Saskatchewan prisoners continue to pursue justice

A black and white photo of the hallway in a prison. Wikipedia Commons

Fighting for humane treatment

Despite outbreaks of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan prisons in December 2020, the province is still housing hundreds of people in overcrowded facilities without adequate precautions or medical care. Those left exposed to the virus inside Saskatoon Correctional Centre, Regina Correctional Centre, and Pine Ridge Correctional Centre in Prince Albert have been participating in a hunger strike since January, seeking accountability for the way they have been “treated like animals.”

The conditions for incarcerated people since quarantine protocols began are a recipe for disaster, both for the physical and mental health of those inside. In a series of letters from Inmates for Humane Conditions, the organization of strikers, individuals reported that they were put in isolation with symptomatic inmates, that correctional officers (COs) did not utilize proper PPE, and that they were left without medical care for unacceptable periods of time (including over-the-counter medications for symptoms and for psychiatric care or counseling). Because of the additional COVID-19 protocols, inmates who are in isolation or quarantine experience even greater emotional and psychological strain without social interaction or time spent outdoors. One inmate wrote in a letter that he felt suicidal after not being outside for 14 days, but when he asked for psychiatric care, there was no doctor available to him; he is still on a waitlist.

Cory Charles Cardinal, the organizer of the strike, wrote about these demoralizing conditions in a letter to the Ministry of Corrections as early as November, but he was granted no response. Many only heard about the situation inside prisons in January, when the strike began, after scores of people had already fallen ill. In an op-ed piece recently published with CBC, Cardinal recounts the outbreak: “Prison-wide testing ensued. Around me inmates were bedridden. The tests came back and multiple inmates were declared COVID-19 positive. There was a feeling of despair, anger and depression.”

The demands of Prisoners for Humane Conditions, as reported in an earlier Carillon article, include the release of all prisoners possible, the resignation of Christine Tell, whose leadership is at the head of this negligence, a public apology, and investment in community-based solutions in the justice system. Instead of listening to these demands or even acknowledging them fully, Christine Tell responded by focusing only on the demand for release. This is part of a larger pattern wherein prisoner advocacy is framed as solely troublemaking behaviour. Cardinal is currently in isolation, a punitive response to organizing the strike. While we cannot know the exact conditions on the inside, it is hard to believe that living in cramped quarters with infected people has nothing to do with these acts of desperation.

Dr. Jason Demers of the University of Regina’s English Department said he thinks the problems with prisons in Saskatchewan go much deeper than Christine Tell’s leadership. In an e-mail interview, the Carillon spoke with Demers about the strike and the issues it demands we address. Demers teaches a course on prison writing, where writing from incarcerated people is the focus of study, and where a writing exchange is made possible with people at the Regina Correctional Centre. This encourages his students to “see beyond labels and engrained stereotypes” about prisoners.

“Prisons in Saskatchewan have long been operating over capacity,” Demers said. “More than half of inmates are on remand on any given day. This means they’ve been charged and are being held while waiting for a court date. Over time, things that are entirely abnormal become normalized; it’s entirely preposterous that more than half of the people in prison on any given day haven’t been sentenced yet. Prisons that are overcrowded end up becoming human warehouses.” Being on remand also precludes prisoners from certain programs and protections – it was one of the reasons there was not more help available for Kimberly Squirrel, a mother of six, who froze to death in Saskatoon in January because she could not find a way home when she was released.

“But the problems in the prison are ultimately inherited from policing and the courts,” Demers continues. “Prisons are filled with trauma, addictions, poverty, people with FASD – if you build more capacity in the system, you can always admit more people, but the question we have to ask ourselves is whether prisons are the best catch-all for all of these issues, whether prisons make society safer, and whether they ultimately help people to regain their footing after serving a sentence. In cities like Austin and Seattle, they’ve successfully argued that police budgets should be cut so that money can be diverted towards supports like social housing with wraparound services. The project in these cases is to build a much less expensive, much less violent, and much more targeted infrastructure than the currently existing police-court-prison model.”

Demers also emphasized that “[b]etween 85 and 95 per cent of people incarcerated in provincial prisons are Indigenous. [Cory Cardinal] called the COVID-19 outbreak ‘the newest development in Canada’s 154-year-long campaign of Indigenous genocide.’ In the prisons, dorms are filled with bunks that bring some inmates back to years spent in residential schools.” Demers added that “prisoners have discussed improper diets since food services were privatized a few years back. Prisoners are separated from loved ones by vast distances, an expensive, privately run phone system, and no-contact visits […] During the pandemic, they systematically stopped serving breakfast and cut access to the canteen when an outbreak wiped out kitchen staff, and the policy for dealing with positive tests was to place people in quarantine, rendering them unable to contact family, leaving parents, spouses, and children petrified by any gap in communication. Where’s the humanity in that?”

Demers recommended that students read Cardinal’s letter and op-ed, and that they listen to two podcasts put out by the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, one featuring Cory Cardinal, and another featuring mothers of incarcerated people. “The Truth and Reconciliation process isn’t only about coming to terms with the past, it’s about recognizing ongoing colonial practices and policies, learning about the strength, resilience, and humanity in those who struggle against systematic injustice, and using your position and contacts to amplify voices that tend to go unheard.”

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