From the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project
It’s been two months now since the last hunger strike at the Barton Jail. To end it, the administration made a slew of promises, but have they been kept? This past week, we had long conversations with several prisoners who participated in the strike and in negotiations with the admin, and they expressed deep disappointment at the Barton Jail’s failure to follow through on even basic promises. As well, there has been a steep increase in lockdowns in recent weeks, rolling back a gain from a previous round of struggle that saw an end to rotating lockdowns. And finally, as the second wave of covid hits, we talked with prisoners about masks, soap, and healthcare.
The rotating lockdowns were supposedly a covid measure, but prisoners correctly saw it as more to do with the convenience of guards. They won an end to this false measure with a mass, coordinated hunger strike in late July. But now, prisoners are being locked down for at least several hours most days, effectively reintroducing rotating lockdowns without calling it that. This has a lot of consequences for prisoners, but those we spoke to wanted to highlight one surprising one in particular: nail clippers.
Nail clippers are only available on Saturday mornings. If there is a lockdown on a Saturday, which is very frequent, then no nail clippers that week. One range recently went five weeks without getting them. And when they do come, there are only five or six available. The frequent lockdowns mean prisoners are left with the choice of not cutting their nails for months at a time or risking sharing clippers without sterilization.
Another update from the demands of the July strike: a key demand then was daily access to yard, as guaranteed by provincial legislation. One of the ranges we spoke to this week hadn’t had yard time in two weeks, and another hadn’t had it in a month.
But that has been far from the only demand of recent strikes. In August, prisoners struck again and this time a key demand was access to books — access to both the existing library and for outside books to be permitted similar to other Ontario prisons. While library access was brought back, there’s been no progress on outside books, in spite of vague promises. This is clearly within the authority of the Barton administrators, there is no good reason to deny prisoners access to books in this way.
Another hunger strike demand was for the canteen to be regularized to the standard of other Ontario prisons. Instant noodles were added right away, but further progress has been very slow, with bodywash added just this week. At the same time, previous covid-era additions like peanuts have now been taken away.
As a covid measure, the canteen limit was increased from $60 to $90, which went a small way towards addressing the exorbitant increase in canteen items over the past number of years. However, the increase has now been rolled back, despite the demand to reinstate it in the last strike and the admin’s promise to “look into it”.
Visits were also a high priority in the last strike. They had been canceled at the start of covid, but were brought back in response to collective action by prisoners in June. Prisoners are currently allowed 2 visits per week during scheduled timeslots, but the jail continues to apply its arbitrary new rule that limits each prisoner to only 3 pre-approved visitors. Prisoners have also experienced a huge number of scheduling errors, resulting in lost chances for visits. And even when prisoners and visitors are told that there are no timeslots available, those timeslots have ended up going unfilled. Limited visits also impacts prisoners’ access to the canteen: in-person visits are the only free way for those on the outside to add money to a canteen fund.
Prisoners are watching closely as Ontario lurches into the second wave of the pandemic. During the last wave, all trials were canceled, meaning prisoners on remand — 70% of all Ontario prisoners — were left with no idea when their situation would change. Court dates started up again in a mix of digital and in-person setups, but as the second wave picks up, there’s been no word on how the Province plans to handle court this time around. In a system that forces people to wait in jail for a court date, this leaves many people with complete uncertainty about their futures.
We call on the province to announce a clear plan for how courts will adapt to increased rates of covid-19. We also continue to call for all prisoners on remand to be immediately released pending trial.
Prisoners are also concerned about the seeming lack of readiness in the institution to deal with the second wave. Guards have become lax about mask-wearing, only putting them on when they enter the ranges — however, an outbreak among guards would certainly spread to prisoners. As well, this laxity extends to guards sometimes not wearing masks when entering the range either. They are the main risk vector for covid entering the jail — wear your masks!
Keeping people locked up during a pandemic, in institutions that don’t care for their health, safety, and basic wellbeing, is a recipe for disaster. Prisoners aren’t waiting around for us on the outside to recognize their humanity, they have been leading the way organizing for their own basic rights to be respected. But the Barton Jail administration demonstrates its impunity and disresepct by negotiating in bad faith — we on the outside need to keep doing our best to hold them accountable to at the very least uphold the promises they make.
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