On a Precipice
This article is published anonymously to stand in solidarity with Federal public servants who have been denied their democratic right to speak freely as citizens on issues of political concern.
On Prisoner Justice Day, I found myself sitting in a classroom with a group of women inside a federal prison. We meet regularly to tell stories and make art together. It was unusually quiet; the solitary clinking of a weight set in the fitness room replaced what should have been a loud and bustling Friday night in ‘general population’.
Prisoner Justice Day in this institution is usually a big deal. On Aug. 10, some prisoner groups organize hunger or labour strikes, spending the whole day in silence without acknowledging staff as a symbolic protest against conditions. In this particular prison, there is an annual event in the gymnasium, where staff and prisoners come together to honour those who have died behind bars and to celebrate the work of those who have fought for dignity and justice inside Canadian prisons. On this night, however, there was nothing. No remembrance of friends and family who died behind bars. No poetry reading. No discussion about what justice in prison means.
Things have been changing, the women explained. This year, national supervisors in Ottawa showed an interest in the annual Prisoner Justice Day art contest. Usually the warden selects the winning design, which is then printed on T-shirts for the women to wear. The wardens no longer have this power.
All Prisoner Justice Day T-shirt designs were to be approved at the national level. The design this year had featured a fallen angel; wings outstretched with her face covered by her forearms, which were covered in scars. It drew attention to high rates of self-mutilation and suicide in the prison system, but also spoke to the potential of those who have fallen. But once national supervisors reviewed the T-shirt design, a new national directive was handed down: there would be no Prisoner Justice Day T-shirts.
No T-shirts in a time of budget cuts? Not a huge deal, one might think. However, the issue of the T-shirts is only one small piece of a much larger and more troubling picture. A culture of secrecy and top-down bureaucratic control in Federal departments has been making headlines since the Conservative Party of Canada began their last mandate. On the cusp of Bill C-10 the combination of intense Conservative control of the public service, along with changes to the bail system, prison employment and the telephone system, is straining relationships between prisoners and staff, and is creating increasingly dangerous conditions.
“I feel scared” one of the women said quietly.
Support from wardens and staff for Prisoner Justice Day was key in developing solidarity in the struggle for prisoner justice. Not all staff are allies in this process, but a surprising number of them are. With Federal directives to pull financial support for Prisoner Justice Day, a new message is being promoted: if prisoners want to talk about justice in Canada, they are on their own.
The woman continued: “As a prisoner who has to remain in jail for another 5,412 days, I’m afraid of these changes. I’m frightened of the jail mentality we are creating by knowingly warehousing broken people and the impact it will have on the future of not only prisoners, but our country. “
In addition to changes outlined in Bill C-10, Federal Safety Minister Vic Toews has announced a series of immediate changes to prisons in Canada. First, all inmates are now being charged for room and board. Previously, only those who worked and made over a certain amount of money were charged. Furthermore, family support incentives have now been taken away from those women working in CorCan, the prison corporation. Previously, women who passed a certain income threshold and had children or families to support could send money home instead of paying for their room and board.
Adding insult to injury, prisoners are have been told that they will bear the full cost of changes to the telephone system. Given that most prisons are in rural areas, phone calls home mean serious long distance charges. Prisoners pay the highest market rate for long distance calls, as they are not permitted the use of a long distance plan. Prisoners' telephone calls are recorded, so technical constraints prevent calling cards from being used. Now, they will be paying both the prison and the phone companies for any telephone usage.
These changes disproportionately impact women. As one woman put it: “men don’t stick around. When men are in jail, their wives stay. When women in are in jail, men take off and leave the kids with their family.”
Many women were already struggling to pay for the care of their children through CorCan incentives. This option is now gone. With changes to room and board fees, they will be leaving prison with nothing saved up to support a new life for their kids.
Men’s prisons often provide entrepreneurship programs and the materials for men to make furniture or make things to sell, which provides them with supplementary income. In women’s institutions, these opportunities are scant if they are offered at all. Materials for entrepreneurship activities are not offered. Any item a prisoner requires that is not provided by the institution can be purchased by them, on their limited income, by staff who conduct the outside shopping. In this particular prison, women are may only request four items per list once every two weeks. And only if the materials they need are available at Wal-Mart, which is the only outside-shopping option.
Incarcerated women have good reason to fear for their families. A recent study released by a research group in the United States demonstrated the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and poor health outcomes later in life. In the study, researchers listed what they believed to be the most dangerous adverse childhood experiences. A household member being sent to prison was on a list of 10 experiences, which included sexual and physical abuse, and suicide in the family. The study concluded that children of incarcerated parents are at a greater risk for the development of chronic diseases and early death.
On that quiet night in the women’s prison on Prisoner Justice Day, we sat beneath the steady hum of a ceiling fan, talking. The women were upset — not just because of the T-shirts but because they felt like they were living in what some of them described as the dangerous calm before a storm. The prison had recently finished a large-scale renovation, reportedly to address issues of over-crowding and a lack of office and program space. But there are fewer programs now than ever before.
The renovated visiting room is built like a surgical observatory, with such disruptive acoustics and a lack of intimacy that it has reportedly given inmates anxiety attacks and made visiting families uncomfortable. As one woman put it: “All over Canada, they are building and building, but you can’t hide suicides with fancy new rooms”.
Funds spent on ballooning renovation budgets and increased numbers of prisoners has led to under-staffing. Everything from fewer programs due to lack of staff support to constant mail mix-ups creates dangerous levels of stress and upset amongst inmates. The complaint process is woefully inadequate. Staff don’t have the time nor the training to help women resolve disputes. Women are frustrated.
“We might as well not even have a complaint process,” said another inmate. “They convince and intimidate women to sign it off as ‘resolved’ when it is not resolved. Admin doesn’t want the correctional investigator to see it.”
It is likely that there will be a lot happening in Canadian prisons over the next few years that Federal departments wouldn’t want an independent investigator to see. As we talked, the women lamented how, in just a few short years, the Harper government has decimated the positive changes that were made following public outcry over the events that took place at the Kingston Prison for Women in 1994. Prisoner Justice Day is the one day a year when prisoners come together to talk about injustice and those who have died. Given the swiftness with which our current Federal government has moved to undo years of progress in prison justice, it’s no wonder they moved swiftly to cancel Prisoner Justice Day T-shirts. It is likely they were terrified of a riot. And available evidence suggests that they should be.
When I asked the women what they would have talked about if a Prisoner Justice Day event had taken place that evening, they responded with stories of men and women they had known who had died in prison, most of them by suicide. One woman said: “I would have shared a poem in honour of Ashley, a woman in her early twenties who stuck to my side like glue in the remand centre, simply because it was my idea to make an apple crisp out of the kitchen scraps. Ashley wanted to belong and be safe and when she didn’t feel those two things, she wanted to die. In segregation, she died alone after drinking a bottle of toilet sanitizer. She was being filmed on suicide watch, but it was too late. She died while they watched.”
Recently, a Conservative Senator made public statements supporting depressed inmates to commit suicide. This attitude is not confined to Senate. As we brace ourselves for full implementation of Bill C-10, the public needs more than ever to become better acquainted with what is going on in our prisons, lest we see a repeat of the terrible events in Kingston Prison for Women in 1994. Rapid changes brought on by a Conservative majority are now being felt in our judicial and correctional systems, and inmates are feeling the pressure. As one woman said: “I think of the repercussion to this oppression. I am scared we will see riots.”