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OTTAWA—The issue of harm reduction in prisons dominated the presentations at the Prisoners’ Justice Day event held in Ottawa, at the Jack Purcell Community Centre on August 10. The event included a table fair, a prisoners’ book drive and presentations from organizers and former inmates.
“Prisoners’ Justice Day is a day of solidarity, to honour and remember all prisoners who have died unnatural deaths while incarcerated, and to cast light on the on-going human rights issues present in prisons,” said Jennifer Rae, a member of Campaign for Safer Consumption Sites in Ottawa (CSCS), in a speech. “This year, [the] day will also focus on the need for harm reduction policies in Canadian prisons to reduce the spread of infectious diseases and save lives.”
CSCS, an organization that promotes dignity and respect for all drug users, was one of the many community groups organizing this event. According to her speech, estimates of HIV and Hepatitis C prevalence in Canadian prisons are respectively 10 times and 20 times the estimated prevalence in the rest of Canada, and are especially high among drug users. Additionally, suicide rates in prisons are seven times higher than the general Canadian population, and between 2005 and 2010 there were over 33,000 formal complaints from prisoners, mostly regarding lack of health care in federal prisons.
Caleb Chepesiuk is the Harm Reduction Program Coordinator at AIDS Committee of Ottawa, another group organizing the event. The group provides support and promotes the wellbeing of people affected by HIV/AIDS. Chepesiuk said that the prison policies do not provide a space for safe drug use, encouraging the spread of infections such as HIV and Hepatitis C.
“The policies create more harm for people who use drugs than the drugs themselves,” he said. “There has been a call for a needle distribution system in prisons for years now…and this is being actively ignored by our politicians and bureaucrats.”
Chepesiuk added that even people who are on trial or spending shorter periods of time in prisons are also at a risk of facing many problems.
“Whether it is a couple of weeks or a couple of months, [those policies] disrupt any efforts of getting employment, or housing, all those different pieces that really help build a healthy community,” he said.
On August 10, inmates in Canada and in prisons around the world went on a hunger strike in memory of Eddy Nolan who bled to death in Millhaven Penitentiary in Ontario on August 10, 1974. That incident along with a four day riot that resulted in the death of two inmates at the Kingston Penitentiary in 1971 led to major improvements in the Canadian prison system.
Inmates also released a statement on Prisoners’ Justice Day, written by Alex Hundert, and Mandy Hiscocks, both community organizers who are currently imprisoned on charges related to activist organizing around the G20 Summit, in Toronto in 2010. The statement was written with input from more than a dozen inmates inside the Central North Correctional Complex in Penetanguishene Ontario.
Similar events were held in other Canadian cities such as Toronto, Halifax and Vancouver, Montreal and Sudbury.
Crystel Hajjar is an Ottawa-based writer, organizer and climate justice activist.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.