Mother worries for daughter as hunger strike continues at Pine Grove Correctional Centre

Dina Kayseas's daughter, Sharise Sutherland-Kayseas, has been on a two-week-long hunger strike, protesting conditions at the Saskatchewan provincial facility. "They're asking for support — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually," she says

Contact between inmates, supports is difficult right now at Sask. facility, Elizabeth Fry Society says

Dina Kayseas, with her daughter, Sharise Sutherland-Kayseas, in happier times. Now, Dina is worried for the well-being of her daughter, who has been on a hunger strike for two weeks to protest conditions at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre. (Submitted by Dina Kayseas)

You can hear panic in Sharise Sutherland-Kayseas's voice. 

She speaks quickly as she tells her mother, Dina, that she feels complaints she's filed with Pine Grove Correctional Centre staff are going nowhere.

She hasn't been able to connect with her lawyer or the Elizabeth Fry Society, which advocates for female inmates, she says.

Sutherland-Kayseas has been in the Saskatchewan provincial facility, just north of Prince Albert, for almost two years, awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge from 2019.

Her mother worries for her well-being, because Sharise hasn't consumed any solid food for more than two weeks in protest of the conditions at the facility. She is one of two inmates at the facility taking part in the hunger strike, which the provincial government calls a "tray refusal." 

"They're asking for support — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually," Dina Kayseas said in a phone interview. "They need that genuine, real support."

Dina says her daughter was recently refused a visit with a medical professional, as she is alleged to have not complied with the orders of a guard, which resulted in her being restrained and brought back to her cell.

But Kayseas says her daughter told her was just "trying to catch her breath," as she's been fatigued since she stopped consuming solid food.

"She was trying to get help," Kayseas said. In her experience, fasting can quickly take a toll on a person's overall well-being. "It's like you're walking in two worlds," she said.

Even if they're prisoners behind bars, still they're human.- Dina Kayseas

"Sometimes I cry," she said, noting she regularly smudges and prays for her daughter. "I worry. I don't know if she's going to die sometimes. It seems like they don't care."

Kayseas feels what's happening in Pine Grove is a continuation of Canada's colonial foundation, which has seen Indigenous people systemically oppressed and assimilated for centuries.

"It's like Indigenous women incarcerated in Saskatchewan are like flies, house flies ... getting swat," she said. "They're sitting there and they're waiting to die."

As a worried mother, she's calling for better support and conditions for Indigenous inmates. While they may be accused or convicted of committing crimes, they still deserve compassion, she says.

"It's not right to treat an Indigenous woman, or an Indigenous person, the way they're being treated," she said. "Even if they're prisoners behind bars, still they're human."

Sharise Sutherland-Kayseas, who is currently awaiting trial at the Pine Grove Correctional Centre, is seen with her daughter in this undated supplied photo. Her mom, Dina, says Sharise, who is currently on a hunger strike, is struggling inside the facility and inmates there need more support. (Submitted by Dina Kayseas)

A petition has been filed calling for the resignation of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety Minister Christine Tell, as a result of the province's handling of COVID-19 in its correctional facilities, with several demonstrations and protests held in recent weeks. 

But concerns about the province's correctional facilities have been ongoing for years.

In 2015, inmates at the Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre detailed concerns about what they called "inhumane conditions." At the time, that included issues around overcrowding, quality of food and overall conditions, as reported by the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

All inmates treated fairly: ministry

In a conference call on Thursday, Noel Busse, executive director of communications with Saskatchewan's Ministry of Corrections, said the province is doing everything it can to safely support inmates at the facility, including offering cultural resources and access to elders. 

"The ministry works to ensure that everyone in the correctional system is treated fairly," he said, noting that is part of the staff code of conduct. "We specifically made it a priority to ensure that correctional staff are equipped to interact with First Nation and Métis offenders in a way that's culturally informed." 

Busse says staff go through an induction training program and are provided workshops on the importance of traditional practices like sweat lodge ceremonies and knowledge keeping within Indigenous cultures, as well as learning about treaties and Indigenous history and culture.

I've never had it be this difficult, or have these kinds of limitations imposed on us.- Patti Tait, Elizabeth Fry Society

The province has introduced extensive cleaning measures at the facility, he said, with nurses checking on inmates on a daily basis. Those on hunger strikes get increased monitoring and checks, Busse said.

"We're able to facilitate medical and psychiatric services virtually when required, and in the event that an offender requires health services beyond what's available at the correctional facility, we'll make sure that's provided."

Communication breakdown: Elizabeth Fry Society 

But the interim executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society, who is also the organization's cultural co-ordinator and knowledge keeper, has concerns about what's happening at the facility. 

Patti Tait says the pandemic has affected the support the organization can offer inmates in provincial facilities, as outside visitors aren't allowed. Tait says while she understands the provincial government is trying to keep those inmates safe, they need to find a balance to ensure they're supported through the pandemic. 

"It's very upsetting that our normal processes that we have always engaged in — which would be visiting Pine Grove every two weeks, seeing all the young women on their units, having them voice their concerns and taking those concerns back to administration — is being really undermined by the restrictions that COVID has imposed on us." 

She worries without those visits, oversight around ensuring human rights are being respected overall may go "by the wayside."

Tait says Elizabeth Fry has been notified about the issues Sutherland-Kayseas has raised and have been trying to get in touch with the facility, but her staff have had a difficult time getting through.

She said she's also heard inmates are having trouble connecting with their lawyers or support organizations like Elizabeth Fry.

In more than 30 years in advocacy work, "I've never had it be this difficult, or have these kinds of limitations imposed on us," she said, adding the organization has been able to work with federal facilities to maintain access at some of the prisons run by Correctional Service Canada. 

Correctional staff work on a daily basis to ensure the safety of the facility, the inmates and the public- Noel Busse, Ministry of Corrections, Policing and Public Safety

"I'm struggling with the provincial system and the fact there seems to have been a breakdown in — not only [in] our ability to come and go, but also in our ability to contact the women."

Tait says the majority of inmates at the facility have not actually been convicted of any crime, but instead are waiting for their case to work through the judicial process. As a result, they don't have access to the same programming or supports as people who have been convicted.

"That means they do nothing, and they have no one coming in from the outside," she said.

Ministry works to protect public, inmates: spokesperson

Busse, the ministry spokesperson, noted inmates may have their phone call privileges restricted due to behaviour inside the facility, but said they still have the ability to call legal counsel, as well as organizations like the Elizabeth Fry Society, the Saskatchewan ombudsman and the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.

He also said he was not aware the Elizabeth Fry Society was willing to go into the facility to offer supports, even with COVID-19 restrictions in place, but noted those restrictions are in effect as a safety measure across the province. 

Busse stressed that while the pandemic has been difficult for both inmates and staff at the facility, the government of Saskatchewan is working to address the concerns behind the tray refusal and protect those who are incarcerated, even if there are challenges.

"These disagreements happen and … they sometimes make their way into the media, and inmates aren't satisfied with steps that have been taken or the repercussions that result from specific actions," said Busse.

But that "doesn't mean the ministry doesn't care about the people in our care," he said.

"Correctional staff work on a daily basis to ensure the safety of the facility, the inmates and the public."