An excerpt of this story was originally published in our newsletter Over the Wall, Issue 2 (Fall 2014).
So today, Prisoners’ Justice Day 2014, I think back to the first Prisoners’ Justice Day I ever participated in, in 1980, and can’t help but think of the old saying: “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” I like this saying because it is a simplification of a complicated truth.
I want to tell you a little story. I spent some months in the maximum security unit of Ontario’s federal prison for women, Grand Valley Institution for Women. We lived in groups of 5, in pods which were completely self-contained units we could not leave except for very short periods of time. During that time, I had a job cleaning a room outside our pod, but could never do it because apparently there was never enough staff to escort me to this room just down the hall. So I volunteered to clean our pod everyday since there was no one else to do it at that time. One day I was cleaning, and a large heavy set woman, parked herself on a nearby chair and started telling me what to do. “Don’t sweep so close to my cell, I don’t want dirt going in under the door, don’t use so much detergent, can’t you go faster.”
Now I only mention that she was “heavy set” because she had just been released from segregation where she had spent much of her past fifteen years in prison. She had originally been sentenced to six years in prison, but a continuous stream of institutional charges had morphed her time into fifteen. She was also on heavy prescription drugs that also contributed to her weight gain. I give you these details because they explain why most women who have spent years in segregation, like Ashley Smith and this woman, Kinew James appear bloated. Anyone would become bloated if they had to spend years of their life locked up in their bathroom, let’s say, with nothing to do, very little exercise, and sedated with psychiatric medication.
Kinew was also native, another fact I am only mentioning because of the disproportionate number of native women in prison. According to the CSC in 2003, 32% of federally sentenced women were native although native people represent only 4 % of the population. This disproportionate population of native women only increases in prison as their security level increases. For instance, in 2007, 45% of all maximum security women were native, and 35.5% of those in involuntary administrative segregation.
Anyway, there are two 360 degree 24/7 live feed video cameras on each pod, monitoring our every move, as well as two two-way intercoms. I was going to be seeing the parole board any day, and had vowed not to get into a fight, but Kinew was testing me. Being in segregation for long periods of time, does not improve a person’s social skills. As compassionate as I felt towards Kinew and her horrific situation, she was trying my patience. I found myself fantasizing how to shut her up.
Then a male guard in the control “bubble” who’s job it was to just sit and watch a bank of screens where maybe 15 live video feeds are playing constantly, like a live film editing room at the Oscars, began talking to Kinew through one of the intercoms. I don’t know if he intervened to help me, which is doubtful, or to help Kinew get out of the anti-social groove she was in, but he told her if she got up on the exercise bike and started pedalling, he would play her his favourite hip hop tunes over the intercom. Pretty soon, she was pedalling away to nowhere, as happy as a clam. As guards go, this particular guy was not all bad.
Later that day, when we had our one hour in the yard, Kinew and I picked a huge bouquet of flowers from the plot women had planted around the perimeter of the asphalt yard, as part of a gardening class. Back on the pod, we put them in empty shampoo containers, plastic glasses, and anything else we could find that would hold water. Later, when a guard came through doing count, she said, “it looks like a funeral parlour in here.” That comment really struck me because all of us prisoners had been really happy with the flowers because they livened up an otherwise totally bland, sad, institutional space. The flowers made us feel like we were at a wedding or some kind of celebration. This guard had been one of the staff on shift in segregation when Ashley Smith had strangled herself to death as the guards sat by and watched.
The next morning, I was woken up early by Kinew next door, banging on the wall between our cells. “Hey! I need something to eat. I feel weak, and I’ve been pushing my button for an hour now, and the guards aren’t coming. Can you push yours for me?” I could just make out her words. Kinew was a diabetic, and known to push her emergency button more often than most, but then she did have legitimate health concerns, not to mention her mental health.
I pushed my button. Instantly we could hear the guards’ soft-soled shoes rushing up the stairs from their office on the first floor. Breathless, two guards opened my door and asked what was wrong. “Kinew is having an insulin reaction,” I said, being familiar with diabetes from a friend who lived with us on the street. They glared at me, then reluctantly opened Kinew’s door so she could get something to eat. Later that morning, one of those two guards stopped at my cell door when Kinew was off the pod, and suggested in future if Kinew asked me to push my emergency button, that I agree, but then not actually push it. In other words lie to her. The guard explained that Kinew was constantly pushing her emergency button, and misusing it. I knew that was an exaggeration since I lived right next door to her, but it was true that she pushed it more often than most, but then again, she legitimately needed help.
A few days later, Kinew had a melt down on the pod, and was taken to segregation again. Earlier in the day, she had used a racist slur against one of the black women on the pod, which had not gone over well, so we suspected she wanted to go back to segregation. Like some women who had been in seg for years, Kinew had been talking about going back to seg for days, and everyone suspected her racist insults had been her way of getting back there. It was very hard for anyone who had spent years in seg to adjust to life on the pod, with all the complicated interactions with other people, the noise, and general sensation overload.
After I was released from prison, there were media reports about an alleged illicit relationship between a male guard and one of the prisoners in Grand Valley. I later learned that Kinew was one of three women who had phoned the CBC about this incident, although everyone knew about it including Elizabeth Fry, the administration and the Federal Investigator. Shortly after, she was transferred to the Psychiatric Treatment Centre in Saskatchewan. On January 20th, 2013, she once again pushed her emergency button. When the staff did not respond, and Kinew eventually became uncharacteristically quiet, the other women nearby started pushing their buttons. By the time the guards responded, Kinew was unconscious. She was transported to an outside hospital where she was pronounced dead. She had died of heart failure.
Thirty seven years before Kinew’s death, another prisoner, Bobby Landers died in eerily similar circumstances. He had been transferred from a Quebec prison where he had been involved in organizing a hunger strike to protest prison conditions, and was immediately placed in segregation at Millhaven. In May, 1976, he had also pushed his emergency button, but the guards did not respond. When Bobby became deathly quiet, the other prisoners in segregation started pushing their emergency buttons, but no one responded. The guards had disconnected the emergency buttons in their control booth. He was later pronounced dead.
His death marked the first year anniversary of Prisoner’s Justice Day, started in 1975 by Millhaven prisoners after another prisoner Eddie Nalon died in the segregation unit after bleeding out when the guards did not respond to the emergency buttons of the other prisoners. Despite this death, the guards did not fix the emergency buttons, hence the death of Bobby Landers one year later.
So here we are almost 40 years later, and nothing much has changed since the Millhaven prisoners first began the fasting and work stoppage that marks Prisoners’ Justice Day every August 10th. As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” However, all is not completely dark and gloomy. I can testify that over the past 35 years since I first got involved in prison abolition struggles, the number of activists involved, and the general awareness of the public about what is going on behind the walls has dramatically increased. So hopefully over the coming year, with more activists and public awareness, we can change the saying to “the more things change, the more things change for the better,” and develop the movements necessary to end the needless suffering and deaths of people in prison.