Women in Prison

Women in Prison

Because it’s 2015.
And there’s women in the cabinet
But that might not seem so adequate
To women in the custody of the state
It might not seem that late for black women imprisoned at ever rising rates
Positioned by the colour of her skin to be a criminal by definition
Or it might just seem too soon for indigenous teen girls in Saskatoon
Kicked out of school in the afternoon
At night she’s trafficked on the streets and arrested as suspicious
Should we measure if our progress is finished
By the number of women ministers
Or maybe it should be the number of women prisoners
Perhaps we should consider the condition of women denied tampons or conditioner
Or something even simpler like extra squares of toilet paper.
Her body on camera so demeaning
In addition her visitors
Can be turned away for no particular reason
So pardon me if I save my celebrations for at least another season
Because we’ve come a long way baby sounds a lot more sinister
If you’re a mother behind bars having her baby seized
Without her signature
And then she’s punished for grieving
We might not think then that we’ve achieved
gender equality so easily
Just ask Renee Acoby.
Or you could if she’d ever be allowed to be freed
Because indigenous women get labelled a social disease
Would you believe that men who murder women are given regular sentences
But women imprisoned for non violent crimes end up as dangerous offenders
When it was prison that created all their violent acts
Or let me go back to the fact that 80-90 percent of women in prison
Are victims of physical and sexual abuse
And the men who commit violence against them remain on the loose
Yet we take young girls and place them into custody as youths
And we deliver them straight from care to adult institutions
And maybe that only seems like a solution
Compared to the execution of Tina Fontaine
Seen by police in the company of her killer
Only for her body to be found a week later in the Red River
Does it make you shiver to think that the state
Would rather pay to hold women in jail
Than to pay half the cost to house and educate.
And so many women become lost
But let’s debate
Whether Sophie Trudeau should be granted a staff
While women who need mental health care end up with an epitaph
Can we grapple with the fact that Ashley Smith
Was imprisoned only for throwing apples
And in her battle with mental illness
She was held in solitary confinement in shackles
Until she strangled herself with her sheets
But nobody beats down the doors for women
Once they’re serving time.
The guards who watched her die for 45 minutes
but it was decided not to be a crime
And the records were sealed
A publication ban in place against revealing
Never mind cracking the glass ceiling
It’s a cell of glass walls when you’re on suicide watch
With no chance of healing
And most women are in prison for crimes of poverty like stealing
Or because they have a boyfriend who’s dealing
And black women get convicted because we’re seen to not have feelings
We’re just assumed to be more guilty at every point in the proceedings
And it’s so hard for women without money to get the help that they are needing
Which is why there’s so many women in the cells with cuts on their arms bleeding
And there’s bruised women appealing their sentences because they murdered their abuser
And all people will say is why didn’t she leave sooner
Trans women housed with the men because her birth certificate doesn’t prove her gender
And let’s remember there’s still sex workers in the back of the cruiser
And when the treatment facility for women isn’t funded
Is it any wonder that users cycle in and out of jail
When all the systems fail her.
We ignore women’s pain and blame it on her behaviour
And women are placed in provincial facilities that are overcrowded
It’s hard for the women to count when they’re surrounded by men
Women pray for long sentences just to get federal housing
Shouldn’t we be doubting that so much progress has been made
When so many women aren’t waving but drowning
And we are rounding up refugee women for not having papers
It’s ironic that Canada has webpages for Americans who want to come to Canada
If the election doesn’t go their way but women from third world countries are deported without wages
As if nannies and cleaners are really a danger
To the same society that won’t charge women’s rapists
But spends millions of dollars locking up blacks and natives
And please don’t think that prison makes her safer
When male guards are allowed to see her naked
Have we forgotten Kingston where the women were degraded
We refuse to believe women when they give their statements
But when they won’t testify against gangs they end up with prison placements
And we put women away for misrepresenting a few welfare payments
Black women working for corrections in conditions like enslavement
Making 5 dollars or less a day with 9 hours on the clock
Native women in prison sew blankets in sweatshops
For the same military that gave their ancestors smallpox
And after work they go back to the range and then the doors are locked
Oh tell me again at how inequality has dropped
If you’ve ever mopped a cell with your facecloth you know it never stopped.


Untitled illustration by Rachel Derrah

About El Jones

El Jones is a spoken-word activist and teacher from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her poems are themed around social-political issues surrounding race and gender. She was Halifax’s fifth poet laureate; a two-time National Spoken Word Champion, a journalist, and an instructor at universities and colleges around the province. El works collaboratively with people inside to produce radio and creative programming twice a week on the radio station CKDU 88.1. She would like to extend thanks and honour to the women inside whose voices, and courage in sharing those voices and experiences, shape this poem.

About Rachel Derrah

Rachel is an illustrator and conversation facilitator aiming for societial change. She explores how art can engage hearts and minds to see the bigger picture. Rachel believes that together, people can learn to serve humanity and the planet. Born in a small village in New Brunswick, she currently lives in Halifax.

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