By Sara Fruchtman
(August 9, 2018, 11:51 AM EDT)–On Aug. 10, 1975, inmates
from Milhaven, a maximum security prison, in Bath, Ont.,
organized a 24-hour hunger strike to honour Edward Nalon,
who bled to death in segregation the year before. At the time,
peaceful protests were a punishable offence and some inmates
were put in segregation for a year after the strike. The following
year, more than 60 inmates at Millhaven began a 110-day
hunger strike following the death of another inmate in
Since 1975, every Aug. 10, many Canadian prisoners remember
those who have died in their same cells from neglect, suicide
and murder and celebrate those who fought for change. They
do not eat, work or leave their cells to commemorate Prisoners
Justice Day, which is now an international day of solidarity.
Although conditions in Canadian correctional facilities are far better than those in many
other countries, basic civil liberties and protections for Canadian prisoners are regularly
dismissed and ignored.
Phillip Chuck Jr. told me that he spent 23 hours a day locked in his cell during his first
three months at Millhaven in 2004. “No access to phones, showers nothing. Just sat in
my cell all day. And every time there was a lockdown, we got strip searched -my
mattress and sheets tossed on the floor. The inmates that had already been stripped would
be standing against the wall, watching while you got searched. Bend down, spread your
Richard Miller was also subject to frequent lockdowns. In an interview, he told me that
when he walked out of federal prison on June 12, 2017, after serving two years, he could
not put the abuse and mistreatment that he had seen and experienced behind him. At the
time of Miller’s sentencing, he was told that he needed to be removed from society that
he was a safety threat and needed to be rehabilitated. But Miller wil tell you that there is
little support for rehabilitation for those convicted of criminal offences neither inside nor
Miller quickly became aware of the hypocrisy and persistent lack of respect that he
experienced inside. While in custody awaiting trial, he had to appear in Oshawa court; he
was given a Nutrigrain bar and a juice box for lunch. As Miller said, “If I sent my child to
school with that for lunch every day, the Children’s Aid Society would be at my door. Why
do we get away with treating other people like this?“
Both provincial and federal correctional institutions are governed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but their obligations under the Charter are just beginning to be
tested. Class actions have taken aim at the practice of solitary confinement, and more
recently, the pervasive use of regular lockdowns has been challenged, so far
unsuccessfully, in the courts.
During a lockdown, inmates are held in in cells sometimes as small as five square
metres – cooped up with their cellmate for 24 hours a day.
They are not allowed access to fresh air, TV, exercise, showers, phone calls, counsel or
family visits. This is commonplace at provincial and federal institutions across the country.
When there isn’t adequate staffing, officers will lock down their units. In fact, Miller and
Chuck say lockdowns will be initiated for almost anything -after a fight, if an inmate is
suspected of having drugs or a weapon, or a staff calls in sick. When one unit is locked
down, staff will often lock down the entire facility.
“It’s like collective segregation,” Chuck said.
In Ogiamien v. Ontario (Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services) 2016
ONSC 3080, Justice Douglas Gray held that the rights of the two applicants had been
violated by virtue of the lock downs to which they had been repeatedly subjected over two
years. Neither of the applicants had been convicted of a criminal offence: one was awaiting
trial and the other was an immigration detainee.
Justice Gray awarded them damages in the amount of $85,000. However, the decision was
overturned on appeal. The Appeal Court found that Justice Gray made errors in assessing
the impact of the lock downs on the applicants and rejected his comparison of a lock down
to solitary confinement in the absence of expert evidence.
Both Chuck and Miller have been irreparably shaped by their experiences inside. As they
describe it, once you are convicted, you are no longer treated as human. Chuck says he
was defined by his fingerprint serial number: “Why would anyone treat you like a human
being when they know you as a number? The number you’ve been given, the colour of
your jumpsuit, the jail you were in, the charges you have that’s who you are when
you’re inside, and that’s who you are when you come out. And then you get out and every
door available is closed to you.“
But Chuck and Miller want to change that. In January, seven months after Miller walked
out of federal prison, he founded Keep6ix, an organization dedicated to advocating for
prisoner’s rights, educating the public about prisoner’s justice and providing mentorship to
racialized and marginalized youth in Toronto.
Chuck and Miller know that the so-called “hardest to reach youth” are the ones that they
can connect with.
While he was inside, Chuck read every book available to him and applied for a federal
bursary to start his bachelor’s degree in social work.
Today, he is the youth mentorship coordinator at Peacebuilders and provides case
management and one-on-one support to youth involved in the criminal justice system.
Last month Chuck officially incorporated his own non-profit organization, Between the
Lines: Youth Support Services, to offer meaningful opportunities to young people at risk of
Within a few weeks of incorporating the organization, Between the Lines is already making
waves: together with a number of other youth outreach workers, Chuck is supporting
youth to host a peer-led conversation on violence and victimization in Regent Park and other “priority neighborhoods” in Toronto. He wants to empower young people to tell
their own stories and work together to develop meaningful solutions to violence and
trauma in their communities.
“Growing up, nobody was good to me. Because of the neighborhood I grew up in, I was
already considered less deserving than human. Society told me I was nothing. But every
day I can tell the kids I work with that they are something. I’m not telling them to fit into
society – I’m telling them to be better than society. And maybe they’ll be better than me
and won’t make my mistakes.“
Chuck and Miller hope that advocates will continue to challenge the pervasive use of
lock downs and other dehumanizing treatment in prison. But they agree that even those
cases will not provide the rehabilitation that is necessary to reintegrate prisoners into
society once their sentences are served. In the meantime, they are doing what they can to
keep kids from ever spending a night in prison.
Sara Fruchtman is the manager of public policy, research and communications
at Peacebuilders, a youth justice and restorative justice non-profit organization based in
Toronto. She can be reached at struchtmanapeacebulders.Ca