My first time in jail was near the end of summer 2005. Jail sucks, but it definitely didn't seem as bad as I thought it would. I figured that's just because I was in Canadian jail, which has a better reputation than prisons across the border. But I had no clue just how lucky I was to not have been in jail back in the 70s.
One morning during my stint in 2005 a fellow inmate asked me if I was going to eat my food that day.
I thought he was looking to trade my meal for a bag of chips or something. I didn't want to do that so I replied, "Yeah I am." He insisted I wasn't going to eat today and I started to get angry, thinking he was trying to punk me off.
But another inmate overheard us and explained, "You can't eat today—nobody in jail eats on this day."
It was August 10—Prisoners' Justice Day.
In jails across Canada, August 10 is as solemn as November 11 is on the outside. It's a reminder of those men and women who died while in custody, and just how far we've come since the 70s. The events, people, and deaths leading to the present day are way too numerous for me to write about, so I'll focus on just two institutions in Ontario: Millhaven and Kingston Penitentiary.
From 1835 to August 1975, Canadian jails were the closest thing to hell you could find in the country. This was especially true of any federal prison under the jurisdiction of the Canadian Penitentiary Service (CPS).
Inmates could be sent to the hole (segregation) for any reason, and it was not uncommon for sick inmates to die in there. Some were even left in the hole after they were cleared for reentry back into the prison population. Corporal punishment in prison was completely legal as well. Inquests into inmate deaths repeatedly found the onus to be on CPS, but no significant changes were ever really made.
In 1971, inmates from Kingston Penitentiary (KP) were being arbitrarily transferred to the new Millhaven Institution due to overcrowding, even though construction of that prison wasn't complete. Tensions within both prisons began to rise. In KP a four-day-long rioterupted, resulting in six prison guards being held hostage (who were eventually released unharmed), much of the prison being wrecked and two inmates being beaten to death.
The next summer, fourteen inmates escaped from Millhaven. Five of the inmates were never recaptured, and people feared they were terrorizing the city of Kingston. This was partially the inspiration behind the Tragically Hip's song "38 Years Old."
On August 10, 1975, inmates from Millhaven organized a 24-hour hunger strike on the one-year anniversary of the suicide of Edward Nalon, who bled to death in segregation. At the time peaceful protests were a punishable offense in prison, and some inmates were left in the hole for a year after the hunger strike. This day is known as the first official Prisoners' Justice Day, although some inmates argue that the first PJD happened in 1972 (the same year corporal punishment was abolished.)
In 1976, inmates at Millhaven began a 110-day hunger strike following the death of another inmate put in the hole. The inmates involved in the strike made a list of demands. Over the years the Canadian Penitentiary Service—which was renamed to the Correctional Service of Canada in April 1979—began adopting the changes the inmates requested.
The federal prisons in Canada are now accountable to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Advisors from the general public now have a say in prison affairs and inmate representatives (now known as the Inmate Committee) have a voice in the treatment of the inmate population.
But every Aug 10, inmates across the country decline all services offered by the prison. Nobody works, nobody goes to school, and nobody eats for 24 hours. This is because for almost 150 years there were many who lived and died in the very same cells we now occupy who never had the freedom or chance to make such a choice.
And now that I am free, I'm reminded from time to time that the reason I was able to survive my recent federal sentence was not because Canada is so enlightened in its treatment of its prisoners. It's because Canadian prisoners fought and died to improve that treatment.
At detention centres across the country, the friends and families of those in custody rally on this day outside the fences to show solidarity with those inside. The first time I saw them outside my window I kind of laughed because it seemed like such an empty gesture. But in light of everything I've learned since about PJD, I'm not sure it's so pointless anymore.