Update: Alex has been moved back to general population.
Yesterday I was found guilty of inciting a disturbance likely to endanger the security of the institution, for my role in the protest and direct action that occurred on January 12 on Unit 5 at the CNCC. Once again I have been labelled as a ringleader. Since the incident I have been on the segregation unit here, in solitary confinement, more commonly known as ‘the hole.’ The protest was against the ongoing degradation of our living conditions here, which was a culmination of dissent after a week where we had been locked down for all or part of every single day. The direct action was to take back half an hour of our day; several months ago our nightly lockup was moved from 8:30 to 6:30 p.m. That extra half hour is valuable to imprisoned people, as after 6 p.m. is the only time that many people can call their families -- phone rates can be prohibitively expensive during the day, which is also when many of our family members are at work or at school. The existing policy is one that discriminates against poor people, who are already disproportionately targeted for imprisonment. The action consisted of all of the people on most of the cell blocks on Unit 5 refusing to lock up in their cells at 6:30 p.m. as per the regular routine.
The confrontation occurred on cell block 9A, when the guards were met with defiance from all of the people imprisoned there who refused to move when ordered. The sergeant arrived and the spokesperson informed the white shirt that there were units in lockup in protest of all that has been taken away from us lately -- from access to our cells during the day, to the two hours every evening -- we were finally taking something back. Even having been informed that our intention was to voluntarily return to our cells at 7 p.m., at 10 to 7, 50 to 60 guards were brought onto the range to force us into our cells. Despite our spokesperson explicitly saying that we were not interested in escalation, ours was to be a peaceful protest, the sergeant decided that it was worth risking the safety of imprisoned people as well as corrections officers in order to ensure that the guards finished their shifts on time. Management had told me that despite appearances, the reason we lost the 2 hours, though having to do with “shift alignment,” was not as a result of the funding cuts causing cutbacks on staffing. While claiming it has nothing to do with austerity, no other explanation has been provided. When the guards stormed the cell block, one imprisoned person was assaulted and taken down to the floor, where he was kneed repeatedly before being handcuffed and taken off the unit. He too is now in the hole, just a few cells down from mine, waiting to be taken to the hospital for x-rays.
Down the hall from me in the other direction is another imprisoned person who is fighting back against the injustice of this institution. David Cedeño, 29, is on day 12 of a hunger strike. While my contact with him has been very limited by the circumstances of the segregation unit, I can say that his demands include proper medical treatment, the opportunity to continue with high school coursework, resolution regarding a complaint he filed against a guard, and consideration for all the time he has spent in segregation as a result of incidents related to those complaints. Cedeño has underlined concerns about the way the jail is run, and emphasizes that his related demands are more important than those concerning himself. He recognizes that the combination of this facility’s size and systematic [inaudible] results in a pervasive pattern of unaccountability and indifference while coming from a minority of the staff, running unchecked with no available effective grievance process. He has been disregarded by management, by the folks at Offender Issues, also known as the “Client Conflict Resolution Unit” who told him his hunger strike is an internal issue with this facility, and by the always useless provincial Ombudsman’s Office, who said that it isn’t their problem. I heard a sergeant tell him that his concerns can only be addressed by the Deputy Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Why the Superintendent did not address them -- I would think that she would at least meet with him -- I don’t know. If the way this facility is run is any indication, perhaps it is due to incompetence, or maybe it’s just another instance of institutional indifference.
Cedeño’s demands for the broader facility include better quality food, better air filtration, the ability for imprisoned people to purchase and use phone calling cards which might make calls affordable, access to existing facilities such as the gym and library, and improvements to the conditions in segregation. He has not eaten a thing in 10 days. The institution’s negligence in this case, I would think, is verging on criminal. Cedeño lives with sleep apnea and requires a machine to breathe at night. The jail’s unwillingness to responsibly accommodate his life-threatening condition is what led to conflict with the guards in the first place, and in turn the circumstances he now finds himself in. Given that, perhaps he’s being naive in thinking that even a hunger strike is capable of breaking through such systemic injustice. I would prefer to think of him as courageous and principled. To the extent that I have been able to speak with him, he wanted to make it clear that the stand he is taking is not just for himself but for all imprisoned people in here. Rarely have I witnessed such a spirit of resistance here in the state’s darkest of dungeons.
While I do want people to know that I have been unscathed by my time in segregation, my mind, heart, and spirit remain strong, this place -- the hole -- is truly quite horrendous. The hallway is filled with cries of rage, anguish, and pain, and the near-constant sound of people tapping on the doors of their cells. To even talk to the person directly across the hall, we have to yell through the cracks between the iron door and its frame, people’s faces visible only through a window about 4 inches wide and often partially or totally covered with a metal screen on the exterior; by yelling to each other, the words barely audible, it merely contributes to the noise. I try not to be troubled by the overwhelming racket, remembering always that I am in solidarity with those imprisoned people whose last recourse is to scream and bang on the door. If I were not aware of how unpleasant it is for other people in this very frightening place, I would join them in their protest. It is clear that this segregation unit largely imprisons people living with severe mental health issues, suffering from having to live with them in prison. My heart wrenches from some of the things I have seen and heard in the week I have been here. While in truth many of the guards on this unit treat most people with a reasonable degree of care and decency, no amount of care could make up for these intrinsically utterly indecent conditions. My cell is covered with graffiti, some of violent and nasty, some of it pained and laden with hopelessness, and stains also cover the walls.
One of the things about this segregation unit that troubles me most is the policy that I understand to have been very recently implemented. Even on LOAP, which stands for Loss of All Privileges, people imprisoned here have traditionally been entitled to a bible or Qur’an -- scripture, as the Chaplain calls it -- now, however, the policy is that even for people not on LOAP, no books other than scripture are allowed. On the cart which we’ll pass on the way back to our cells from the showers, which we are supposed to get every other day, there are books we are able to select from and have one in our cells. However, there are no books on the cart other than bibles and evangelical Christian books of various sorts. What atheist, non-Christian Indigenous people, or any people of non-Abrahamic faiths are supposed to read is unclear. Perhaps they are just supposed to suffer. As a person registered in the system as Jewish, I’m obviously entitled to a bible. As a person with a religious studies degree I can actually find interest in any religious text. I have been fine. But my concern regarding access to books for imprisoned people has never been about me. And in the hole, I can not imagine a place where a good book could do more good for a person than here. The implication of this policy in practice, that the only books available to people are evangelizing Christian books, is the perfect, almost cliched example of the way that the prison functions as a colonizing institution. This tactic normalizes the hegemony of Christianity while hegemonising its normalization.
The other person from my range who was thrown in the hole for the protest on Unit 5, is a non-Christian, Oji-Cree Indigenous person from Fort Hope First Nation. He is stuck either reading a book that is designed to convert people to Christianity, or the bible, or nothing. This, given the circumstances, is a direct and explicit violent act of colonialism. Needless to say this should not be permitted. A few months ago before this new policy was in place, another person I know who has recently discovered Indigenous heritage, was put in the hole on LOAP. When he asked for a bible, he was told that he was not entitled to one because he had been attending the daily smudge ceremonies provided through the Native Institutional Liaison Office. That denial was a racist form of punitive discrimination, and also a gross colonial, settler ignorance that fails to recognize that government institutions, from schools to prisons, have for more than 200 years been institutions of violence to Christianise Indigenous people and that many Indigenous people are of both Indigenous and Christian faith and yet to force a person to choose between them is itself yet another act of colonial violence. What happened to that person as far as I know could be an isolated incident, but it is not the only incident of racism against Indigenous people that I am aware of in the prison, and also part of a broader societal pattern of settler ignorance manifesting as colonial violence. The situation my friend from Fort Hope currently finds himself facing is itself systemic and institutional. This needs to be stopped, and the policy needs to change. In this place, in the hole, we should be allowed to read to preserve our sanity. Here, like in all parts of this institution, imprisoned people should have access to reading material, because books have the power to repair people’s spirits, expand their minds, and to change their lives.
Colonialism is not something that is experienced only by Indigenous people. This Western culture and its institutions colonize many minds and bodies in many ways. For example, the prison system violently enforces the binary gender paradigm, one of this culture’s primary components, an act of colonial violence against trans people. Disablism is a dis-abling of people with de-normalized bodily or mental health needs, is another face of colonialism, one that hegemonizes a particular mode of productive functionalism that peripheralizes anyone who does not conform, and it is seen viciously in the prison system, particularly in segregation units like this one.
The disproportionate presence in this place by people disabled by inadequate cultural and structural support for their mental health needs, and the horrible state of existence for them here in the hole, literally screams out, signalling a dire need to build better grassroots mental health support in our communities, as well as build a total and holistic resistance against all the many faces of colonialism. As I have said, don’t worry about me, I have remained well in here. Remarkably, as I have written, I have rarely felt such a spirit of resistance as here in this dungeon. I am inspired and honoured to be imprisoned alongside people like David Cedeño, my friend from Fort Hope, and many others who are constantly smashing their cages with unrelenting rage against this unjust institution in solidarity against the colonial system.