Prisoners' Justice Day
Lee Chapelle, a former inmate who served over 20 years in the federal corrections system, was the guest speaker during Thursday's annual Prisoners' Justice Day event held at the City Hall Rotunda. Mark Wanzel/Barrie Examiner/Postmedia Network
Keith Kacsuta didn’t pull his punches when he spoke about Canada’s prison system.
Kacsuta stood at the podium in Barrie’s City Hall Rotunda, not only as the executive director of the John Howard Society of Simcoe and Muskoka, but as a clarion call for action against maltreatment of prisoners.
“This is an urgent, life-and-death, human-rights issue,” Kacsuta told the assembled 80 members of the audience during Prisoners’ Justice Day on Thursday.
“There needs to be action now, we can’t wait another 43 years,” he said.
“Today’s the day to raise public awareness to change the criminal justice system and the brutal and inhumane conditions that led to so many prison deaths.”
The 43 years Kacsuta was referring to is the last time significant changes to prisoners’ rights were addressed by the Canadian justice system.
On Aug. 10, 1974, Edward Nalon slashed his inner elbow with a razor, severing his arteries, after spending 51 days in solitary confinement at the Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in Bath, Ontario.
Although the order to release him was given on July 31, for unknown reasons, Nalon was kept in a segregated cell and committed suicide in desperation.
Kacsuta spoke about using the anniversary of Nalon’s death to renew calls to respect basic human rights of prisoners housed in jails across Canada.
“The Ontario Human Rights Commission continues to be concerned that segregation, also referred to as solitary confinement, is being used in a way that violates prisoners’ rights under Ontario’s Human Rights Code,” he said.
“Segregation is disproportionately used on - and has especially harmful effects for - Indigenous prisoners, prisoners with mental- health disabilities and women.”
Kacsuta said solitary confinement violates four constitutional and human rights, and added that isolating prisoners for 23 hours a day without meaningful human contact has led to preventable death and suffering.
“It has been applied most often against mentally ill and Indigenous prisoners, and as the United Nations has found long-term solitary confinement is torture,” he added.
After Kacsuta spoke, former inmate turned prison-reform advocate Lee Chapelle spoke to the Barrie audience.
Chapelle said he grew up as a foster child, turned to crime during his teen years and entered prison in 1986.
In 2001, he began to turn his life around and when he was released in 2010, he founded the Canadian Prison Consulting organization and has written a book Hard Times in Canada: One Man’s Journey Inside and Out.
He has addressed the Canadian Senate as an expert on prison violence and mental health in prisons and spoke about the effects of long-term segregation.
Chapelle gave the Barrie audience a brief history on Canada’s penitentiaries, noting the now-closed Kingston penitentiary opened in 1835 to house criminals, vagrants, beggars, prostitutes, disobedient children, servants and (for) the segregation of people with mental-health issues and the poor.
“And sadly, when I think about it, today it seems we really haven’t come all that far,” Chapelle said.
He said there are currently 150 provincial and 70 federal prisons.
“The construction and operation of prisons is one of the largest growth industries in Canada,” Chapelle said, adding there are plans to build more.
Elizabeth Fry Society executive director Joy Thompson threw her voice behind the Prisoners’ Justice Day as a call to action against the poor treatment of women and Indigenous people.
“There’s been 112% increase of Indigenous women in prison over the last 10 years,” Thompson said. “That’s an astonishing number of Indigenous women.”
Thompson had a list of statistics and figures covering incarcerated women that shows 68% report they’ve been sexually abused and 86% have been physically abused.
More than 70% of women in maximum security are the sole financial supporters in their family, and as many have attempted suicide, she said.
“The purpose of the event is to galvanize the community to act because it’s everyone’s responsibility,” Thompson said. “How these prisoners are treated impacts communities.”
The average prisoner is in jail for four years, she said, adding it costs the Canadian taxpayer $213,000 per year to house a female prisoner, but only $33,000 to monitor someone in the community who is on parole or living in a half-way house.
“If people weren’t supported (in prison) for successful reintegration into society, that’s going to impact what they do in the future when they get out,” she said.
Thompson, Kacsuta and Chapelle all spoke about Bill C56 aimed at reducing the maximum allowable time spent in solitary confinement from 30 days down to 21 days unless otherwise directly ordered by the head of the prison.
Perhaps that would have drawn attention to a 23-year-old Indigenous man, Adam Capay, who spent 1,500 days in solitary confinement, Thompson said.
“The public outcry that Capay spent four years in pre-trial custody in solitary confinement should send shockwaves through all decent people,” she said.
“No person with mental-health issues should ever be in solitary confinement.”