Evelyn White Reviews El Jones’ Abolitionist Intimacies, which Shines with Intellect and Candour
In stark contrast to the scores of dense, statistics-stuffed books that have been written about prisons, El Jones introduces readers to the real life experiences of inmates (and their families) in her powerful new release Abolitionist Intimacies, which launches this November [see our Fall Issue for a brief excerpt].
About her sojourn in the visiting area of a women’s prison in Nova Scotia, the Halifax poet, activist, professor and journalist writes: “One time I was waiting … for the women to come down … and I found a sheet of paper. A mother had made a list with her children of what she wanted to do when she got out. Order pizza, it said. Talk for as long as I want with no one listening. … Walk, not in a circle.”
In another passage, she recounts an exchange she overheard with a nurse who works in a jail. “[She] says that a guard asked her if it would damage the baby if he had to pepper-spray a pregnant woman,” Jones writes. The nurse is advised, Jones reveals, to “tell him it would lower his sperm count permanently.”
Those who’ve attended Jones’s spoken word performances—she was Poet Laureate of Halifax from 2013 to 2015—have witnessed her dynamic stage presence. Abolitionist Intimacies offers an absorbing blend of prose and poetry that showcases the author’s talent for speaking undiluted truth to power.
Jones also brings a wicked wit to her art and politics. In a section about the writing workshops she conducts, she declares: “I am teaching Dante’s Inferno and we do an exercise where I ask students who they would put in hell.”
Born in Wales, Jones traces her interest in the prison abolitionist movement—a campaign to eliminate prisons and promote alternatives to incarceration—to her discovery, as a youth, of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde. “Reading Wilde was my entrance into understanding … injustice,” writes Jones, who was reared in Winnipeg and claims Trinidadian and Welsh ancestry.
Published in 1898, the poem recounts the execution (by hanging) of a man who’d been jailed in the same prison as Wilde during his two-year incarceration for alleged gross indecency.
“I grew up in a family marked by colonization, where, in my own mother’s lifetime, Trinidad had become independent,” Jones continues, noting that Wilde’s poem sparked her desire to “clearly [see] a wrong and a burning to right it. I often tell people I became an abolitionist at age thirteen.”
In addition to the author’s poetry and prose (which includes reprints of articles first published in the Halifax Examiner), the volume features Jones’ detailed personal notes about her volunteer work with prisoners. Upset because she wasn’t hired for a new job, Jones begins to cry while on the phone with an inmate.
“Want me to staple his eyes shut?” the prisoner consoles her. “Fuck them anyway, you’re awesome.”
“A. … bunks with a guy charged with rape,” Jones records, in another note. “The guy [says] he’s guilty, but he can’t tell his mother. He’s scared she would kill herself. So, he pretends to her he never did it.”
About a poster in a visiting room, she writes: “It’s a picture of a baby in a diaper and pills. The message is that using your baby to smuggle drugs into the prison is child abuse.”
In passages about the narrative that has historically positioned Canada as “better” than the United States on race relations, Jones refutes the notion. Among others, she cites Toronto lawyer and activist Anthony Morgan on the matter.
“Too routinely, Black bodies are unjustly surveilled, intercepted, and snuffed out by police in the Great White North,” Morgan notes. “Not only is anti-Black racism real here, but it is forcefully denied when you try to point it out. As such, there exists a double burden of anti-Blackness in Canada. This is what I call the suffocating experience of being Black in Canada.”
Echoing Morgan’s argument, Jones writes: “Prisons are living monuments to racism and colonial violence in Canada.”
Indeed, data from Statistics Canada reveals that Indigenous people comprise 30 percent of inmates compared to about five percent of the total population. At 7.2 percent, the incarceration rate for Blacks in Canada is more than double their 3.5 percent of the population.
Abolitionist Intimacies shines with Jones’s intellect, generous spirit, candour and unwavering commitment to Canadians who find themselves behind prison walls. “My relationships are ongoing, consistent, and have no particular research outcome or goal in mind,” she explains. “Joy, sharing, laughter, kindness, casual discussion, etc., are also central to our interactions.”