Prisoners’ Justice Day has been observed every year on August 10 since 1975 to call attention to human rights and justice for prisoners.
Why prisoners’ justice matters
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s Sukanya Pillay described the importance of rights and dignity being protected for people who are incarcerated in her 2012 editorial:
When the punishment for a crime is incarceration—as opposed to a fine or a suspended sentence—this means that the prisoner is punished for crime through the deprivation of his or her liberty. Liberty is the right upon which true self-determination and full enjoyment of other fundamental rights is predicated. In other words, the deprivation of liberty is, in itself, the punishment.
The suffering inherent in that punishment should not be unjustly aggravated. Yet, when placed “behind bars” a person is immediately placed into a situation of powerlessness and dependency, and therefore exposed to possible cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment and even torture. While the deprivation of liberty may be legal, the deprivation of human dignity is not.
At issue in prisoners’ justice
Since the establishment of Prisoners’ Justice Day, prisoners’ rights advocacy has focused on a variety of issues affecting prisoners, including but not limited to:
- overcrowding in prisons
- disproportionate representation of many populations in prisons, including: Indigenous people, racialized populations, people with learning disabilities, people with mental illnesses, LGBT people
- incarceration of people not convicted of a crime due to violation of bail conditions (see also)
- gender-appropriate treatment and access to medication for trans-identified people
- prison abuse, assault and sexual assault in prisons
- mental health among prisoners. This has included treatment of women prisoners who are mentally ill and treatment and experience of Aboriginal and Black prisoners
- drug use and safe injection sites in prisons
- death and rights of dying prisoners
- needs of aging prisoners
- solitary confinement/ administrative segregation
- involuntary transfers
- suicide and self-injury among prisoners
- prison and homelessness
An abridged history of Prisoners’ Justice Day
Prisoners’ Justice Day began following the August 10, 1974 death of Canadian prisoner Edward Nalon, who died in segregation while in Millhaven prison in Ontario. The following year on August 10, 1975, prisoners went on hunger strike and mourned in Nalon’s honour.
In May 1976, the death of prisoner Robert Landers, who was in segregation in the same prison, precipitated the recognition of August 10 as the day of remembrance and mourning for prisoners.
LAO and prisoners’ justice
LAO supports prisoners’ justice on many fronts, including through the work of:
- LAO staff, duty counsel and private bar lawyers who provide legal advice, information and assistance to prisoners
- the LAO Prison Law Advisory Committee, a body of experts that meets twice a year to provide advice on prison law and prisoners’ issues to the LAO Board of Directors
- LAO supports test case litigation that raises prison law and prisoners’ rights issues
- the Queen’s Prison Law Clinic (formerly the Queen’s Correctional Law Project), a non-profit corporation funded by LAO and the Queen’s University Faculty of Law that provides legal advice and representation to prisoners. They also work closely with other organizations including the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, the John Howard Society of Canada, and PASAN
- LAO’s mental health strategy is strengthening the capacity of lawyers, front-line workers, and management to better serve clients with mental illness
There are many ways that you can participate in prisoners’ justice on August 10 and throughout the year:
- Check out Books for prisoners campaigns, like Book Clubs for Inmates, or the Greater Edmonton Library Association Prison Library & Reintegration Project.
- Find resources online or at your local library to learn about the experience of prisoners. The Sylvia Rivera Project based in New York hosts a Prisoners’ Advisory Committee Blog, for example.
- Browse the websites of organizations dedicated to advocacy for people in conflict with the law, like the John Howard Society, the Elizabeth Fry Society or organizations that do related research like the Canadian HIV/AIDS legal network.
- Look online for an event in your community. In the past, various associations throughout Ontario have hosted film screenings, vigils and panels in observance of Prisoners’ Justice Day.
A version of this post was originally published on Aug. 7, 2014