Jail house Blues: January 2008

The Mirror ARCHIVES: Jan 29-Feb 4.2004 Vol. 19 No. 32
The Front

 

Blues behind bars

>> Activist Faith Nolan comes to Montreal to talk about women and prison

 

by SHANNON DEVINE

The growth of Canada's prison system may just be the nation's best kept secret. In the last decade the number of women behind bars has skyrocketed by 200 per cent, according the Elizabeth Fry Society, a pan-Canadian women-prisoners' rights group. Rights advocates have declared this trend the result of the feminization of poverty. Across the board, women of colour disproportionately fill the country's prisons for crimes that are often linked to economic survival: fraud, theft or drug trafficking.

Queer afro-Canadian musician and activist Faith Nolan sees this short trip from poverty to incarceration as a key part of what she calls the Canadian prison industrial complex. Up against this looming giant, Nolan is armed with only a guitar, a harmonica and a Bessie Smith song or two. "Music is something I can share with people, use it to educate and give strength," she says.

Nolan, 46, has poured generous amounts of her 20-year career as a singer and songwriter into working with incarcerated women. Recent projects include a trip to Nigeria with the International Conference on Penal Abolition, consisting of concerts with the women of the KiriKiri and Enugu prisons, which she plans to release on disc next year. "They really did the performing, I just started a couple of songs," Nolan says. "The women came in with drums and beautiful voices." In 2002, she also made a video in coordination with the women of San Francisco County Jail, which she will be presenting in Montreal on Jan. 29 at Concordia.

Jails close to home

Unlike most people, Nolan has never felt uncomfortable going into prisons. She was raised in a working-class black neighbourhood in Halifax at a time where the only jobs a black person could count on were that of a maid or a railroad worker. "People had to do little extras to live decently," she says. The more entrepreneurial would pursue drug trafficking, prostitution or robbery.

Nolan's own mother was a bootlegger and operated a gambling parlour out of their home. "I grew up with people going to jail all the time," Nolan says. "The police were always busting into our house and taking her or somebody off to jail."

As a result, the music she emerged with was freedom songs and blues. Only Nolan's versions are concocted with a twist: she uses them to educate people on issues close to her heart - racism, homophobia, sexism, labour rights and class oppression. She has seven albums to date and has collaborated on a variety of projects for the National Film Board.

Now based in Toronto, Nolan played her first prison gig 20 years ago while visiting her cousins doing time in Kingston's Prison for Women. She was later invited to San Bruno County Jail in California by civil rights activist Angela Davis. "The experience is very musically exciting," she says. "There is nothing like a good jailhouse blues."

Disproportionate detention

Native women represent 20 per cent of incarcerated women, according to statistics collected by the Corrections Service of Canada, while Canada's aboriginal people account for only a little over three per cent of the population. Similarly, black women make up six per cent of prisoners and only one per cent of the general public.

With the rolling back of state support for women and the advent of five new detention centres for women in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, Nolan believes that tough sentencing on crimes typically committed by poor women are proving to be a handy way to fill prison beds.

"Poverty is the principal cause of female crime," says Ruth Gagnon, executive director of Société Elizabeth Fry du Québec. She believes that poverty in women's lives is often more dire and more of a determining factor because it is women who are still largely responsible for the children. "More than ever female crime is committed with the purpose of getting the woman and her family out of financial hardship."

According to Nolan, prison is like a microcosm of what goes on outside. "The jail is a replica of a very racist, sexist society," she says.

Faith Nolan will talk on women and Canadian prisons Jan. 29 at 7pm at Concordia's Hall Building (1455 de Maisonneuve W.), room TBA. For more info, call 848-7585. She will also be performing at a benefit concert for the Immigrant Workers Centre on Jan. 30, 7pm-1am (1710 Beaudry).
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