Canada 150

'Black Power Hour' Leads the Fight for Prisoners on the East Coast

A radio show co-hosted by activist El Jones is a lifeline for inmates.

by Hilary Beaumont
Jun 29 2017, 4:35pm

"Welcome to Black Power Hour, you're on the air," El Jones says in a joyful voice.

"What's your show about?" the male caller asks.

"Black power, man," she answers with a laugh. "Topics about, like, black history, black culture, issues that affect black people in the world, politics, consciousness. So today we're talking about black liberation movements."

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"Well I'm in Cape Breton, in jail, and it's racist as fuck here," the caller says, prompting laughs from El and co-host Reed "Izreal" Jones.

"I don't know if you want to say more on that?" El prompts.

"It's bad here," the caller continues. "They throw banana peelings up the hallway, they throw cotton on the range. They call [out] 'n****r' all day. It's bad, real bad."

Activist and radio host El Jones (Youtube)

In this exchange from May 2016, about a month after the show first aired, the caller went on to describe the conditions inside the jail, recited a poem he wrote and requested the song "I'm Black" by Styles P, which the hosts dutifully played.

He couldn't hear his song request—the signal doesn't stretch much outside Halifax's borders. But he gave a shout out to inmates at Burnside, a jail within the station's range, where prisoners listen and call into the show every Friday.

For a little over a year now, Black Power Hour has been broadcasting once a week out of a small studio at CKDU, a campus radio station at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The show's goal is to empower people of colour, but specifically those inside Nova Scotia jails, where Black and Indigenous people are vastly overrepresented. "In Nova Scotia, African Nova Scotians make up two percent of the population and I believe 14 percent of the adult prisoners and 16 percent of the youth jails," El tells VICE. Although phone calls from jail are expensive—as much as $10 a call—prisoners call into the show from across the province to request songs, give shout outs to friends and chat for a few minutes with the hosts. It's an idea Black Lives Matter TO picked up on during a recent trip out east and is considering bringing to Toronto.

Alexandria Williams of Black Lives Matter Toronto speaks at a news conference. Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press

Though not everyone in Halifax is warm to the idea. Regular CKDU listeners call in with complaints about hearing rap, cursing and prisoners' stories on the radio. "Certainly we've had pushback," El tells VICE. "Often people are very uncomfortable with the idea of prisoners having a voice."

El Jones is Halifax's former poet laureate, a teacher and a well-known face and voice at rallies, where she often performs her poetry. Along with her IRL activism, she also posts about injustice regularly on Facebook, and has criticized today's social media activism that allows people to play the part without investing in the real work of social movements. Her work gives space to the voices of black prisoners through her poetry, radio show, and by going inside jails to write with them.

The idea for the show actually came from a prisoner—a man who has waited years for his trial date. He fears he will be put in solitary or have privileges taken away if he's seen criticizing the prison system, so we're using his pseudonym, Ed.

This is part of a VICE Canada project on the future of protest. See more from the Canada 150 series:

He listened to Izrael's previous radio show and heard El's voice on the air. He recognized her voice—she was his English teacher at Nova Scotia Community College. He asked both of them to create a show "to make a difference to people who are incarcerated," Ed tells VICE over the phone from a Nova Scotia jail. Calls cut out after 20 minutes with a one-minute warning from an automated female voice. Ed helps organize the show from inside, soliciting ideas for show topics from fellow inmates and then relaying them to the hosts.

The conditions inside provincial jails vary. Some are violent and overcrowded. Overuse of solitary confinement has been an issue in jails without enough beds. In one jail, Jones says, there are reports that guards strip search inmates on the methadone program before they receive their daily medication. "People have spoken about how humiliating that is, how degraded they feel by that," she says. As for women's prisons, El said she knows a pregnant woman who was put in solitary, and in a case that gained national attention another inmate was recently shackled to her hospital bed.

Ed has heard guards tell inmates to segregate by race—white, Indigenous and Black. "They'll force people to do that sometimes," he says.

While he waits for trial, Ed is advocating for better conditions inside, writing letters to those in charge, and getting results. Black Power Hour is part of that advocacy. People on the outside view prisoners as aliens from another world, he says. The radio show is a bridge between the two worlds to show that "just because people are incarcerated doesn't make them any different from anyone else," he says.

The problem stems from the common narrative that prisoners are the bad guys, El says. That narrative leaves out not only people like Ed who are in prison awaiting trial, and people serving for non-violent crimes, but also the complexities of the types of oppression that lead people into the criminal justice system—risk factors like poverty, mental illness and addiction, or the colour of a person's skin. "That's exactly what the show is trying to break down," she says.

Apart from the radio show, El also volunteers with inmates inside the Nova Institution for Women. The women use creative writing as an outlet for the trauma she says most of them experience. "I don't do much other than help guide it out of them, I guess, give them a space to do it. It's all them." Both her work with the women and her work on the radio does the same thing: "the point is to have a space where your voice is valued."

El wants to see a day when jails as we know them don't exist. To her, there's no reason people who commit non-violent crimes can't be held accountable with community sentences rather than separating them from society. She also believes mental health and addiction shouldn't be criminalized—it's a medical problem, not a court problem. And there's a need for crime prevention by addressing the social determinants of crime, like poverty and mental illness. Those issues should be addressed with better support and health care, not jail, she says.

"Yeah, I am a prison abolitionist," she tells VICE. "And that doesn't mean that therefore you think serial killers should be free among us, that's very much a misconception. If people are dangerous to society, obviously they need to be put in a place that's safe for us and safe for them. But that place doesn't necessarily have to be a punitive place. It doesn't have to be a six-by-eight cell."

Jones doesn't like talking about herself. She's not the one in prison, and inmates with lived experience should be centred in the abolitionist movement, she believes.

"We're not going to get anywhere if we're trying to run movements from the top down—they have to be collaborative, they have to be collective, they have to be based on the needs of the people, and ultimately they have to be giving people the tools and skills they need to help themselves. We should be making ourselves obsolete, right?"

In 2015, El was admitted to a prestigious international writing program at the University of Iowa, an honour that inadvertently caused a stir in Halifax, where locals worried she would leave the city after the writing program ended.

She changed her mind and decided to stay.

"In the end I think you have to do the work where you stand, so I came back," she said, referring to commitments to inmates and the African Nova Scotian community. "There's so much work to be done, and in the end that's where my heart is, to do it here."

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