Letter to the Editor: Try to see those who are incarcerated as people
- Submitted on behalf of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan | August 14, 2017
41 years ago today, August 10 1974, a man by the name of Edward Nalon, died in a segregation cell at Millhaven Maximum Penitentiary in Bath, Ontario. Since his death, this day, August 10, has become known as Prisoners Justice Day, where prisoners across the country and around the world take part in peaceful resistance to honour those that have died while incarcerated. This is also a day of resistance for prisoners to challenge conditions of confinement that infringe upon their basic human rights and dignities. They do this through what little means are available to them: by participating in hunger strikes, refusing to go to work, and other acts of dissent.
Last week, Reuters published an alarming article that documented the deaths of persons in-custody over a five-year period http://www.reuters.com/article/us-canada-jails-deaths-insight-idUSKBN1AJ19V). Between January 2012 and July 2017, nearly 270 people have died while in provincial jails across Canada. While the high-number of deaths in the jails is concerning, what is perhaps most wrenching about this information is that almost two thirds of these people were legally innocent; they were never found guilty of any crime, but were awaiting their day in court. In Saskatchewan, 75% of deaths in custody over the past 5 years involved prisoners awaiting trial. These deaths are particularly troubling because these persons, while they may or may not have broken the law, are often society’s most vulnerable: the mentally ill, the severely drug addicted, the chronically homeless and underprivileged.
Here in the prairies, Indigenous persons, particularly Indigenous women, are greatly overrepresented within our federal and provincial correctional systems. However, no matter a person’s legal status or racial identity, each person has the right to be kept safe and be provided with appropriate physical and mental standard of care. Furthermore, segregation remains one of the most controversial forms of punishment within the correctional system and its abolishment is a priority amongst current prisoners, former prisoners, and those that work in solidarity to change the prison system. Our prisons and jails must become more than punishment through confinement; there must be a focus on rehabilitation and ensuring successful reintegration back into society.
While we may not have all the answers to fixing this overburdened correctional system, and we understand that each person involved in the justice system has a complex history, and specific needs that must be considered, we focus today on remembering those that are no longer with us. Today, we must stop and take a moment to think of those who died in jail, alone and separated from their loved ones, often far before their time. The Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan remembers. We especially remember Kinew James, Breanna Kannick, and Shauna Wolf. We also remember the many other women and men who have, over the years, died in our prisons and jail cells. We think of their families and extend to them our deepest sympathies.
On this August day, we encourage each person to take a moment to think of the individuals, your fellow human beings, who are now in prison and jail cells, while suspending for a moment your personal beliefs about what crimes they have or have not committed (since many prisoners are awaiting trial). Think of them not as prisoners, but as sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends; as people who deserve to be afforded the same human rights and dignities as you would wish for your own loved ones. Extend to them the empathy and compassion you would your own brother, your own daughter, your own mother or father, your own neighbour. Perhaps then, we can create true prison reform, where rehabilitation is possible and justice can be realized.