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Inmates at Millhaven Institution end hunger strike over living conditions

Kingstonist file photo.

A five-day hunger strike by prisoners at Millhaven Institution came to an end on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, according to Correctional Services Canada (CSC).

Inmates in the 29-person 2L range of the prison reportedly started their strike on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in protest of their living conditions.

“Management at the institution was in regular contact with the inmates to resolve this matter, which centred primarily around the institutional routine that was recently modified for operational reasons,” said Michael Shrider, Regional Communications Manager for CSC.

Active time outside cells

According to a close contact of one of the inmates, who has requested not to be named in this article, the inmates began their hunger strike for two reasons. First, she said they were concerned that they were only receiving two hours per day of active time outside their cells.

“Since the pandemic started I’ve been reading all these articles about other inmates at different prisons, talking about the extra time they are locked up because of COVID-19,” she said. “But at Millhaven, nothing really changed. They were already on a schedule that only allowed them out for two hours a day.”

The source said the inmate committee launched a campaign just over a month ago, requesting four hours minimum out of their cells per day.

“There was a lot of resistance from the staff, they didn’t want to do it,” she said. “But they got it, and they got it in writing — they get their four hours per day.”

However, she said the schedule changed again earlier this week, after a routine “walk,” or inspection of the range. One inmate created confusion by hiding in his cell, she said. As a result, the entire range was punished.

“They said ‘Okay, we’re going to put you on half-out.’ So now they don’t get four hours. There was resistance from the entire range saying ‘Well, not everybody was hiding in their cells.’” The conflict continued, she said, with one inmate allegedly throwing an unidentified liquid substance at one of the guards.

“This is how it started,” she said.

Shrider told the Kingstonist that inmates at Millhaven are generally provided the requisite four hours outside their cells per day.

“Inmates are afforded a minimum of four hours out of cell when the routine is operating as normal,” he said. “Range routines can be modified to ensure the safety and security of the inmate population. However, at this time, they continue to be afforded the minimum requirement of four hours outside of their cells.”

Concerns over staff masks

The anonymous source said the inmates were also motivated to hold a hunger strike because of concern about use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) by CSC staff. Inmates were concerned that CSC personnel were coming within two metres of physical distance without masks on, which contravenes CSC’s COVID-19 safety protocol.

“I do video visits and you can see clear as day the staff are not masked, walking around in the background,” said the source.

“It’s mandated. If you cannot keep more than two metres — and at Millhaven it’s very confined, that would be difficult to do at any given time — then they should be wearing their masks.”

She said she had brought her concern directly to Shrider earlier in the summer. He assured her at this time, she said, that CSC took their PPE policy seriously and that they were planning to address staff.

“Nothing’s happened since [that exchange in] August,” she said. “It’s still going on… If you’re doing a walk and you’re going out to these inmate units, you need to be wearing a mask. If you were to cough or to sneeze, you’re spewing it all over their living unit.”

The source alleges that guards and medical staff alike are eschewing masking protocols. “They have to check the inmates after they take their medication to make sure they’re not hoarding pills. In order to do so they have to get close,” she said.

“I said to Michael Shrider — this issue is so easily verified, because there are cameras everywhere. There are inmates saying that it’s happening, and not just in one area… I personally was there for a visit and staff were not wearing masks,” she added. With such high levels or surveillance inside the prison, she added there is simply “no excuse.”

The source also said she perceives a double standard for CSC staff and visitors. “The crazy part is if I go to visit, I have to be in a mask sitting on the opposite side of the sitting room. They don’t seem to recognize that, myself, coming into that institution is no different than the staff, also living out in the community, coming in.”

Shrider has also provided a response to the Kingstonist regarding the source’s concerns over PPE.

“Measures to control and / or prevent the spread of COVID-19 were implemented across all 43 institutions, community offices and administrative buildings,” Shrider said. “These include physical distancing measures, masks and active health screening of everyone entering our institutions.”

“In addition, these measures include increased and enhanced cleaning and disinfection practices, as well as the training of 250 employees for conducting contact tracing and carrying out significant testing among inmates and staff, including asymptomatic individuals,” he said. “We have also been communicating regularly with offenders, employees, stakeholders on education and prevention measures. All staff are expected to wear their masks and practice physical distancing. Reminders are provided to staff on a consistent basis to ensure they are compliant.”

Inmates claim power switched off

The source for this story also reported that inmates at the 2L range of Millhaven Institution were without power from Friday, Oct 9 to Sunday Oct, 11, 2020. She said the power was shut off in response to the hunger strike.

“Friday evening they turned their electricity off, and that went on until Sunday,” she said. “Then someone, a new Keeper maybe, came on and said ‘You can’t do this,’ so they turned the power back on Sunday night.”

Shrider said there is no indication that electricity was shut down on the range during that timeframe.

“When inmates voice their concerns about an issue, management engage with them to resolve the matter as quickly as possible,” he said.

The source noted that hunger strikes are not uncommon on the 2L range at Millhaven. “It’s a 29-man range. They do it every year for Prisoner’s Justice Day,” she said.

After the hunger strike ended, she said she heard from her partner inside the Institution that inmates had been “plucked” from the range and sent to different areas. Her own partner was sent to a Structured Intervention Unit (SIU), she said.

“For an inmate, it’s extremely stressful to be moved involuntarily,” she explained. “When you have no idea where you are going and who you will be living with it creates a lot of fear and stress.”

“Yes, when the institution can resort to such tactics an issue is often ‘resolved’ quite quickly,” she said. “Despite the hunger strike being stopped, this range of inmates was fighting for a good cause. I absolutely hope the institution takes their complaint seriously,” she said.

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Samantha Butler-Hassan

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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