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‘They are still people:’ Prisoner’s Justice Day a time for empathy, humanity

‘Unless they've had direct contact in the jail, or know someone that has been in custody, they may not really understand or realize the immense struggle and suffering that occurs’
More than thirty people gathered in the rain in front of the Sudbury Jail August 10 for the Prisoner’s Justice Day commemoration, a day to honour those men and women who have died unnatural or violent deaths while incarcerated in prisons and penitentiaries. 

The August 10 date is the annual day of remembrance, beginning in Canada in 1975 and now observed all over the world. 

The day was originally created by prisoners to honour one of their own. Eddie Nalon was a prisoner who bled to death in August of 1974 in a solitary confinement cell while desperately calling for help, help that would never come. The guards never came. 

Then, another person in prison died in 1976, in the same Millhaven Penitentiary cell where Nalon died. The call buttons had yet to be reactivated, and Bobby Launders died for the same, preventable, reason. 

On the one-year anniversary of Nalon's 1974 death, prisoners at Millhaven went on a one-day hunger strike, refusing to work and instead holding a memorial service, even though it meant solitary confinement.

One the second anniversary of Nalon's death, a one-day hunger strike was held in prisons across Canada. Prisoners' Justice Day is now commemorated around the world.

In Sudbury, the day was observed with a ceremony hosted by The John Howard Society of Sudbury, Canadian Mental Health Association (Sudbury/Manitoulin), the Elizabeth Fry Society of Northeastern Ontario and Sudbury District Restorative Justice, and featured speeches, poems and moments of silence. 

Sara-Jane Berghammer of the John Howard Society of Sudbury told that the annual event is often attended by those who have lost family members or loved ones while they were serving their sentence, but it is also held to raise awareness. “Most people, unless they've had direct contact in the jail, or know someone that has been in custody, they may not really understand or realize the immense struggle and suffering that occurs in custody,” said Berghammer. “And it doesn't have to be that way.”

The push for justice reform is also centred within the ceremony. Berghammer said that the core of the John Howard Society is the belief that a change in the conditions inside jails as well as changing the “lens of the criminal justice system” will lessen the chance of reoffense. “View people in custody differently,” said Berghammer, “have some empathy and understanding and provide more programs and services, and we'll be far more effective than by placing a label or stigma on them, essentially saying, ‘don't waste your time’.”

It’s a hard sell for many, but one that is required, said Stacey Lavallie of Sudbury District Restorative Justice. “It's really easy, in the justice system, to see prisoners as statistics and forget that they are actually people,” said Lavallie. 

She believes that it is deeply important to remember that while they are in jail, they have committed crimes and these crimes are sometimes horrific, they are still worthy of consideration.  

“They are still people, they are not just what they've done,” said Lavallie, “They're not a criminal, they are a person who committed a crime. And a lot of people see that as splitting hairs. But when you put people first it is easier to remember that these ‘people’ are people.”

Lavallie agrees that these people have earned their incarceration, but not the treatment they then receive.  

“They have done things that are criminal, they have been found guilty. And this is the appropriate consequence under our laws,” said Lavallie. “But that's incarceration. What actually happens in incarceration is cruelties, fatalities, harm and death coming to people that are not treated like people. They're treated like numbers, and that's not right.”

She said the goal of the ceremony is to remind others that, “these are people, people who are loved by others. People who love others, people who are deserving of basic human rights.”

There is also the question of the true goals of the justice system, whether a person is sent there to be punished, or reformed. 

This was the subject of two poems read by Cory Roslyn of the Elizabeth Fry Society. One called “Imprisonment” by Judge Dennis Challen spoke to the aspects of what we intend in imprisoning those who commit crimes, versus what we offer. “We want them to be kind and loving people, so we subject them to hatred and cruelty,” it reads. 

The other, written by several women who were incarcerated in the Sudbury jail in the 1990s, is called “To free oneself is nothing, it is being free that is hard.” The poem speaks to loss, to hopelessness, but also, the need to rebuild, even in the face of all that loss. Even the loss of one’s community. 

Roslyn said the mission of the Elizabeth Fry Society is a “prison abolitionist framework, meaning 

a life without a justice system.” While she said that there is clearly the need for a prison under the current justice system, the Elizabeth Fry Society believes the world can exist without needing prisons. “If we focus on the things that lead people to prisons, while we still do have prisons, and when people are returning to community, we meet their needs, and look at them as people, we will prevent them from needing to return to prison.”

Roslyn told it is about empathy for others, treating people as people, and seeing them on their level. “The reason that people end up in these situations is because they are struggling with so many different things that are intersecting and leading them down a path that makes their choices not really their own. 

Roslyn said if the community addresses the issues of mental health and addictions properly, there will be less need for prisons.  If we address these issues,” said Roslyn, “we would see less of a need for people to be incarcerated. And when we're incarcerating people, we're not actually keeping the community safe. We're just making things worse. We're just making all this worse.”

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Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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