Hamilton: Coronavirus Phone Line for Prisoners at the Barton Jail

Anonymous submission to North Shore

On March 20 and 21, we stood outside the Barton Jail with a banner reading: “Jail Sucks! Tell us about it #coronavirus2020” with a phone number on it. The phones in provincial jails only work to make collect calls to Bell land lines (because they are scumbag profiteers), so we had to set up a service in order to be able to receive these calls. This tactic is easy to replicate in different places and only requires a small group, so we share our experience in order to encourage others to open direct lines of communication with prisoners during this time.

We’re part of a group called the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project and we want to thin the walls of the Barton Jail as part of building towards a world without prisons. We are calling for all prisoners awaiting trial to be released from provincial prisons, which is a large majority of all prisoners held there, because of the virus and the disproportionate risk people who are locked up will face.

We are a grassroots group of former prisoners and others who hate the world prison creates, trying to have the backs of our neighbours who are locked up during the double crisis of the virus and the state’s reaction to it. The line is expensive to maintain — it’s cost us about $100 so far. We are funrdaising to help keep it open for the next few months and you can contribute here: https://gofundme.com/f/f7h4t6-coronavirus-phone-line-for-barton-jail-prisoners

So far, we’ve talked to about two dozen inmates on a number of different ranges. The goal is to have lines of communication set up so that as things get worse, we will be able to hear what’s happening for prisoners and help to amplify their voices and demands. Here’s some of what we learned so far:

-Prisoners showing signs of sickness are being thrown in segregation for weeks

-Medical care takes a month to access at the best of times and the expectations for that to change are low

-Access to disinfectant was always restricted, but now the jail is running out. Access to adequate soap is unreliable.

-No measures are being taken to clean cells between inmates

-Visits have been cancelled, even though those already occured only through glass. All professional visits are cancelled and lawyer visits are restricted. Money can no longer be dropped off for inmates to refill their canteen funds

-The library service is cancelled so the very limited access to books that usually exists is gone. It is impossible to get books from outside at any time, and mail takes about 4 weeks to reach inmates, when it arrives at all

-Every range we were able to reach is triple bunked, 30 inmates in spaces designed for 10. Tensions are high and clashes between inmates and between inmates and guards are increasing

-Jail superintendants have been granted the authority to release inmates with less than 30 days in their sentence early, and this has been happening at Barton. However, only a very small number of inmates at Barton are sentenced — nearly all are in pretrial custody.

We are distributing updates from prisoners on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Barton-Prisoner-Solidarity-Project-107522527258378/