Prisoners' Justice Day
Prisoners' Justice Day is an annual solidarity movement in support of prisoners' rights and to remember those who've died while incarcerated.
Aug 9 2023 | Connective
“Wherever you find the shackles of oppression, you also find the spirit of resistance.”
– 2001 Prisoners’ Justice Day Committee
On August 10 each year, we pause to remember those who have suffered and died unnecessarily in prison, as victims of murder, suicide, or neglect. Looking to a better future, we also recognize, honour, and stand in solidarity with those leading peaceful resistance within Canada’s prison system.
The fight for prison justice stretches across many decades and individuals, but this day – known in Canada and around the world as Prisoners’ Justice Day (PJD) – draws its origins from 1974, and the death of Eddie Nalon.
Eddie was serving a life sentence at Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in Bath, Ontario. For much of that sentence he had been in and out of segregation. In June of 1974, Eddie was housed in a working unit, in general population. Eddie inquired about being transferred to a non-working unit and was told to submit a refusal to work form.
Eddie submitted this form, but rather than being transferred he was instead taken back to segregation. Later, he was punished with 30 days in solitary confinement. When his 30 days were completed, he was again taken back to segregation.
These events help to highlight the punitive and often retaliatory nature of the justice system.
On July 28, Eddie submitted a request to be released from segregation. His request was received and approved within three days, but at no point between July 31 and August 10 was this communicated to Eddie. Familiar with the usual process for these requests, the extended silence would have suggested that his request had been denied.
In the early morning hours of August 10, Eddie took his own life. Though that decision was his own, it was the justice system’s carelessness and disregard for basic human wellbeing that led to his death.
On the first anniversary of his passing, those incarcerated at Millhaven refused to work and held a hunger strike in Eddie’s memory. These types of actions are the only real way to exercise civil disobedience in prison, but they are often met with punishment. Many involved in the planning of this day were placed (and remained nearly a year later) in segregation.
A Coroner’s Inquest into Eddie’s death produced several recommendations. Over the years that followed this and other similar inquiries, few recommendations were followed.
In May of 1976, another individual died while in segregation at Millhaven. This death became another spark to light the flame of what would become PJD.
“Solitary is used against prisoners who continue to resist against the oppressive environment within the system. It is used to wear us down, to degrade us, humiliate us, and to try and break our spirit.”
Robert ‘Bobby’ Landers began his sentence at Archambault Maximum Security Prison, near Montreal, Quebec. It was there that he became outspoken about prisoners’ rights and was active in helping to organize a strike for better conditions. Shortly before the strike, he was involuntarily transferred to Millhaven. It was hard to view this transfer as anything other than retaliation, and an attempt to disrupt his organizing efforts.
At Millhaven, Bobby was placed in solitary confinement. The night before he died of a heart attack, he tried to seek medical attention but the panic button in his cell was nonfunctional. It was later revealed that the receiver in the guard’s tower – for all panic buttons – had been deactivated.
His cries for help, and those of 3 other prisoners on his behalf, were largely ignored by the guards and nurse stationed just down the hall.
At the investigation into his death, the attending specialist confirmed that Bobby should have been receiving care in an ICU, and not left to suffer in solitary confinement.
In August of that year, PJD committees were formed in multiple provinces and thousands of individuals in prisons across the country took part in a one-day hunger strike. In 1983 the day of action spread to France, and by the mid-1990s the movement was in the United States, and additional parts of Europe.
Injustice in the Canadian Prison System
Before the first Canadian prison was built in 1835, confinement was not used as punishment. After this point, however, prisons became a major instrument of repression. The creation and operation of prisons would go on to become one of the country’s largest growth industries. The statistics surrounding prisons are deeply troubling:
- As PJD was gaining steam in Canada in the mid-1970s, the rate of suicide among those in prison was 12% higher than the national average for the general population.
- Rates have dropped over the years, but suicide is still a leading cause of death for those who are incarcerated.
- Self-mutilation in institutions occurs at a rate twice that of in the public, and that number is even higher in women’s prisons, where their specific needs for treatment and programs are often overlooked.
- Today there are nearly 40,000 people in prison at any one time, and nearly 3bn dollars per year goes into making this a reality.
- Looking at the most recent data (from 2020-21), Indigenous adults accounted for about one-third of all adult admissions to provincial and territorial (31%) and federal (33%) custody, while representing only 5% of the Canadian adult population.
- Breaking these stats down, they are even more dramatic for Indigenous youth, who account for only 8% of the population but roughly 50% of youth admissions to custody.
- We see these same skewed ratios play out with women in the prison system, as well as with other marginalized groups.
Diving into these and other statistics paints a bleak portrait of the state of the justice system in Canada, and a compelling case for sweeping reforms.
A System in Flux
Through the dedication and hard work of countless individuals, many hard-fought victories have been won. The 1970s was a very active period for prison justice, and saw several major achievements and advancements, including the abolishment of capital punishment, and the establishment of programs for Indigenous prisoners.
Work has continued to this day, but the system has a long way to go.