Sunday, December 6, 2015

The current hunger strike at the Innes Road Jail is more important than you think

by Laura McKendy, PhD Candidate, Sociology, Carleton University

Prisoners in the maximum security unit at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre began a hunger strike this week to protest conditions at the jail. Ongoing problems at the detention centre, including crowding, unsanitary conditions, violence, routine lockdowns, and lack of medical and psychiatric care, have long been condemned by prisoners. The current protest, however, has been largely driven by the chaos accompanying months-long construction projects, which have resulted in sections of the institution being merged, without measures in place to accommodate prisoners’ daily routines.

A representative of MOMS (Mothers Offering Mutual Support) explains the current situation in max:

“The jail appears to be making a mess of managing maintenance projects in the maximum ranges. Inmates had worked with staff to develop a provisional roster and daily routine for showers, phones and meals, but this has apparently been thrown out. The hunger strike is a peaceful demand for a return to orderly daily routines, instead of chaos and inmates being forced to eat meals on the floor in their cells”.

This is not the first hunger strike at the Innes Road jail. In 1988, the Ottawa Citizen reported that 20 prisoners engaged in a peaceful hunger strike to oppose prisoner relocations within the institution. The following year, about 50 prisoners engaged in another hunger strike, this time opposing systemic problems, including crowding, insufficient clothing changes, and lack of phone and yard time. The Ottawa Citizen, who covered the protest, reported that prisoners had been thrown in solitary confinement for speaking to the media. Newspaper archives reveal hunger strikes also took place in 1990, 1997 and 1998, while several more have likely escaped widespread media attention.

Hunger strikes are a well-established peaceful tactic of opposing various forms of injustice. Around the world and across history prisoners have often employed this method of protest, given their lack of alternatives. When a repressed group’s only means of resistance is self-starvation, the public must – at the very least – listen to their grievances that see them risking their lives.

The current state of conditions at the Innes Road jail is unquestionably ‘barbaric’, conditions that we associate with non-democratic regimes – not Canada. However, you will see comments claiming current prisoners are merely seeking ‘five star hotel’ accommodations. These comments are quickly discredited by the nature of the prisoners’ demands, which couldn’t be more basic; they want showers, food and beds to sleep on.

This situation is particularly concerning for the state of Canadian democracy since most of the prisoners (60 – 70%) at Innes Road are pre-trial; they have not been found guilty of anything yet, but are merely awaiting their court date. On top of that, we know from official court statistics that people in the jail are most commonly charged with non-violent offences; in fact, the most common category of offence for people on remand is ‘administrative’.

Regardless of the reasons that brought them there, we must ask ourselves: What social purpose is served by treating prisoners as sub-human - depriving them of showers, food, beds, support, or any form of stimulation? As a prisoner said to me earlier this week, “when you keep treating people like animals, they will eventually start acting like animals”. In light of this, we must ask ourselves whether we will tolerate such brutality in the face of such damaging consequences.