I'm Burnside jail inmate, and also a human being. Here's why you should care about our protest

This column was written by an inmate at Burnside jail, as told to prisoner advocate El Jones. The writer’s name has been withheld to ensure his personal safety, and to protect the identity of his children.

A comment I heard on CBC Radio recently, made by someone who had been sentenced time and time again to the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, resonated deeply with me:

“This facility gets worse and worse every time I come back.”

Another brother stated, “When you’re housed in this facility to be rehabilitated but instead you’re warehoused like merchandise, your government has failed you.”

The truth in these comments is real to me, even though it’s my first time being incarcerated. I personally feel that the public should be very much concerned with what has taken place inside the Burnside jail, because it is they, as taxpayers, who keep these doors open.

“Rehabilitation” and “transparency” are two words that should never be used in describing this facility. The bare necessities required for a healthy and productive life aren’t being provided here. Every time you can’t get a towel, a change of clothes, or a pair of shoes your size — “your government has failed you,” as my friend said.

Conditions at Burnside

Last Sunday, as we listened to callers to CBC tell us that we don’t deserve breathable air because if you “do the crime, you do the time,” three new people came onto our range without clothes, shoes or a towel to even take a shower. People have been assigned to this range without a change of underwear, or a mattress and without even a radio to pass the time.

It’s hard to even get a Tylenol, never mind medical treatment. I’ve seen people with diabetes and asthma not get the medication they need. If you don’t believe us about the conditions in here, you should believe the auditor general’s reports, or even what staff who work here have been saying.

There hasn’t been any programing for months, and we’ve been locked down for 23 hours per day. We are guaranteed time outside in accordance with the Corrections Act, but it only seems to matter to people that you get punished for breaking the rules when it’s our rights that are being violated.

We must also keep in mind that the majority (around two-thirds) at Burnside are here on remand. They, in the eyes of the law, are innocent until proven guilty. And those who are here who have been sentenced, well, they then have been sent to Burnside as punishment, not for punishment.

Our children are certainly innocent, and yet they can go years without even touching us, because they have to visit us behind glass. Most people don’t let their children go through that.

We are still human beings.

This is why we at Burnside are engaged in a peaceful protest. Through it, we hope to spread awareness of our plight, and raise the voices of the voiceless through solidarity with the communities we’ve come from, as well as activists who hear our call for dignity and constitutionally appropriate treatment.

We are making sure that nobody is confrontational with the guards because we want this to remain peaceful. Since August 19, when we released our statement, no one on the range has received a single disciplinary infraction. We are keeping ourselves calm and ordered because we want our non-violent message to be carried by those outside in solidarity with us.

Getting eyes on Burnside

The old ways of conversation, complaints, petitions and negotiations no longer work, and we want to avoid the violence of past protests. In those cases, people might refuse lock up, or damage property, but our protest is principled.

Through our outside support network, we decided to take a different approach, which has gained national and global attention. Right now, across the country, a lot of eyes are on Burnside — perhaps more than ever before — and so before the next “hot” news hits the papers, and the attention shifts to the next “hot” story, we hope to gain some traction in addressing some of the serious issues of our current situation.

We strikers want to send a big token of appreciation to all those who are in solidarity with us. Those who have spoken on our behalf, and shared our story. And for those still on the fence, it’s important to remember the words of Nelson Mandela: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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