On May 2, four members of the Senate Committee on Human Rights released a statement about the human rights of prisoners in the Atlantic region.

The senators visited all the federal penitentiaries in the region. They also visited the East Coast Forensic Centre:

Tona, a patient there, described the differences between her 10 years in federal custody, all of which she spent segregated for what was described – even by institutional psychologists – as attention-seeking behavioural issues. Once in the mental health system, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic and her elevated states of psychosis have been directly linked to her extended periods in isolation. She implored us to get people with mental health issues out of prisons and into appropriate mental health services. She also urged us to call for the abolition of the use of segregation and suggested that we might call this legislative change, Tona’s Law.

In the federal prisons, the senators report:

We were all struck by the levels of despair and hopelessness expressed by so many of the prisoners with whom we met, whether in groups or as individuals, including through bars or solid metal doors. Many of the same issues surfaced consistently. Despite a very managed experience and the constant hover of Correctional Service of Canada staff, what we experienced belied some excellent presentations. We heard of the many programs and employment opportunities, yet mostly observed people confined in their cells or in small living units. We heard about robust release and community integration plans from staff and about a multitude of bureaucratic and resource obstacles experienced by those inside, as well as their families, friends and other communities of support.

We saw posters advertising the role of the Correctional Investigator, the Ombuds office for federal prisoners … they usually looked new and as though they were freshly posted, yet virtually every prisoner expressed frustration with their inability to grieve or receive remedial action for correctional breaches of policy, much less law. The recounting of instances of racism, violent uses of force and breaches of law and policy were frightening. The fact that some staff incite racist violence and attitudes, in addition to encouraging younger prisoners to prey upon those who are older or who have intellectual and/or mental health issues, was at once appalling and frightening.

In a photo essay that accompanies the statement, there are some disturbing images.

“Two residents at the East Coast Forensic Hospital get what exercise they can as sunlight filters through the wire that prevents contraband from being thrown into the facility from the outside world. As this is a hospital and a correctional facility, security is tight — most patients in this facility have come into conflict with the law as a result of mental health issues.”
“Two residents at the East Coast Forensic Hospital get what exercise they can as sunlight filters through the wire that prevents contraband from being thrown into the facility from the outside world. As this is a hospital and a correctional facility, security is tight — most patients in this facility have come into conflict with the law as a result of mental health issues.”

The wire over the exercise yard makes people feel like animals. Over and over, people who are incarcerated have said they don’t go outside because they feel like they are in a cage. This lack of exercise, sunlight, and fresh air has physical and mental health consequences. People spend months without ever seeing the outdoors.

“A restraint bed sits in a utility room. It is outfitted with straps and used primarily for prisoners who self-harm.”
“A restraint bed sits in a utility room. It is outfitted with straps and used primarily for prisoners who self-harm.”

This image of a restraint bed in the Nova Institution for women is chilling. Ten years after Ashley Smith’s death, women with mental health struggles are still being strapped down. In 2015, two women died months apart in Nova Institution. Both suffered from long histories of trauma and abuse. Camille Strickland-Murphy set herself on fire, self-harmed, and attempted suicide. She was placed in segregation to control her. Veronica Park was sent to the maximum unit after she began self-medicating for mental health problems. Before her death, she visited the clinic multiple times. Her final time, experiencing shortage of breath, she was given a puffer and sent away without seeing a doctor. She was found gasping for breath in her cell the next morning.

“Senator Kim Pate examines a battering ram in the prison armoury. The end has the words “knock knock” written on it in pink tape.”
“Senator Kim Pate examines a battering ram in the prison armoury. The end has the words “knock knock” written on it in pink tape.”
“A box for prisoner complaints bears a worn sticker of a guard in full riot gear that reads in part: ‘Correctional officers never start the fights. But we always finish them.’”
“A box for prisoner complaints bears a worn sticker of a guard in full riot gear that reads in part: ‘Correctional officers never start the fights. But we always finish them.’”

There is no requirement for any public inquiry when there is a death in custody in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. It is hard to even find the names. In 2015, staff at Dorchester Penitentiary beat and pepper sprayed Matthew Hines as he begged for his life. He lay in the shower with his shirt pulled over his face, a sensation the correctional investigator described as like being waterboarded. Staff cleaned up the bloodstains and told his family they found him in distress. These open expressions of violence in the prison are disturbing given the impunity with which staff use force on the prisoners.

“Committee chair Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard looks into a cramped cell with two bunk beds. Senator Bernard wore a wave cap at Dorchester to bring awareness of the cultural significance of wave caps. The committee heard from several witnesses that black prisoners are not allowed to wear wave caps because prison staff fear they signify gang ties.”
“Committee chair Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard looks into a cramped cell with two bunk beds. Senator Bernard wore a wave cap at Dorchester to bring awareness of the cultural significance of wave caps. The committee heard from several witnesses that black prisoners are not allowed to wear wave caps because prison staff fear they signify gang ties.”

I testified at the Senate Committee hearings at the Black Cultural Centre. In my testimony, I shared accounts from African Nova Scotian prisoners who over the years have told me about their experiences with racism in the justice system and in prison.

Here is an interview I conducted while I was gathering testimony. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity, and also to protect the identity of the subject.) This is only one small snapshot of what racism looks like inside Canada’s prison industrial complex.

On parole:

El: I’ve heard a lot of stuff about parole. I know someone who was head of the inmate committee [at one institution] and they told me the warden summoned them and said how come Black guys aren’t getting parole and they’re like, we don’t give ourselves parole.

To be honest, it doesn’t even seem like Black guys apply for parole, probably they don’ t think they have the support or whatever reason or if they do apply for parole, they’re probably made to jump over 20 more hurdles than someone else that has a similar case to them or whatever.

On transfers:

El: A lot of African Nova Scotians are telling me they get transferred involuntarily. Would you agree?

Yeah. That’s how I started my Federal sentence, was being involuntarily transferred to Ontario where I knew nobody. I was like 21 years old, and I’m on my way to like one of the most violent prisons in North America.

El: What was their reason for transferring you?

It was just basically…like you understand the reception process and stuff? [Where people are classified for security risk and evaluated for where they will be placed.]

El: Yes.

So instead of me going through all of that, once I got my first day of my Federal sentence when I got to [institution] I went directly to segregation and then a week later I went to [another institution] segregation and then a month later I was on the plane to [institution in Ontario.] And it was all basically because they thought that I had the influence or the ability to start some type of war within the prison system in the East Coast. They didn’t see this happen or they didn’t have, there was nothing that was going on they just thought the possibility is there so nothing else was really taken into consideration, other than the fact that they thought there may, they felt there could have been a problem. But I mean, you could say could have with lots of things.

On healthcare access:

Access is a big problem especially here, like healthcare doesn’t, I don’t know, they don’t see Black guys on the pass list for health care. Every morning there’s a pass list for healthcare put up on every unit and it’s who has appointments at what time, where at during the day and for the most part you’ll see 30 guys on the pass list for healthcare every day and not one of them is, I don’t recognize any of the names, and I know all of the Black guys.

On visits:

El: I’ve heard that again, that issues with visiting — like when they just irrationally block your mom from visiting you for three months, for example — that’s also racialized.

There’s a lot of different issues. Me personally, I don’t have a real issue with that. But a lot of guys are on what’s called drug strategy. Do you know what drug strategy is?

El: Where they think you’re on drugs or getting drugs transported and they make you do closed visits?

Yeah. They will give you closed visits. Or they’ll suspend your visits if you have like a dirty piss test, for like if you have a dirty urinalysis for marijuana or basically anything that, any type of narcotic that shows up in your system. You’ll get put on what is called drug strategy so you lose your job, you can lose your pay, you can lose your contact visits. But it seems like Black inmates get put on drug strategy for reasons that other inmates don’t get put on drug strategy for. Like if they suspect a Black friend of mine of being in the drug trade, they’ll put everyone he talks to that’s Black on drug strategy. Not because they think everyone is involved in the drug trade just because they can I guess I don’t know.

On jobs and chapel:

El: Can we talk about labour too? I’ve heard that Black guys don’t get the CORCAN jobs on the one hand and on the other hand I’ve also heard people compare it to slave labour and sweat shops.

I’m not sure, because I would assume that the Black guys don’t even apply to the CORCAN jobs.

El: Ok.

That just doesn’t seem like…yeah, I don’t think Black guys apply for CORCAN. But like even the chapel services for example, you have Roman Catholic services you have all these different services. None of them are geared towards the Black community. The only time you see Black guys in the chapel, is when the Imam comes in. That’s half of the guys down there. I go. I’m not a Muslim but I go because it’s really the only time that any of us are ever called to the chapel. Other than that it’s like Anglicans, Protestant or whoever, I don’t even know.

On programs:

El: And you’ve struggled with community access, with being able to get community members into the prison?

The prison or the warden or whoever at corrections/CSC is not offering programs for African Canadians or whatever you want to call it, inmates. But there’s not really many people from the community jumping up and down to offer them either. And like, the Aboriginal inmates for example, they have elders, they have fulltime elders, they have an actual pathways unit that’s just for Aboriginal inmates, they go in front of different Parole Boards they have an ALO like an Aboriginal Liaison Officer that’s there just to specifically be a go between, between the inmates and the warden or whoever. They have all these people that are working for the benefit of Aboriginals but, I mean what have they been through that we haven’t? Or vice versa. So I don’t understand why there’s all this confusion as to what to do for the Black inmates.

On books and education:

El: So you don’t have a lot of culturally appropriate material in the library?

There’s nothing .The group is supposed to be able to buy these things but of course that doesn’t really take place.

El: In these school programs that they have, is there anything?

All of the staff in the prison are probably from the town that the prison is in so the majority of the people here are from Springhill. They think every Black person is from North Preston and listens to rap music.

El: So if you’re taking English and you’re required to take your education in prison, there wouldn’t be Black books on the syllabus?

There’ s no African Canadian studies. There’ s a section in the library that is called cultural or something like that and it’s all books about dieting and other stuff that has nothing to do with culture.

 On racism and culture:

El: So, in your opinion, does prison do anything to help any of the historical trauma that Black people have been through? 

It seems to be for the most part, like, if you were to look around here you wouldn’t think any of those issues even exist because they’re never brought up and if they are brought up they’re looked at as an excuse instead of a challenge or something that somebody needs help with. If I bring that up to my parole officer, she’s gonna take that as I’m making an excuse for being in jail.

El: So there’s no understanding of trauma at all?

No. I mean, the cultural gap is crazy. They have no, they’re completely ignorant, with anything to do with Black people.

I’ll give you an example of the kind of thing that takes place on a daily basis. There were, about two to three weeks ago, they put out a memo saying that no more wave caps are allowed in the prison, not bandanas, like du-rags. And when we had a sit down with them and asked them the reason they said because wave caps are affiliated with gangs so I told them I don’t know of one gang in the world that is identified by a wave cap. I asked them what gang…where did you get this, what TV show — what gang? None of them seemed to know what gang it is. Like you can affiliate a red bandana with the Bloods, so what gang can you affiliate wave caps with? And none of them seemed to know what.

And about a month before that, they put out a memo saying no more basketball jerseys. You can’t wear a Raptors jersey or whatever jersey, for the same reason, apparently this is all gang paraphernalia.

El: Well they once accused, I sent in I think it was a Huey Newton biography and they accused that of being gang paraphernalia. Because it had a picture of Huey sitting on a throne with a gun. And they considered that gang paraphernalia.

Yeah. Those orders don’t come from down from regular staff. Memos get send by the top dogs. So if that’s how the top dogs feel, then that’s how the puppies feel.

Just doesn’t seem like anyone cares. I don’t know, if I could sum it up all in one line.

El Jones

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. Our prisons are a travesty. We only have to look to the Montreal police strike or the consequences of paying the Dane-geld to understand what happens when law and order aren’t upheld but there is no point torturing people.