Prisoners' Justice Day highlights ongoing mental health issues in prisons

People in Sudbury will gather outside the Elm Street jail on Friday to mark Prisoners’ Justice Day, in memory of the men and women who have died violent or unnatural deaths while incarcerated.

Annual event honours inmates who have died violent or unnatural deaths

An event to commemorate Prisoners' Justice Day will be held on the front lawn of the Sudbury jail on Friday morning. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

People in Sudbury will gather outside the Elm Street jail on Friday to mark Prisoners' Justice Day, in memory of the men and women who have died violent or unnatural deaths while incarcerated.

The annual event was first held more than 40 years ago after two inmates died by suicide while in solitary confinement at an Ontario penitentiary.

"It was started because a gentleman by the name of Eddie Nalon died while incarcerated in federal penitentiary in 1974, just a few days before his release," John Rimore, executive director of the John Howard Society of Sudbury, said.

Nalon bled to death in a solitary confinement cell in at Millhaven Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont. Rimore said the man had tried to call for help after attempting to take his own life, but the panic button in his cell failed to work.

Two years later, another man named Bobby Landers died under the same circumstances in the same cell, prompting other inmates to hold a day of prayer and fasting.

The day has since been recognized across Canada and around the world.

Mental health a growing issue

Since that first event, Rimore says mental health issues have become more and more prevalent in the correctional system, as people who are unable to find help end up in jail — and solitary confinement.

The John Howard Society cites statistics showing 14 inmates died by suicide while in solitary confinement at federal penitentiaries between April 2011 and March 2014.

"Many times because of the outbursts that people have or because of other problems that people have, many people are put in the hole," Rimore explained.

"And we all know how solitary confinement can actually make matter even worse for folks, and if they already have existing mental health issues, it becomes even worse than what it was."

John Rimore is the executive director of the John Howard Society of Sudbury. (Martha Dillman/CBC)

Services not available in Sudbury jail

At the Sudbury jail, Rimore says the issue is further exacerbated by an aging building. He says there are few options for organizations like the John Howard Society and the Canadian Mental Health Association that provide services and programs for inmates.

"The antiquated building doesn't lend itself to being there on a regular basis, as often as needed. So that plays itself out as problems within the jail, from people who have all kinds of issues that they're trying to deal with, that they can't deal with because there aren't the services available."

Rimore says it's an important reminder that we can't just lock people up and throw away the key.

"They will be released into our communities across the country and if we can support them while incarcerated, then when they are released they will then become upstanding members in our communities and support our communities," he said.

The event to commemorate Prisoners' Justice Day starts at 10 a.m. Friday morning on the front lawn of the Sudbury jail on Elm Street.