Cory Cardinal has been fighting for inmate rights in Saskatchewan for years. During the pandemic, when the fight has intensified, he's been doing the work from inside the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre.
This week, he got out.
While he's no longer subjected to the harsh realities of jail life, he says his work advocating for those living in Saskatchewan jails is far from over.
"My mind and my heart are with my people in there," he said shortly after leaving the facility.
He held a clear plastic bag filled with notes and documents from his time on the inside. There were letters from inmates he's helped express concerns to the provincial government, newspaper clippings and online stories highlighting the work he's done, and communications between him and support groups like the John Howard Society, CLASSIC Law and Beyond Prison Walls Canada.
Alongside the documents were intricate pieces of beadwork and sketches he'd done while inside. He later said there's no shortage of talented artists inside the province's jails.
Cardinal is already helping organize a demonstration advocating for those inside Pine Grove Correctional Centre, the province's only facility for adult women, set for April 13.
"The public has a right to know how inmates are treated, besides the edited version that comes from the ministry's public relations," he said. "It's important to understand what goes on in the correctional centres, because it's prevalent and affects the community as a whole."
Throughout the pandemic, inmates inside the province's correctional centres have said they're not being properly supported, and have limited access to health-care professionals, mental health supports and cleaning supplies used to protect against COVID.
Cardinal himself has refused meals, at times for days on end, to bring attention to the issues.
Shows of support needed for inmates: Inmate advocate
Cardinal said that with Pine Grove being the province's only facility for adult women, incarcerated women are sometimes taken far from their home communities and families when jailed.
"They need to know that they're supported," said Cardinal. "They need to know that there's somebody there to protect them, because they feel forgotten about. I just want to let them know that they're not forgotten."
Deborah Mckenzie, who is remanded at the facility, said inmates there are currently refusing food to protest the conditions. Mckenzie said she was on her seventh day without food. She said the protest is calling for better access to health care and better treatment of inmates by staff and nurses.
"There's this one nurse that said our medication is a privilege, not a right," said Mckenzie. "And the corrections staff are saying the nurses are allowed to do that, to deny us meds."
Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety officials confirmed that as of lunch Thursday, eight inmates were refusing trays of food.
"The Ministry continues to monitor the situation and ensure the health and safety of the participating inmate," the statement said. "The inmate who is on tray refusal receives continued medical supervision, including regular doctor check-ups. We continue to work with facility staff and public health authorities to ensure offenders receive appropriate care. Inmates have access to health services and mental health services, as they did before the pandemic."
The statement also said inmates who have concerns are encouraged to bring them forward and can also reach out to the Saskatchewan Ombudsman.
Complaints 'go nowhere': Inmate
Mckenzie said the complaint process is flawed and is one of the issues she wants addressed.
She said she has been trying to reach out to the Saskatchewan Ombudsman about the situation through the correctional facility, but that there have been challenges getting it through to the proper channels. She also said inmates regularly receive health-care treatment that is inferior to what the general public gets.
"They say that we're supposed to be treated the same as out there in health care, which is not true," she said. "They treat us way different in here."
Mckenzie said the ministry isn't doing its job when it comes to supporting inmates, saying they're regularly treated like criminals when many of them are on remand, yet to be convicted.
"We're the same as other people," she said. Adding later. "We're innocent until proven guilty and they treat us otherwise. Like we're already guilty for what we're in here for, like we're all convicted already. It's not right."
Mckenzie called for an internal investigation examining what happens to the complaints inmates file to staff, specifically about COVID-19 and health care, along with the treatment of inmates overall.
"We just want people to know what's happening in here," she said. Adding: "The complaints go nowhere."
Pine Grove Correctional Centre is already the subject one review by the provincial government.
It comes Kimberly Squirrel, a mother of six, was found dead and frozen in Saskatoon just three days after being released from the provincial jail. Minister Christine Tell said in a statement she was "deeply saddened" by Squirrel's death, saying the review will determine what happened before, during and after Squirrel's release.
Inmates aren't the only group expressing concerns about the province's jails.
On Thursday, the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union (SGEU) issued a news release saying the province has fallen short when it comes to protecting staff against COVID-19, especially as cases rise, with the situation spurring "renewed concern and anger" among union leadership.
"There is simply no logical explanation for the government's callous approach when it comes to protecting correctional officers and young offender facilities workers," said SGEU's public service government employment chair Barry Nowoselsky, who represents provincial correctional staff.
"It's unacceptable that our calls for rapid testing in these facilities and priority for vaccine access have been ignored for months."
Millions in spending outlined in budget 2021-2022
Improvements for the province's correctional system may be on the horizon, as the portfolio did get some attention on budget day.
The province said $4.3 million will be used to "support pandemic-related measures in Saskatchewan's courts and correctional facilities."
This will help cover ongoing costs for things like PPE, cleaning services and other precautionary measures.
The province has also allocated $76 million to support safety and programming improvements in Saskatchewan jails, which will cover the construction costs of cultural lodges in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert, and the renovation of Saskatoon's Urban Camp.
The majority of the funding, roughly 68 per cent, will go toward the construction of a new remand centre at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre.
"These upgrades will significantly expand our ability to provide programming to inmates and maintain safe and secure facilities for inmates, staff, and the public," Tell said.
"This budget honours our commitments to respond to gang activity, addictions issues, and interpersonal violence and abuse, and invests in our police services and correctional systems to meet the ongoing challenges of the pandemic."
As of Thursday afternoon, there were 25 known active cases among staff and inmates in the province's correctional facilities.