This is an edited transcript of Sara Tessier’s speech at the 7th Step Society 10th anniversary celebration on Prisoners’ Justice Day – 10 August, 2023.
Prisoners’ Justice Day is a perpetual reminder, an unceasing reckoning that resonates year-round with those who have endured the confines of incarceration. Yet, on the 10th of August, we unite in annual solidarity, amplifying our collective voice to shed light on the injustices that persist within the justice system. This commemoration serves as a solemn tribute to those who have lost their lives behind prison walls and a means to enlighten communities about the stark realities of the penal system.
The echoes of Global Prison Trends 2020 resound, revealing an alarming trajectory. Over sixteen years, from 2002 to 2018, the global prison population surged by an unsettling 20 percent, surmounting the 11 million mark. The more recent World Prison Population List, as of December 2021, hints at an even graver picture, projecting that the incarcerated population might exceed 11.5 million worldwide.
Even within this disconcerting panorama, the plight of incarcerated women demands our urgent attention. A disheartening 50 percent surge has been noted in their numbers, spanning a decade since the United Nations embraced the Bangkok rules, purportedly safeguarding the rights of women prisoners. Astonishingly, the female incarcerated population has burgeoned to over six times its 1980 figures, revealing a troubling trend. The statistic that 58 percent of imprisoned women in state prisons are mothers to children under 18 years old casts a stark light on the broader social implications of this crisis. Over four decades, the incarcerated women’s count has swelled 525 percent, surging from 26,326 in 1980 to 168,449 in 2021.
The genesis of Prisoners’ Justice Day finds its roots in a seminal event etched into Canadian history. August 10, 1974, marked the tragic passing of Edward Nalon, his lifeblood seeping away within the walls of Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in Bath, Ontario. From that sombre moment, the trajectory of this movement began to unfold.
Claire Culhane is emerging as an indomitable force within this narrative, whose unyielding dedication spanned two decades. Culhane emerged as an unwavering advocate for countless prisoners nationwide, giving voice to those historically silenced. Her odyssey began in 1974 when she volunteered to instruct a Women’s Studies class at the Lakeside Regional Correctional Centre for Women. The turning point, however, arrived on June 9, 1975, when three prisoners commandeered 15 hostages, thrusting Culhane into the heart of the struggle for prisoners’ rights.
This commemoration nurtured within the Canadian context, has germinated into a global movement embraced by incarcerated individuals and their allies worldwide. The legacy of activists like Culhane and Robert Landers continues to kindle flames of change. Their valiant efforts have not only spurred dialogue but have also ignited tangible transformations within prison systems.
Personal narratives intertwine within this tapestry of justice. As I navigated the labyrinthine corridors of a Federal Women’s Prison in Canada, the inspiration gleaned from luminaries like Culhane and Landers propelled me into advocacy. From the confines of incarceration to the realm of community, my mission persists undeterred. Today, I channel my energies into a prison outreach initiative, helping those transitioning back into society. The call for inclusivity, the principle of nothing about us without us, reverberates within policy committees where my lived experience guides resource allocation and support strategies.
The narrative thread that binds us all is the enduring query: What am I doing to make a difference? In asking ourselves this question, we evoke the essence of Prisoners’ Justice Day – an unwavering dedication to effecting change and ensuring that the chorus of advocacy and reform drowns out the echoes of injustice.
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