Prisoners’ Justice Day commemorated by prisoners
On August 10, Prisoners’ Justice Day, activists outside of the Don Jail read a statement that had been written by prisoners themselves to the assembled crowd. About 100 people had gathered, many directly affected by the prison system through their own personal encounters, or through the imprisonment of those they cared about. Although some people were familiar faces from political demonstrations, others were affected by the more routine risk factors for incarceration. Across Canada people who are poor, who are racialized, who are indigenous, who are mentally ill, who are sex workers, face criminalization as part of their daily lives. On the inside, the event was also recognized by one-day hunger strikes by prisoners themselves.
If the Conservative government has their way, conditions in prison will get much worse. The Conservative government’s recent omnibus crime bill introduced mandatory minimums for pot growing and other drugs and is widely expected to increase the number of prisoners in Canada. 22 new provincial and territorial prisons and 17 prison expansions are being built across the country. Federal prisons are expected to absorb cuts while adding even more people, a situation that will increase crowing and make prisons more dangerous.
This is all part of an austerity agenda that was protested in Toronto during the G20, when over a thousand people in Toronto were suddenly acquainted with some of the realities of imprisonment. And some of those who are currently doing time for G20 protest organizing or participation have been keeping blogs, serving as a connection between inside and outside the prison system in order to de-mystify the prison experience. Mandy Hiscocks has been writing from inside the Vanier Centre for Women, Alex Hundert has been writing from the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene, and Kelly Pflug-Back has recently started her prison blog, also from Vanier.
Prisons are total institutions and they control not only the minute details of daily life but also communication in and out. Combined with social stigma, the marginal social position of prisoners and fantastical television portrayals, many people not directly affected by the prison system have no idea what goes on inside. Together, these blogs have been helping lift the obscurity of prison life.
Hundert has been writing on conditions inside jail, as well as recounting untold older stories fellow prisoners have shared with him, such as the Ramadan riot of 2010 at the Maplehurst Correctional Centre. During the Ramadan fast, meals are supposed to be served before sunrise and again following sunset. But evening meals to break fast were being served cold, or late and were not providing enough food to fasting prisoners. Many of the inmates complained to the guards that they were being starved and their official complaint forms were ignored. A peaceful protest was planned where prisoners would refuse to go back to their cells but on one of the blocks a riot started as prisoners there said that they were too upset to protest peacefully. Non-Muslim prisoners also joined in a show of solidarity. Hundert writes: “One of the things that stands out for me [was that] it was not just Muslims who were rioting…guards were beating people who weren’t themselves actually participating, as well as those who were. When I ask [my fellow prisoner] about this further, he tells me that ‘people were rioting because jail is bullshit; people understood that Muslims were getting mistreated.’”
From women’s prison, Mandy Hiscocks writes that for many women prisoners, being separated from their families, even newborn babies, is one of the most painful parts of their incarceration: “While they’re here they can’t hug, hold or kiss them because the visits are “secure”: prisoners and visitors are divided by glass and speak through the phone…I’ve been told by people who’ve experienced it that labour is induced on a pre-determined day and the women are not allowed to refuse this. During labour she’s handcuffed to the bed.”
She also has written about the fate of those in immigration detention. One woman applied for political asylum at the airport and thought she would be able to buy a ticket back if necessary and instead found herself in handcuffs. Mandy wrote: “I once asked her if she’d be in danger if she went back. ‘Yes. But danger is better than jail.’ So what will she do? ‘I’m looking for another country now. Because I can’t stay in Latvia.’”
While it’s generally assumed that jail is a good time to catch up on reading, Hundert and Hiscocks have both written about access issues with books and newspapers in prison. Currently in some men’s jails books are almost impossible to access, cannot be mailed to prisoners (officially they can but most are censored) and library programs are either inadequate or non-existent. Two of Hundert’s blogs entitled “No books in prisons” has resulted in media attention that has led to some attempts to rectify the situation. The provincial women’s jail has a limited selection of books and highly gendered magazine choices. Although the quality of the books has improved since 2010, when only romance novels were available, books can’t be mailed to inmates unless they are for specific educational courses.
For many, Prisoners’ Justice Day is a reminder that for people pushed to the margins of society, simply living and surviving can be an illegal act, and as Kelly Plug-Back reminds us, “Every prisoner is a political prisoner.
To read more about life in Canadian prisons visit Alex Hundert’s blog at alexhundert.wordpress.com, Mandy Hiscocks’ blog at boredbutnotbroken.tao.ca and Kelly Pflug-Back’s blog at supportkellypfl.wordpress.com.
Megan Kinch is writer and editor with the Toronto Media Co-op.