K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – Yesterday we reported on the inability of indigenous inmates to pray in their traditional ways in the Southeast Regional Correctional Center (SRCC), in Shediac, New Brunswick. There is currently no indigenous-specific programming at the SRCC, and while there is a paid chaplain on staff, deputy superintendent John Cann noted that the SRCC was currently looking for indigenous spiritual elders only on a “volunteer” basis.
Yesterday's article focused in some specificity on the spiritual plight of Germaine 'Junior' Breau and Aaron Francis, the two members of the Mi'kmaq Warriors Society that were arrested in the RCMP's raid of the anti-shale gas encampment along highway 134, on October 17th. Denial of spiritual services in the provincial facility appeared as cruel and unusual punishment, and may be a breach of Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which allows for freedom of conscience and religion.
Coady Stevens, another of the Mi'kmaq Warriors who was jailed following the October 17th raid, relates that the denial of indigenous spiritual guidance at the SRCC was very much a real and debilitating factor during his two month stay at the facility.
Not only this, but denying spiritual access was only one of many punishing elements that the six members of the Warriors Society faced during their incarceration.
Stevens relays a story of extended solitary confinement, random and excessive strip searches and readily accessible Christian dogma within the prison, to the detriment of traditional indigenous spirituality.
“First they put us in the hole,” says Stevens, referencing the name given to a solitary confinement cell. “Then they put in [a] medical [holding cell], which is pretty much isolation. We were in there for 23 hours a day, and we were let out for an hour or a half hour every day.
“They split us up. There were six of us [Warriors] and they put us into twos. They put two of us into the 'hole'. They put two of us into the 'shoe'. And they put two of us into 'medical'. They're all pretty much the same thing, all pretty much the same cell. There's not much difference, just a different name for it.”
Stevens notes that each cell was about 9 feet long by 7 feet wide.
“I was in the hole with Junior (who remains in custody). We were each in our own cell and if we wanted to speak we'd speak under the door. There was about an inch of space underneath.
“We went out at different times. So we never had contact, like I could not physically shake his hand. We were out at different times, so he'd walk by my cell, or I'd be out and I'd walk by his cell.”
Stevens says that this solitary confinement went on for between three weeks and a month. During this time he says he had no human contact except for the guards. He also notes that he was not allowed to call family members to let them know he was safe.
“It makes you go crazy, because the hole is like the jail within the jail,” he says. “There's writing, a whole bunch of graffiti on the walls. It makes you feel like shit when you're in there for three weeks straight. Especially when you're thinking about what's going on. And we had no contact. I kept asking for a phone call to my mother, the last thing she knew we were getting shot at with rubber bullets. She didn't know if they were real or not. And they didn't give me a call to my mother.”
During this time in solitary, Stevens also notes that he was strip searched either “six or seven” times. This is strange, as with no contact with any other human being, surely one strip search would have sufficed, if the intention were simply to examine whether the individual in question was in possession of any contraband substance.
“I was thinking: 'Why are we getting searched? We can't bring anything in, we're already in the hole. We've been searched, how are we going to get something in there?'” says Stevens.
“Random search, though, that's what they'd say. Random search. And they'd strip search you.”
As for requesting spiritual guidance, Stevens corroborates the story earlier related by Suzanne Patles; that the Warriors were being refused spiritual elders, despite making repeated requests.
“I asked for [the presence of a spiritual elder] several times, but they always gave me the runaround,” says Stevens. “I asked the chaplain and he said 'Well, we're trying to get someone, but we can't really find anyone.' From what I understand they were trying to get a volunteer, but it would have been hard for them to get a volunteer to come down on a regular basis.
“I put in about five written requests that were on the record. Once they got back to me. There was a time where I signed it, along with six other inmates that were native. And still nothing.”
The SRCC's chaplain, however, apparently was quick to offer a holy bible to Stevens.
“It felt like the only way to pray was in a different religion, that I'm not,” says Stevens. “I could talk to the priest and the chaplain and there was a prayer group. There were other inmates that had prayer groups, but it was through the holy bible. And to me, I believe in traditional ways. And it felt like I had to [pray]. I even went to a point where I started reading the bible. And I never read the bible before.”
The lasting effects of this experience, to Stevens, are a loss of pride in himself, which he is only beginning to regain now. In an earlier interview, Stevens spoke proudly of finding a sense of pride and self – as an indigenous man - within the larger context of fighting for his traditional territory, and the protection of water. The invasiveness of repeated strip searches, the isolation and the denial of spiritual practices have cost Stevens his “inner peace.”
“The things that happened over the summer, I'd never seen something like that before,” says Stevens.
“With drumming and tradition, I never got in touch with my ways like that before.
“I had that pride, and that took a while to build up. And when they put me in jail, that pride kind of went away. They're strip searching you and stuff, spreading for the guard, and it's a very personal search, and you don't have any pride after that. It kind of wore off, that inner peace feeling. Like I felt pretty good about the tradition and people coming together, and when I got out, all that was gone.”
About to engage on a West Coast speaking tour, Stevens notes that one of the lifelines while in prison was the vast number of postcards and letters he received from supporters all over the world.
“I got so many letters,” he says. “I got letters from people from the United Kingdom, from Northern Ireland, one form Australia. All across Canada. They were saying that we inspired them to do protests in their countries too. I saved all those letters.”