Activists gathered in Montreal on Saturday afternoon to stand in solidarity with thousands of inmates on hunger strike across California prisons.
Roughly ten participants stood on the steps of Christ Church Cathedral, holding a banner that read “Pour un monde sans patrons, Ni Flics, Ni Prisons” – roughly, “For A World Without Bosses, Neither Cops, Nor Prisons” – and handing out pamphlets with information about the strike and the prison-industrial complex to passers-by on Ste. Catherine.
The hunger strike – organized by a group of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermax prison in California known for its wide use of solitary confinement – is reported to be the largest strike of its kind in the state’s history.
One of the strike’s primary demands is to end solitary confinement, a punitive practice whereby inmates are held alone in a windowless cell, measuring 7 by 11 feet, for 22.5 hours a day. The strike also seeks to abolish the process used to put prisoners in indefinite solitary confinement for suspected gang affiliation – a process that in many cases falsely or arbitrarily proves gang affiliation.
Other key demands are for adequate food, constructive programming, and an end to collective punishments for individual actions. These are the same five demands as those of California’s 2011 prison strike, one that resulted in very little meaningful reform.
Carl Small, an organizer of the Montreal event who is in contact with California prisoners and who was active during the 2011 strike, described the security housing units (SHUs) used for solitary confinement as “a means of control.” He cited vast overcrowding and unconstitutional medical care, which have both prompted federal intervention, as indicators of the state’s overextended system.
While Small was quick to point out the unique nature of the U.S. prison system, he expressed concerns about prison expansion in Canada. “Because of a kind of institutional creep and a culture of incarceration, and because the U.S. is such a centre of gravity in North America, there’s definitely spillover effects.”
Indeed, the use of solitary confinement in Canadian prisons appears to be rising. One man in attendance who spent 12 years in solitary confinement in Ontario, Michael Tremblay, described its conditions as “terrible,” stating that he had no window in his cell and had only been outside twice in that period.
When asked about the potential for prison reform, Small was skeptical, arguing that the system operates through “a broader push to incarcerate” and “starts with certain assumptions about the kind of people who will be convicted.”
“We have to start thinking about the problem not from ‘okay we have prisons as one of our tools,’ but we have to start before that,” he said.
At around 2:20 p.m., after an hour of action, the police disbanded the demonstration and the attendees dispersed peacefully.
Read more on the hunger strikes and solitary confinement in the California prison system.