Healthy Prisons, Healthy Communities?

On behalf of the organizers and sponsors, we would like thank those who were able to attend our public lecture and sharing circle on April 25th,2016. For those who were not able to join us, approximately 50 participants who represented a wide range of perspectives and experiences in the Kingston community came to the event – itself a testament to the high level of community strength and interest around issues of incarceration, prisoners’ rights, and health – whether from advocacy, research, or direct community support, development, and action.

Most importantly, there was a great deal of enthusiasm shared in the room about the potential of creating a new way of connecting together around our common interests, and the organizers are committed to exploring ways to make this idea real.

The following is a short summary of the event and some key themes we drew from the afternoon’s discussions.

Arresting Hope image bPart 1. Welcome by Dr. Jeff Masuda

The purpose of this event was to fuel an engaged discussion with Kingston-area individuals and groups about their experiences in bridging the distance in our understanding between the health and wellbeing of prisoners and that of the wider community in which prisons are located. Instrumental to this topic is how important a relational understanding is between human rights and health. The purpose of the event was to be inspired by the recent research of Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin and, following the lead of Elder Mary Ann Spencer, begin a conversation about what have we accomplished, what can we be doing better, and what challenges lay ahead.

Elder Mary Ann Spencer then began the afternoon with a thanksgiving address and welcomed us to the territories of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe. With her wisdom, knowledge, and life experience, she guided us through the afternoon by bridging the connection between the past and the present, added many layers of thanks, greetings, and kindness to the event, reminded us of our deep connection to the earth, and the importance of caring for the spiritual and physical self. Her presence also reminded us of the strength of women as mothers, sisters, leaders, and friends.

Arresting hope image aPart 2. Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin and Arresting Hope

Dr. Martin provided an insightful retrospective of the process that went into the making of her book, as well as the fortuitous circumstances that surrounded her recent receipt of the Governor General’s Award in Ottawa. Her key messages came from the heart and through her experiences in participatory health research with incarcerated women. Dr. Martin Elwood research captures the voices and stories of these women, allowing us to see a glimpse into an alternative concept of to incarceration, the benefits of maintaining relationships with their children and babies to avoid the cyclical effects of incarceration on families, that rehabilitation is more effective than incarceration, that these women have the right to a dignified life and have something to offer, and should be given hope. More importantly, how all individuals, society, and communities can and should support women once they have been released.

Arresting hope image cPart 3: Drumming and healing

A performance by the Four Directions hand drummers Laura, Emily, Vanessa, Kelly, and Mary Ann encouraged us to reflect on the topic of the day and inspired us to reflect on the fact that Indigenous persons are one of the most over-represented demographics in Canada’s prison system.

Part 4: Talking circle

Led by Elder Mary Ann Spencer, the afternoon opened up discussion surrounding the question of what do people think is most important for people to know about the relationship between prisons and community health? The conversation was initiated by our four key panellists, Bridget Doherty, Dianne Dowling, Wendy Wobeser, and Chip O’Connor, who represented a range of local advocacy work currently underway in the Kingston community. Then, given the range of lived and occupational expertise in the room, the talking circle brought out a number of philosophies and positions that were critical of the current system of incarceration in Canada. The following are some of the key themes we picked up from the discussion:

– The current prison system is inherently unhealthy and traumatic. There is a need for the commitment of management, staff, incarcerated people, and the community to foster institutions that embody therapeutic, decolonized and healing forms of restorative justice. Especially for those suffering from mental health in incarceration.

– The need to reduce the stigma. Our discussion focused on the idea of ‘deservability’ towards those who are or have been incarcerated. However, incarceration should be seen instead, as determinate of health.

– Participatory research in prisons. Participatory research by Dr. Martin has demonstrated the benefits of incorporating prisoners in the process of enhancing their health and involvement in the prison environment.

– Prisoners should have equal rights to health care. This includes harm reduction strategies. Also, there is the need to provide those incarcerated with a range of programs that support mental, physical, social and spiritual well-being.

– The need and value of mother/child units in women’s prisons. This is the right of the child as well as of the mother.

– The need for increased awareness and involvement by the community in programs that already exist. For example, the chaplains programming, the Terry Harris Endowment Fund and work done by the Street Health Centre. Individuals require more support following release and reintegration into the community.

– We all have a role to play in the transformation.

Next steps?

The organizers would like to begin a discussion about the creation of a community-research interest group that would meet on a quarterly to semi-annual basis, starting this fall. We will announce details of this plan over the summer.

If you are interested in helping to create and/or support this group (through donation of your time, space, start-up funds, cooking skills, or otherwise, please contact us at: prisonandcommunityhealth(at)

Along these lines, we would ask you to join our Facebook page to stay updated on developments. We will also maintain an email list for announcements of future events.

Our thanks also to the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies and the Tett Centre and Epicurious Catering for helping us foster an open and creative space for discussion.


Jeff Masuda, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Health Equity

Dylan Robinson, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Arts

Madison Hainstock, Msc. Candidate, School of Kinesiology and Health Studies

Healthly P&C – April 25th