We are a group of activists, advocates and service providers that do in-reach into women’s jails and prisons in Ontario. We think prisons should be abolished. We oppose the G20, and all the police super powers that went along with it. We are appalled at how G20 detainees and prisoners have been treated at the hands of police and correctional workers, and yet we see the same shit and worse, happening to people on the margins in Canada day after day, year after year. We are concerned about the split between how ‘protesters’ and ‘criminals’ are seen and treated differently. Today we write to urge you to continue to make the links between protester rights and prisoner rights, and more broadly, between prisoner rights and human rights.
Recently, we have heard many of our friends and fellow activists share in the collective trauma that erupted out of police violence and brutality. Each of us felt encouraged to see the energy and awareness our activist communities brought to issues regarding Canada’s oppressive criminal injustice system. As we move forward, we ask that you also consider the conditions for other(ed) prisoners who were not G20 protesters. The following points are based on our own observations, conversations with the women we support inside, prison staff, community and government reports, and personal/practice experience.
DID YOU KNOW?
– Some G20 activists were brutalized because they were in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’. Every day, sex workers, drug users, people with mental health issues, Indigenous people and people of colour, trans folks, some queer people, and poor people are harassed, profiled, brutalized, and falsely charged/incarcerated just for being alive and living life. Multiple aspects of marginalization increase this brutality.
– Racialized people, people with disabilities/different abilities/bodies, trans people, and people living with HIV/HCV are most discriminated against while incarcerated.
– Indigenous women represent more than 50% of prisoners who are incarcerated under a maximum security classification.
– Major delays in processing are common for people in jail. Many sit in jail for weeks or months waiting for a bail hearing or court date before any access to disclosure (the evidence being used against an accused person). Women often don’t get to wear their own clothes which is a problem as studies have shown that people who show up in prison clothes are less likely to get bail. People detained in this way are said to be on “Remand”. Remanded prisoners are most often poor people who do not have a legal job. People will often plead guilty even when innocent to avoid sitting in jail for months.
– 90% of people held at the Don Jail and often over 70% of women held at Vanier are on remand (awaiting trial, bail or transfer), meaning that there has only been a charge laid, not a conviction.
– Overcrowded cells are a common experience for prisoners. Many, including pregnant women, have to sleep on the floor.
– 2 maximum security units in a women’s jail were combined to make room so G20 protesters would be incarcerated together. Women are often on separate ranges because of beefs with each other. Extra crisis negotiators were on hand to handle the anticipated rise in conflict as a result. Many women were also moved to different jails to make room for G20-related detainees. These moves resulted in gross overcrowding, loss of support and seriously increased stress levels among sentenced women.
– Trans folks are incarcerated in prisons that match their assigned biological sex, despite extreme safety concerns and being denied the right to live by your chosen gender. Transsexual people are denied their prescribed hormone medications in provincial jails often resulting in traumatic experiences of bodily change and added discrimination.
– People who are HIV+ are routinely denied a mattress and made to sleep on a cold metal bed frame in segregation. Mattresses are seen as a ‘privilege’ and prison doctors have told us that being cold doesn’t increase problems with HIV. Other doctors are clear that any energy that is used to keep the body warm, would otherwise be directed to helping the body fight HIV. People are outed as HIV+ by guards, with profound implications for prisoners around safety, isolation, and solidarity.
– People who have taken psychiatric and/or pain relieving medications for years are taken off these meds ‘cold turkey’ upon incarceration, and left to deal with chronic pain and withdrawal. This practice led to a woman jumping off a 3 story tier in a max unit. She broke her hip to get the meds she needed. Many women have told us about being accused of inventing symptoms (including pregnancy), and of being given someone else’s medication and being forced to take it.
– There are lots of drugs in jail, but no access to harm reduction equipment; tools that reduce the transmission of Hep C and HIV, for example, which are above epidemic-levels in jails.
– Jails are often under-staffed, leading to frequent ‘lockdowns’, where prisoners are cell-bound all day and night with no access to programs, “yard time”, visits from loved ones or community support. Lockdowns are common during any holiday period as a lot of guards are on vacation and even more call in sick. Lockdowns also happen randomly for many reasons every week. Last year, all of Vanier was locked down, and women were strip-searched because someone found a bullet in the parking lot. Incarcerated women cannot be in the parking lot. It was assumed by some staff that the bullet came from a cop’s gun. Missing spoons are also a common justification for lockdowns and searches.
– Prisoners who are going to and from court are often held in vehicles for several hours without heat or air-conditioning, access to food or water, and without response from guards when people (handcuffed to each other) have vomited, had a seizure, or require any other form of immediate help. Prisoners die each year because of being denied medication and help in jail cells and court transport vehicles. We remember Tanis Wallace and the many others who fought for their lives and went unheard..
– Prisoners are only provided with interpreters for ‘official’ business like video court. During sessions with social workers, family members usually end up doing translation through three-way phone calls, which raises a privacy issue for many.
– Women on immigration hold who have completed a sentence often continue to be held in the ‘maximum’ security unit, with little or no opportunity to spend time with family before deportation.
– Requests for culturally or medically appropriate meals are not accommodated. There is an alternate meal that may come closer to meeting the dietary needs of some (the ‘diet’ meal) but it’s only given out within the first few minutes of any meal and many do not get served.
– Women in provincial jails are expected to work for the privatized food company that the provincial government hired. They are to work a nine hour shift in the cook chill food production centre and are “paid” with a chocolate bar at the end of their work day. This is considered voluntary but women must participate in order to remain on the (least restrictive) unit and to prevent receiving a ‘misconduct’.
– Most people are released from jail without any support or basic needs including clothes that fit as bodies can change drastically while in jail or clothing/shoes that are suitable for the hot or cold weather.
– There is no effective complaint process in the provincial jail system that is safe for prisoners. Most people in jail are not informed of any formal complaint process as there does not seem to be one. Some are told they must complain directly to officers who have enormous power over their daily lives and well-being or to ask these officers for the Ombudsman’s contact number, who, we are told, does not accept complaints unless institutional grievance procedures have been exhausted.
This list could go on. We could also point out the creative ways that the women we know advocate for themselves inside of jails. But the injustice system is built on oppression and abuse of power thrives in a setting without oversight or accountability. This letter is asking you to keep in mind the larger systemic roots of social control under all the stories being told by people who experienced violence related to the G20 repression. A long-standing and ongoing battle forges ahead for many more who are targeted by the state every day in Toronto for being poor, for the work they do, for using drugs, for not being white or straight or able-bodied, for living with mental health issues, for not having documents. We are looking forward to more energy! And to more support for our communities that are profiled, brutalized, and jailed everyday just because of who we are.
If you are interested in being involved in organizing for prisoner justice, making connections with people in jail, or providing supportive programs inside of jails or once out of jail, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for ideas and options.