Hamilton: Reflections on Ongoing Hunger Strike in the Barton Jail (Spring 2023)

Anonymous submission to North Shore

This past Wednesday, April 19, 2023, we received word that prisoners on all the ranges on the fourth floor of the Barton Jail had coordinated to begin a hunger strike. At the same time and without knowing about what was going on upstairs, prisoners on the third floor had drafted and circulated a five-page letter outlining their issues with conditions in the prison. It was signed by all prisoners on several ranges and was delivered to the superintendant. Once the prisoners on 3 learned about the strike, they joined in the next day, on April 20.

The prisoners all felt that conditions inside the 700-person prison had degraded to a point where they needed to take action. The hunger strike coalesced around four main demands: faster mail delivery (it routinely takes months), an end to lockdowns (prisoners are frequently locked in their cells three days a week over the weekend), daily access to the yard (prisoners have been going months at a time without going outside), and, perhaps most importantly, for the jail to let them keep all the current TV channels.

Back in 2021, during a COVID outbreak at the jail, prisoners participated in perhaps the largest hunger strike ever in Ontario’s provincial prisons. More than half the jail refused meals around a shared set of demands, and one of the concessions made by the institution was to add a number of speciality cable TV channels, notably movie channels and music channels. The music channels are particularly important, since without them, prisoners go years at a time without hearing music. These channels are rightly seen as a product of collective action, and when prisoners learned they were going to be taken away, it was the final straw.

Other issues of note include the near total absence of programs — in particular, folks on 3 want opportunities to better themselves rather than just being “enabled to reoffend” by the shitty conditions. Another is the presence of cameras in the shower area, added during the recent renovations to the Barton Jail in 2022. Although this has not yet emerged as a flashpoint, many folks who have done time in the past see it as a major violation and erosion of the limited access to privacy that prisoners have.

And finally, there is the issue of hot water: during the same big strike in 2021, the institution also granted access to Mr Noodle cups on cantine, which have become an important staple for many prisoners to supplement the insufficient meals. Some prisons have a special tap on each range that has properly hot water in it, but in Barton Jail, water is heated in the kitchens and brought up in big jugs. However, this hasn’t been happening, and the sink water is not hot enough to properly cook the noodles.

After learning about the strike, members of BAPSOP and our friends went out to the jail in the evening. We had quickly made a banner that read “solidarity with hunger strikers” and made signs on bristol board spelling out the key demands. Our goal was to both show support to the guys striking and also to communicate about the strike to ranges that were not yet participating.

We received a lot of phone calls during and after our visit to the jail. We were able to tell prisoners about the strike and also listen to their issues. Over the course of the next 24 hours, the number of ranges on strike doubled.

On Thursday the 20th, we went hard on media work. Typically, as anarchists, we don’t give much time to the mainstream media. However, we make an exception for prisoner solidarity work, because media attention is something guys on the inside consistently ask for, and because the mainstream media gets inside — everyone watches the local CHCH news every night, and the Hamilton Spectator newspaper can be delivered daily (if you pay for it). So we did what we could: we took statements from prisoners and sent them to journalists, lined up interviews with prisoners in leadership roles, and did interviews ourselves. We managed to get the strike and its demands into every local news outlet.

We also learned through the media that there is an ongoing hunger strike in the Niagara Detention Centre in Thorold as well. We don’t know anything about this strike, though we can guess that many of the demands are the same as in Hamilton.

Also on Thursday, a deputy superintendant visited ranges on 4A, where the hunger strike started. This person basically told them that nothing would be changed, that the TV channels would be cancelled. They said they would “look into” the mail, that the hot water machine in the kitchen was broken (but the hot water on the range did get turned up a little), and that they would “see” about getting everyone yard three times a week. After these non-concessions, the deputy superintendant tried to wave the meal trays onto the range, only to have them refused once again by the prisoners. The deputy super then went around to the guards on other ranges and told them the strike was over, which the guards then repeated to prisoners. Some ranges started eating again, demoralized, until we were able to talk to them and tell them they had been lied to.

We used all the media attention to call a public demo at the jail for the next day, Friday April 21. We are always very clear that where these battles are won is inside the prison, on the ranges. It is not won through public opinion or by asking the government. So when we do demos, it is to practically support the powerful organizing inside. Demos do this in a few ways: first, it reminds people that they are not alone and that folks outside care what happens to them; it lets us communicate the demands to other prisoners; and it puts pressure on the institution to negotiate directly and in good faith, which also helps protect prisoners in leadership roles from reprisals.

The demo went off beautifully. Lots of noise, lots of banners and signs, and a great speech from a BAPSOP member: “I look forward to the day that the prisoners and guards all take off their uniforms, burn them all in one pile, and then walk out the door together.” Special thanks to the harm reduction crew that showed up with costumes and signs and then threw a mini tailgate party at the end of the demo. The amount of noise coming from the jail was very impressive — it was like every person in the building was banging on the walls at once.

Interestingly, just before the demo started, one of the prisoner leaders on 4A was given the opportunity to go visit other ranges to talk about the strike and correct misinformation. It is unclear who took the initiative to do this, if it was guards or the management, but it is undoubtedly a big win.

That takes us to today, Saturday the 22nd. We’ve heard that prisoners intend to pursue their strike through the weekend until the administrators show up back to work on Monday. What are our next steps? How do we keep the strike in the public eye as it enters a more difficult phase? What else can we do to force the admin to the negotiating table? How do we continue showing prisoners who are taking big risks that we have their backs?

Some ideas include hold a bigger demo next week, this time with a march and maybe live music and art. Another is to picket the jail daily like we did back in 2021. Yet another could be to prepare a phone zap of the superintendant’s office for Monday (though in the past, they have just unplugged the phone).

We have a few preliminary reflections on this round of organizing. One is the role that organic organizers play in channeling discontent into action. The conditions in Barton are obviously awful, but this isn’t enough to cause mass unrest in itself — what it takes is a handful of people who know about past resistance and are prepared to stick their necks out. In this case, there are a few people involved who had been in during 2021 and knew that collective action can create wins. They also knew what it takes to prepare for a strike: drafting a list of demands, patiently communicating with other ranges, stockpiling food and supplies to allow prisoners to hold out longer, and a readiness to directly debate with prison staff.

We are also thinking about the limitations of the hunger strike. The hunger strike is a good example of spontaneous organizing — prisoners resist where authority is exercised over them. Keeping you alive is part of the act of punishment, so refusing to allow the jail to fulfil one of its most basic responsibilities — feeding — actually throws a wrench into the functioning of the institution. However, for an admin ready to pay the price in bad press and tension, the cost is ultimately born by the prisoners. What kinds of tactics can we support people in taking to complement strikes that shift the burden of resistance onto the institution?

Some examples we have seen involve refusing lockup, where prisoners refuse to return to their cells from the day room when ordered. This throws off the routine for the guards and can even get in the way of a shift change, which results in chaos and overtime payments for the prison. However, this does expose prisoners to a higher risk of repression. Perhaps lockup refusals for a limited duration, like saying right from the start that they are going to refuse lockup for two hours. Refusing lockups is also a spontaneous tactic used by prisoners to get organized, though for major campaigns it has mostly been supplanted by the hunger strike in recent years.

It’s too soon to tell how things will end, but we will post an update on North Shore, or you can check out our social media:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bartonsolidarityproject/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ProjectBarton
Insta: https://www.instagram.com/bartonprisonersolidarity/

Or if you want to contact us, reach out at bartonsolidarityproject at riseup.net