On August 10, 1974, Eddie Nalon took his own life in the segregation unit of Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in Bath, Ontario – a victim of solitary confinement and neglect.
August 10 would come to mark International Prisoners’ Justice Day, which prisoners chose to fast, pray, and refuse work in remembrance of Eddie and all those who have suffered and died behind bars.
Prisoners’ Justice Day was founded in a climate of struggle and oppression in the prison system during the 1970s. We remember and honour the legacy of direct action by prisoners who protested to improve conditions despite the constant threat of violence from prison administration.
Today, Prisoners’ Justice Day Committees and community groups raise awareness about past and present injustices in Canadian correctional institutions. This includes discriminatory practices that see racialized people, members of LGBTQ2S communities, and people with mental health problems overrepresented and mistreated behind bars.
Black Canadians are overrepresented in federal prison by more than 300% and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit are overrepresented by nearly 500%. Black and Indigenous people, as well as homeless and unemployed people, are disproportionately refused bail and imprisoned on remand. While in jail, members of these communities are more likely to be disciplined and less likely to be paroled.
In the U.S., LGBTQ2S youth are overrepresented three times more than the general population, and adult lesbian or bisexual women are overrepresented 8 to 10 times more. Similar data is not collected in Canada, but the difficulties faced by LGBTQ2S folks in prison are well-documented. Transgender and non-gender conforming federal inmates are often placed in facilities without regard to their own gender identity and preferences. They are more likely to experience violence, sexual assault and discrimination, while those transitioning face obstacles in receiving hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery.
11% of federal offenders have a mental health diagnosis, 21.3% have prescribed psychiatric medication, and 14.5% of male offenders have a past psychiatric hospitalization. Yet prisoners face a deficit of health and mental care. Prescribed medicines are often unavailable, limited, or arbitrarily changed by administration. Prisoners wait long periods for illnesses to be diagnosed. These facts are compounded by cruel practices such as solitary confinement and frequent excessive force by correctional staff which create intolerably toxic spaces where violence and self-harm are commonplace.
On Prisoner’s Justice Day, CUPE Ontario reiterates its opposition to all forms of prison violence and an end to the inhumane practice of solitary confinement. It calls for immediate criminal justice reform to dismantle systematic racism and colonialism in correctional institutions. It calls for adequate health and mental care for all prisoners and additional support for members of LGBTQ2S communities.
CUPE Ontario also calls for an end to the prison-industrial complex. It calls for an end to unjust bail policies where individuals who have not been convicted of a crime are detained for long periods. It calls for remedies other than incarceration for all non-violent crimes. It calls for rehabilitation to be elevated over revenge in sentencing policy. And it calls for an end to the stigma that haunts prisoners and their families long after they have been released.