A jail cell in the north wing of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

The author of this article is a former provincial prisoner.

Today, August 10, is Prisoners’ Justice Day.

I got my first real lesson on Prisoners’ Justice Day in Millhaven Institution when I was incarcerated there in the early 2000s. I had been around in some provincial jails on August 10s before that but it was just a day when you didn’t eat the food and I didn’t really know why. Someone told me once, ”It’s for the guys who fought to get us TVs on the range and things like that.”

In Millhaven, I had a chance to hear about the history of PJD from a couple of lifers there. They told me about how bad the conditions used to be in Canadian prisons: about the way prisoners were treated by the guards, and specifically about how a lifer named Ed Nalon died in a segregation cell there in Millhaven in 1974. A group of cons got together the next year on the anniversary of that day, August 10, and held a 24-hour hunger strike to protest and remember Eddie’s death as well as all the other men and women who died and fought and sacrificed for better conditions in our jails and prisons. 

That struck a chord with me having experienced segregation myself and having had guys I knew who never made it out of jail alive. But as much as I was down for the cause every year I was in jail on August 10, every time I got out, I just wanted to forget about the shit that happened to me and others on the inside. Until recently, when I realized that I never did forget any of those things. All I did was try to block them out with drugs and alcohol and by hurting other people and myself. 

I hope that by telling my story I can help somebody to help somebody going through the same things and worse right now.

I’ll tell a couple of stories about things that happened to me in jail. I don’t have to think back very far to think of some that are relevant. Some months ago, I was in [a Nova Scotia provincial jail] on remand one day when the captains were doing their rounds. In the morning I got into an argument with them about the fact that we had been locked down a lot for ”short staff issues.” I said what I had to say and finally returned to my cell. But they decided I should be moved to the hole and they got the team suited up and came to take me there. I refused so they rushed my cell and forced me into cuffs and shackles and dragged me down to the hole. 

Once down there, the captain looked at the three empty cells and said put him in the last one, which was painted floor to ceiling with shit and blood from whoever was in there before. When I got to the door to the cell, the smell and the thought of being locked in there made me fight back panic. They asked me, ”Are you going to comply with a strip search?” I said, ” I’ll strip for you fucks in either one of those other cells but not in that one.” I told them, ”You know it’s not right putting me in there.” So they went down the hall to talk about it while the team held me there, and they came back and said, ”That’s [my name’s] cell, put him in there.” Then the fight was on again. Not much of a fight though, six of the biggest guards there with football equipment on and hockey helmets and me cuffed behind my back and shackled.

They slammed me in the shit face down and stripped me on the floor while the captains and another guard watched from the door. When they were done they slammed the door and closed the window hatch so you couldn’t even see out the door. I stood there naked with bloody knees, wrists, and ankles, the front of me smeared with shit in open wounds from being forced down and stripped on the concrete. I stood there like that for a good couple of hours until they threw me the same filthy clothes that they had ripped off me. 

I stayed in that hole cell until the next day when I was returned to the range because the only institutional charge I had from that was for failing to obey a direct order. All that for failing to obey a direct order. In reality, that’s what I got for for telling the captain how I felt about the way he was doing things on our unit in not so nice words in front of the whole range.

It’s easy to think about PJD in terms of ”what was happening in the 1970s was 50 years ago and things are different now.” Well, again, I only have to think back recently to draw certain parallels to something that happened to me. In 1971 Ed Nalon was placed in segregation for an extended period of time and then told that on a certain day he would be moved back to population. That day came and went and because of some mix-up he was not moved back on the day he was told. The next day he slashed his arm and bled to death in his hole cell. In my case it was [in the same provincial jail] about a month before the time I just spoke about. I was moved to segregation for an alleged fight on the range. I was in seg for my 10th day without being adjudicated or even given a copy of the charge as to why I was there. On the eighth day, a Thursday, the captain on shift said if you aren’t adjudicated by tomorrow you will be moved back to the range. Friday came and went and that captain was no longer on shift and the one working told me, ”You might be adjudicated Tuesday and you will be in seg until then.” 

On that Saturday, the 10th day in seg, I blocked up my window in protest. The team came in to unblock it and I resisted and fought with them. That ended up with me being ” street charged” for assault on a guard and placed on administrative hold citing ”the good order of the institution” as the reason: the same language used when punitive segregation was introduced as a form of punishment. I was then held in seg for another 12 days making it a 22 day seg term, seven days over the legal amount of time allowed to be in segregation in provincial jails in Nova Scotia. Fifty years later and the same sort of scenario is happening still.

There are many other stories I can remember, like being held in the hole at Maplehurst Institution in Ontario for months on ”mattress protocol’”: no mattress, no books, no paper or pencil, nothing in the cell from 6am until 10pm. And on a restricted diet of veggie loaf twice a day. And being double and even triple bunked in that same hole. So it’s not so much segregation as deprivation, a proven effective form of torture.

But even with my first-hand knowledge of prison conditions it was easy for me to say,’ “I’m glad those guys stood up to make things better for us in jail now, but I just want to get out and put this shit behind me.” Prisoners’ Justice Day for me was about being thankful for a TV on the range and from being hungry from not eating their shit food for a day.

But I’m thinking now that PJD is about trying to stop the next young woman or man from having to go through this shit. So they don’t have to get out of jail and try and block that fucking shit out with drugs and alcohol and by hurting other people and hurting themselves, all just to end up back there again so they can go through more of the same. I think that’s what PJD is about for me now, about being able to say, ”I don’t have to try and forget this happened. I can use what happened to try and help someone else and by doing that I can help myself.”

So thank fuck that group of convicts started PJD in 1975 and everyone else who stood up and sacrificed before and since because without them I wouldn’t be talking about this today.

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  1. I know of no other daily publication that offers the voices of (current and former) prisoners the way the Examiner does. These stories are incredibly valuable and form a part of the slow drip-drip-drip toward justice. Thank you.