This Point of View piece was written by Cory Cardinal, a self-educated artist, writer and prisoner justice advocate currently incarcerated at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre.
A group of distraught inmates looked at me, their faces full of confusion. What do we do now?
One of the nursing staff just announced to the room that someone on our unit at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre had COVID-19. This revelation further added to the tension, stress and fear on an already overcrowded unit.
I was admitted to the Saskatoon Correctional Centre mid-August. I first went through the overcrowded quarantine unit, where I slept for 14 days in a cell with another depressed inmate on a makeshift bed on the floor. There are six dorms — large rooms filled with bunk beds about five feet apart. Thirty of us share three toilets and two sinks. The responsibility of cleaning fell on us, but the cleaning products were given out at the discretion of the guards.
I became known as an advocate among the other inmates. I have a passion for learning and a skill for communication and I’m not afraid to speak out. I had been slowly gathering documents related to incarceration and rights so as to direct the inquiring lost minds to a reliable source of information and education. The least I could do in my prison self-education was to lead them the right way, instead of following the hearsay that went from bunk to bunk at night.
My bunk bed was an information kiosk, often surrounded by inmates at all hours with questions and requests. I spoke to many misinformed inmates who did not know where else to turn for information. Sometimes it was about legal matters. Increasingly it was about COVID-19 and what they could do to protect themselves.
Many inmates gave up in anguish when trying to get information from the guards. They were often confronted with the dominant professionalism used to dismiss all complaints and concerns.
Thirty inmates sat in front of the CTV News at 6, watching helplessly as the rising COVID-19 infections dominated their concerns. The absolute and dismissive replies from the staff only made the scenario worse.
Fear and distrust was rampant. Every cough was met with suspicion. There is a code that inmates live by. Many would rather suffer in silence than tell staff they are feeling sick for fear it would result in a quarantine and all programming being suspended.
There is stigma. People who are sick fear retribution and risk being ostracized by other inmates. Stress levels were rising progressively. Inmates yelled at one another to clean up after themselves. A fight broke out in the overflow dormitory.
I learned that Saskatchewan has among the highest rates of HIV and hepatitis C per capita in the country. Some of the inmates are elderly or have underlying health conditions, making us more vulnerable to COVID-19. That — coupled with a lack of access to masks, our inability to physically distance and a lack of access to cleaning supplies — made us particularly vulnerable.
I began calling meetings with the inmates of my unit, slowly unifying them toward a common purpose. I reached out to Sherri Maier of Beyond Prison Walls and dictated two letters over the phone, sent through email to Christine Tell, the minister of corrections and policing. No response to either.
A week later, on Nov. 17, an outbreak was declared. Prison-wide testing ensued. Around me inmates were bedridden. The tests came back and multiple inmates were declared COVID-19 positive. There was a feeling of despair, anger and depression. With no safe place to go, inmates spent more and more time in their bunks.
My many attempts, through complaints, to get more information for inmates was met with ignorance. I had to take things to the next level. The health of my people was at risk.
The inmates gathered round in a circle, waiting expectantly for me to approach. As I stepped to my place among my brothers and fellow inmates, a show of true unification was symbolized. We were all working together to try to protect each other. Everyone had their own reasons, their own stories. We came to a common conclusion: the system has once again failed us.
We concluded and closed our circle with handshakes and hugs. We had reached a consensus — tomorrow we take action to protect each other. We hunger strike.
The strike lasted for nearly a week. We wanted to prove to the public that the inmates had the capability to take action in a non-violent, respectful way that is upheld in the charter of rights.
We wanted to show that at any given time in the correctional centres there exists a young, bright, ambitious and generous community of inmates that teach each other and protect each other from a system that has dominated, exploited and failed us for more than 150 years.
Orders came down from above. After our action there seemed to be more co-operation from the guards. Before the hunger strike, our relationship to the guards was marked by continuously having things taken away from us. After our action, they started giving us more things: increased canteen, masks and cleaning supplies. All the things they were supposed to be giving us, including respect.
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