Claire Culhane, Prison Reformer
No history of the prisoners rights movement in Canada would be complete without a section on Claire Culhane. It is a story of an incredible woman who would singlehandedly take on CSC, not once or twice, but every day of her life for more than two decades. Claire had been many things to many people, she was a mother, a grandmother & great-grandmother, a nurse in Vietnam, a union activist and a global community activist, but to prisoners all across this country she was the voice that would speak on their behalf, no matter what. A life that had already been filled by 40 years of social activism would lead her to the doors of Canada´s most impenetrable fortresses - it´s prisons.
In 1974, Claire volunteered to teach a women´s studies class at the Lakeside Regional Correctional Centre for Women, but the event that would draw her into the struggle for prisoners rights began on June 9th 1975. Three prisoners who were about to be returned to solitary confinement at BC Pen took 15 hostages, the standoff with prison officials lasted 41 hours and ended with the emergency response team storming the hostage takers. In the process the guards shot and killed one of the hostages, Mary Steinhauser, a young correctional officer who had gained the respect of prisoners by implementing courses for prisoners in solitary. Over the next month, Claire would join in demonstrations outside both Oakalla and BC Pen in support of prisoners who were staging sit-ins and work strikes over the conditions inside. Her participation with the Prisoners´ Union Committee would result in the cancellation of her women´ studies class, but that was not about to keep Claire out of prisons. A group of Vancouver area activists would set up the Prisoners´ Rights Group (PRG). She was one of its founding members. The mandate of the PRG was to help prisoners to help themselves - especially in matters of involuntary transfers, finding competent lawyers, filing and following up grievances, qualifying for parole hearings, getting access to health care, educating the public and finally, to advance the gradual implementation of the philosophy of prison abolition.
In 1976, she also joined the newly formed Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC). This group was formed by the Canadian Penitentiary Service (CPS), later to become Correctional Services of Canada (CSC), in an attempt to better it´s public image. Claire had found the crack in CPS´s armor - a way in. The CAC was in the process of establishing itself; meeting with the newly formed Inmate Committee at BC Pen, as well as with the prison administration, the guards and the guards union (Public Service Alliance of Canada), when BC Pen erupted in a full scale riot. The CAC would be called at the request of the prisoners to help negotiate an end to the riot. The prisoners had control of the prison for 3¸ days before a memorandum of understanding between the prisoners and CPS was agreed upon. Claire had been there through it all, she would spend 80 hours locked in with the inmate committee, the fear was that if the CAC left the prison, the military and police stationed outside the prison would move in and take the prison by force. She later wrote a book about it called "Barred from Prison: A Personal Account". As the title suggests, within 4 days of helping to negotiate the end of what was called one of the worst prison riots in fifty years, Claire would find herself barred from BC Pen. This would extend to include all but two federal prisons in BC and all of those in the provincial prison system, :allegedly in the best interest of the Institution". This only strengthened Claire´s conviction that prisons were not only built to keep prisoners in but designed to keep the public out. She set about letting the public know what was going on inside. She was able to keep in touch with prisoners through correspondence and contact with their family and friends. Many of the prisoners from BC Pen would be transferred to other prisons across the country, and as the conditions in the rest of the nation´s prisons were no better than the conditions in BC this provided a national platform from which to organize.
Claire was a woman of action; she staged many sit-ins at the wardens offices, picketed outside the gates and on Parliament Hill, hosted a cable tv show called Instead of Prisons, responded to every article about prison written by the press, wrote articles of her own, and spoke extensively on the subject of prisons as social control. Whenever a prisoner wrote the Prisoners´ Rights Group with a concern the response from Claire was immediate, letters would fly up the chain of command at CPS/CSC, to the politicians in Ottawa and finally to the media if necessary. As Claire set off on her Barred from Prison book tour, her intention was to stop and visit as many prisoners as wanted to see her, in as many prisons as would let her in. This was not the policy of prisons at the time, you were only allowed to visit one prisoner, in one prison, in one region. There is some speculation as to whether the prisons on this first tour were more afraid to keep Claire out then they were to let her in. She managed to visit every maximum security plus several of the lower security prisons outside BC. By 1985 she had written her second book "Still Barred from Prison: Social Injustice in Canada", this tour would kick off her next action, a twenty five day protest on Parliament Hill, against the use of the twenty-five-year-minimum-sentence. In 1987 with the court dates drawing near, Claire´s visiting privileges would be reinstated.
On the inside Claire proved to be an ally of the most valuable kind, one that not only campaigned for the rights of individual prisoners - but one who saw the system as a whole. For Claire, to challenge the prison system was to challenge all of society. The Prisoners´ Rights Group letterhead would read:
We can´t change prisons without changing society, we know that this is a long and dangerous struggle. But the more who are involved in it, the less dangerous, and the more possible it will be.
In her third book on prisons "No Longer Barred from Prison: Social Injustice in Canada", she would write:
"We can only proceed, individually and collectively, to make whatever improvements are possible in our respective areas of concern, sustained by the hope that others are doing the same".
Ever the organizer, Claire would include a Do-it-Yourself Manual for Families and Friends of Prisoners at the back of this book.
On the outside Claire was an inspiration, a role model and a social conscience to more that one generation of activist. As an organizer of the first Prisoners´ Justice Day Committee in BC and the driving force behind 25 years of public recognition of National Prison Justice Day, we would like to thank Claire for her dedication to a struggle that we all hope will one day end.