By Abby Stadynk
On May 23, a COVID-19 outbreak was declared at Pine Grove Correctional Centre, a provincial jail for women in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, with 12 cases (7 prisoners and 5 staff) documented on May 27. The outbreak comes after a year of consistent resistance on the part of women prisoners at Pine Grove to advocate for their own health and well-being in the face of governmental indifference.
Prisoner resistance has characterized the winter and spring of 2021 in Saskatchewan, with women incarcerated at Pine Grove initiating and participating in a range of actions, some in solidarity with their counterparts in men’s prisons. In January 2021, at least 2 women from the institution took part in a hunger strike that lasted over two weeks, joining together with and amplifying demands from prisoners at multiple institutions across the province of Saskatchewan. In early April, 8 women engaged in another hunger strike, with some, like Deborah Mckenzie, refusing to eat for over a week.
At the beginning of the April strike, another incarcerated woman, Amanda Twardy, wrote a 17-page letter on behalf of the women at Pine Grove, voicing their concerns to the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan and Canadian Senator Kim Pate, and later sharing the letter with Perilous.
“We are a group of women…asking that we utilize this pandemic that has created chaos…inside these walls to truly see the flaws and make positive and necessary changes in several dynamics of the Canadian justice system,” Twardy writes. Indeed, the crisis of COVID-19 makes visible larger systemic issues that were already at play in penal institutions: “Correctional centres are harming people mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she observes.
Twardy’s letter goes on to detail specific issues at Pine Grove, including: lack of access to appropriate medical care, programming, and supports; issues with over- and under-medication; hazardous conditions; inedible food; and ongoing concerns related to COVID-19, including the impossibility of physical distancing in overcrowded units, inconsistent access to cleaning supplies, and improper handling of laundry from quarantine units.
“We are strong women who want to fight, pray, participate in a deserved and necessary change,” the letter concludes. “It is 2021 and jails have not gotten better, they have gotten worse.”
During the last six months, incarcerated women and men in Saskatchewan have united in unprecedented ways. Solidarity amongst prisoners of various genders defies the binary gender segregation of colonial institutions such as prisons, now widely recognized in Canada as the “new Indian residential schools.” Indigenous children at residential schools (or boarding schools, as they were known in the U.S.) were also divided by gender, a tactic used to fragment siblings, families, and communities that resonates with current policies that prohibit prisoners from communicating with each other across institutions.
In January 2021, over 100 incarcerated men and women coordinated a multi-institution hunger strike and letter writing campaign. Together, they called for an apology from the Government of Saskatchewan and the resignation of Minister of Corrections, Policing, and Public Safety Christine Tell for government negligence and indifference to prisoners’ health concerns during the second wave of the pandemic.
Then on January 26, Kimberly Squirrel, an Indigenous woman who had been incarcerated at Pine Grove, was found frozen outside only three days after her release, reigniting concerns over the lack of support for incarcerated and recently released people in the province. Reading about Squirrel’s tragic death in the newspaper, Cree prisoner justice advocate Cory Charles Cardinal was moved to action. “It just hit home, you know. It was a heartbreaking thing that happened… What happened to her is another example of systemic failure” he said in an interview with Perilous.
Cardinal’s prisoner-led advocacy group, Inmates for Humane Conditions, partnered with Beyond Prison Walls Canada to initiate a toll-free phone line and a GoFundMe page to crowdfund financial support for prisoners, particularly women at Pine Grove. To date, the fund has raised $3,830 of its $5,000 goal.
“I wanted to honour Kimberly Squirrel. I wanted to show the public that we, as Aboriginal people, are capable of protecting each other,” Cardinal explained. “It’s an old social structure that existed a long time ago that we need to reclaim, that I’ve reclaimed for myself, and that’s protecting our women–even if it is from a cell. I wanted to show that we’re capable of those acts of generosity, of protecting vulnerable people.”
Despite the ongoing resistance and coordinated efforts of incarcerated men and women, women’s voices have been less documented than men’s, an ongoing trend in reporting and research on prisoner resistance.
Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (2009), explained in a 2015 interview that “prison issues are frequently framed as men’s issues” and “prisoner resistance is still largely thought of as male,” in part because women in prison, “like their outside counterparts,” are “perceived as passive”.
In Saskatchewan, Indigenous people make up approximately 16% of the overall population, yet over 75% of the provincial jail population. The number of incarcerated Indigenous women is even higher, up to 82%. Saskatchewan also has the dubious distinction of more than half its prisoners being on remand, and of using remand at twice the national average. “Remand” refers to pre-trial or pre-sentencing incarceration in the Canadian context.
One such woman is Sharise Sutherland-Kayseas, who has been on remand at Pine Grove since January 2020 and is still awaiting her preliminary trial, which has been delayed because of the pandemic. Recently, she was diagnosed with a COVID-19 variant.
Her mother, advocate Dina Kayseas, previously called for the release of all prisoners possible in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Now her daughter is sick.
“I want support for my daughters, like I want support for any man or woman behind bars,” Kayseas said in an interview with Perilous. “We can’t forget about our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Those behind concrete and iron walls are the same as everyone else. They’re human, right? But they’re the ones who were caught or coerced into crimes through colonial wickedness. The trauma has trickled down through the generations, even into future generations.”
“If the community wants true healing, we can’t forget about those behind those residential torture camp walls. Indian Residential Schools, correctional facilities–it’s the same, just in the modern day. Indigenous people are still being abused in every way possible by the colonizers.”
She decried the lack of support that exists for incarcerated Indigenous women, especially during COVID. Her daughter, she explained, should be able to have access to an Elder and to traditional medicines like cedar tea, as well as basic necessities like juice and hot soup.
“They need support from the community. The community needs to come together.”
As COVID-19 restrictions start to loosen across the country, outbreaks in penal institutions remind us that we are still in the midst of a “prison pandemic,” with 10% of incarcerated people in federal prisons having contracted COVID, compared with 2% of the non-incarcerated population. In Saskatchewan, as of the end of April, more than 700 prisoners in provincial jails had contracted the virus since its emergence, in addition to nearly 200 staff.
Prisoners and their advocates in Saskatchewan have been calling for early release since the beginning of the pandemic. During the first wave, there was a 23% reduction of the number of people incarcerated in Saskatchewan, demonstrating the feasibility of decarceration as a public health strategy.
When the first wave began to recede, however, it was business as usual, with the Saskatchewan Minister of Corrections, Policing, and Public Safety, Christine Tell, saying that COVID was not a “get out of jail free card.” Since that time, the incarcerated population in the province, as elsewhere, has risen, despite repeated outbreaks like that at the Regina Correctional Centre in April 2021, which saw over 150 cases.
Throughout, the public has pressured the government to take action to reduce the risk. On January 15, for example, grandmother and advocate Soolee Papequash delivered a petition with over 3,000 signatures to the Government of Saskatchewan, initiated by prisoner demands, calling for immediate release and improved conditions for those inside.
Indigenous women like Papequash and Kayseas, as well as Julie Paul, a mother whose son was incarcerated, have been central to advocacy and solidarity actions in the province. Paul organized multiple gatherings outside the jail and the parliament building in Regina, calling on other Indigenous women to show up to dance in support of their relatives.
Because of the coordinated actions of incarcerated people and advocates across Saskatchewan and beyond, hope for change is alive. It can be found not in the patchwork reforms of colonial institutions, which, as prisoner Cory Charles Cardinal reminds us, are ongoing acts of genocide against Indigenous peoples, but in the resistance actions and mutual aid efforts of prisoners and outside allies. Together, such actions suggest, change is possible.