As the New Brunswick government pressed ahead last fall with its controversial plan for a $32 million jail in Fredericton, poet, activist and university professor El Jones poked fun at it during a speech at Mount Allison.
She suggested that the new jail would be sold to the public as more humane and civilized.
“Do you hate people with mental health problems if you don’t want them in a brand new prison which will have more beds?” she asked.
“Oh, they have Braille on the cells, so now we can send people who are blind to prison too. Oh, we have more and more wider cells, so people in wheelchairs won’t have a problem,” she joked.
“This is our idea of progression when people with disabilities should not be in jail and people with mental health struggles should not be in jail,” Jones said.
“We need to push back on this rhetoric.”
Jones, who was speaking at Mt. A. on November 23rd as part of the university president’s speakers series, is the author of Abolitionist Intimacies, a book that examines the movement to abolish prisons through a variety of literary forms including poetry, satire, essays and journalism.
She is also one of the authors of a 216 page report on defunding the Halifax Regional Police commissioned by the city’s Board of Police Commissioners in 2020 after an academic study showed that police stopped black people in street checks at a rate six times higher than white people in Halifax and that between 2005 and 2016, 30% of Halifax’s black male population had been charged with a crime compared to 6.8% of the white male population.
The Halifax figures reflected comparable ones released last year by Toronto Police.
What would defunding police mean?
The report commissioned by the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners quotes the Equal Justice Society in the U.S. on the general definition of defunding as “a call to decrease police budgets, size, scope, and power while investing into alternative community safety models and wellbeing services (anti-homelessness, healthcare, education, drug rehabilitation, affordable housing, etc.)”
Or as the report itself notes:
Government funding cuts
Jones told her Mount A. audience that decades of austerity have resulted in funding cuts to health care, mental health, nursing homes, schools and housing with an increasing emphasis on police being called on to fill gaps in social services.
“So, if I see an unhoused person living in a tent, I should call the police and outsource that to police and to force because I don’t want that in my neighbourhood.
“If there’s somebody outside the Tim Hortons, I should call the police because they’re asking for change,” she said.
“There’s this idea that the police keep us safe and bad people go to prison,” she added.
“But that us is the white public, the middle class public, the property-owning public, that’s how it’s imagined and anyone who’s Black, Indigenous, experiencing mental-health struggles, a drug user, a sex worker, queer or trans, immigrants who don’t speak English, we’re all outside this notion of the public and therefore, policing is turned on us.”
Jones said activists like her understand that goals such as prison abolition or defunding of police may not happen in their lifetime.
“So, we just have to step toward them in the ways that we’re able to.”
For a Mount Saint Vincent University bio of El Jones, click here.
For a report on Robyn Maynard’s 2019 talk at Mt. A. based on her book Policing Black Lives, click here.