The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons released a special issue on October 19th. From the press release,
This special issue, titled “Dialogue on Canada’s Federal Penitentiary System and the Need for Change,” features dozens of contributions written by criminalized women and men currently incarcerated in Correctional Service Canada (CSC) institutions. The writings document the counterproductive changes to federal imprisonment made by the previous federal government. These incarcerated writers seek to contribute to the reflections of Justice Canada as it conducts a review of the penal system mandated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and to the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights as it engages in a study about the treatment of prisoners in CSC penitentiaries.
The issue is available online here. It is crucial reading for anyone who wants to understand the conditions inside our prisons, but more than that, it is important reading that disrupts the idea of prisoners as “criminals” and nothing more, not capable of contributing meaningfully.
The release date of October 19th was significant as it marked 10 years since the death of Ashley Smith inside Grand Valley Institution. As Breese Davies highlights in an excellent article in the Toronto Star:
In the decade since Ashley’s death, we have seen tremendous change in the outside world. But in the sluggish, security-obsessed world of prison administration little had changed. Calls for reform continue to be ignored. Reports on Ashley’s death that urged change have been shelved, including reports from Canada’s correctional investigator. And the jury’s recommendations are yet to be implemented. On the 10-year anniversary of her death, we owe it to Ashley to highlight the lapsed promise of those recommendations.
Segregation is still vastly overused and fiercely defended by correctional authorities as a vital response to disorder, misconduct and vulnerability in their institutions. CSC continues to use solitary confinement to manage people with mental health problems. They might now call it “medical observation” but the effect is the same — people with serious mental illness and those who engage in self-harming behaviour are still being held in solitary confinement, not in hospitals…
…The government has introduced Bill C-56, which purports to set a 15-day limit on segregation, with a total of 60 days maximum per year. To be clear, Bill C-56 simply tries to prevent the Correctional Service of Canada from subjecting detainees to torture. That is not something Canadians should be proud of. We must expect and demand more of our correctional system.
But the glaring weakness of Bill C-56 is that it only holds out the allusion of limiting the use of segregation. In fact, the bill continues to give prison wardens discretion to hold people in solitary confinement for more than 15 days if they believe it is “appropriate” — and as history has shown, they most certainly will, over and over. One thing we learned from the coroner’s inquest into Ashley’s death is that if you give CSC management a way to get around a rule, even an apparently clear rule, they will predictably exploit it.
With or without Bill C-56, it will be business as usual in the correctional system. Solitary confinement will continue to be the go to mechanism for managing people with mental illness or other difficulties in the institution.
Only the abolition of solitary confinement will force the Correctional Service of Canada to make the changes that are so desperately needed. Without abolition, the prison system will grind on, crushing the sick, disordered and discarded, as it always has.
The elimination of segregation would have been a fitting legacy for Ashley. And it still can be. We must ensure that another decade doesn’t pass before we put an end to the unnecessary and inhumane practice that killed Ashley.
In an essay in the special issue of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, “The Impact of the Conservative Punishment Agenda on Federally Sentenced Women and Priorities for Change,” authors Rachel Fayter and Sherry Payne, incarcerated at Grand Valley Institution, identify the reforms that are most needed in the prison system. On segregation, the authors observe that:
CSC regularly places prisoners in segregation for over 15 days, including those who are living with or experiencing mental health issues. Despite the deaths of two young women in segregation at Grand Valley Institution in less than a decade (Ashley Smith in 2007 and Terri Baker in 2016), management continues to place women with histories of mental health issues and self-harming behaviours in segregation. Both writers have spent time in segregation at GVI, and one author was in the segregation unit for 32 days just 3 months after Ms. Baker’s death, for a minor, non-violent offence. Anytime a woman self-harms, no matter the severity, she is placed in segregation. The conditions in the segregation unit are deplorable. Being placed in segregation results in a deteriorating attitude, feelings of isolation, alienation, loss of identity, increased mental health issues, and feeling oppressed and disconnected from the community.
The authors also identify “justice, employment issues, programs and education, food and nutrition, visits and correspondence, reintegration and parole, media and communications, a focus on punishment, health and dental care, and mental health care” as key areas of reform.
The essays in the issue speak as well to the persistence of the prisoners in writing, researching, and pursuing education in conditions where they are deprived of the tools they need, retaliated upon for speaking, and where their own voices, experiences and stories are silenced or ignored.
On Friday, I attended the workshop on prison law hosted by the East Coast Prison Justice Society. While the majority of the presenters were corrections officials, advocates, lawyers, or law professors, the workshop also included an extraordinary presentation by Dylan Gogan.
Tim has frequently covered habeas corpus applications by prisoners: see here, here, and here, for example. Justice Moir’s ruling on solitary confinement from the habeas corpus application of Dylan Gogan and Dylan Roach was reported by Tim in this article.
Moir had heard the habeas corpus applications of two prisoners, Dylan Gogan and Dylan Roach, who represented themselves. Both were placed in the federal system, but are being held in the provincial jail at Burnside as they have scheduled court appearances in Halifax.
An internal jail email from December 18, 2014 was entered into evidence; the email established a new jail policy that effectively put all federal prisoners in solitary confinement while at the jail.
Tim went on to quote from the ruling:
They are confined to their cells in Burnside twenty-three hours a day. This is not because they are being disciplined. This is not because they need protection. This is not because they need to be investigated for classification.
Mr. Gogan and Mr. Roach are confined twenty-three hours a day for reasons that have nothing to do with them as individuals.
Mr. Roach was brought here on October 27, 2015. He was bound over to this court, and we remanded him to Burnside pending his trial on January 21, 2016. He is serving a life sentence without parole for thirteen years.
Mr. Gogan described the cell in which he is locked alone for twenty-three hours a day. It is about seven by nine feet. There is a set of bunks but only one mattress. He has a stool and a toilet. That is it.
Mr. Roach’s conditions are similar except his is a single bed, there is no bench, and the room is equipped for a person with mobility problems. Mr. Roach is not such a person.
To lock a man alone in a cell for twenty-three hours a day is not merely to deprive him of the common room. It is to deprive him of social interaction, of the simplest personal amusements such as cards or television, of the most rudimentary activities that keep us sane. “[S]olitary confinement (or segregation) for a prolonged period of time can have damaging psychological effects on an inmate …” [citing an Ontario court ruling]
Let me return for a moment to the facts of Mr. Gogan’s and Mr. Roach’s confinement. They spend twenty-three hours a day in a nine by seven feet cell with a bed, a mattress, a window, maybe a stool or a bench, and no other amenities. The one hour exception is for showers, any visitors, and a little time in the common room with little or no social interaction. Mr. Gogan put it mildly when he said “it’s certainly hard on your mind”.
This ruling was significant, and set an important precedent that has led to further challenges to segregation by other prisoners.
Gogan (along with his lawyer Claire McNeil) presented on his experience with filing this habeas corpus application.* It turns out that he had filed eight previous applications before it was accepted by the court. He has been incarcerated in Nova Scotia, Alberta, and New Brunswick, and despite the difficulties he experienced filing in Nova Scotia, he said that the other provinces were worse because they wouldn’t even waive the fee for the application.
Gogan has no formal legal education, but with each filing, he said he learned and figured out what he needed to do. He also spoke about learning from talking to other incarcerated people, and they passed on their knowledge.
He revealed that the reason he was able to successfully do the habeas corpus in Nova Scotia was because he had a good relationship with the librarian, who would print off hundreds and hundreds of pages of case law. Gogan would read this material in his cell for hours, even while he was in segregation.
He doesn’t have any family on the outside, and there was no one to send him any money, so he was spending all of his money on printing, forgoing any other necessities. Eventually the librarian trusted him enough to allow him to do research on the internet, and he was allowed to print up to 200 pages at a time, a limit he thought was “reasonable.”
Gogan spoke about how he would constantly read and learn. At the beginning he made mistakes, but he would learn from those errors for the next application. He figured out what cases to reference from reading files, seeing what cases were cited, and then finding those cases and studying them.
Think about this man, incarcerated in terrible conditions, unable to access the most basic resources, teaching himself case law from scratch. This man went without the small things that make jail even slightly more bearable — canteen food, phone calls — to spend everything he had on printing cases. Think of him, inside a segregation cell, reading thousands of pages of law, learning how to advocate for himself, getting his application rejected again and again and still persisting. That work changed segregation practices in Nova Scotia for everybody. That work set a precedent that others suffering in the same conditions could use to advocate for their rights.
Gogan’s presentation also featured an extraordinary exchange with provincial corrections director Sean Kelly.
Kelly thanked Gogan for his presentation, and acknowledged that Gogan’s application created changes in the system. He recognized that they had to change policy as a result of the ruling, and that was a good thing. Gogan, Kelly said, was the catalyst for pushing the province forward.
Then Kelly asked Gogan about what corrections officials can do, when there are so many complex issues around segregation.
Gogan responded to Kelly by confronting him on the harm he had experienced in his jail. He testified to the hurt and damage he experienced from segregation. He said that while Burnside wasn’t the worst prison he had ever been in, being held for four months in solitary damaged him, and that he was still feeling the effects. His words held Kelly and other officials accountable to the pain and suffering caused by segregation policies. He spoke movingly about the loneliness and extreme desperation you experience in solitary confinement, how it makes you feel crazy and violent.
Gogan also confronted Kelly on the the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. He asked why they think the best thing to do is to take somebody with mental health problems, throw them into a room in isolation, and take away their mattress. He turned to the room, and asked everyone who thinks that having a mattress is a right and not a privilege to raise their hands. The entire room raised their hands. He pointed this out to Sean Kelly.
Kelly acknowledged they have changed the policy about mattresses, but also suggested that the issues involved with segregation and other disciplinary policies are complicated. He offered to have a conversation with Gogan about it, an offer that Gogan accepted, suggesting in turn that a group of people who have been in prison would love to sit down and talk about their experiences.
There is much we can learn from Gogan. His experiences and advocacy resonate not only for prisoners, but for all of us who value justice. All of us who are educators should feel called by Gogan’s story of struggling to obtain even simple tools like pens to fight for access to education in prisons and for all people. His fight on behalf of not only himself, but everyone experiencing segregation, is a powerful lesson in solidarity and sacrifice. The obstacles he experienced in even getting access to the courts, or to case law, or to legal advice should shame all of us in this province who believe in fairness and equality. And his courage in standing up for himself and speaking truth to power is an inspiration.
Gogan also shared a poem he wrote about his experiences with habeas corpus. He has given permission for it to be shared here:
*I was not able to be present for all of Gogan’s presentation as I had commitments at the radio show. Hanna Garson shared her notes and recollections of the presentation.
To open our annual November subscription drive, the Halifax Examiner is having a party.
It will be held Sunday, November 5, from 4-7pm at Bearly’s (1269 Barrington Street). We’ll have short readings from Halifax Examiner contributors Stephen Kimber, Linda Pannozzo, El Jones, and Evelyn White, special musical guests, new Halifax Examiner swag for sale, and cake.
It’s a subscription drive party, so admission is for subscribers only, but you can buy a subscription at the door. There are no advance tickets, so plan to come early for a good seat.
Another great article by El about another amazing person (Dylan Gogan) — both of whom are making us think and are making change.
I am now a senior but can remember stupid things I was part of way back when I was a teenager in Cape Breton. My first boyfriend was “jailed” in the RCMP headquarters for driving too fast on the main street. I saw his face behind the basement window bars and went home and cried to my mother. She called his father who said, “Let him spend the night in jail and maybe he will learn a lesson.”
Many years later, one of my brothers got picked up for being drunk in a public space. The police contacted me and actually suggested the same thing: “Let him spend the night in jail and he might learn a lesson.”
More recently, I had the experience of a young family member being incarcerated in the Don Valley Jail. He had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and after months of Court appearances a judge recognized that my nephew was not mentally capable of defending himself and that legal aid was not assisting him. He assigned him to a mental health facility that made a big difference.
Solitary confinement in any way shape or form is not a good thing.
Great to see that when she chooses, El Jones can still write compelling, rational articles on the unnecessary suffering of people unfairly held in contempt by the majority without the extended juvenile sarcasm we’ve seen so much of lately that feels like lazy filler on a slow Saturday news day.
As far as I’m aware no laws are written to intentionally sentence people convicted of even the most serious of crimes to torture.
No judge sentences an offender to be raped by inmates or bashed by prison guards.
No judge requires someone to be denied their medications or the aggravation of existing mental conditions during detention.
Laws created by our governments compel judges to impose imprisonment for conviction of many crimes and incarceration options available to them are limited to prisons run under government oversight. Yet it would appear the result of such sentencing includes the real risk (and in the case of offenders suffering mental conditions, the likelihood) of afflicting what the UN defines as torture upon them. As this all happens out of public view, it’s not a political issue.
Responsibility for how provincial and federal governments conduct their prisons rests entirely with them.
Prisons are not something most voters consider at election time, and I’ve met people never imprisoned who strongly believe that someone who finds themselves in jail deserves everything they get. Everything. Such people would almost certainly oppose increased spending to reduce human rights violations of those they evidently consider less human than themselves. They already feel overtaxed. There is little point arguing about poverty or racial background as a major factor in why many are more likely to be convicted of crimes and jailed. You will get homilies about desperately poor people who correctly went on with their lives in silent misery without breaking the law. That’s just life.
So I see governments preoccupied with re-election (as they always are) face disincentives to correct these problems. It will take something beyond the conscience of the majority of ordinary voters to fix these things, which may well explain why they continue unabated. Awareness is required to invoke conscience, if that is even possible. Perhaps a prison riot so violent and costly that it finally grabs public attention to such an extent that government cannot fend off the serious public inquiry that would spotlight decades of known abuse, the way The Home for Colored Children briefly did (and may again)?
Perhaps a TV series run in prime time that illustrates well what goes on behind closed doors with government acquiescence if not downright consent? Something really graphic that allows us all to be shocked, to innocently profess that we had no idea, and allows us to feel righteous across our double-doubles by agreeing that something must be done.
I would respectfully suggest broadcasters of such a TV show would get most advertiser impact if they run it shortly before an expected election.
Excellent article. Not many middle class people in jail and therefore politicians have no interest in the primitive and disgusting conditions of incarceration. Out of sight and out of mind.