“Like many of my prisoner-friends surviving long years of isolation and brutality, something within me refused to be broken.” – Jim Campbell
It is fitting that my first PDN blog entry is a memorial to Jim Campbell. Jim was my mentor in prison work, an amazing teacher and activist, and a dear comrade. He died of a heart attack on September 17th.
Jim was the driving force behind many Canadian prison justice campaigns and North American prison publications, including Prison News Service (PNS). PNS was a quarterly 20-page tabloid with news, analysis, commentary, art, and poetry from prisons in North America. PNS grew out of Bulldozer, for many years in the 80s the only Canadian vehicle for prison justice discussions, and the Marionette, a prisoners’ newsletter coordinated by Bill Dunne from inside Marion Federal Prison in Illinois. PNS was written mainly by prisoners, with occasional comment by prison justice activists working on the outside. Most of the funding for the paper came from Jim’s salary as a meter reader for the City of Toronto. He also spent 40 hours a week producing the paper, on top of his full-time City job.
PNS was one of the first to report problems at Kingston’s Prison
for Women, three years before the infamous use of male riot squad
members to deal with a disturbance there. PNS was also one of the few sources of frontline coverage of the 1993 massacre at SOCF in Lucasville, Ohio. Many of the prisoner journalists for PNS wrote despite great obstacles — one wrote his reports with a pencil stub on toilet paper, and another eventually was awarded $10,200 after an Ohio jury agreed that guards violated his
rights by retaliating against him for writing about prison conditions
for outside publications (including PNS). Although not all of the prisoners who wrote for PNS identified as political prisoners or POWs, many of the PPs/POWs imprisoned in the US in the 1980s and 1990s wrote for PNS. I remember PNS most strongly for prisoners’ analysis of the prison system as part of the industrial-military complex, and also for prisoners’ strong writing on neocolonialism and racism. At its height PNS had a
circulation of over 6,000 and was distributed to over 100 North American
Jim came to activism through university but was always rooted in practical experience. He grew up on an isolated dairy farm in rural Ontario, and left to
study mathematics then political
science at the University of Waterloo. As a student he became active in
anti-racism and labour rights movements. In 1976 Jim moved to Vancouver
and connected with the anarchist community. He became interested in
publishing while working on Open Road,
an anarchist periodical. Two years later he returned to Ontario and
started sending letters as a way to improve his writing skills.
Prisoners responded faster than other people and Jim soon had a list of
regular prison pen pals. While visiting Toronto Jim connected with
other anarchists who were interested in prison reform, and they formed
the Bulldozer Collective. Their tagline: “The only
vehicle for prison reform is a bulldozer”.
Jim was open about his motivations for prison justice work stemming from his experiences of childhood sexual abuse.
“I had spent much of my younger days isolated, brutalized, surrounded by those much more powerful than I who were out to do me harm, used by bigger and stronger boys. An image that had haunted me for years of a prisoner, beaten down, forlorn and forgotten, huddled in a corner of a cell, had come straight from my own life, figuratively if not literally. I had been driven by a vow – as unconscious as it must have been – to not stand by while others were being abused.” (from Bulldozer: 15 years and more)
I first met Jim from a distance, in 1992, when a friend sent him a copy of an anarchist magazine I was putting out. Jim got in touch to offer encouragement and support. Although I was a bratty young activist in my early 20s, critical of everything and carrying a strong “fuck you” attitude, Jim never got sucked into my drama or provocations but simply was there to help me learn and grow. We continued to correspond for 10 years by mail, phone, and then email as the internet became more accessible. Although I grew up with activist parents and grandparents, like many disaffected white youth I struggled a lot against my family. Jim was a generation older than me, just a few years younger than my mum, but was able to connect with me (and other young activists coming of age in the early 90s) in a non-patronizing, direct, and genuinely supportive way.
Goodbye, old friend. I’ll miss you. Thank you for everything.
For some of Jim’s writing, see: