Sask. writer, poet and prisoner advocate Cory Cardinal dead at 38

Cory Cardinal was released from the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre in April and at that time he said his work calling for better conditions within Saskatchewan's correctional system would continue.

Family says Cardinal is being remembered as selfless person who would amaze with his art and writing

Cory Cardinal poses shortly after his recent release with a piece of art he did while incarcerated at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre. Cardinal, the founder of Inmates for Humane Conditions, died earlier this week at age 38. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

Cory Cardinal, a tireless advocate for prisoner rights and founder of Inmates for Humane Conditions, has died. He was 38.

Cardinal, from Sturgeon Lake First Nation, was a poet, writer and vocal advocate for those living in Saskatchewan's correctional facilities, often calling for better conditions and better treatment from the inside. 

Lauren Cardinal, Cory's younger sister, confirmed Friday that Cory had died earlier this week of a suspected overdose.

"The whole time, it didn't feel real. It was impossible to me," she said, her voice shaking. "I just didn't want to believe it. I just kept saying, 'It's not Cory. It's not Cory. They're wrong.'"

Cory's time on the outside before his death was short. He had just been released from the Saskatoon Correctional Centre in April. At the time he told CBC his work advocating for prisoner rights would continue.

Lauren said Cory was her protector, always looking out for her as the two grew up. She said she will always remember her brother's incredible talent with both the written word and the arts.

"He just had this great brilliant mind and he'd just create things I couldn't imagine doing. He was just such a brilliant person and he was so expressive through his art," said Lauren.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Cory was one of the loudest voices calling for better conditions to slow the spread of COVID-19 inside of the provincial jails. He organized hunger strikes, letter-writing efforts and a GoFundMe campaign to help ensure inmates have access to money for things like rides and clothing when they're released. 

"He was selfless," Lauren said. "He'd give the shirt off his back."

Cory Cardinal, a writer, poet and founder of Inmates for Humane Conditions, has died. (Cory Cardinal/Facebook)

Lauren relayed a memory from years ago, when the two were homeless after the death of their father. The two had just been kicked out of a friend's house after being discovered by the friend's mother.

They walked to the riverbank in Prince Albert and slept in a nearby boathouse, back-to-back, wrapped in a sheet. Cory apologized to his younger sister the next day, saying he wished he could provide more for her. Lauren said she just remembers feeling safe and thankful to be with her brother.

"He felt really guilty about it, but I didn't see it that way," she said.

"I wasn't worried. I wasn't afraid. As long as he was with me I was OK." 

Lauren said she feels Cory's death could have been prevented. She said Cory's body was found slumped over in the doorway of a building where he was sleeping, having established a small shelter for himself. She said that if there had been a supervised consumption site operating 24/7 in the city, he may have had a safe place and would still be alive today. 

"There's so much addiction in Saskatchewan. It's unreal," she said. "It could have been prevented."

Asked for comment on Cory's death, the Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety provided a statement.

"We were saddened to hear of Mr. Cardinal's passing. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones during this difficult time," the statement said.

Cory's death has sent a shock wave through the prisoner rights advocacy community.

Sherri Maier, founder of Beyond Prison Walls Canada, worked closely with Cory while he was an inmate at Saskatoon Correctional Centre. She said she was shocked by Cory's death and that the loss is symbolic of a broken system, as Cory was struggling with addiction when he got out of jail.

Maier said Cory is one of the many people who don't get the support they need while inside, or after leaving, a provincial jail.

"This is what happens. Guys come out, women come out and they fall to their addictions," said Maier.

The death of Cory Cardinal has left a huge gap in the community of those fighting for inmate rights in Saskatchewan. His family says his death could have been prevented. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC )

Maier said many people are mourning Cory's passing, as he's credited for getting visitors more access to family via Skype interviews during the pandemic through his constant advocacy.

"He was a voice for a lot of inmates," she said. 

Following his release in April, Cory was steadfast that his work would continue, saying people need to know what inmates inside are going through on a regular basis.

"The public has a right to know how inmates are treated, besides the edited version that comes from the ministry's public relations," he said. "It's important to understand what goes on in the correctional centres, because it's prevalent and affects the community as a whole."