A Hunger for Justice
Hansen, Ann, Herizons
At midnight on February 23, three Aboriginal female prisoners being held at the Springhill men's penitentiary in Nova Scotia began a hunger strike.
Although it ended after just three days, the hunger strike pushed the conditions in the four women's units contained within men's penitentiaries back into the national spotlight.
Since the federal Kingston Prison for Women closed in 2000, women in maximum security have been held in men's prisons. The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) is building maximum security units alongside five new regional prisons for women.
However, according to Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS), the new units "do not represent an improvement in prison conditions for women." A long-standing grievance is that programming and access to services are inadequate for maximum-security prisoners. In the last three years, there has been an increase in hostage-takings, suicide attempts and other self-destructive acts. Prisoner Renee Acoby, one of the hunger strikers explains that "Women try to find a way out of these inhumane conditions, even through death."
The Springhill protestors had three main grievances. Despite CSC regulations that say that "Aboriginal spirituality and Aboriginal spiritual leaders and elders have the same status as other religions and other religious leaders," access to native ceremonies is often restricted. A lack of programs to enable maximum security women to reduce their security designation is another grievance. (A reduced designation generally increases prisoners' quality of life.) The third complaint was the extended closure of the women's unit at Springhill.
According to Pate, "The women are being told that they have to be at a certain level of security to go to sweats, and when native elders are consulted, they cannot make informed decisions because they only have access to prison officials. …