The first time I go into a prison, Ardath Whynacht invites me for a poetry workshop with the women in Nova Institution. Afterwards, driving back from Truro, she tells me that one of the woman whose poetry I really loved was convicted of a notorious crime. She doesn’t know if I realized it or not, wants to make sure I’m okay, that I’m not going home upset. I think about it and tell her that when you’re doing poetry together you don’t think about what the person did, you think about their words. Ardath says something that will stick with me for years: “I wish I could find the same forgiveness for people in my life that I do for the people in here.”

A couple of years later, I am teaching Dante’s Inferno and we do an exercise where I ask students who they would put in hell. Some of them name this woman.


We have a radio show on CKDU directed towards people in prison. Sometimes when people call into the radio, they are open about their names. Sometimes they call or speak anonymously. I don’t look up what people are accused of, but almost always, I end up finding out. I worry about writing this piece because I wonder what people who hear about our radio shows with prisoners picture when I talk about working with people inside. Maybe they picture people who have shoplifted, maybe sold a bit of weed. Maybe if they think that sometimes people call who have done terrible things, and that they  might be listening to these people — maybe if they think that, they won’t want the radio show to exist anymore. If I write about this, maybe I’m saying something that will put into danger a space that is important for so many incarcerated people.

Some people don’t say their names. Maybe it’s to protect themselves legally. Maybe it’s because they know there might be backlash. Sometimes I think it’s also the chance to talk to someone for a minute who doesn’t know, the chance to have someone on the other end of the phone whose voice isn’t coloured by knowing their crime. Maybe those moments feel a little bit closer to what it might be like to be forgiven.

When we advocate for people in prison, we try to say the things that will make people sympathetic. We talk about non-violent offenders, people with mental illnesses, first-time offenders. We tell the stories that we think will allow people to see those in prison as human beings, as suffering beings. We say things like, “the majority of people in prison are convicted of non-violent crimes,” or “over 80 per cent of women in prison are victims of sexual and physical abuse.” These things are true. But then, what happens when we are working with the people who have committed violent crimes, the people who are the abusers? Are we saying then that they are not part of our fight against injustice, or that our advocacy doesn’t extend to them? Are we admitting that they are beyond the pale, outside of what is acceptable to care about or speak for or even to just not recoil from?

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I wrote on Facebook last weekend about the funding crisis at Innocence Canada.  Lots of people shared the post. I talked about how wonderful the lawyers I’ve experienced are, and how dedicated their work is. And so many people responded. Wrongful conviction is a terrible thing, and so people agree we need to advocate about it. But here’s the thing too: before people are recognized as wrongfully convicted, they are the “monsters.” And the lawyers who work with the people who apply, sometimes they might be reading cases where the person is actually guilty. The point is, we can’t just know for sure who’s wrongfully convicted and then only advocate for them and say, but I won’t speak to the bad ones.

I believe we have to advocate for justice and human rights for everyone. That sounds like an empty kind of statement, but it is actually a bedrock belief that I understood I felt only because I had to think and work through what it meant to also work with violent people. I can’t say, justice only for the people who are sympathetic. Rights only for the people we like. I can’t choose who the “good” people are. And so I believe with all my heart that we fight for justice for everyone, that we advocate for humane conditions because human rights are not only for who we decide is deserving. Because who can decide that? Well, you can say, serial killers, obviously. But then there’s murder, and manslaughter, and assault, and gangs, and weapons, and sex offences, and dangerous driving, and drug dealing harms communities, and stealing harms businesses, and someone is always going to have a different boundary, a different line, a different experience. I don’t believe we can pick and choose justice and include some people and not others.

Early on in doing the show, I read in the paper about someone whose name I recognize, and they have been designated a dangerous offender. The article describes what they did. It is horrible. I have talked on the phone a few times to this person, they like to make requests. I tell a friend of mine inside how bothered I am by reading this. When the man is being sent to Federal, my friend tells me, “I know you don’t like him. But he always shared his food with me, always looked out for me. So when he was leaving, I went up to him, and I just said, keep your head up and shook his hand.” I think about this for a long time, about how no, sharing food doesn’t change what this person did, but that when you’re doing time with people, those kindnesses also make a difference. I think about what that complexity means, and I come to see that of course I am bothered, and also that being bothered doesn’t change the work I do or the need for it to be done.

I think you can guess why I’m writing this, what case is on my mind. But this isn’t the first time. Usually with the big headlines, I know or have talked to the person behind them. It’s a small community inside prison. Especially if the accused person is from the Black community, then I probably also know the victim’s family, or people who are grieving and hurt by the crime. Sometimes I know the victim. I’ve sat with family members and ached with their profound grief, and then taken a call from the person who caused that.

I see the devastation. I don’t ignore it. But I also know that the person arrested, I might be talking to that person for at least the next couple of years. And I’m going to come to know them, and I’ll see them differently.

Sometimes the people I know in prison also know the victim. Sometimes they are grieving too. Maybe they caused harm to someone else themselves. It’s not just messy for advocates; the people inside are affected too. We like to imagine that criminals and victims are separate people, but it’s not like that at all. People who have been victimized commit crimes. People who have been incarcerated become victims. People from high crime communities also come from high victim communities. You might be friends with killers and family to the dead. We’d like it all to be tidy and put away nicely, but it doesn’t work like that.

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In some of our access to justice work, we’ve been talking about complexity a lot, complexity theory, and how we want everything to either be simple, or complicated. But complicated is still with a level of simple. But actually we’re complex. We’re multilayered and there’s so many factors that lead into this. And every time we try to explain someone’s behaviour or identify the right kind of criminal, the ones that we should care for versus the ones we don’t, well then we’re simplifying things and we’re losing so much in that.
— Emma Halpern, Elizabeth Fry Society.

Since I started doing this work, the headlines have become painful. I see all the devastation. It was simpler before when I could say, “oh, that’s terrible” and move on. There’s supposed to be a feeling of closure for society as a whole when the sentence is passed, that justice now is being done. And we’re not supposed to have a picture in our head after that of what day-to-day life means in prison and we’re not supposed to call to mind the other people we know grinding out those years and the tragic things they’ve seen and the pain they’re in, and the broken families and the violence and seeing people go out in body bags and stretchers. And I’m not saying this to say you should feel bad, I’m just telling you that knowledge is there and it’s not going to feel satisfying.

The headlines feel painful, I just said. It’s more than that. Sometimes I think this work doesn’t bother me, and I hear tragic stories all day and listen and comment calmly. And then I wake up at night with anxiety just vibrating through my body and I don’t know why. This is a legacy of that terrible buildup, when I sat through a trial, and every day my body didn’t know what it was waking up to, what awful thing, what sadness, what pain would I encounter today. And so my body woke up on alert, braced against the stress and the horror. And now that lives in my body and people’s stories leak out of me as I lie in bed for hours, shaking, when they have nowhere else to go.

It’s not about making choices between the person accused and the victim or their family, but it can feel like it is. When you have relationships with people in prison, it can feel like you absorb their guilt by proximity. If you support them, or laugh with them over a joke, or advocate for them, or listen to their words, or even just take their call, are you implicitly saying you don’t care about the victim or about the harm that was done? You can feel responsible for what they did, like it rubs off on you.

But feeling that guilt is also about the stigma of prisoners, the idea that any contact with them diminishes or contaminates us. The stigma against prisoners is so powerful that when we go against it, as mothers or children or family members or friends or partners or advocates, it’s like we cross over too, like we become part of the “other” side of society. And that makes it frightening for people to think about people in prison or challenge how we feel about people, the fear that we’ll become “other,” that it makes us “for” murder, or violence, or harm.

If we don’t fight through that stigma and challenge the idea that our compassion or understanding are limited, or that there are completely opposed sides, or that justice is binary, or that you choose either empathy for victims or advocacy for prisoners, then we can’t fight some of the most basic problems with the justice system, that bad people need to be punished, and punished in this way, and that they deserve it, and that we know who the bad people are.

One time, I told someone inside I didn’t get a job I badly wanted, and he said “They probably know you’re down with criminals. People hate us, and if you’re down with us, they’ll hate you too.” I don’t think that was the reason, but he did. He told me it would be okay if I didn’t talk to them anymore, to save myself.

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I think it challenges us all, because we find comfort as a society in these tropes. This person’s a bad person. We do it from childhood. We sort of label — bad people are like this. To be safe, we just stay away from those bad people. I think these are ideas we all, even those of us who are advocates, are subject to. It’s a comforting thing to sort of label people and then put them in boxes. Because that’s what we’re trained to do.

And I think true advocacy is a personal struggle every day to fight through that. To say, that actually is a false dichotomy between good and bad, and good and evil, and this idea that we can label people or put them in these boxes. All of us are way, way more complicated than that. And I think that, at least for me anyway from an advocacy standpoint, I feel like that’s my job. To see the complexities. See all the grey. To be in that grey that most people are uncomfortable to be in most of the time. And to be okay with that. Because it’s not my job to determine if someone’s good or bad. But it is my job to ensure that we live in a just and fair society that treats everybody, no matter who they are, with dignity and respect and concern. And so that’s the lens that allows me to do the work.
— Emma Halpern

I learn to negotiate these difficulties too by learning from the people in prison. They have to live in difficulty, negotiate every day their relationships with people who are guilty of things they may be bothered or disgusted or hurt by. Especially in provincial jail, where people serving time on crimes like fraud or stealing or breaches can be there with someone awaiting a murder trial.

One guy tells me, when he got convicted, he came back to the range and everyone started calling him “killer.” It bothered him a lot, but he couldn’t show that. And he had to learn to embrace it in some ways, just to survive what was ahead. Everyone watches the news, reads the papers, knows the details, has feelings about it. 

Sometimes the relationships people build inside can be profoundly transformational. One day, I learn that one of the guys in the maximum prison used to be a white supremacist, swastika tattoos and everything. Somehow he became friends with a Black prisoner. “I made him cover up that shit around me, that’s all,” the Black guy tells me. They support each other, become crew. They’re both doing life. After one of them is transferred he writes a letter to the Black guy. He says, “my sister was raped at a party by a bunch of Black guys, and I was so angry. I blamed all Black people. I was twisted up by hate. Thank you for showing me another way,” he says. “Thank you for changing me.”

Sometimes it’s not about profundity, but just about getting through the day. Maybe the person next to you always has canteen food, or maybe they can translate for you, or maybe you just don’t want problems so you figure out how to get along. “Just because we’re in here doesn’t mean we don’t have morals,” people often say to me. “We know wrong from right.” It’s not about condoning, it’s about figuring out how to live together. And in doing that, I watch them and learn lessons for myself about the futility of judgment in this work, and I learn about how to live in spaces beyond judgment.

One woman did time with her. She says, “I looked out for her for months. If I saw her now I’d punch her in the face.” She says to me, “he stayed with me a couple of times. I was friends with her before she was killed, I miss her every day. Maybe I would have been next.” Then she talks to me about the pictures in the news, and how they probably wouldn’t choose nice ones for her if she died. “You know the pictures they normally choose for junkies,” she says.

Another woman, though, says “she was my friend.” She sat with her for eight months. People don’t know the whole story, she says. She talks about women in abusive relationship, her own experience. “You don’t know what’s inside people,” she says. She says it’s not about agreeing with what she did, but they were close inside and she’s not going to forget that either. Someone calls her a “psycho bitch.” If you support that, you’re sick, they tell her.

It’s not an easy thing to work through for anyone. Everyone is talking about it, processing it with each other, and trying to figure out how they feel. We don’t think about this part, how people inside, the people who will live with the headliners for the next decade, how they make sense of things, how they work through their own trauma, how they think about forgiveness or tolerance or accountability. We believe in prisons, but we never think about what it means to live there. This difficulty is part of life.

I can tell you right now, this piece isn’t going to have an easy moral. There isn’t going to be a “and this is when I realized and it all made sense” ending. When you do advocacy work with people in prison, there aren’t going to be easy conclusions. Nobody who does this work doesn’t think about these things, how we negotiate our own feelings about crimes. Some people draw specific boundaries. I know some people who won’t work with sex offenders — sometimes they’ve been assaulted themselves and they don’t feel they can do the work for justice and advocate effectively. Some people feel uncomfortable and they just don’t want to. Some people feel uncomfortable but do the work because people are going to be back in our communities and if nobody has even tried to help or offer supports or programming, what then? And some people make the decision to work with everyone no matter what, as long as they want and need programming or supports.

The truth is, we struggle with these questions every day. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. And I’m choosing to write about this because it is that complex work of humanity that is so much a part of prison advocacy. We often don’t talk about that struggle and reflection and doubt because we are speaking so urgently about issues we feel are important, and because we want to speak strategically, and also, I think, because dealing with the “grey areas” is so complicating and when you’re still trying to get people to see things like shackling a critically ill woman to her hospital is bad, or putting people in solitary confinement for four years is inhumane, you’re still trying to deal with the most basic issues of prison justice. So talking about negotiating how you feel about horrific crimes or questioning yourself, or the internal dialogues around why you do what you do can seem like it’s introducing a harmful doubt. Because these are the crimes that make people support prisons, and the ones that make people accuse, so you want these people running the streets? It’s cases like this that convince people we need prisons, and that punishment is cathartic, so we try not to talk about them and to talk about the easier ones.

But advocacy isn’t about being perfect. It’s actually about these struggles and negotiating them and working them out. It’s not just about the black and white cases and the cases that everyone empathizes with, and the stuff that we all agree upon. It is about challenging how we think and feel about the difficult issues and being honest with ourselves about those feelings.

You’ve written about this before, the complexity of loving people who do bad things and how you wrap your head about that. The complexity of the feelings you have when you love someone who has hurt other people, and the pain. It’s not that different in some ways from the mother conversation, the deep love as a mother, or the deep love as a friend. The bonds that form when you’re serving time with someone are profound. It’s a relationship that’s hard to emulate in other places because you’re living in such close quarters, but also living in deep oppression with people. And so you bond together in order to survive that. And that’s a different type of bond, I think, than most of the public can understand.
—Emma Halpern. 

Of course I’m horrified. I can’t bring myself to read the statement of facts but there are enough details in the news already. I’m a woman, and so many of the women I work with, women inside, are victims of terrible violence themselves. There’s always a struggle when you know someone and then read about what they did, and try to match that with the person you met, or talked to, or what they shared in poetry. And they can be the person you know and the person who did the horrible things, at the same time.

Would you still take their calls? One of the women asks me. And all I say is, “It’s open to everyone. We don’t make those decisions.” “I wouldn’t pick up,” says the woman. “But I guess that’s what you guys do. I guess you have to.”

I hear that he asked what I thought, if I read it. I wonder about that, how he didn’t show remorse, but then worries about what I might think of him. “I’m not God,” I say to the person who asks me, meaning, it’s not my judgment to make. Meaning also, that we have to be committed to building unconditional spaces for people in prison if we want to share in this work, create agency, build connection. I think the person asking me what I think is also testing me, seeing how I might feel about him, seeing if I’m disgusted by people inside, really, or if they can count on supports still being there. They have to trust that we won’t take things back, turn away, stop talking to people like they are human beings. 

On the show, the callers say, “thank you for giving us a voice. To the listeners out there, just because we’re in here doesn’t mean we don’t have something to say.” One of the women calls in from the outside and talks about a documentary that she participated in when she was inside. When she got out, they filmed her as she was leaving. All the women were banging on the windows as she walked away. Shout out to all my girls in there, she says.

And this is how we go on. 

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. I want to thank you for writing this piece. And I want to thank you for the work you do. For many years, I was a reporter and I covered my fair share of crime, abuse and neglect. People think that you get hard over time, hearing difficult stories. And maybe some people do. But it was not like that for me. I got softer and softer….my black and whites became grey. As I got older and suffered personal losses…the empathy was complete. I miss reporting. But I don’t miss that particular inner struggle. Once again, thank you El.

  2. I am not sure there is anyone anywhere giving this kind of perspective on the world of prisoners serving time.
    Those of us who are “law abiding citizens” are insulated for the most part from the harsh realities of those who are convicted of crimes by our justice system. We tend to forget that no matter how heinous the crime, the convicted person is still a human being. Maybe they are not someone we want on the streets as they are a threat, or someone who should be allowed to be part of society. But by virtue of the fact they live and breath they are a person complete with flaws and some positive traits.
    Incarceration is about justice. It is most certainly not about revenge. Perhaps if we were all to read what El Jones writes and gain some insight into the realities of imprisonment, maybe things would improve a bit for all of us and justice would be better served all around.