On May 5, a group of prisoners at the Etablissement de détention Montréal, better known as Bordeaux prison, began a hunger strike in response to the rapidly escalating COVID-19 crisis at the institution. As of May 8, the hunger strike has spread to at least four sectors of the prison and other acts of resistance have proliferated.
The List of Demands
- We demand the release of more prisoners, because what was announced last week [an announcement by Quebec Minister of Public Security Geneviève Guilbault on May 6] affects only a tiny fraction of the detainees. In Bordeaux, very few prisoners meet the categories specified by the decree. We should not be playing with people’s lives – COVID-19 is a fatal disease. We are not reassured by the measures taken to date;
- We demand that each day spent in Bordeaux count for three days of prisoners’ sentence, since the conditions in the prison are radically diminished and unacceptable: there are no more visits, no activities, no TV, nothing to do all day;
- We demand that prisoners with one year or less remaining on their sentence receive early release;
- We demand prisoners receive personal protective equipment. At the moment, prisoners have access to gloves, but they are gloves for serving food – this isn’t adequate. Prisoners do not have any access to masks, and we demand access to masks;
- Prisoners in some sectors have been granted X-Boxes, while others have not. We demand access to more activities;
- We demand the creation of a prisoners committee and the recognition of this committee by the prison, in order to constitute a common front;
- We demand to know how the Bordeaux prisoners’ fund is used – where does the money from this fund go?
The dangerous conditions that prompted the strike at Bordeaux have been building for weeks. Bordeaux has quickly become the provincial prison second hardest-hit by COVID-19 in Canada (after Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton, Ontario). The first positive COVID-19 test among Bordeaux prisoners was registered on April 24. As of May 12, the number COVID-infected prisoners has risen to 55, while at least 30 prison staff have tested positive. From the beginning of the pandemic, moreover, prisoners have criticized the lack of COVID-related safety protocols implemented in the prison, as well as the lack of information provided to prisoners.
Information about the hunger strike is limited and difficult to obtain. Media reporting has largely relied on information from the Quebec prison guards union (Syndicat des agents de la paix en services correctionels du Québec), a deeply unreliable source. Information from prisoners is more reliable, but due to the full or partial lockdown in place (depending on the sector), it has been difficult for prisoners to get information out and, more than this, to ascertain what is happening across the prison’s multiple sectors.
The following provides the most comprehensive and reliable picture of the Bordeaux prison hunger strike, based on information relayed from prisoners to their family members, lawyers, and members of the Anti-Carceral Group.
The origins and spread of the COVID-19 crisis
The COVID-19 virus first hit Sector E, which cages 170 people. This sector is where most prisoners who work in the kitchen and serve food are detained. The possibility that infected prisoners had made or touched the food served to the entire prison caused widespread concern when the news spread.
Sector E was placed on 24-hour a day lockdown (prisoners are confined to their cells) on April 24th. According to the most recent information, it remains on lockdown. Prisoners have no access to showers or prison telephones. Officially, they continue to have once-a-week access to the cantine (with goods delivered to their cells), but reports suggest that certain floors have missed cantine at least one week. Family members outside have been unable to contact their loved ones and have received no information from prison staff, including whether or not their loved one is infected. Some family members have been sending written letters, but do not know if the letters are being received and have not received any letters in return. One family member was finally told on May 8th that letters are being received, but that sending letters in return is prohibited.
Some lawyers who have clients in Sector E have been able to arrange a 10-minute phone call with their client. This has required persistent requests, in writing and by phone, to prison staff. In cases where they have been granted a phone call, a prison guard provides a cellular phone to the prisoner to have the 10-minute call from their cell.
It is unclear how many prisoners in Sector E have been tested. Reports suggest that prisoners in the sector who worked in the kitchen were quickly transferred to Sector A, without having been tested. A report from a prisoner suggests that, by the end of the day on May 8th, nearly all prisoners in that sector had finally been tested.
By May 2, the virus had spread to Sector C, which cages 180 people. The sector was immediately placed on lockdown, with the same restrictions as Sector E. The remainder of the prison was also placed on 23-hour per day lockdown, with prisoners permitted to leave their cells, but not their range, one hour per day. Since May 7, these restrictions have been loosened in Sector B, with prisoners allowed out of their cells for 4 hours per day.
On the evening of May 8th, some prisoners in Sector E and C were finally allowed to make a 5-minute telephone call – their first communication with the outside world in 15 days. As with calls to lawyers, this involved a prison guard providing a cellular phone to the prisoner to make the call.
Despite the dire situation, prison staff do not consistently wear masks and gloves when in proximity to prisoners, and there is no proper sanitation of the cells or ranges. A report from a prisoner on May 8th suggests that guards are finally wearing masks and gloves, but that prisoners still do not have access to PPE. Sectors E and C (and perhaps others) have been periodically deprived of running water for long stretches of time, making cleaning and using the toilet impossible. It is unclear whether guards are tested for COVID-19.
Guards also taunt prisoners, saying they will be infected and allowed to die. Guards in Sector C are demanding that prisoners kneel on the ground to receive their meals; a prisoner with hearing problems, who did not comprehend the order, has missed several meals as a result. A guard in Sector C taunted an 18 year-old detainee by showing him a cell phone and saying he had his mother on the line, and then walking away. The stress level for prisoners continues to mount, and multiple prisoners have expressed that they feel they are being left to die.
The hunger strike and other resistance
In response to the increasingly dangerous situation, acts of resistance at Bordeaux have proliferated. On the morning May 5, prisoners in Sector G began a hunger strike, refusing to eat the meal served to them. By the evening of May 5, prisoners on other wings had joined the strike.
Reports on which sectors are participating in the strike are inconsistent. Multiple sources have confirmed the participation of Sectors D and G. One source, a prisoner in Section B, claims sector B is participating as well. Some prisoners, while refusing to eat the meals served to them, continue to eat food from the cantine.
There are also reports of other acts of resistance at Bordeaux. The source of these reports is the prison guards union, and should therefore be treated with caution. The reported acts of resistance include: breaking windows, spitting on guards, breaking objects in cells, and flooding the ranges with water. Prisoners in Sector E were told their 24-hour per day lockdown would end on May 11, after 17 days. When the lockdown was not lifted, the prisoners reportedly set fire to toilet paper and magazines and overflowed their toilets. The prison responded by shutting off the water.
On May 10, a noise demonstration took place outside Bordeaux. A caravan of 30 cars, including three people with family members in Bordeaux, drove to the prison, honked their horns and waved protest signs to show support for the prisoners and denounce the inaction of the Quebec government.
The response of the Quebec Ministry of Public Security to the escalating COVID-19 crisis at Bordeaux has been minimal. On May 6, the Minister of Public Security, Geneviève Guilbault announced that certain categories of prisoners would be eligible for medical release. Her announcement specified that such releases might be possible for prisoners convicted of non-violent offences, with less than 30 days remaining on their sentence, with health complications. This announcement offers nothing to the 75% of Bordeaux prisoners who are being held pre-trial (and therefore have not been sentenced), and Quebec has consistently refused to follow the lead of provinces like Ontario and Nova Scotia in expediting bail hearings to release remanded prisoners.