Hamilton: Negotiations underway inside the Barton Jail

From the Barton Prisoner Solidarity Project

It’s been a big week. The short version is the admin at Barton promised movement on a crucial demand by striking prisoners, the ability to order books from outside. However, they have not yet followed through. Negotiations are ongoing, but public attention is needed to remind the admin that stalling or dishonesty is an unacceptable way of dealing with the legitimate demands of Barton Jail prisoners. Here’s the longer version:

The worsening conditions in the Barton Jail during covid outbreak were met by a coordinated hunger strike involving almost a hundred prisoners that began last wednesday. Supporters and loved ones maintained a presence outside the jail from Wednesday to Sunday, calling on the administration to negotiate in good faith to meet the prisoners very simple demands.

The hunger strike was suspended over the weekend because it seemed that these negotiations were occurring. Unexpectedly, the admin returned to a demand prisoners had made back in the summer — for books to be allowed to be ordered directly from vendors and delivered to prisoners. A program of this type exists in most other provincial prisons in Ontario. As the admin has in the past, they told prisoners they were looking into the matter, but this time they gave a concrete timeline and promised an answer on Monday the 15th.

This was incredibly hopeful, and prisoners demonstrated good faith by suspending their strike. However, as usual, the admin didn’t follow through: no answer Monday, no answer Tuesday. Prisoners formally and collectively reiterated their demands and reminded the admin of their promise.

The prisoners we spoke with believe the problem is one of communication between levels of management, that there is no process for actually engaging with with prisoners on an institutional level. They have requested a meeting with upper management as a way of getting around this problem, and they were told it would take place by Friday.

As you can imagine, it takes an immense toll to go without food for three days while spending 23.5 hours a day locked in a cell. It takes organization and self-discipline, all to be able to have a mutually respectful conversation about accessing basic things they never should have gone without. Visits, outdoor time, lawyer calls, sanitary products, books — these are not things that should require collective action, and in fact do not in almost any other Ontario prison.

Prisoners continue to show good faith by accepting (for now) the admin’s story that there is a communication problem. But they have stalled and lied about the same issue back in the summer, and prisoners understandbly reacted by resuming their strike and other protest actions. The lesson of the past year for the admin is clear: If you try to lie and stall when you promise negotiations, you get more and bigger actions.

Sorry we didn’t update you all on this earlier, we wanted to see if the admin would follow through on the timeline they set. We will continue to update in the coming days and will offer some ways to support prisoners demands.