Hamilton: Recent Updates from the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project

There have been a number of updates from the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project (https://www.facebook.com/pg/bartonsolidarityproject) about conditions in the facility over the past month, and we compile them here.

Covid in the Courts is a Guilty Plea Machine

May 15, 2020: “They say they’re letting people out, but they’re not. They’re just doing it like in Mission”, a Barton prisoner told us yesterday, referring to the federal prison in Mission, BC where a prisoner died from coronavirus this week and at least seven have been hospitalised. The prison there has been on lockdown to deal with the outbreak and people in Barton see the similarities with the lockdown they are facing here. It claims to be a health measure, but for many, the consequences are mostly legal.

“Everyone is scrambling for plea deals because the option for trial is off the table,” he continued. “In my opinion, none of these pleas are valid, they are being coerced.”

Many of the people we are in contact with have been in Barton for over 18 months, incarcerated precisely because they maintain their innocence but are unable to access bail. With most trials delayed indefinitely, there is no longer a light at the end of the tunnel.

When the province says they are reducing the number of people incarcerated, mostly this refers to decisions being made in court, on an individual basis, relating to bail and sentencing. Ontario has long been an outlier in denying people access to reasonable bail, ignoring repeated Supreme Court decisions demanding it do so (“Jail for those awaiting trial should be an exception, not the rule” R. v Antic 2017). That it is now granting bail to people as an emergency measure who should have had access to it already is not deserving of praise.

The sentencing pathway to exiting provincial prison is even worse. Courts are offering better plea deals and more credit for time-served (essentially reversing the 2010 changes made by the Harper government) to induce prisoners to plead guilty. And with hope of trial removed, that just creates a further incentive for people to give up their right to maintain their innocence.

“They’ll say, oh, the integrity of the system is such that no one would make a false plea, but that’s a joke. The system has no integrity, it’s a guilty plea machine just waiting to process you.” The feeble attempts at responding to coronavirus are only making this worse.

No Confirmed Cases?

May 7, 2020: The news that there are “no new confirmed cases” in the Barton jail doesn’t bring us much joy, since of course there can be no “confirmed” cases in an institution that refuses to test. Instead of making meaningful efforts to protect prisoners during this pandemic, the Barton Jail has now instituted a new set of policies aimed at protecting the institution from public shame after two people tested positive.It began with a mass transfer on at the end April of all female prisoners from Barton to Vanier Prison in Milton, putting them into a more crowded and dangerous situation. This cleared out the first floor, which is now being used as a “quarantine” level where any prisoners exhibiting symptoms can be put into solitary confinement.

Several prisoners have called us to let us know that the quarantine cells are a clear alternative to testing and medical treatment, and that people aren’t generally receiving tests until their symptoms are bad enough to possibly require hospitalization. This is a brutal tactic aimed at covering up the inevitability of an outbreak. If you don’t test people, you don’t have to report any positive cases. Essentially they are letting people suffer through the disease by themselves in cold cells, and only testing when absolutely necessary. This also acts as a de-incentive for people to report symptoms – why would you when you know you’re going to be into into solitary confinement?

Meanwhile, since May 5th, prisoners throughout the rest of the jail have been put on an indefinite semi-lockdown schedule in which they will only be out of their cells for 3-5 hours per day on an alternating schedule. On “Day 1” they will be out from 9-11am and 6-8pm, and on “Day 2” they will out from 1-4pm.

Every prisoner we’ve spoken to is devastated by this news. It’s hard for people outside to fully understand the significance of being stuck in a small cell with 3 people for 21 hours a day. During the few hours in which they will be out on the range, they will be fighting over access to phones, showers, and other resources. Imagine thirty people, already cut off from their families due to visit cancellations, fighting over two phones for small chunks of time. Many prisoners are distraught at the thought of not having flexibility over when to call loved ones, who might not be available during the precise moment they get access to phones. “That’s what makes guys think about suicide,” said one prisoner, sounding geuninely terrified about the implications of this new policy.

This decision is a calamity and needs to be revoked immediately. This is not a legitimate strategy to deal with the situation.

Prisoners at Barton have been told that this is a provincial wide policy change, but so far we have gotten no confirmation from our contacts in other institutions that anything like this is happening.

Meanwhile, the guards have won the right to wear masks on the job, while prisoners are left with no sanitizer, cleaning products, or PPE of any sort. People inside are doing their best to safely navigate telephones, faucets, and doors knowing now the virus is inside of the jail, but without proper cleaning supplies it’s a losing battle. Many prisoners have resorted to using watered down body wash as a cleaning product.

We at the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project continue to call for all prisoners to be released. 65 people being infected in Brampton is appalling, especially considering how much warning everyone had. People have been sounding the alarms since February that jails would be a breeding ground for this virus, and yet here we are in May seeing these draconian, ineffective measures. How far are they going to let this go? How many times will Bill Blair pretend like shuffling prisoners from building to building and from cell to cell is going to save lives?

May Day Prisoner Update

May 1 2020: While people in Hamilton and around the world celebrate May Day as a holiday against capitalism and all forms of domination, things are also moving inside our local prison. We got a call about a refusal to lock up by a whole range in reaction to the guards pulling off a prisoner with no explanation. They refused to return to their cells until the prisoner was brought back on range. Building practices of solidarity is so important for all of us, but especially prisoners who have so few options for protecting themselves.

Sometimes, simply sharing stories can restrain the state’s impunity and be an act of solidarity in itself. We got a call today from one male prisoner who wanted to tell us that it seems all the women are being transferred out of the Barton Jail to other facilities in order to make space in the basement for more medical segregation. He added that it seems the jail’s policy is to avoid testing prisoners so as to avoid having to report confirmed cases and they are instead simply throwing everyone with any symptoms into solitary confinement. How anyone can think that weeks of solitary have anything to do with health is beyond me, and we continue to condemn all measures that seek to additionally punish illness.

But if this is the case, where are the women being transferred? Likely to Vanier Prison in Milton, but into what kind of situation and with what kinds of measures upon arrival? Transfers are disruptive and already expose prisoners to additional harm — for this reason they are routinely used as punishments — but in this moment, it also likely means weeks of solitary confinement followed by more crowded conditions.

Do you have any loved ones in the women’s section of Barton? Have you heard anything about this transfer?

Too Much Quiet

April 30, 2020: Since being declared there has be no media around the covid outbreak in Barton Jail. This eerie silence although has not been felt by our trap line, folks locked up inside still call and try to give us updates of what little information they have. We have been told by the folks calling that they only found out about the recent covid outbreak inside of the jail via a local news broadcast.

Folks in isolation are facing 3 or 4 days without being let out of their cells and when they are it is only for 30 min at a time, also while in isolation folks have been missing meetings with their lawyers. This makes a negative atmosphere about informing guards about possible symptoms. This shows that it is completely irrational, irresponsible, and impossible to control covid inside of the jail.

We have received reports of folks pleading guilty just to expedite the release process, this is an awful decision that folks have had to make between their freedom and their life.

Acts of degradation by the guards have become more prevalent, leaving folks feeling even less empowered. The April 26th car demo was well we received, during which we got a call delivering us a big thank you for coming out and showing support for folks facing the unknown inside, locked up in a cage.

Emergency Demo at Barton Jail! Confirmed Covid-19 Outbreak!

April 26, 2020: It’s a grim moment we’ve been expecting for weeks – Barton jail has it’s first confirmed case of Covid-19 within the prisoner population. Prisoners have been denied any ability to protect themselves from this virus, and now that it’s inside nothing seems to have changed. Inmates are finding out about the confirmed case from CHCH news, and so far no new measures have been put in place to keep people safe. We’ve seen how this virus thrives in jails, such as the Mission Institute in Saskatchewan where there are at least 60 confirmed cases. Meanwhile, Canada prison ombudsman has finally chimed in to acknowledge that the treatment of prisoners during this pandemic has been a gross violation of basic human rights.
Join us outside Barton Jail from 2-3pm on Sunday April 26th for a loud and raucous demonstration to let folks inside know that we stand in solidarity with their struggles, and to let the administration know that we’re watching. If possible, come in a car so that we can maintain social distance while we honk our horns and hold signs for those inside, but no matter what we want you to come! There will be no formal meetup or speeches – find a spot on Elgin St or Ferguson Ave N where the inmates can see you and let them know they aren’t alone.
At the same time as we’ll be meeting outside Barton, a nationwide caravan against prisons will be happening in cities like Toronto, Halifax and Montreal calling for the immediate release of everyone still being held inside Canada’s prisons, jails, and migrant detention centres as well as demanding status for all! (https://www.facebook.com/events/620446565216500/)