“[Senate Human Rights] Committee chair Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard looks into a cramped cell with two bunk beds at Dorchester Penitentiary.
“[Senate Human Rights] Committee chair Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard looks into a cramped cell with two bunk beds at Dorchester Penitentiary.

A group of federally incarcerated Black prisoners have written the following statement. It was read to El Jones, and has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

We have been watching the Black Lives Matters protests and the conversations about police violence. We have been taking part in our own conversations with prisoners of all races. We would like to share some of our conversations and conclusions with people outside prison.

The movement against police brutality is important, but it is also larger than that. We must also address injustice in the criminal justice system, in prisons, and at parole. At every stage of this system, Black people and Indigenous people are discriminated against. We have come to realize that all these systems are connected.

Just two days ago, on Friday, Rodney Levi was shot and killed by police a few kilometres from Miramichi, New Brunswick. Atlantic Institution, the maximum security prison for the Atlantic region, is located in Renous, close to Miramichi. In sending our condolences to Rodney Levi’s family and friends, we also reflect on how many Indigenous men and women are held in federal prisons across this country.

Prisons are built in small rural towns. Recently, in a conversation with one of the workers, she told us she was in favour of the prison being built because it would offer jobs. When she was told about the conditions and that we do not have programs or any rehabilitation, she was shocked.

We want to send a message to people who believe that building a prison in their community will stimulate the economy. Prisons are not a retirement plan or social security. Putting money into prisons is not a solution to poverty or to any social problems. We ask people living in these communities to reject spending money to put more people, especially Black and Indigenous people, into prisons.

We have also learned that crime is at some of the lowest levels since 1969, and that crime is steadily dropping. How can crime be down, but we continue to incarcerate more and more people? We know that there is no connection between crime and funding prisons. Why are we building more prisons when reserves in this country don’t even have clean water?

We have seen many videos in the last few weeks of police brutality. In these times where all the police are under the threat of being caught on video, there is no one to catch what happens to us on camera. The violence and abuse against us in prisons is still hidden. We have had guards use racial slurs. We have had guards use racial slurs to white prisoners thinking they would agree. We are pepper sprayed and restrained. We have seen and heard people beaten and even die.

When we are charged in the institution, we don’t even have the right to a lawyer. We can be put into solitary confinement, transferred across the country away from our families and communities, and denied parole. There is no justice because no one can see, and no-one is there to defend us.

But even in the courts, where we had lawyers, we have experienced how racist the criminal justice system is. We are judged in front of all-white juries, the same people that may see videos of police shootings and defend the police. There is no prosecutorial oversight, and nobody to stop racist prosecutions. Even if we are in open court, nobody holds the prosecutors accountable for their behaviour. Many more of us simply take deals because we are threatened by higher sentences. It still feels like the 1920s in the courtroom.

All of this is supposed to happen so we can be rehabilitated. But has the public ever asked what prisoners are doing on a day-to-day basis? You might think that we are getting job training, or learning to deal with addictions or mental health problems. We are not. There is nothing to do in prison, and there are hardly any programs to help people. You might ask yourself then why we are spending so much many to keep people behind bars but doing nothing to fix any of the problems.

For Black people, parole is like a unicorn. We end up serving even longer sentences because we are judged by the colour of our skin. We are accused of being gang members. We are punished for talking together. Our visitors are accused of bringing in contraband, so we tell our mothers not to come and see us. Guards antagonize us and then discipline us when we respond. There are no programs made for us. And when we go in front of an all-white parole board, they will not let us out.

Every day, we are seeing people in the streets protesting for Black and Indigenous lives. We want to thank everyone for being where we can not be, and fighting what we cannot fight for. We also know that after the protests, Black lives will still not matter in prison.

We join the calls to defund the police, and we also say it is time to defund the prison. Canadians should ask themselves why so many Black and Indigenous people are incarcerated. You should ask yourselves why your money is going to a system that doesn’t work to solve crime. You should ask why a prison is being built in your community and whether it will actually make your life better.

We hope some of the experiences we have shared have made you think about some of the assumptions you might have about us, or about the idea that people get help in prison. We hope our words show you what you cannot see on video. We have heard people say until all Black lives matter, no one’s life can matter. Until Black prisoner lives matter, can anyone be free?

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. The importance of the work you do on prison advocacy, El, cannot be overstated.

    For everyone who argues in favour of “free speech”, prisoners are individuals we deem as a society as unworthy of this right – from the expensive phone calls to the lack of right to vote. No one knows the government apparatus known as the criminal justice system better than the individuals directly implicated by it, yet we silence them and we do not seek them out. You seek them out and publish their voices for all. I hope people are listening.

  2. The status quo – a white person’s privilege – is the mentality that funds prisons – this mentality maintains oppression, discrimination, racism, overt bias and unconscious bias. The silencing of voices (protesting inequities and injustices) is the status quo and it is fuelled by the legal community and the courts who are disproportionally and unfairly incarcerating black and brown souls – especially at the provincial level. The deliberate and often unconcsious thinking/acting is this: black and brown populations are less worthy and therefore less human and less deserving of humanity, dignity and decency – it’s called systemic racism. Many white people in places of power (RCMP – Brenda Lucki for example) are unconscious and in denial – they have never studied in my view; they don’t know they don’t know. A leader should know better. This Chief Commissioner and others like her should be removed from these positions because they present a liability for change regarding respect and responsible accountability. Brenda Lucki represents the system that perpetuates the status quo and sustains a white privileged monopoly that targets the vulnerable and disenfranchised populations in Canadian society.