by Abby Stadnyk
On Monday, prisoners at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre (SCC) and the Pine Grove Correctional Centre (PGCC) in Saskatchewan, Canada went on hunger strike, engaging in a self-described “peaceful protest” against the deplorable conditions and government inaction that have fuelled COVID outbreaks at jails across the province.
On the same day, prisoners at Prince Albert Correctional, also in Saskatchewan, lit fires and destroyed prison infrastructure in an hours-long uprising.
According to an estimate from prisoner advocate Sherri Maeir, there are 90 people participating in the strike at Saskatoon and another 14 at Pine Grove.
In an open letter addressed to the Saskatchewan Minister of Corrections, Public Safety, and Policing Christine Tell, lead organizer Cory Charles Cardinal, a prisoner at Saskatoon Correctional, explained the strikers’ demands, calling on Minister Tell to resign and to issue a public apology for failing to prevent the outbreaks and for putting both prisoner and staff lives at risk.
The office of Minister Tell and the Saskatchewan Ministry of Corrections did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the hunger strikes and the demands for the Minister’s resignation.
In a news release, Tell said the government was “deeply concerned with the rise in cases at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre.”
In his open letter, Cardinal reminded Minister Tell of previous letters from both himself and a group of lawyers and advocates, which, as early as April 2020, stressed the necessity of reducing the incarcerated population in order to avoid an outbreak. Numbers were reduced in the spring, but began to climb again in late summer, and advocates renewed their calls for early release of prisoners.
Months later, with no further reduction in the prison population, an outbreak ensued in late November, with 142 people (prisoners and staff) testing positive at its height in early December. Speaking on behalf of other prisoners, Dana Blackie, a prisoner at the Saskatoon Correctional who was also participating in the strike, called on Minister Tell to “step down for failing to protect us inmates and staff and guards that are employed by SCC.”
On the morning of January 4, Cardinal was removed from his unit and put in segregation, where he continued his hunger strike for five days. In an interview with Perilous, Cardinal explained that his strike was an “act of love” in “defence” of incarcerated people.
In addition to the strike, prisoners at Saskatoon Correctional and Pine Grove participated in a letter writing campaign to Minister Tell, designed to draw attention to their concerns, including lack of government and institutional transparency in relation to the COVID crisis at Saskatchewan institutions; lack of access to supports, including Elders and other support services; lack of access to fresh air and outside exercise; and lack of attention to their mental and physical health needs, amongst others.
In total, 10 letters were sent through prisoner justice advocate Sherri Maier of Beyond Prison Walls Canada. As a letter from Danny Dawson explained, “We have been denied health care, visits and outside exercise among many other things which has caused a very hostile environment… Why are we being disregarded…? Let’s not forget we are people too.”
Kevin Kitchmonia expressed similar sentiments: “We are not sure who to trust or believe. They let us outside for only a few minutes. The silence is eerie. We walk in a small fenced, confined area. The look on the other men’s faces is lost with no explanation. We want answers but they are unknown.”
While the hunger strike continued at SCC and PGCC, on January 5 family and friends of prisoners at the Regina Correctional Centre (RCC), another jail in the province of Saskatchewan, gathered for a protest against conditions at that institution, where 62 prisoners and 12 staff tested positive for COVID-19 as of January 4.
Julie Paul, whose son is a prisoner at the Regina jail who recently tested positive for the virus, helped organize the event. On the “Justice for Regina Correctional Inmates!” Facebook event page, she drew attention to the insufficient medical care, medication, food, and support provided to her son and others. “When I told [my son] that we will be protesting on Tuesday, his spirit picked up and he said he would tell all the other men in there. I told him to tell them all THEY are NOT forgotten and we will do ALL we can to bring light to the current situation,” she posted. Paul is planning a follow-up gathering for January 9, where she and other Indigenous women will dance in their regalia in support of the men inside RCC.
Also on January 5, prisoners at the Prince Albert Correctional Centre (PACC) led an uprising, which included starting a fire and smashing windows, and lasted for a number of hours. Prisoners at the facility hung a makeshift large banner that said “We’re getting treated like animals” out of one of the jail windows amidst the uprising. Police from Prince Albert and an emergency response team from Saskatoon were called in, and two staff from the jail sustained minor injuries.
Verne Larson, Legal Inspection and Regulatory Component Chair with the Saskatchewan Government Employees Union (SGEU), told CTV News that the incident was “gang-related” and unrelated to COVID-19. Sherry Maier made the connection to other actions across the province, observing to Perilous that prisoners at PACC “started a riot over the way they are treated.”
“There is water damage to the building and there is a hole in the roof,” Larson told paNOW. “I’m not sure how the hole in the roof got to be, perhaps from attacking the fire.”
“I am surprised no one got seriously hurt,” he said.
Incarcerated at Pine Grove Correctional Centre (PGCC), the Saskatchewan women’s jail, Carmen Napope Cardinal wrote to Minister Tell of dangerous conditions and similarly degrading treatment in her unit, where PPE was in short supply, and staff were dismissive of the women’s requests for cleaning supplies and hygiene products.
She also reported that guards refer to her unit as “the forgotten unit of the orphanage” because “they just leave us in here. They come check on us once in a while and that is it,” Carmen Cardinal wrote. The troubling moniker “The Orphanage” can be seen to resonate with the argument that prisons are the “new residential schools” for Indigenous peoples (i.e. boarding schools, to use American terminology), as Nancy Macdonald reported in Maclean’s magazine in 2016.
Published in Briarpatch magazine earlier this week, strike organizer Cory Cardinal’s letter to advocates advanced a similar analysis of the incarceration of Indigenous peoples, particularly in Saskatchewan, where Indigenous people make up approximately 75% of the provincial jail population.
Indigenous men, Cardinal argues, have been “targeted…by a racist system” and are “unjustly labelled…as ‘criminals’ and ‘thieves’ as part of a 154-year-old campaign to diminish our identities as protectors of our people.” Situating the government’s failure to prevent COVID-19 in Saskatchewan jails in the context of settler colonialism, Cardinal makes clear that “this cycle of systemic oppression must be broken and must be recognized for what it is: a modern-day act of genocide meant to eradicate a vulnerable people.”
A coalition of advocates from across the Prairie Provinces responded to Cardinal’s call to action and came together to organize a Day of Action and Solidarity with Saskatchewan Prisoners Wednesday. Organizers released an Open Letter in Solidarity with Prisoners at Saskatchewan Jails, following up on an earlier letter, released in early December at the height of the outbreak at Saskatoon Correctional Centre.
Signed by over 1,000 supporters as of January 8, the letter includes five calls to action, including a resignation and public apology from Minister Tell, the release of “all prisoners possible” with financial and transitional supports, and an immediate and ongoing investment in communities rather than prisons.
In addition to signing the letter, participants in the Day of Action were invited to engage in a number of other concrete actions, from joining in a one-day solidarity hunger strike, writing/phoning government officials, and educating themselves about prisoner justice.
Karrie Auger, nehiyaw (Cree) prisoner advocate, helped organize the event and participated in the hunger strike from outside the prison walls. Auger explained to Perilous that, for her, the Day of Action was important because it encouraged people to build solidarity across prison walls. Letting people on the inside know that people on the outside care and support them, she explained, is “really important because it can help them…to feel that community of resistance that’s happening, even if it’s in small ways, so that they can feel nourished by that.”
Auger also highlighted the importance of Indigenous notions of relationality and interconnectedness to organizing and anti-colonial prison abolition work more generally, noting that “when we can be engaged in these ways, to remember our relatives and to continue to bridge these connections across so-called Canada, North America, and hopefully around the world,” then we can keep the movement going.
Alicia Clifford, who also participated in the Day of Action from Calgary, Alberta, noted that she feels a sense of “responsibility to create or enable a space where [prisoners’] voices can be heard.”
“It’s crucial to stand in solidarity for people,” Clifford said. “It really demonstrates a collective voice. If we can create spaces where there are more voices that can come together and rise up,” then “inmates can be heard.”
In an interview with Perilous, prison organizer Cory Cardinal responded to the outpouring of support from the community: “There’s no words right now that I could possibly muster to express my gratitude for people out there that are supporting me and all the inmates in here…. Segregation is a place you go to get muffled, but reading everything in the paper, it gives me strength, it keeps me going, knowing that everybody out there is united in a common purpose.”
Header Photo Source: CTV News