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TORONTO—Across Canada people with mundane, everyday risk factors for police repression—poverty, race, being Indigenous, working as a sex worker—face criminalization as part of their daily lives.
Prisoners' Justice Day is annually held in August, but the struggle for solidarity with prisoners is every day. On the inside, Prisoners' Justice Day was recognized by one-day hunger strikes by prisoners themselves, and 150 prisoners from Joyceville Institution, a federal prison in Kingston, have since filed suit for the right to wear Prisoners' Justice Day t-shirts.
On August 10, 2012 in Toronto, about 100 people gathered outside The Don Jail(formally The Toronto Jail, a provincial prison) to read a statement that had been written by prisoners themselves. Many in the crowd were directly affected by the prison system through their own personal encounters or through the imprisonment of those they cared about. Last Friday in Hamilton 50 protesters marched against lockdowns and poor conditions at the Barton Street Jail (formally the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre) as a result of a work-to-rule action on the part of the guards. Just this week, early the morning of Wednesday September 12, only hours after correctional officers returned to work, a 42-year-old inmate was found dead.
In such conditions, simply communicating about conditions on the inside to people on the outside becomes a form or resistance.
If the Conservative government has their way, conditions in prison will get much worse. US style mega-prisons are coming to Canada. 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. Twenty-two new provincial and territorial prisons and 17 prison expansions are being built across the country. Federal prisons are expected to absorb cuts while adding more people—a situation that will increase crowding and make prisons even more dangerous.
This is all part of an austerity agenda that was protested in Toronto during the G20, when over a thousand people were suddenly acquainted with some of the realities of imprisonment. Some of those who are currently doing time related for G20 protest organizing or participation have been keeping blogs—serving as a connection between inside and outside of the prison system in order to demystify the prison experience. Mandy Hiscocks has been writing from inside the Vanier Centre for Women; Alex Hundert was writing from Toronto West Detention Centre and now the Central North Correctional Centre in Penetanguishene and Kelly Pflug-Back, also at Vanier, has recently started her prison blog.
Prisons are total institutions and they control not only the minute details of daily life but also communication inside and out. Combined with social stigma, the marginal social position of prisoners and fantastical television portrayals, many people who are not directly affected by the prison system have no idea what goes on inside. Together, these blogs have been helping make prison life seem less obscure.
Hundert has been writing on conditions inside jail, as well as recounting untold older stories fellow prisoners have shared with him, such as what is now known as the "Ramadan Riot" of 2010 at the Maplehurst Correctional Complex. During the Ramadan fast, meals are supposed to be served before sunrise and again following sunset. 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, thinking 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 issues with access to books and newspapers. 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. Three of Hundert's blogs entitled "No books in prisons" have resulted in media attention that has led to some attempts to rectify the situation, but the situation with access to books in many men's prisons is still abysmal. 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. 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.
A version of this article was first published in the Ryerson Free Press.
Megan Kinch is writer and editor with the Toronto Media Co-op. follow her on twitter @meganysta
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.