perspective were the presentations of Jones and Steinberg.

Jones began with a spoken –word performance of her poem, “The Shit in Your Life”, delineating for the audience the various facets of the criminal justice prism that casts - often from youth, and particularly for those of colour or indigenous culture – selected people as proverbial ‘shit’. A powerful statement of resistance, its final affirmation, “Know you are bigger than your shit,” rang like the echo of a bell over the rest of the panel discussion.

Jones then described the evolution of the acclaimed CKDU-FM radio program, In Our Own Voice. The program has grown from a broadcast featuring writing and rapping recorded by those in prison, into a real-time lifeline of contact and community-building between those “on the range” and those (dis)connected from them in the outside world.

Through anecdotes and vignettes drawn from the broadcasts, Jones eloquently painted a picture, through individual experiences, of the ways particular communities of people are conscripted over time into an inescapable and unwanted dance with the criminal justice system and the process of criminalization. Her portraits put a human face to racism, poverty, power and privilege. Her description of the “family building” nature of the community engaged by In Our Own Voice demonstrates the possibility of resistance and the imperative of allyship. No description can convey the depth of Jones’ discourse, and readers are invited to tune in for themselves. The show, re-named “Youth Now!”, airs Monday evenings, 5:30pm-7:00pm on CKDU-FM, 88.1FM.

Jones’ remarks explored the assumptions and prejudices underlying the criminal justice system, like the judge who talked for an hour before saying the best predictor of future behaviour is past experience, before denying bail to a person who, from childhood abandonment through a series of formal system failures since, had almost been preordained to be system-baked to feed the appetite of prisons for human lives. Her depictions of law enforcement tactics spoke of the poignant effect police behaviour has on forcing, particularly young men of colour, into the jig of criminalized identity, to be shaped into the sectional lumber from which our “law and order society” is constructed and maintained.

In what seemed almost a non sequitor at the time, Jones pointedly reminded the audience that police don’t put things back nicely and neatly if they overturn your domicile in a search, even if it results in no evidence of criminal activity, detainment or charges. As we now know from The Coast’s coverage, an innocent Drew Butler, having been wrongly suspected of planning a shopping mall attack, was at that very moment surveying the shambles of his just-raided apartment instead of appearing beside Jones as planned on the panel. It reads like something out of Kafka.

Jones’ remarks, modestly offered as that of a “family member of people imprisoned”, was followed by the abolitionist perspective of Jean Catherine Steinberg. Active in programs like “Books Beyond Bars”, “Read Aloud”( which records incarcerated moms reading children’s books for their kids to listen to on the outside), and a provider of reproductive, sexual health and birth support to women behind bars, Steinberg promised to explain in the final five panel minutes “why prisons don’t work”.

She opened by pointedly asking the overwhelmingly white audience of mostly law students (who, by the nature of their program of study requirements, have almost by definition never been arrested, charged, convicted or incarcerated) “if real inmates were here, would you come?” Are lawyers-in-training more comfortable hearing from activists and academics than those with first-hand experience, particularly those so demographically different, she asked, one suspects only in part rhetorically. “What walls are you holding?” she asked provocatively and poetically.

“Prisons create mental health issues….Incarceration doesn’t work relationally. It doesn’t reduce recidivism,” Steinberg asserted. “In 2013, it cost $110 thousand to house a male inmate for a year, twice that for women in provincial institutions. Let’s talk about this!”

Noting that prisons “intersect so many social justice issues”, Steinberg posed a series of paradigm questions – “How do we embody abolitionism every day?” and “What does it look like to imagine a world without prisons?”

Calling prisons “tools of the colonial state”, Steinberg raised questions about the under-scrutinized economy underlying what others have termed the prison-industrial complex. “People are making money from putting people in cages and we need to talk about who benefits from this system.”

The audience left the amphitheatre unaware of the kind of day Drew Butler was having or its relevance to the content they had just heard. What a difference a day makes.

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