Aug. 04, 2010 - Issue #772: The Outsiders
Day of remembrance
Prison Justice Day calls attention to failures of incarceration
August 10 marks the 35th anniversary of Prison Justice Day—a day of remembrance of those who have died in prison. The first day, held in 1975, at Ontario's Millhaven prison was in memory of Edward Nalon who died of suicide in segregation on August 10, 1974. He spent over 60 days there for refusal to work. Though he had been approved for transfer from segregation the previous week, he had not been told and he had not been removed. After slashing his arm, Nalon tried to use the emergency buzzer in his cell to contact the guards, but it, along with all of the others in the unit, had been disconnected.Today prisoners and allies see PJD as an international day of remembrance and of resistance against a destructive system. Prisoners and allies refuse food, strike and take time to commemorate those who have lost their lives to prison. The Correction Service of Canada (CSC) does not recognize PJD, so prisoners who refuse work or don't attend programs can jeopardize their parole application.
While conditions today have improved, there is still much to resist, including the use of segregation and treatment of mental health isues. This was brought to harsh light in the case of Ashley Smith, who died of suicide in segregation in a New Brunswick prison in 2007. Correctional investigator Howard Sapers titled his report of Smith's case, "A Preventable Death." Smith was initially arrested as a youth on a small charge and sentenced to a small amount of time. But her mental health issues were met with punishment, extensive time in segregation, rather than treatment which steadily increased her sentence. Sapers points to CSC's response to Smith's mental health issues, use of segregation and the failure of the guards to assist her as she was dying as major factors in her death.
Tragic events could be avoided if problems are addressed in a way that holds inmates accountable for their actions, but is supportive, rather than punitive, says Tracie Cheesman, who was recently released from the Edmonton Institution for Women. In order for people to achieve rehabilitation while in prison, Cheesman explains there is a need for staff to know and respond to inmates on a personal level. "If Jane doesn't show up for work three days in a row, in addition to the pay cut and reprimand, someone should be asking what's going on with her. What's causing this behaviour?"
As of 2008, 11 percent of inmates in federal prisons had previous mental health diagnosis, but 30 percent of female inmates had been previously hospitalized for psychiatric care. Long wait lists for programs means people aren't getting the treatment they want and need, explains Cheesman. Not only does this mean inmates are missing the benefits, the frustration and disappointment that can come from being denied access can lead to acting out, which can result in reprimands, including segregation.Rather than call for more programming and staffing, Cheesman says there is a need to prevent people from being incarcerated in the first place. The latest report from the International Centre for Prevention of Crime called for governments to give greater priority to prevention in public safety strategies. They point to such things as stable funding for local community organizations and programs and policies that support children and families as effective ways to prevent crime.
Speaking with a woman still incarcerated and wishing to remain anonymous, she says that Prison Justice Day is more about preventing abuse. "We're not looking for sympathy, but for recognition of human beings who have died fighting for their right not to be abused." V
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