Prisoners’ Justice Day is every day of the year to all of us who have been incarcerated. But we come together annually on August 10 to raise awareness of injustices, to remember those who have lost their lives behind prison walls, and to educate communities about the reality of the justice system.
This year has been a particularly difficult one to advocate for people who have been criminalized, who continue to be criminalized, and who currently remain behind bars. With COVID-19, access to prisoners for the community-based organizations and agencies that fight to protect their rights and hold correctional systems accountable has been stripped away.
This has allowed prisons to further dehumanize, discriminate against, violate and profit off those they house, without fear of being held accountable. According to Global Prison Trends 2020, the worldwide prison population rose from 8 million in 2002 to 11 million in 2018—an increase of over 20 percent.
Within this, the prison population of women continues to grow, by an estimated 50 percent during that time period, even though it has been 10 years since the United Nations adopted the Bangkok rules that were meant to protect the rights of women prisoners. Among other jurisdictions, women are the fastest-growing segment of the United States’ prison population, which is the world’s largest.
How did Prisoners’ Justice Day begin and evolve? It all started in Canada on August 10, 1974, when Edward Nalon bled to death in the segregation unit of Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in Bath, Ontario.
Many of the alleged leaders in this one-day, peaceful protest would still be in segregation a year later.
In 1975, on the first anniversary of Eddie Nalon’s suicide, incarcerated people at Millhaven held a day of action. They refused to work, went on a one-day hunger strike and held a memorial service, even though these actions would mean a stint in solitary confinement.
Many of the alleged leaders in this one-day, peaceful protest would still be in segregation a year later, still fighting for the rights of prisoners. Although refusing to eat or work are among the only options for peaceful protest available to prisoners, both are viewed as disciplinary offences by prison administrations.
On May 21, 1976 another prisoner, Robert Landers, died in the segregation unit of Millhaven. Bobby, as he was known, had been a leader in the struggle for prisoners’ rights.
According to the Prison Justice website: “Called to testify at the inquest, the warden of the institution said in effect that the punishment (solitary) had been intended to stop the victim from getting prisoners´ rights respected.”
Landers had tried to summon medical help, but the cells’ panic buttons weren’t working, and his and other prisoners’ shouts were ignored by nurses and guards, recounts the John Howard Society. He died of a heart attack; a heart specialist said at the inquest that he should have been in intensive care, not solitary.
From its Canadian origins, Prisoners’ Justice Day has increasingly been recognized and marked by incarcerated people and their allies all around the world. But no history of the prisoners’ rights movement in Canada would be complete without a section on Claire Culhane.
Culhane spent over two decades of her life single-handedly taking on the system. She was many things to many people, but to prisoners all across this country she was the voice that would speak on their behalf, fighting for the rights of people who historically had no voice.
In 1974, she volunteered to teach a Women’s Studies class at the Lakeside Regional Correctional Centre for Women in British Columbia. But the event that would draw her into the struggle for prisoners’ rights began on June 9, 1975.
Three prisoners who were about to be returned to solitary confinement at British Columbia Penitentiary took 15 hostages. The standoff with prison officials lasted 41 hours, and ended with the emergency response team storming the hostage-takers. In the process, the guards shot and killed one of the hostages, Mary Steinhauser, a young correctional officer who had gained the respect of prisoners by implementing educational courses in solitary.
Over the next month, Claire Culhane would join demonstrations in support of prisoners who were staging sit-ins and work strikes over the conditions inside. Her participation with the Prisoners´ Union Committee would result in the cancellation of her Women´s Studies class, but that was not about to keep her out of prisons. A group of Vancouver area activists soon set up the Prisoners´ Rights Group (PRG), and she was one of its founding members.
I was deeply thankful for the legacy of her activism as I sat in a correctional facility in 2015.
The mandate of the PRG was to help prisoners to help themselves—especially in matters of involuntary transfers, finding competent lawyers, filing and following up grievances, qualifying for parole hearings, getting access to healthcare, educating the public and finally, advancing the philosophy of prison abolition.
Culhane staged many sit-ins at wardens’ offices, picketed outside prison gates and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, hosted a cable TV show called Instead of Prisons, responded to every press article about prison, wrote articles of her own, and spoke extensively on the subject of prisons as a form of social control.
Although Claire Culhane died in 1996, I was deeply thankful for the legacy of her activism as I sat in a correctional facility in 2015.
I was incarcerated in a Federal Women’s Prison in Canada. Inspired by activists like Culhane and Landers, I, too, became an advocate for prisoners’ rights, spending each day fighting the injustices within the walls.
I worked with the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Citizens Advisory Committee, Members of the Canadian Parliament and Senate, social justice advocates, and many other wonderful people from the community to facilitate change.
It didn’t come without its cost! I was constantly being targeted by staff and management, urged to stay quiet, and threatened with being reprimanded for speaking out. This, of course, only hardened my resolve to fight. My advocacy would not be silenced.
Ask yourself, today and every day: What am I doing to make a difference?
When I was finally released on day parole earlier this year, I took my fight with me into the community. I currently work for a prison outreach initiative to house people being released back into the community. I am a peer support worker for those who have faced, or are facing, criminalization, marginalization, discrimination and racism, with an emphasis on the 2SLGBTQI2+ community.
To further the principle of “nothing about us without us,” I sit on numerous policy committees, providing lived experience and advice in getting much-needed resources and support to people both inside and in the community. I am also a law school candidate for fall 2021, and I engage in public speaking, panels, education and social activism.
I may have joined the fight for social justice while incarcerated, but coming out into the community has not dampened my determination. I fight as an individual who has seen the injustices unfold first-hand, and as a collective with all those who stand up for change.
I hope that people reading this, including incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people around the world, will see that it isn’t only the people that come from privilege who have the power to enact change; it takes individuals from all walks of life.
So ask yourself, today and every day: What am I doing to make a difference?
Photo via uihere/Public Domain