Family, advocates come together in Regina for Prisoners’ Justice Day

Thursday marks international Prisoners’ Justice Day — and communities in Regina came together at the legislative building to remember lives lost behind bars. 

Family members of incarcerated people and advocates gathered in front of the Legislative Building in Regina with banners and green-coloured ribbons. 

Every ribbon, advocates say, had names of the people who had died in a provincial jail or prison in the last three years. There were some 25 such ribbons tied to a tree next to the stairway leading to the building’s main entrance. 

On the banners were photos of people who had died. 

Beyond Prison Walls is a local organization representing families of loved ones who are incarcerated. Founder Sherri Gordon says she is joining thousands of inmates across Canada who would be refusing work and food for an entire day today. They are asking for better living conditions in correctional facilities. 

“There needs to be justice for these lives lost,” Gordon said. 

A woman in a black shirt with people holding charts behind her.
Sherri Gordon is the founder of Beyond Prison Walls, a local organization that represents families of loved ones who are incarcerated. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Gordon’s husband is serving a life sentence and she says she has seen the lack of mental health supports for those behind bars. 

Gordon says the memorial day is part of a solidarity movement. In Canada it began in 1974 in support of prisoners’ rights and to remember all the people who have died unnatural deaths while incarcerated.

In total, 54 inmates died in federal custody in Canada last year. Of those, 17 died of what the Correctional Service of Canada called “apparent natural causes.” There were also seven inmates who died following a serious attack.

The majority of the deaths, however, don’t have a cause listed. Thirty inmates fell into this category.

Ontario had the highest number of inmate deaths, at a total of 18. Saskatchewan saw six inmates die in custody.

Section 20 of  Saskatchewan’s Coroner’s Act states that any deaths in custody are subject to an inquest process unless the coroner is satisfied the death was entirely from natural causes and was not preventable. 

The Saskatchewan Coroners Service makes the final decision on whether to hold an inquest into a death in custody.

Sylvia Nagy says she lost a family member in Regina’s correctional facilities. It’s been two years since, and she says she isn’t sure if they’ll get an inquest now.

“I don’t know if there’s a statute of limitations on inquests. So I think we are going to investigate and I think perhaps the band may send a letter to find out why there was no inquest at that time,” Nagy said. 

A woman with eyeglasses holding a paper banner with photos stuck on it.
Sylvia Nagy holds a banner in protest of prison deaths in the province. She says she lost a family member in a Regina correctional facility. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

Carly Romanow, executive director and a staff lawyer at the non-profit Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan, says people in prisons are more vulnerable because of how much they rely on the institution to treat their illnesses or injuries. 

“Many of the people that are brought in may be withdrawing from substances or still intoxicated, and then have to withdraw, generally speaking, with little medical care and attention,” Romanow said. 

“So a lot of times, that means that the inmate goes through pretty severe medical distress, and sometimes that could lead to death,” she said. 

The solution for this, Romanow suggests, is funding for out-of-custody programming and support.

“In-custody care generally leads to more harm done to the prisoner and it’s not a rehabilitative instrument,” Romanow said. 


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