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Community meeting considers what’s next after the Burnside prison protest

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – Last Saturday, one day before the non-violent protest at Burnside prison was set to end, nearly two dozen community members gathered for a workshop to reflect on the protest and to discuss strategies to keep its momentum going.

The workshop, facilitated by activist, poet and educator El Jones, was part of the annual Anarchist Book Fair held at the Shambhala School in Halifax.

The Burnside protest began on August 21st when the prisoners held at the facility released a statement outlining their grievances and demands. Among those demands were better healthcare, better rehabilitation programs, contact visits, and healthier food options.

The government’s response varied throughout the course of the protest, with a spokesperson from the Department of Justice initially claiming that the prison was “operating as usual.” As government made these claims, prisoners inside the jail reported that Burnside was in lockdown for the better part of a week early on in the protest. After prisoners’ advocates in Halifax held a community meeting and a protest, Minister of Justice Mark Furey released two statements in which he claimed that “every inmate deserves respect and their human rights protected. And we are doing that.”

Reflecting on the protest

During the strike El Jones was a leading voice for prisoners inside the facility. She led the workshop at the Shambhala School. During the workshop, she noted how the demands were strategically chosen. “It’s actually stuff they [the prisoners] were told they would have [by Correctional Services],” Jones said.

Speaking about support, Jones mentioned a number of supporters who engaged with the protest to varying degrees. Among them were the Nova Scotia NDP caucus and their justice critic Claudia Chender, staff members at the prison, and a large number of grassroots organizations and community members. Jones pointed out that even some Progressive Conservative MLAs were briefly present at a protest supporting prisoners’ demands. “Minister Fury’s [answering] machine was full,” Jones pointed out at one point.

But despite all this pressure, Jones believes that the government will deliberately delay any improvements to the Burnside prison. “They’re not going to respond to prisoner demands [immediately] because they don’t want to feel like they’re being pressured,” Jones said, adding that change will likely be implemented eventually.

The role of media

Jones, who writes a weekly column for the Halifax Examiner, also mentioned the failures of media to cover prison issues more consistently. “That’s basically to do with loss of local media,” she explained, later adding that she believes the onus is on journalists to take the time to learn about prisons and the government’s correctional services, as well as meet prisoners and establish relationships with them. “To do prison reporting, you have to know about prisons; you have to know people in prisons. That takes a lot of time.”

Keeping the pressure

As the prison protest was coming to an end, Jones asked those in attendance what they believe are good strategies moving forward, asking them “What does success look like in this context?” In this, Jones acknowledged the tensions between being both a prison abolitionist and someone who wants to achieve goals that will improve prisoners’ lives on the short run.

The discussion in the room yielded a variety of answers. Some suggested a consistent “follow up” to government efforts organized every few months to hold the Department of Justice to account. Other proposed focusing on barriers to bail as a means of pointing out that nearly two out of every three prisoners at Burnside are yet to go through their trial. The idea of connecting with, and holding to account, unions that work within prisons was also mentioned.

In the end, Jones finished on a constructive note. “Organize, organize, organize,” she said. “Then… you’re ready.”

Yazan Khader is a law student at Dalhousie University. He can be reached at myazankhader@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @yazankhm.


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