'Jail never saved me. And jail never saves anyone'

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Image: Bob Jagendorf/Wikimedia

Souheil Benslimane describes himself as a father, a partner, and an illegalized and criminalized migrant who lives on unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin territory (also known as Ottawa). Since his release from prison in 2018, he has been involved in the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), an initiative started by students and professors at the universities in Ottawa to bring together scholars, community members, front-line workers, and those targeted by criminalization and punishment to engage in public education, research and activism. Scott Neigh talks with Benslimane about his experiences of criminalization, about the anticarceral work of CPEP, and about what he thinks needs to be happening in this critical moment to advance an abolitionist agenda.

The uprising against anti-Black racism and police brutality that has erupted in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has created an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy for police. Huge numbers of people have been in the streets, and more people than ever who are not themselves targeted have been forced to confront the harms that policing does, particularly to Black and Indigenous people.

We are told that police, courts and prisons exist in the service of things like "justice" and "safety." But radical work by people who are targeted by them and/or who have devoted themselves to organizing against them teaches us that they are better understood as being about things like criminalization and punishment -- that they mark certain acts and, moreover, certain groups of people as "criminal," and then they subject them to various forms of state violence, indignity and harm. This contributes to maintaining an unjust status quo organized through settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism and other relations of domination. Real justice and genuine safety -- understood far more expansively than the neoliberal default, and made available not just to some but to all -- can only come from doing things very differently.

Benslimane moved with his family from Morocco to Ottawa when he was a child. Once here, they faced grinding racism and Islamophobia, unrelenting hard work and countless barriers. As Benslimane got older, he himself faced an escalating trajectory of criminalization that culminated in five years spent in prison, between 2013 and 2018.

In his time inside, Benslimane found prison to be a violent and degrading space, that caused harm while doing nothing positive. As he says, "Jail never saved me. And jail never saves anyone." Any bright spots he was able to find were despite the institution, not because of it -- the friendship and support of fellow prisoners, a program that brought in volunteers from the outside, and access to one of the few remaining instances in Canada where an external post-secondary institution (rather than the prison itself) provides educational opportunities. It was in this last where he was able to read writers like Frantz Fanon and other anti-colonial and postcolonial thinkers, which began to give him the tools to name important aspects of his own experience.

He faced the additional threat of deportation when he got out -- the second punishment often faced by criminalized migrants after they have already served their prison sentence. In the course of fighting that, he connected with a criminology professor at University of Ottawa. He had at one point thought that when he got out he would get involved in struggles related to the environment and climate, but pretty soon he realized that his experience gave him a rich basis for theorizing and for organizing against criminalization, punishment and the carceral state.

CPEP has been around since 2012. Over the years, it has done lots of public events, some demonstrations, art exhibitions, and film screenings. It has published lots of reports, fact sheets, op/eds, and infographics. It has also been involved in more sustained campaigns. For instance, in response to provincial plans to build a new and larger jail in Ottawa, it began the No On Prison Expansion initiative, both opposing the new jail in Ottawa and calling for a Canada-wide prison expansion moratorium.

Benslimane himself has been centrally involved in their Jail Accountability and Information Line, which takes calls from people imprisoned at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre and their loved ones every weekday afternoon. They use this as a basis to work with callers in addressing human rights issues and pushing for prisoner justice. Earlier in June, CPEP was active in supporting prisoners in Ottawa -- including Deepan Budlakoti, a Talking Radical Radio guest back in 2013 -- who went on hunger strike over the jail's appalling conditions.

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 their website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Image: Bob Jagendorf/Wikimedia

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

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