Opinion: More compassion needed in dealing with incarcerated individuals in Sask.

Every year, on Aug. 10, in memory of all the men and women who have died in prison, prisoners across Canada mark the day by fasting, hosting sharing circles, singing and drumming, demonstrating and refusing to work or go to school. They also call for prison justice through education, peace vigils and awareness campaigns. The Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan remembers all the people who have died in prison and we call for prison justice on this day.

Anytime an individual dies from unnatural causes while in custody in this province, a public inquest is held to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death and to determine the cause of death. In the past years, our organization has had standing at three different inquests, for three different women, who died at three different institutions throughout the province. All three women were Indigenous, all were 35 years of age or younger. Kinew James died in 2013, Breanna Kannick and Shauna Wolf died in 2015. Each of these inquests produced its own set of specific recommendations that address how similar deaths can be prevented in the future.

We would like to take a moment to remember the women and men who have died within our prisons and jail cells in this province; alone and separated from their loved ones. We would particularly like to remember Kinew James, Breanna Kannick and Shauna Wolf. We think of their families and loved ones and extend our deepest sympathies to them.

The jury at Breanna Kannick’s inquest made 10 recommendations to the Ministry of Corrections and Policing. Many were practical: Have at least one registered nurse on staff daily, make trauma kits easily accessible, use frequent checks to observe the status of the women. Perhaps most noteworthy, is near the end of its list, the jury recommended more regular training for correctional staff in empathy and compassion, addictions and withdrawal and cultural sensitivity. This is a heartbreaking assessment from these citizens about what is needed to improve our prison system. The fact that a jury had to note in public record that more empathy and compassion needed to be exercised to prevent the death of a 21-year-old woman who was in severe medical distress is shameful evidence of how we treat the most vulnerable in our society. We hope that it can also be a call to action for all of us who advocate for decarceration in this country and address the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in custody (TRC Call to Action #30).

On this day, we reflect on the principles of empathy and compassion and how they relate to prisoners, “criminals” and justice, as often those in prison will return to the community. Saskatchewan has the highest rates of incarceration of Indigenous women in the country. Many of the women we work with are mothers, many are dealing with severe mental health and addictions issues, the traumatic legacy of colonialism and residential schools, poverty, and histories of abuse. In the provincial prison, over half the population on any given day is remanded, meaning they have not yet been found guilty of a crime, but can be placed in segregation or high-security units while awaiting trial, often further exacerbating pre-existing mental health issues. We can accept this overrepresentation of Indigenous prisoners as a “sad reality” of our society, or we can advocate, challenge and push for decarceration and more funding of community-based alternatives to incarceration, that get individuals the help and support they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. By using empathy and compassion and treating prisoners as we would want our loved ones to be treated — fairly, with humanity and dignity — future unnatural deaths of women like those named above can be prevented, because even one death in custody is too many.

Sue Delanoy is executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Saskatchewan

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