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Inmate hunger strike highlights problems facing Indigenous people in prison

For almost ten weeks, Faith Eagle has been refusing her meals inside the Pine Grove Correction Centre in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan Indigenous inmate on 10th week of hunger strike'
Saskatchewan Indigenous inmate on 10th week of hunger strike
WATCH: Saskatchewan Indigenous inmate on 10th week of hunger strike – Nov 17, 2022

For almost 10 weeks, Faith Eagle has been refusing her meals inside the Pine Grove Correction Centre in Prince Albert, Sask.

“I want to make my voice loud and clear that we are human, we deserve clean water, we deserve humane conditions, we deserve good healthy food and to go outside when it’s time,” said Eagle in a telephone interview with Global News.

The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate woman is from South Dakota but had been most recently in Saskatoon. For the past five months, Eagle has been in remand at Pine Grove awaiting trial for an assault charge.

Read more: Overrepresentation of Black, Indigenous prisoners ‘persistent’ in Canada: report

“Right now in our cell, there is nothing but cold water, the vents blow freezing cold air,” she said during a call with Global News on Nov. 11.

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“We just got off a 21-hour lock up and they’re all single cells. We only get checked once an hour.”

Eagle’s hunger strike is approaching 10 weeks. She’s drinking fluids, including Boost, and had a meal on the evening of Monday, Nov. 15 after being taken to the hospital. She was later released back to the prison.

In an email statement to Global News, Ariane Whiting, a senior media relations consultant with the Government of Saskatchewan’s Integrated Justice Services, said, “The primary concern in provincial correctional facilities is the safety and security of staff, inmates, the public, and the facility itself.

“The ministry is aware that one inmate at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre is currently participating in a tray refusal. For security reasons, the ministry is unable to provide specifics about the placement of individuals within the facility. Inmates have access to hot water when out of their cell.”

Read more: Canada’s prison watchdog disturbed by ‘Indigenization’ of correctional system

Sherri Maier, an advocate with Beyond Prison Walls Canada, says other inmates in Pine Grove and other facilities across Saskatchewan, Alberta and in parts of the United States have participated in shorter hunger strikes in support of Eagle.

“I’m aware of inmates participating at the Saskatchewan Federal Penitentiary, the Regina Correctional Institute, the Edmonton Correctional Institute, as well as some other in the U.S. prisons and out in the community,” said Maier.

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“Most of them all understand and believe they have a legal obligation to serve some time, what they want is to serve that time with dignity and respect.”

While Eagle says her act of protest began in response to living conditions in the Pine Grover facility, she is also concerned about the over-representation of indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women, in provincial and federal prisons across the country.

This concern was echoed in a recent report published by the Federal Corrections Investigator.

“While we have seen overall declines in the incarcerated population in recent years, Indigenous over-representation has not only persisted but increased at an unabated pace,” Dr. Ivan Zinger wrote in the  Nov. 1, 2022 report.

“Over the last decade alone, the total Indigenous offender population (incarcerated and community) has increased by 40.8%.”

Click to play video: 'Half of all youth behind bars in Canada are Indigenous'
Half of all youth behind bars in Canada are Indigenous

The report found that while Indigenous people make up only five per cent of the total adult population in Canada, they account for 32 per cent of the prison population and among women, that number is more than 50 per cent.

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The report also found that Indigenous prisoners are more likely to self-harm, accounting for 55 per cent of all self-injuries, 40 per cent of attempted suicides and 83 per cent of suicide deaths.

“There has been six Indigenous men who have committed suicide (in prison) this year alone and we’re not even done the year. That’s serious stuff,” said National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples.

Beaudin says many Indigenous inmates are suffering from mental health or addictions issues related to trauma passed down from decades of abuse suffered within Canada’s residential school system.

“Prisons are not equipped to be healing lodges, or healing centres, or addiction centres — they don’t have the expertise. They try to do certain things but it’s just not enough,” Beaudin said.

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand agrees.

“I know people and one of them is my son.  He’s 32 years old and he’s (in prison) for crystal meth,” Arcand said.

“When he gets thrown into a cell there is no support for mental health, there is no support for addictions, and this happens to a lot of Indigenous people.”

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