The Spirit of Prisoners’ Justice Day

Prisoners’ Justice Day (PJD) began in 1975 to commemorate the death of Eddie (Edward) Nolan, who took his own life while held in segregation at the Millhaven Institution on August 10, 1974. The demonstration, which took place on the one-year anniversary of Nolan’s death, involved a prisoner-led memorial service, hunger strike, and refusal to work. Originating from the collective organizing among incarcerated men in one maximum-security penitentiary in Ontario, PJD has been observed annually on August 10 within various prisons across Canada ever since. PJD is now an international event and highlights the power of collective resistance to the violence of confinement.

PJD is an opportunity to raise attention to, denounce, and demand accountability for deaths in custody arising from a range of heinous conditions and abuse, including medical neglect and denial, suicide promoted by confinement and isolation, “natural” causes while serving lengthy prison sentences, and deaths arising from violence and murder behind bars.

The ongoing history of PJD is credited to the radical tradition of organizing within prisons. A notable piece of this history is available within a 1991 issue of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons on the topic of Prisoners’ Justice Day, which offered a platform for currently and formerly incarcerated folks to reflect on the significance of the day for themselves and to honour and mourn their lost kin. At the same time, PJD exists as a day for our communities to demonstrate solidarity with the struggles of those on the inside.

PJD proves to not only be an occasion to demand better and humane living conditions for those surviving incarceration, but also to call out the inhumanity of prisons themselves. Put another way, PJD provides the space to collectively organize against the use of prisons as a mode of punishment, since prisons are, by design and intent, sites of violence.

Winnipeg has witnessed various PJD demonstrations over the years. In 2020, for example, a rally and march was organized at the Winnipeg Remand Centre (WRC), where protestors marched to the Police Headquarters. WRC is a pre-trial detention centre, meaning it is used to cage those who are awaiting trial and not yet convicted of a criminal offence. Located in the downtown core, WRC is often the spot in which PJD solidarity actions are mobilized.

More than that, WRC has a deeply disturbing and insidious history that offers the basis for anti-prison activism.

Deaths in Manitoba Custody

CW: police violence; description of injuries; death

There have been 99 Inquest Reports into deaths in custody in Manitoba prisons between the years 2002-2021. Under s. 19(5)(a) of The Fatality Inquiries Act, an inquest report may be recommended if the chief medical examiner has reasonable grounds to believe that the cause of death involved the use of force by an officer. The Act also mandates an Inquest be launched into all deaths in custody. However, there are exceptions to this requirement which serve to minimize the accountability of police and prison staff - exceptions that were introduced in 2017 by former Justice Minister and now Manitoba premier, Heather Stefanson.

The latest inquest was into the death of Richard Kakish, who sustained injuries during a forceful arrest by the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) in 2017, was left to suffer in the WRC, and later died as a result. An inquest into Kakish’s death was recommended by the Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. John K. Younes. As it turns out, police use of force was involved in Kakish’s arrest, whose injuries were documented by the WPS in a Use of Force Report, a Prisoner Log Sheet, and a Prisoner Injury Report. Evidence revealed that WPS officers had kicked and beaten Kakish, resulting in two fractured ribs and hemorrhaging. Police use of force was the direct cause of Kakish’s death, who endured several days of suffering in custody at WRC following his arrest before he succumbed to his injuries.

The autopsy listed Kakish’s death as a homicide. However, no WPS officers were charged or held accountable for Kakish’s death. The list of recommendations coming from the inquest included the creation of police policy to gather and share data regarding police use of force with medical practitioners, and that WRC review its policies regarding the documentation of injury among detainees and to develop policies to ensure medical documents are shared with health professionals.

Years ago, five deaths at WRC in the year of 2016 alone prompted calls for improved correctional training, such as in the realm of mental health and fentanyl management.

Yet nothing has changed.

There is no amount of training or policy reform that can ever reduce the deathly effects of policing and prisons. Since Kakish’s murder, many others - primarily Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) - have been killed at the hands of the WPS and families are left without accountability.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been countless other deaths in custody in Manitoba. This includes the death of an unnamed 62-year-old man at the WRC in June of 2020, and the death of another unnamed 37-year-old man in January of 2022. The details of both, including cause of death, have not been released to the public. This most recent death at the WRC occurred just three days after the death of Pine Creek First Nations man James Flatfood in the Stony Mountain Institution. Eight people died in Stony the year prior.

In addition, this past January 2021, former prison guard Robert Jeffery Morden was charged with criminal negligence in the death of Sagkeeng First Nations man William Ahmo in Headingley Correctional Centre in February 2021. Most often in these cases, however, no charges are laid against police officers and prison guards. Sometimes no inquests are even launched to investigate deaths in custody, including in cases of deaths resulting from medical negligence or when death occurs by suicide.

Contextualizing the Broader Violence of Incarceration

CW: negligence; death; suicide

In addition to mourning and honoring those who lost their lives in custody each year on PJD, the conditions of confinement and the very use of incarceration as a tool of punishment must also be raised as the root cause of these deaths.

For starters, the global pandemic called attention to the inhumanity of prisons, with concerns for how incarcerated folks would be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 being raised as soon as the pandemic hit. In the WRC, COVID-19 protocols resulted in hundreds of detainees being held in isolation at one time.

Earlier in the pandemic, local activists and academics called for the release of people from custody, citing concerns over overcrowding, poor living conditions, limited access to consistent, adequate medical care and the history of medical denial, and the lack of adequate personal protective equipment. All of these concerns have been documented in Manitoba jails, including WRC. High rates of COVID-19 rates within Manitoba prisons persist in 2022 and our incarcerated kin remain most vulnerable within these conditions. For more information about COVID-19 in prisons, see the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, which has been tracking the number of COVID-19 infections documented among incarcerated people.

These conditions foster the deaths of those we mourn and honor on PJD. In fact, it is the inhumane conditions of confinement that are directly attributed to the deaths of those on the inside who take their own lives, such as the death of 16-year-old Ashley Smith.

Prisons are intended to deprive liberties as a form of punishment, yet prisons themselves are also sites in which punishment is inflicted through such means as disciplinary action, segregation and solitary confinement, the denial of goods and essentials, and harassment and abuse at the hands of guards. Complaints regarding abuse from guards has been highlighted as a serious issue within the WRC for a decade.

As we know, still nothing has changed since then.

That is because prisons are, by design, sites that inflict a slow death upon its occupants. It is also important to understand that this violence is inherently tied to the racialized governance of white settler societies.

Black abolitionists such as Angela Davis and Robyn Maynard have contextualized the prison within a lengthy history of anti-Blackness at the hands of the US and Canadian states. Doing so, they make connections between the use of enslavement, the introduction of anti-Black codes, the era of racial segregation, the racist war on drugs, police practices of anti-Black racial profiling, and the use of mass incarceration as state tools that have all functioned to maintain Black subjugation.

In addition, prisons have also been contextualized within the goals of settler colonialism: to eliminate Indigenous peoples through techniques of genocide and assimilation in order to obtain and maintain the theft of the land by white settlers. Mi’kmaw lawyer Pamela Palmater articulates that colonial law and penal policy has always been used to displace, contain, and control Indigenous peoples and their resistance strategies in order to advance land theft. She  highlights that in contemporary times, “clearing the land” now takes the form of mass incarceration. What is more, white capitalist greed in the form of resource extraction is precisely why land defenders and water protectors are being criminalized and surveilled by RCMP as so-called ‘terrorists’: the settler state criminalizes Indigenous peoples who assert their rightful authority of the land when capitalist interests, like violent extractivist projects, are threatened.

Despite reform after reform that promises to address the mass incarceration brought on by the effects of colonialism, and more empty promises by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the rate of incarceration among Indigenous peoples is only ever-increasing. This past year, it hit an all-time high in the federal system: 32% of all those in federal custody are Indigenous, and an astonishing 50% of federally incarcerated women are Indigenous, according to the Correctional Investigator Dr. Ivan Zinger. Meanwhile, Indigenous people make up 75% of those incarcerated in Manitoba provincial prisons.

The only way to resolve mass incarceration is through decarceration on the pathway to the total abolition of prisons.

It is important to remember, as ​​Anishinabe-Métis scholar Aimée Craft states, that Treaty 1 negotiations in 1871 were premised on the decarceration of imprisoned community members, per the conditions of the Anishinabeg.

Mobilizing for Abolition

Considering the violence inherent to confining human beings in cages, and the logics of anti-Blackness and settler colonialism that underpin systems of incarceration, prisons can never be improved to be more “humane.”

Prisons are always going to be sites of violence and oppression.

On Prisoners Justice Day, we must raise attention to the inhumanity of human cages and call for abolition of the deathly state institutions. The call to abolish prisons, alongside the interrelated movements to abolish the police, is guided by the need to drastically change the world in which we live in order to support and strengthen Black and Indigenous lives. Black feminist organizers have always been at the forefront of abolitionist struggles, knowing that abolition is the only pathway to more liveable futures for all.

The abolition of police and prisons mandates community forms of safety and the reallocation of resources back into the hands of communities. The support and creation of non-violent and non-carceral crisis intervention and mental health resources, harm reduction initiatives of many scales including safe consumption sites, and survivor-centric gender-based violence support are but some initiatives that are enacted in our communities that replace the need for violent and oppressive police intervention. These initiatives also are life-sustaining in that they aim to address the root cause of gendered, racial, and economic issues that our government instead chooses to criminalize and therefore exacerbate.

There are many material actions we can undertake to act in solidarity with incarcerated folks and those vulnerable to criminalization in anticipation of this year’s PJD, such as signing up for the Prison Rideshare Program organized by Bar None, contacting the Prisoner Correspondence Project to become a penpal with an incarcerated person, and get involved with the Prison Libraries Committee to help provide access to reading materials in Manitoba prisons. You may also contribute financially to prisoner justice programs across the country, such as making a one-time donation or becoming a monthly donor to the Toronto Prisoner Rights Project, or support the Stony Mountain Half Marathon and Relay 2022 which is raising funds for Strength in the Circle. Also make sure to write to city council to demand that the defunding of police is on their agenda in anticipation of Winnipeg’s October 2022 municipal election.

Finally, we ask that you show up on PJD to the vigil being held outside the Winnipeg Remand Centre, on August 10th, at 6:00pm, to denounce the use of state violence in all its forms and to mobilize for the creation of a better and safer world.

Defunding the police and abolishing prisons is not a radical dream or unfeasible practice. This becomes evident when we understand that these institutions do not help us, but rather inflict fear, violence, and further oppression upon marginalized communities. Police and prisons are intended to disempower us. Our collective power keep us safe.