For weeks now, guards at the Barton Street Jail have been stationed at the picnic tables in front. They’re protesting an ongoing dispute between guards and management which has seen the jail locked down for nearly a month. The crisis began when a piece of a metal fixture went missing, prompting a search of all cells, but when management refused to let guards wear stab-proof vests guards walked off the job. The jail now remains in a “rotational lockdown”, allowing inmates out only to shower and use phones, along with finally re-instating visits.

It’s true, I usually tend to side with “labour” in these cases, and I’m certainly not siding with management (what’s wrong with stab-proof vests, anyways?), but security forces aren’t just “workers”. Soldiers, cops and jail guards don’t produce or manage, they enforce. That implies violence, which means any discussion of their “rights” needs to be balanced with considerations of who that force is being used against. Too many of my friends have gone to jail over the past couple of years, and too many of them have faced abuse at the hands of guards. Solidarity is a two way street, and these “union” workers have had their chance. If I must pick a “side” here, then I’m with the inmates.

While this dispute unfolds, an entire building worth of inmates are stuck in their cells. Their degrading and dehumanizing existence has become even more repressive as they’re treated like pawns in a battle between guards and management. Some community members and prisoners’ families have already demonstrated as well, and one sign in particular says it all “they are not animals”. Inmates are people too, no matter what the state thinks of them, and they’re the ones who really need solidarity right now.

As OPSEU has stated, this is only a flashpoint in an incredibly stressed provincial system. These jails are already underfunded and overcrowded, a situation that is only expected to get worse. Not only are we seeing harsh provincial cuts, but thanks to Harper’s Crime Bill, prison populations are expected to grow by almost a third in the near future. Already, just over two thirds of Ontario’s inmates are on “remand” simply awaiting their day in court, numbers which have only been getting worse over recent yets. Our jails are incredibly dangerous places, and not just for the guards. The difference is that nobody is even considering giving stab-proof vests to the inmates.

We’re not supposed to talk about the rights of prisoners, or question the logic of prisons themselves. It may be common in academia, human rights organizations or other “marginal groups”, but it’s utterly taboo to bring it up in public. Prison represents a central part of the perceived legitimacy of state violence – not just intervening (as cops and soldiers do) but bringing prolonged punishment to those who disobey its edicts. It’s no secret that most people ‘inside’ are there for non-violent offences (property and drugs, etc), or that they’re predominantly poor and disproportionately racialized. We’re allowed to mention those aspects, but only in isolation – we can complain about poor prisoners, drug prisoners or political prisoners, but we dare not speak about prisoners in general. At the end of the day, every prisoner is a political prisoner.

Tonight dozens of people marched from Beasley Park to the Barton jail, drumming, chanting and screaming in support of the locked-down prisoners, who responded by pounding on windows. Noise demonstrtions like this are now routine around the jail, as part of provincial tours, when new political prisoners arrive (particularly from Six Nations), or simply for holidays like New Years. As usual, neighbours and passers-by cheered us on (strangely, far more than most protests I’ve been a part of). Tonight, though was one of the first to see any police presence, who tried valiantly (but failed) to prevent the march from taking the street. One person was reportedly arrested (just cuffed/ticketed, thankfully) as the march dispersed, and it will be interesting to see how they attempt to explain this (I was there, he did nothing illegal). Regardless, it sent an important message – the situation at Barton St. is unacceptable and needs to be resolved. Prisoners have human rights too, and it’s high time that got acknowledged.