In support of prisoners and prison justice activism in Canada

This August 10th is the 27th Anniversary of Prison Justice Day. It is a day started by prisoners in Millhaven Maximum Security Prison to recognize and remember all the men and women who have died at the hands of an apathetic prison system. A system where deaths from suicide and medical neglect go unchallenged and the call for change goes unanswered. On August 10th 1974, Eddie Nalon bled to death in a solitary confinement (segregation, the hole) cell at Millhaven. He had been sent to segregation as punishment for refusing to work on June 7th. The maximum penalty was 30 days in the hole on a restricted diet. The Segregation Review Board met on July 31st and recommended his transfer back to general population, however nobody bothered to tell Eddie. Eddie was a lifer and knew the workings of the hole, he knew that he should have been be released, at the latest, on either August 2nd or 9th. When the 9th came and went without the anticipated release Eddie slashed the veins in his arm. Each cell was equipped with an emergency call button that could be used to alert the guards to any problems in that unit. Eddie pushed his button, other prisoners pushed their buttons and nobody came. At the inquest into his death it was determined that the call buttons had been deactivated at the control panel in the guard's station. The Coroner's Jury made several recommendations including the immediate repair of the emergency call system.

In May 1976, another prisoner, Bobby Landers, died in that same unit from a heart attack. On the night before he died he had tried to get medical attention, but the call buttons had still not been repaired. At the inquest into his death a heart specialist testified that he should have been in intensive care, not solitary confinement. Prisoners at Millhaven put out the call for August 10th to become a national day of remembrance for prisoners who die preventable deaths from suicide, murder and medical neglect. Prisoners across the country go on a one day hunger strike and work stoppage. On the outside, it is a day of action and protest against the Canadian Government and correctional departments for their continued indifference to implement recommendations made through numerous Commissions of Inquiry, Task Forces and Special Investigations which would improve prison conditions.

This year the Prisoners' Justice Day Committee is focusing on the conditions for women in prison, to coincide with the current Canadian Human Rights Commission Special Investigation into Human Rights Violations Experienced by Women Prisoners. The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Native Women's Association of Canada made the original complaint to the Commission on behalf of women who were being held in Saskatchewan Maximum Security Penitentiary for Men. This complaint is supported by the Aboriginal Women's Action Network, Assembly of First Nations, National Association of Friendship Centres, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, Strength in SISterhood Society, DisAbled Women's Network Canada, National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Canadian Bar Association, Amnesty International and various equality seeking groups. It alleges that the Canadian government has breached its fiduciary duties to federally sentenced women in Canada and has disregarded the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and certain international human rights obligations including the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which Canada agreed to uphold in 1975.

" The Canadian Government has failed to remedy the well-documented ongoing violations of the human rights of women prisoners, who are discriminated against on the basis of sex, race and disability," advises Dr. Ailsa Watkinson, President of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS). "Despite international obligations and the recognition that Canada owes a special duty to prisoners, especially Aboriginal women, correctional law and policies blatantly discriminate against all women, most notably Aboriginal Women and women with disabilities." continues Dr. Watkinson

"For example, being aboriginal means you are seen as higher risk, being poor means you are seen as higher risk, being disabled means you are seen as higher risk. All of this results in women receiving a higher security classification, so if you are a poor, Aboriginal woman with a disability, they literally throw away the key," adds Kim Pate, Executive Director of CAEFS. "Worse still, she is likely to spend most, if not all, of her sentence in isolation and she may never be released from prison at all," says Pate.

Discrimination against Aboriginal women is rampant in Canada's federal prisons, says the Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC). It was the disproportionately large number of suicides by Aboriginal female prisoners that lead to the closure of the notorious Prison for Women in Kingston. Ontario, and the opening of five new regional women's prisons. Despite the building of these new regional prisons, many Aboriginal women are still serving oppressive time in men's prisons or are locked away in maximum security cells, unable to access the necessary programs and services related to their increased potential for successful reintegration back into the community. Aboriginal female offenders have always been subjected to the harshest treatment imaginable and it is in part the treatment of Aboriginal prisoners at the Prison for Women that lead to the Commission of Inquiry into Certain Events at: the Prison for Women in Kingston by Justice L. Arbour. This Inquiry came after the Fifth Estate aired video footage showing women prisoners being strip searched by helmeted, baton-wielding male members of the Emergency Response Team from the Kingston Penitentiary for Men.

While making up less than 2 percent of Canada's population, Aboriginal women make up 27 percent of all women serving federal time (sentences of more than two-years). Aboriginal women often go into prison on lesser charges and receive longer sentences than a non Aboriginal person. Once inside prison, infractions of prison rules often that lead to even longer sentences. Aboriginal women are further oppressed when you consider that they make up more than 50 percent of women who are classified as "maximum security' prisoners. Being classified as maximum security means federally sentenced women have no access to core programs and services which may be designed for females under federal law. Not only are these Aboriginal women prisoners denied women's programming and services, but they are also denied specific programs designed for Aboriginal offenders. "The oppression of Aboriginal female prisoners has to stop, or we will never get them home and successfully reintegrate them into Aboriginal and Canadian society." says NWAC Justice Co-ordinator Ellisa Johnson.

Under federal corrections legislation, the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, sections 81 & 84, were intended to allow for Aboriginal communities to take custody of their own offenders, including women who are serving long-term sentences. The Correctional Service of Canada is in contravention of it's own legislation by not allowing Aboriginal communities to arrange release of federal Aboriginal prisoners to their care and custody. "To make this happen, the Correctional Services needs to put some money into developing full custody facilities on Aboriginal lands within Aboriginal communities instead of spending billions of dollars to warehouse Aboriginal offenders - both male and female. Fiduciary responsibility to the Aboriginal community is essential in order to build capacity within our communities thereby providing the ability for us to take care of our Aboriginal women offenders". states the NWAC. "We are going to do what we can to loudly protest the harsh treatment of Aboriginal women in federal prisons and we support any action to bring the Government of Canada to account for the race, disability and sex discrimination of our women."says Johnson.

To view a full copy of submissions made to the Canadian Human Rights Commission regarding this investigation go to

July 25, 2003
Joint Effort