Prisoners’ Justice Day August 10th

For 32 years inmates and those on the street have acted to draw attention to the problems faced by those incarcerated in various jails and prisons in Canada. Though vigils and church services, zines and fasting we are encouraged to come together in solidarity with our brothers and sisters on the inside.

Community radio stations in a number of cities, including Guelph, Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal devote extended programming hours to prison justice. In many institutions inmates fast and refuse to work. Outside jails in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver there are vigils.

Prisoners Justice Day is an important call to radical justice.  A good place to start learning more about prisoners’ rights and Prisoners Rights Day is the Prison Justice website.

What follows are brief reflections and poems I’ve shared at two Prisoners’ Justice Day vigils. They can also be found on the MYTOWN website.



August 10th, 2004

Don Jail, 550 Gerrard Street East

Toronto, Ontario

7:00 pm

I feel humbled for being asked again to participate in Prisoners’ Justice Day to share some of my poetry, some only in spirit related to the theme of the day. As someone who has spent time in the Don Jail both as an inmate and through the chaplaincy programme, I feel deeply committed to the work of ensuring that no one inside is ever forgotten.

29 years is a long time to remember, to keep fresh the events surrounding  the death of Eddie Nalon. Over a generation has passed since the first Prisoners’ Justice Day and those of us here who remember that first fasts and vigils and hunger strikes have shown a remarkable persistence.

We began out activism in the shadow of Attica, with fresh understanding of the reality of prison resistance as expressed in rage at Kingston Pen and in optimism with efforts to collectively organise unions inside prisons.

Years later, it might be felt that our struggle has failed. However, we also know that it has been about ¼ of the time that it took in South Africa to bring down the legal system that became known as apartheid so we know that struggles can be sustained and the world changed providing there is the strength and will to do so.

This should be a day that brings together refugees, political activists, survivors of the streets, people concerned about economic justice, and representatives of faith communities because we have a common stake in what happens behind bars. People are imprisoned for refusing to kill and for killing, for speaking out and for acting out, because of where they were born and for dreaming — our jails are where idealists and the most marginalised come together finally as equals as the system does not distinguish between economic, political or social crimes or between crimes and wanting to live in Canada without the proper pass. The powers that bemake these links instinctively — we have to work at it.

This past weekend I was in Montreal for a series of events looking at peace, justice and non-violence struggle in Montreal and around world. Whether mentioned directly or indirectly, it was hard to avoid the fact that prisons are evil. Those concerned with refugees had stories of detention centres. Those concerned with child soldiers reminded us that for many in those societies imprisonment was one of the lesser consequences of wanting to save one’s families. At a table next to me on Saturday were people concerned for the victims of crimes, who saw in community based alternatives to prisons the best ways of addressing their needs.

As long as one person is forgotten and dehumanized, all of us are at risk.

We are at risk until the walls come down.



August 10, 2003

8:00 p.m.

Don Jail—Toronto

When Edward Nalon died in segregation at Milhaven Penitentiary (also home to Guantanamo North) on Saturday, August 10th 1974 he did not die alone. Other inmates in the segregation unit tried to get help—but disconnected alarm systems and guards that did not visit the unit ensured that there was no help. He bled to death in his cell – just one more forgotten person.

But his death was not forgotten. Both on the streets and in the jails and prisons of this country he is remembered. And on this day, for 28 years, the struggle to remind our society of the needs of our sisters and brothers in custody; those that died and those that have been injured in other ways, continue.

We can not separate the deaths in custody, the crime of prisons themselves, from other violence at the hands of the state. From Dudley George to Edmond Yu, agents of the state have proven they will kill those that are different—either for standing up to the state for justice or for suffering from illnesses we don’t understand.

We also can not separate the deaths of those in custody from the deaths of those killed in war. Those declared an enemy of the state die whether in conflict between nations or in prisons. Bombs don’t fall on those seen as being human. Those that die in prison are equally forgotten, dehumanised in the media and overlooked in the midst of our focuses for social concern. On August 9th we remember those that died in the second use of nuclear weapons in combat when the U.S. dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. A world that does not condemn war is one that accepts violence, is one that builds prisons where members of our communities can be denied their humanity, can die with few questions asked even within the progressive communities.

During the 1980s I spent a lot of time at the Don for such crimes as handing out leaflets, sitting down on roadways, yelling through a megaphone—petty stuff, but enough to make me all too familiar with the routines of A & D, life on different ranges and the petty, day to day tensions of life with angry, scared, bored and/or injured people. The cells were cockroach infested and often overcrowded. I learned quickly to not judge surface behaviour.

During most of the 1990s I spent a lot of time at the Don as a chaplain, seeing from a different perspective how a jail distorts the lives of those that pass through it.

It is more than timely in this post-Seattle/post 9-11 world for the reality of prison life and the need to challenge the prison system to be again a priority for action among all those concerned with social change.

Some of this should be pragmatism—too many of us have had our dissent deemed criminal and face jail time for speaking out against war, against oppression, against economic injustice. Challenging the criminal justice system should be a part of the lives of all those working for justice because we too easily end up within it. The attitude of Fantino towards the black community is the same as his attitude towards activists is the same as his attitude towards anyone who ends up in the hands of the state.

And this pragmatic self-interest is best expressed through active solidarity. People are in our prisons for the crime of being an immigrant; for the crime of not running away fast enough from a police charge through a protest, for the crime of actions taken through economic necessity, for the crime of being damaged by a lifetime of abuse. The state treats all those it deems as outcasts the same. It is time to remember Eugene Debs, the black trade unionist and one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, who clearly stated “As long as one person is in prison, I am not free.”

We gather today to remember all those who have died in prison so that they are not forgotten. We gather today to remember all those who have ended up in the hands of the state who face little deaths to the spirit and soul on a daily basis while elected officials and police officials work hard to convince the public that those inside the walls are no longer our sisters and brothers, our children and parents and friends. They are not alone as long as we remember them. They are not alone as long as memory and knowledge leads to action that changes the conditions they endure.

These thoughts were in mind as I considered what poems to share today.



(based on the song by Ewan MacColl)

In the hills and in backrooms,

by hanging and by torture,

by cops and death squads,

dreamers of justice are killed by nameless and honoured forces.

In cells and barracks,

behind barbed wire and stone walls,

voices of revolution are frozen.

We remember them all.

We remember

Ginger Goodwin,

killed for refusing to kill.

Joe Hill,

framed and murdered.

Karen Silkwood,

killed holding a union card.

We remember them all.

We remember

Victor Jara,

killed while singing

Martin Luther King,

killed speaking truth to power.

Dudley George,

killed standing, unarmed, near a burial ground.

We remember them all

We remember

Audrey Rosenthal

who opposed apartheid

Patrice Lumumba


Archbishop Romero


Carmen Mendieta


We remember them all.

We remember

We remember those in prison

We remember those who died.

We remember those without names.

We remember.

Our freedom is woven with memory.



Until the walls come down

there will be faces we never see

while turning away from fear and anger and rage.

Until the walls come down

names are erased, community severed,

humanity scarred.

Until the walls come down

our fates are shadowed, barred structures

always looming over us.

Until the walls come down

we will be as insecure as the stranger on the heating grate,

as the inwardly shrinking woman on the other side of the brutal voice.

Until the walls come down

our children will use adults tools for adult gain

to kill one another for reasons arising from adult lies.

Until the walls come down

silence is not an option. Even if we say nothing,

the walls amplify injustice.

Until the walls come down

we live out rituals of survival, rites of resistance,

dances of revolution.



(previously published in Crash and Karawane


voices hang uncertainly in the air,

hinting at what is beyond the walls.

a train goes by.

GO Transit and freight trains

add to the murmur.


an 18 year old

sits in his eight by four cubicle.

he expects nothing better

a bible marks his hours of boredom.


it is pentecost sunday

and words fall out. god’s grace

is asked for and may be found

lurking, ashamed to show up.


i walk out the prison door at mimico—using my staff key

and not through A & D.

in february it took a bail hearing

to get out of west detention.

prayers for peace

expressed through blood at litton wait in the background.

prayers of the people at the end of the service

sneak forward.


black shirt and white collar

afloat in a sea of blue.


a hunger strike in building 5 one week.

a hunger strike and work strike across the jail the next.

a gentle call for dignity in the chapel is a pale echo.


bleach is still banned from the dorm. smuggled works

shared between inmates spread oblivion and a bracketed future.


friends now turn away or laugh

or don’t return calls. barriers

topped with crippling wire are raised.

suddenly I’m cut adrift.

prison chaplains are still prison guards.


warrior is back in the system.

11 week turnaround.

jail is his home.

loneliness, no work, no home can’t hold him

in freedom.

my pieces of silver pay for rent.


paul and silas bound in jail

got nobody to go their bail

keep your eyes on the prize

hold on.

i ain’t scared of your jail

cause i want my freedom

i want my freedom now.

i’m going to prison so i can be free

i’m going to prison for what i believe

the magnificat

while the walls close behind me

and i go home. the last minute call

from a girlfriend was not relayed

because it’s time to go home. freedom

is too important to spend responding

to the last call at the end of the day.



(previously published in PIRGspectives and The Peak)

The pressure still lies harshly

on the memories of those whose silence

meant others would die. The pressure

stills lies harshly on those whose labour

went into the tools of death. The pressure

still lies heavily on those who turned tools

into weapons. The pressure still lies harshly

on those whose comfort meant that only

discreet inquires were to be made. The pressure

still lies heavily on those who waited because

the time wasn’t right. The pressure

still lies heavily on those who felt they

were always safe. The pressure

still lies heavily

on the survivors of the victims of silence.


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