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Prison is a storage unit: Halifax community meeting on Prisoners’ Justice Day

A well attended public meeting in Halifax on the occasion of Prisoners’ Justice Day offered some much needed insight into a topic that most people don’t really know all that much about. Include me among the ignorant.

One thing is clear, prison is an awful place.

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“Women don’t get enough tampons to last them their full menstrual cycle. People are using toilet paper because they don’t get enough tampons, and then they don’t have enough toilet paper to use in the washroom,” said one woman in the audience during a short Q and A towards the end of the meeting.

“I remember when the people from Elizabeth Fry would come in and do these little bingos, and we’d win these little shampoos you get from hotels that people didn’t finish, and how great that was. I remember that,” she said.

Prisoners’ Justice Day is a day when many inmates across the country fast and refuse to work to recognize the hundreds of inmates who have died in custody in the past four decades. It’s also the day when allies on the outside try to raise awareness of what’s happening behind bars.    

Yesterday’s Halifax event, held at the Halifax North Memorial Library,  was organized by Books Beyond Bars, together with the East Coast Prison Justice Society.

Book Beyond Bars is a collective that visits the women’s section of the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside to deliver books and journals to the women who are incarcerated there, hold poetry workshops and helps women record stories for their children on the outside.  They have been doing that for close to 15 years.

The two hours were filled with speakers, who all came at the topic of prisons from their own perspectives.

Prisoners were centre stage.

For one, the event was also the formal launch of a new zine, Words without walls, full of poetry and essays by courageous women prisoners sharing their thoughts and experiences.

And George Fagan, who spent 25 years of his life in and out of correctional facilities and institutions, spoke about the awful feeling that nobody cared about him, a realization that dawned on him after his mother died  when he was a teenager.

“I was a 15 year old kid, eating out of garbage cans, no family support, no community support, no support from social services,”said Fagan, who now is a single father trying to make ends meet on a meager welfare allowance.

“I learned so much in jail, but rehabilitation was not one of those things, because it doesn’t exist. Prison is a storage unit, and the bill goes to the government. I spent 45 days in a room the size of that washroom, shitting in a little hole for 45 days, sleeping on cement,” said Fagan.

Equally compelling was a presentation by Rodney Small. Small at a young age was accused of  assaulting a police officer, but was found not guilty by judge Corinne Sparks, the first black judge appointed in Nova Scotia, because police evidence was lacking and biased. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which confirmed Sparks’ original judgement.

Today Small runs a social enterprise that supports his community. He could easily have ended up in and out of prison, much like Fagan, Small said, had it not been for the support he received from a very special person.

“My lawyer, who is no longer with us today, was a strong mentor to me, that lawyer was the great dr. Burnley “Rocky” Jones,” said Small, who at the time was pulled towards a life of crime.  “Me and Rocky had a special relationship, we were very open and frank with one another. Rocky reminded me that my backyard better be clean, that I better be living the straight and narrow live.”

Trauma is a snake eating its tail, both a consequence and cause of the carceral state,” said poet and sociology professor Ardath Whynacht. “Treating trauma and providing healing recovery services is the single most effective way to decarcerate our communities.”

The Nova Scotia Advocate hopes to publish the text of Whynacht’s entire presentation in the next week or so.

“The prison is very out of the way, it is difficult to get to by bus, way out in Burnside,” said Books Beyond Bars volunteer Kaley Kennedy, speaking about the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility where all provincially sentenced women are housed.

“We would probably treat prisons differently if we had to deal with them every day,” Kennedy observed. “If it was across the street from the legislature we would have to contend with what it means to lock people up who experienced harm or lacked support.”

Dr. Ivan Zinger, Correctional Investigator of Canada, a sort of ombudsman for prisoners, talked about the important work he does. Lots of numbers and statistics in his presentation, numbers we have probably heard before but which bear repeating.

Upon admission, 65% of federal offenders require psychological or psychiatric services. 28% of prisoners are of Aboriginal ancestry, but comprise less than 4% of the Canadian population. Black Canadians represent 8% of federal inmates, but only 2.5% of the general population.

Or how about this statistic.

The number of  women prisoners has increased 63% in the last 10 years, compared to 15% for males.   

See also: Swept under the rug, a message from prison on Prisoners’ Justice Day

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