It’s safe to assume that other people have given a lengthy and detailed account account about what Prisoner Justice Day is and how and why it’s observed. It has been forty years since the untimely death of an inmate due to systemic negligence resulted in other prisoners taking action. But even after four decades it is uncertain that much has changed and we remain the the wildernesses outside of mainstream society. The high profile death of Ashley Smith as corrections officers watched her die under orders not to intercede shows that it is not a simple matter of making sure that emergency call buttons function properly or that policy and procedure exist to ensure fair treatment and a minimum of violence used against the incarcerated population.
What Ashley’s death shows us is that it is attitude and perception that must change.
We are still viewed as something less than human. Non-citizens whose treatment goes unseen in a mostly uncaring society. Until convicts are treated with dignity, humanity and respect, it will be difficult to prevent the emotional scarring, traumatic stresses, and social withdrawal that so often preceded and cause recidivism and other failures to reintegrate into society. The farther we are pushed away the longer we have to go to come back.
In another example of the indifference that is inherent in the system of punishment, we lost one of our own just a few weeks ago here at Frontenac. Pete was terminally ill and had been going through the lengthy and onerous system of bureaucracy to go home and die among his loved ones. The fact that a dying man had been attempting to get parole from a halfway house for four years before giving up and then trying for another six months as his time rapidly approached from a minimum security camp is ludicrous and obscene. He was so weakened in his last three months that he could not climb a flight of stairs.
What risk to public safety that a crumbling, fading, dying old man might have is beyond me.
The fact that our correctional system no longer corrects, but merely punishes, is not.
There comes a point when ones life is nearly spent when any debt to society can be forgiven and keeping someone in prison for the last months, weeks, or even days of their life no longer serves and societal purpose. The truly inhuman result is that Pete’s family was in turn punished by the system even though they themselves had committed no crime to take their father away from them in his last moments here.
The real point is that the system currently is not capable of treating us as people. As we all know, people are not perfect, and make mistakes. But perhaps more importantly here is the fact that they are not robots and cannot always be counted on to behave or react or exist within set boundaries.
Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances like when you are about to die and your children want to make up whatever lost time they can while it is still possible.
Sometimes mentally ill people, especially those who are treated as criminals and miscreants first and foremost do not act sanely. They are prone to hurting themselves or others and are capable of taking their own lives at the whims of the maladjusted chemistry in their brains. A system that fails to address and accommodate such unavoidable human situations, however outside the norm of desired patterns of behaviour they might fall, fails in it’s attempts to act humanely.
I tell you. The best way to turn a human into an animal is to put them in a cage.
It is a tragedy to see how degradation of status, the negation of our very humanity, is so much embedded and embodied in the system of criminal incarceration.
But just as humans seem to create a number of exceptions and unusual scenarios for themselves, so to are we capable of forming our own opinions. Of culturing our own attitudes that betray the general flow of the larger society.
That is exemplified today by your presence. In a world where routine and systemic dehumanization of thousands of Canadians takes place within our cherished social institutions while average citizens turn a blind eye to the practice there exists a small remnant who stand by us year after year. These ardent supporters work in writing letters to their elected officials to draw attention to our conditions and the effects of policy changes. They correspond, speak with, and visit prisoners within the institutions, giving us a handhold on reality and the world outside that tries so often merely to push us away.
They have been instrumental in helping us maintaining contact in the year that has seen our individual income fall by at least 30% while the cost of postage has doubled and Bell double dips on phone charges through the highly ineffective three way call detection technology that they themselves developed. Our inmate welfare fund costs have also increased by at least 30% and the surface attempts to save whatever semi-discretionary scraps it can by serving us powdered milk and removing paper towels from our washrooms. The present amalgamation of institutions at the same time that many of them are adding new units or maximum security facilities, creating new, higher-cost beds at a time when crime is diminishing ads to the bureaucratic morass that we have to deal with every day. Including escalating of response to a suicide attempt, or a dying man’s last wishes to be with his children.
So we thank you, the supporters, friends, family, activists, colleagues and citizens who’ve gathered here today in market square around radios to listen to CFRC Kingston and other stations broadcasting our messages and at events and actions around the world.
We especially appreciate those who fast with us on this hallowed day in remembrance of those who have died – either naturally or unnaturally – but all deaths behind bars are not natural, and all too increasingly frequent. To know that you are there, indeed, people who are interested in examining the criminal correctional system to see if it works, and, if not, how it fails, and how it might be fixed makes a world of difference to us in a world that, today, is otherwise indifferent.