Hamilton: Barton Jail Update — Freeing all the prisoners is possible

From the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project (https://www.facebook.com/bartonsolidarityproject/)

Since last Friday when it was confirmed that a Barton Jail employee tested positive for the coronavirus, we’ve been on the phone daily with inmates asking how the news has played out on the inside. Today, the jail is on lockdown — just the most recent in a string of at least ten lockdowns in the last month. This one, however, is expected to last since it’s caused by guards no longer showing up to work due to the virus. It is expected to last until at least Thursday, though some have been told to expect it to last even longer.

As well, basic cleanliness in the jail is being further undermined. Despite what has been stated publicly, there has only been one cleaning crew through the prison since the outbreak began, and they didn’t clean the ranges where the prisoners actually are. The range being used for quarantine is rotating, and rather than deal with it themselves, prison staff have been trying to pressure the prisoners who volunteer on the laundry crew to do it without providing proper protective gear. So far, the laundry workers have refused.

Access to soap is still limited and other cleaning supplies are scarce. Guards still seem to have access to everything, making some prisoners suspect the guards are hoarding supplies for their own use. This just compounds the stress from having sick prisoners on range — there isn’t enough space to put everyone with symptoms in quarantine, so they’re being left on ranges until a cell frees up.

Some people we talked with described fear and hopelessness — especially those with existing respiratory conditions. Others described mounting frustration — what will it take for people to realize that the Barton Jail is inhumane? We remind them that there are people on the outside who see what’s happening, who are pushing for change and for them to be released due to this crisis, and who will stand with them if they take a stand. Many inmates are asking questions about how they might organize

If releasing all prisoners from the Barton Jail as a way of dealing with the pandemic seems unrealistic, remember that this has happened in Hamilton before. In 1832, during the cholera epidemic, the jail was one of the first places where the disease spread (and the warden one of the first to die). None other than Allan MacNab (best known for executing lots of rebels during the Upper Canada rebellion a few years later) intervened to empty the jail and give prisoners a chance at surviving.

And this demand to Free Them All is not unique to Hamilton. Prisoners in Laval, Quebec, are hungerstriking demanding they be freed, and their supporters organized a car demonstration in solidarity last week. And across the US, protests have occurred outside prisons insisting that there is no good reason to leave people so vulnerable in the face of a deadly outbreak. In the past few days we have seen mass releases in places like Cleveland where half of the county jail population (over 1000 inmates) has been released, New York City where 600 have been released, and plans made in Cook County (Illinois) and New Jersey where thousands are slated to get out. We here in Hamilton need to keep finding ways to push for this kind of action and to stand in solidarity with prisoners as they assert themselves in the face of such horrific conditions.