Collective Action For The Win! Hunger Strike in Barton Quickly Forces Concessions from the Admin

From the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project

Today at noon, we learned that four ranges on the Barton Jail’s fourth floor had resumed a hunger strike, with at least 60 prisoners confirmed to be participating . One prisoner presented the action like this: “We have to starve ourselves to get out a message that is barely heard. We have a voice and aren’t just faceless inmates. Our concerns, our families’ concerns, are valid. We face violence for speaking out in here, but we are doing it for the ones that come after us.” Then, before we even had time to publish the demands, we got called back just before 5 with the news that the administration was moving to meet the strikers’ demands. This is amazing news and shows the power of collective action in materially improving the conditions inside.

Although this win is inspiring, we will have to build some pressure on the admin to force them to honour their promises. It’s likey the Barton Jail admin made concessions to avoid scrutiny and pressure from outside. So let’s look more closley at the prisoners’ four demands and then at the three concessions offered so far by the institution.

These demands are shared between all participating ranges:
1) The ability to have books ordered from the publisher or from retailers
2) Daily yard time
3) Remove unnecessary restrictions to visits
4) Access to more cantine items

Although it wasn’t one of the demands, let’s start with the biggest win from today — the Barton Jail promised to end rotating lockdowns TOMORROW. These lockdowns reduced time out of the cell by half, which was a huge sacrifice prisoners were asked to make for the coronavirus. It became much more painful once court started back up and prisoners need access to the phones to prepare for trial (remember, nearly everyone in Barton is awaiting trial).

The demand for access to reading material is key, and underscores the way Barton is more restrictive than other Ontario prisons.The Ontario ministry of the solicitor general states that prisoners should have access to printed materials that are generally available to the public, with books allowed from outside being at the discretion of each institutions’ superintendent. Most prisons allow for books to be ordered in prisoners’ names, though it looks different in different places. Vanier, for instance, places very few limits on this, while Maplehurst in practice only allows two books a month in this way. Barton allows no books from outside, and the selection available inside is terrible (why should prisoners only have access to Danielle Steele and James Patterson?), in addition to being very difficult to access. Forcing the prison to allow books would make a real and immediate difference in the lives of prisoners.

The Barton Jail admin agreed to explore how to make it possible for prisoners to receive books ordered in their name, like in most other provincial prisons. We need to keep the pressure on here, so that the superintendant actually uses his power to allow prisoners adequate reading materials. We will be posting details of a call-in campaign in the coming days.

The admin also promised to make certain items available on cantine in other provincial prisons available in Barton. This should begin to take effect soon. Some new items had been added to the cantine as compensation for the lockdowns, but this was literally peanuts — two varieties of roasted peanuts. The canine system is fundamentally flawed, but it’s a meaningful win in forcing Barton to accept the standards around conditions set by other facilities.

As for the other demands, 4C hasnt had yard in 3 weeks, which is unreasonable. Barton reinstated visits in response to the last round of strikes (collective action for the win!) but they added new restrictions, forcing prisoners to register their visitors in advance. This has no relationship to the coronavirus and is simply an added barrier for prisoners to access their basic rights. There was no movement on either of these, so we expect that tensions will continue to flare up over these obviously unfair and arbitrary practices.

The three individuals we spoke with all reaffirmed their solidarity with prisoners striking in Maplehurst, Lindsay, and Ottawa. They emphasized that these are reasonable demands: “We’re still part of society, we are human beings like everyone else and we deserve dignity and respect. We aren’t asking for much.”