Forty years of solidarity with women prisoners

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Image: Steffano Mazzone/Flickr

Lora McElhinney and Wendy Bariteau are members of Joint Effort, a four decade-old prison abolitionist group based in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia that is focused on solidarity work with women in prison. McElhinney is a long-time activist and organizer and has been involved in the group for almost 20 years. Bariteau will be starting full parole as part of a life sentence in January 2020 and has been active in the group since she began day parole two years ago. Scott Neigh interviews them about the experiences of women in Canadian prisons and about the solidarity and abolitionist work of Joint Effort.

Prison abolitionism is a political vision that aims to do away with prisons, policing, surveillance, and related mechanisms of social control, and to establish alternatives. It is, moreover, a vision of social transformation -- not just getting rid of police and prisons but creating a social order that does not depend on such inherently violent institutions. That said, it can also be a deeply practical politics, with prisoners themselves taking action when they can to improve their conditions in material ways, and those outside acting in support and solidarity. And it can involve working to win small victories against the many different ways that carceral systems encroach on our communities through working to shift resources out of the system, resising criminalization, blocking surveillance initiatives, and so on.

Joint Effort was originally founded as a subcommittee of the British Columbia Federation of Women in 1980. The details of its work have varied over those decades, but the core of it is much the same: going into prisons in the Lower Mainland of B.C. to work with women on the inside, and organizing on the outside.

The work on the inside largely consists of visiting and building community and doing workshops. Sometimes, it is explicitly political and connected to community-based events on the outside, like making a banner for the annual march in the downtown east side of Vancouver for missing and murdered Indigenous women. Other times, it is more about sharing an activity, sharing resources, sharing information, and just talking about life, with the aim of helping to reduce the social isolation that is such an intense part of the experience of prison. And it centrally involves listening to the women who are inside, who are among the most marginalized people in the country and who have a unique vantage on how the prison system works and on how the violence of systemic oppressions operate more broadly.

On the outside, Joint Effort has done a lot of different kinds of things over the years. They act in support of prisoner-led campaigns. They engage in public education and other kinds of activities to stimulate critical conversation about criminalization, policing, and prisons. In so doing, they try to draw the connections among the different elements of the carceral system and the ways that different groups of people are criminalized -- the detention without charge of migrants to Canada, the longstanding racist overpolicing of Black and Indigenous people, the targeting of sex workers and trans people, and so on. They participate each year in Prisoners' Justice Day, an annual event observed by prisoners and their allies across the country that traces its origins to organizing by prisoners in the 1970s. And one of their current goals is to set up a monthly potluck for women just coming out of prison as a way to offer connection and support.

Bariteau in particular sees it as her work to "talk loud" about the injustices of the prison system, as someone who has faced many of those injsutices herself. Her sentence was for second-degree murder, 10 years -- a man tried to rape her, and she defended herself and ended up kiling her assailant. While on the inside, she was very active as a prisoner advocate, both for herself and for other women, and as a result she faced considerable retaliation from prison authorities.

One of Joint Effort's main concerns in the last year or two has been new rules by Correctional Services Canada (CSC) that require that all people volunteering in prisons pass what is called a "reliability status clearance." This includes a credit check and an extensive and intrusive background check, rather than the simple criminal record check that was previously required. It is not clear why this change has been instituted, but it is clear that the heightened surveillance it involves places major barriers in the way of people volunteering in prisons, particularly people who are already marginalized in various ways. Joint Effort has organized a letter-writing campaign to oppose it, and has been working to connect with groups across the country to broaden the opposition. And they have also been working with the BC Civil Liberties Association around the issue.

Image: Steffano Mazzone/Flickr

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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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 our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

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