In a tranquil park in Saint Henri on a soft summer’s evening, the sun slowly sets behind the baseball diamond as two teams of young adults play softball. Behind the outfield fence, students and other onlookers sit and listen on benches and a hill as, one by one, a series of ex-prisoners and prison rights activists come to the microphone to read out a sobering list: the names of men who have died in custody this year.
The August 10th event drew about 75 people and took place in Parc Vinet, near the Lionel-Groulx metro station. The proceedings were simulcast on CKUT 90.3 FM, McGill University’s campus radio station. A selection of speakers spoke, sang and even rapped about their dismay at how prisons and even long-term care facilities handle those incarcerated therein.
Why August 10th? This date has become an international date to mark prisoner’s rights. It all began almost 50 years ago, in Ontario.
On August 10, 1974, while in segregation at the Millhaven Institution near Kingston, Ontario, inmate Edward Nalon took his own life by severing the arteries in his elbow. He had been struggling with psychological issues for some time. He has asked for a transfer out of segregation and his request had been granted, but nobody bothered to tell Nolan, and he languished in segregation, apart from the general population. The “panic buttons” inside the segregation wing’s cells were disconnected.
The next year, on the anniversary of Nalon’s suicide, inmates at Millhaven refused to eat or work, demanding an end to isolation cells, among other prison injustices. Many of them were punished by being placed in solitary confinement.
On May 21st, 1976 another prisoner died in the segregation unit of Millhaven Prison. Robert Landers was very active and outspoken in the struggle for Prisoners Rights. He had been doing his time at Archambault Prison, near Montreal. He was on the Inmate Committee at Archambault, where prisoners were in the process of organizing a prisoner strike to better conditions inside. Bobby was involuntarily transferred to Millhaven just before the strike in January 1976 and thrown into solitary confinement, better known as “the hole.”
On the night before he died Bobby tried to get medical help, however, the panic buttons in the cells had still not been repaired. He wanted to see the nurse, who could be heard laughing and talking with guards. He and three other prisoners all called out for her to come on to the range, but were ignored by both the nurse and the guards. In the morning they found Bobby dead and a scribbled note on his bed that requested medical aid and described symptoms that indicated a heart problem. At the inquest into his death it was determined that he died from a heart attack and a heart specialist confirmed that he should have been in an intensive care unit, not in solitary confinement.
The movement for prisoners to refuse to work or eat on August 10th spread to other Canadian jails. It then spread outside of Canada. In 1983, prisoners in France refused to eat on this day. By the 1990s prisoners in Germany, France, Australia and the U.S. would observe this day.
Prison by the numbers:
Canadians pay almost $2 billion per year to incarcerate people. Most of this money goes to staff salaries.
According to Statistics Canada, for the fiscal year 2020-21, on any given day:
– There was an average of 12,827 inmates in federal prisons, where adults serve sentences of two years or more;
– There were 18,946 inmates on average in provincial and territorial jails;
– And there was an average of 489 youths in prison at any one time.
In Québec, the number of incarcerated adults was 3,621 on an average day in 2020-2021. And almost 11,000 were under community supervision of some sort, adults and youths included. The largest prison in Quebec is Bordeaux Prison, in the borough of Ahuntsic-Cartierville, with a maximum capacity of 1,189 inmates.
These averages are likely lower right this moment as federal prisons release people to allow for better spacing for COVID-19 protocols. Federal incarceration rates have plunged since the outbreak of the pandemic. Indeed, in Quebec, the adult incarceration rate has been declining since 2013-2014, when it was 78 adults per 100,000 in the population. It is down to 52 per 100,000 adults as of 2020-2021. Most Quebecers behind bars are on remand, meaning they are probably awaiting trial or sentencing.
Just as importantly for the purposes of public safety, on any given day 9,422 people were being supervised federally on some sort of parole or community supervision in 2020-2021. That number is presumably higher now because of the pandemic.
According to data from Quebec’s Public Security Ministry, as of April 2022, more than 740 inmates, and over 400 guards tested COVID-positive in provincial facilities since March 2020. And a recent report in local media suggested that half the inmates at Cowansville Institution, the largest federal prison institution in Quebec, had tested positive for COVID-19.
I can personally testify to the fact that every precaution is taken in federal prisons to not spread the virus. When I was there we were masked, expected to socially distance, and regularly tested and inoculated for the Coronavirus. Signs hung on almost every wall encouraged us to respect hygiene restrictions.