The annual Prisoners’ Justice Day memorial on August 10 gathered around 40 attendees who listened to perspectives from those who engage with incarcerated individuals. The sentiment conveyed was succinctly captured by Kaela Pelland, the director of peer engagement at Réseau ACCESS Network, who emphasized that prioritizing the health of incarcerated individuals leads to longer lives and safer exits from jail.
Since 1974, Prisoners’ Justice Day has been observed and honoured by both inmates and community groups. In Sudbury, the memorial event took place on the front lawn of the Sudbury District Jail and was organized by The Canadian Mental Health Association, Elizabeth Fry Society of Northeastern Ontario, Réseau ACCESS Network, and the John Howard Society of Sudbury. Elder Winnie Pitawanakwat commenced the event by smudging the circle and singing a welcoming and travelling song.
The event featured speakers from various organizations, each shedding light on the challenges faced by incarcerated individuals. Cory Roslyn of the Elizabeth Fry Society highlighted the disproportionately high number of incarcerated women and gender non-conforming individuals who have experienced abuse and trauma. He noted that a significant percentage of those incarcerated in Ontario correctional facilities are on remand, not yet convicted of their charged crimes. The prevailing message was for a shift from incarceration to investment in community resources.
The event's speakers underscored the dire need for proper mental health and substance use care within correctional facilities, where rates of mental illness and substance abuse are alarmingly higher than in the community. The aim is to treat incarcerated individuals as human beings rather than prisoners. Kaela Pelland, while addressing the audience with a heavy heart due to personal losses in custody, commended the efforts of organizations like Réseau ACCESS Network, which have been working to engage with incarcerated individuals and provide essential health services. The event concluded with a collective call for a humane and dignified approach to incarceration and the importance of advocating for the rights and well-being of incarcerated individuals.
The annual Prisoners' Justice Day memorial holds significance within the broader movement advocating for incarcerated individuals and improved conditions. Originating in 1974 after a man bled to death in his cell, this day serves as a poignant reminder of the value of human life, emphasizing that deaths should not occur in jails, given that Canada does not have the death penalty. Community groups such as the John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry Society come together on the lawn of the Sudbury District Jail to commemorate the event. Their advocacy centers on pre-release planning, including housing and support for individuals, especially those with mental health or substance abuse issues, to help them transition back into society smoothly and prevent recidivism.
The alarming statistics about deaths in Ontario facilities prompted Ontario's Chief Coroner, Dirk Huyer, to compile a report highlighting the growing number of deaths occurring within jails. Between 2014 and 2021, the number of deaths increased from 19 to 46, with a cumulative total of 192 deaths due to unnatural causes, such as overdose or toxic poisoning, and suicide, issues that disproportionately affect those with mental health challenges. The majority of individuals in jails across Ontario are on remand, awaiting their court appearances, which further underscores the importance of addressing the conditions and care within these facilities.
The advocacy organizations, including the John Howard Society and Elizabeth Fry Society, emphasize pre-release planning and improved community resources as vital measures to support incarcerated individuals and prevent further deaths within the system.