More people may join ongoing hunger strike at Sask. women's jail, advocate says

An inmate at Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, Sask., has been on a hunger strike for around eight weeks, according to a prisoner advocate. (CBC - image credit)
An inmate at Pine Grove Correctional Centre in Prince Albert, Sask., has been on a hunger strike for around eight weeks, according to a prisoner advocate. (CBC - image credit)

A woman at a jail in Prince Albert, Sask., is continuing her eight-week hunger strike to protest the treatment of incarcerated people there, according to an advocate for inmates.

Faith Eagle is one of three women at Pine Grove Correctional Centre refusing to eat, and more inmates in Canadian institutions might follow, according to Sherri Maier, who advocates for people in custody and founded the support group Beyond Prison Walls Canada.

Maier said she has heard about other people at facilities across the country who plan to join the hunger strike this weekend, including at Regina Correctional Centre and at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B.

"It sounds like we might be able to have some prisoners out in Ontario jails … hopefully joining in, too," she said. "And then there's people in the community."

Maier plans to be one of them, while another woman incarcerated at the Edmonton Institution For Women wants to start a ceremonial fast this weekend, the advocate said.

Maier previously said she was contacted by Eagle, who is in custody at the women's jail while she waits for a trial date, with concerns about alleged racism from some guards at Pine Grove, a lack of timely access to medical attention and the quality of their drinking water.

Monday will mark Week 8 of Eagle's strike, Maier said.

Submitted by Sherri Maier
Submitted by Sherri Maier

"She feels there's a lot of prejudice and discrimination there against the Indigenous women," said Maier.

"Medical care has always been a problem in prisons, whether it's ... federal, provincial. This has always been a problem, especially mental health."

Province aware of Pine Grove hunger strike

Maier said she's also been told there is a woman with tuberculosis on Eagle's unit who is allegedly not in quarantine.

A spokesperson with the province's Ministry of Justice said they could not comment on the personal health matters of inmates.

However, the spokesperson confirmed in an email on Thursday that three inmates are participating in a "tray refusal" at the provincial jail.

The striking women are accepting liquids, including juice and nutritional drinks, and receive "continued medical supervision," including doctor checkups, according to the email.

The spokesperson said the ministry is monitoring the situation "to ensure the health and safety of the participating inmates."

The Saskatoon Tribal Council confirmed that its director of justice, Crystal LaPlante, went to Pine Grove Correctional Centre earlier this week.

Eagle appreciated the opportunity to speak with an Indigenous woman about her concerns, said Mark Arcand, the council's tribal chief.

"Faith has some expectations and some outcomes that we think are reasonable, and some might not be achievable," he said.

"We understand it is a jail, there are rules and regulations," said Arcand.

"If we have to change the system, what does that look like, and what are those systems that need to be changed so there's good outcomes and results?"

In October, the province and the tribal council announced a new pilot program which will provide the council with funding for a project to reintegrate formerly incarcerated women into the community.

On Thursday, Arcand said the tribal council will go back to Pine Grove for a followup visit.

'Built on systemic racism'

Sydney Wouters has also been monitoring the situation at Pine Grove as part of her role as a prison in-reach service worker and acting co-executive director for the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan — a non-profit organization that supports women who have been incarcerated.

Wouters said her organization last spoke with Eagle two weeks ago at the jail in Prince Albert.

"The concerns that I have been hearing are revolving primarily around their treatment by staff, especially the racism that Indigenous women are facing in Pine Grove," said Wouters.

"This is something that has been going on for a long time.… Our justice system is built on systemic racism. There's an overrepresentation of Indigenous people within the justice system."

According to a new report from Ivan Zinger, the country's top prison watchdog, Canada has made scant progress in addressing the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in prisons, with some facing even worse conditions than they did a decade ago.

Wouters said she has also been speaking with administrators at the facility and asked that they make complaint forms readily available, rather than requiring inmates to ask staff for them.

She was told the director of programs and the cultural advisor would sit down with Eagle to talk about her concerns on Thursday, but Wouters said Friday morning she hadn't heard anything more about the meeting.

"They know that there's issues … specifically with treatment of the women," said Wouters.

Drinking water tested

The quality of drinking water was another concern for the inmates participating in the hunger strike.

Eagle said last month the water smelled and tasted so bad she was boiling it, Maier said on Thursday.

According to the provincial Ministry of SaskBuilds and Procurement, which manages and maintains provincial government buildings, the water at Pine Grove was tested and sent to a Saskatchewan Research Council lab for analysis on Oct. 5.

A total of 30 tests were done, and officials on-site did not detect any unusual odour or taste in the water, the ministry said in an email to CBC on Friday.

Tests in the inmate areas "met the government of Canada's standards for drinking water quality," the spokesperson said, while a test in a staff area "where the water is rarely used was slightly above the acceptable level for copper."

That line has since been flushed, according to the ministry.

Lack of cultural programming

Both Maier and Wouters also say the women in the facility are also hoping for more access to cultural programming and support.

"How are we supposed to help them make the changes in their lives so that they don't end up back in prison following their release without offering them proper programming?" said Wouters.

"That's what we're seeing in the community as well, is lack of programming so that people don't have to be in jail."

Maier said during a recent "mass move" in the jail, Eagle was placed into a high security unit.

A mass move involves inmates being moved away from their current unit, and potentially locked down, to defuse escalating movements, the advocate said.

"[Eagle] did say they're locked up 14 hours a day [in the high security unit] and it's 100 per cent Indigenous."

When asked about the "mass move" and whether it involved women on hunger strike, the government spokesperson said they could not talk specifics about planned lockdowns, citing security reasons.

Maier said she last talked with Eagle earlier this week, and was told she has been able to see an elder since she came to the new unit.

"Nobody ever wakes up and says, 'Hey, I want to go to jail today,'" said Maier. "They are still human."

Most of the people she works with "know that they need to be there," said Maier.

"They call it a legal obligation. They just want to serve their time with dignity."