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Hours before death David Milgaard was advocating for prisoners

Just hours before his death, David Milgaard was doing what he had done passionately, tirelessly, and with conviction since he was released from prison decades ago – he was advocating for prisoners.

CALGARY, Alta. – David Milgaard – who spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit – died Sunday.

Milgaard was admitted to a Calgary hospital late Saturday and died Sunday morning. He had been camping with his family on the weekend. Initial reports say he died of complications from pneumonia. 

Crystal Blanchard and her family were camping beside Milgaard and on Saturday afternoon she took a cellphone video of Milgaard. Just hours before his death, a vibrant Milgaard was doing what he had been doing so passionately, tirelessly, and with conviction since he was released from prison decades ago – he was advocating for prisoners.

In the grainy video taken May 14, Milgaard could be seen sitting at a picnic table with a pen and paper and speaking about how he wanted to help inmates.

“On my to do list, is to get things happening with what are supposed to be resources. I’m not happy with the ones I got. They all identify with faults rather than strengths. This place sucks the life; the sadness is what is really taking place inside of prisons. Disgusting.

“All the young kids coming in here go further and further down a one-way road,” Milgaard said Saturday. “Are people blind? This is really a growth industry on the backs of street victims and the prisoners. It has to change.”

Famous for something he didn’t do

Milgaard became well-known for something he didn’t do after he was the victim of one of Canada's most notorious miscarriages of justice.

In 1969 he was arrested when he was only 16. In 1970, at the age of 17, he was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering Saskatoon nurse Gail Miller and sent to Canada’s toughest prisons for life.

He spent almost 23 years behind bars before he was released in 1992 and exonerated by DNA evidence in 1997. That same DNA evidence linked serial rapist Larry Fisher from North Battleford to Miller’s brutal murder. Fisher was arrested in Calgary in July 1997 and convicted November 1999.

In 2020 – 50 years after Milgaard’s wrongful conviction - the University of Manitoba presented him with an Honorary Doctor of Law degree.

Milgaard was the subject of three books (When Justice Fails: The David Milgaard Story; Real Justice: Sentenced to Life at Seventeen; and A Mother’s Story: The Fight to Free My Son David Milgaard) as well as three movies (The David Milgaard Story; the docudrama Milgaard; and Crime Stories). He is the subject of the song Wheat Kings by the Tragically Hip in their 1992 album. Also, Canadian artist David Collier depicted Milgaard’s story in his 2000 comic book Surviving Saskatoon.

At the time of his death he lived in Alberta and worked as a community support worker. He was married to Cristina and the couple had two children.

During an interview with SASKTODAY.ca in September 2021, Milgaard said support from a lot of people, the church, and the advocacy work he did while in prison kept his morality strong.

“If I didn’t have that and didn’t believe in the principles that I nurtured when I was inside the penitentiary I wouldn’t be the person I am here today talking to you,” he said.

Unthinkable horror

In prison, Milgaard suffered hardships that led him to three suicide attempts. He survived being shot in the back when fleeing from police after he had escaped in 1980 for 77 days as he grasped at the freedom he deserved.

Milgaard said when a convicted person goes inside a prison in Canada’s punitive justice model, the correctional system’s focus is geared toward safety and the potential for the prisoner to do harm.

“You are treated like someone who is less than a human being sometimes,” said Milgaard. “I know that is truth. I was part of that system for 23 years.”

There is no healing, no support, he added.

Above all, punishment doesn’t help people help themselves.

“That’s key here,” said Milgaard.

Prisoners need to come to their own conclusion that they want to change, he said. Restorative justice can help and breaks the cycle of harm by providing an opportunity for the victim, prisoner and community to resolve the root social causes of crime.

“It shows loving kindness and offers hope to all,” said Milgaard.

Milgaard opens up about solitary

Milgaard said the worst time for him in prison was solitary confinement in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. He was placed in solitary confinement numerous times for more than six months at a time and beaten by guards. 

He described solitary confinement as sleeping on cement in a cell with a solid steel door instead of bars and a bright light that never went off.

In September 2021, when Milgaard was asked about his experience in solitary confinement, he said, “You’re taking me into a place I don’t want to go.”

But he did go there and he recounted the nightmare to SASKTODAY.ca.

“You just…” he paused and let out a sigh, “for me what happened, I just started to lose it. I didn’t realize what was even taking place after awhile. In reality, my food would come and I would eat my food. When the door was open I didn’t even know what was going on. I wasn’t normal. I had a mental problem.

“When you go into a situation like that, you know, you don’t have family, you don’t have friends, you don’t have anybody. You just basically have a hole in the floor where you could defecate and your meals come in through a slot in your door.

“You start to think and you start to sometimes get critical of yourself and your life and it is in this sort of way that you are kept that you start to maybe pick away at yourself in certain ways. You actually do.

“You have no one to be part of your life, sometimes you get out of your cage to go outside for an hour a day, but the worst part of it is you are not receiving any interaction from anyone.

“You are just locked up and they throw away the key. You are in a horrible situation. This is very unhealthy for any human being. You are not even allowed to communicate with other prisoners.

“Sometimes I had been in there for six months at a time. I was in there quite a few times. They just use it as a way to control people. For whatever reason they believe (you) are not conducive to the running of the institution they think that you are causing the powers that be problems in the institution, they just say, ‘off with you. Way you go. You’re in solitary confinement. See how you like that for awhile buddy.’

“I felt so dreadful at times. I feel badly just thinking about it.

“You actually go crazy after a while. If you do and don't behave you are beaten. When you fight back, they just continue to keep you there.

“There is no way any human being can survive that without going crazy. That is what solitary confinement means.”

And yet Milgaard forgave and he was free

Milgaard always spoke about kindness, about compassion, about the inherent good in people. In spite of all that had happened to him he still had the ability to see the good in people, in humanity.

Milgaard struggled with being institutionalized when he got out of prison. When inmates are in prison for extended times, they have difficulty coping with the world outside, which is no longer the world they knew, said Milgaard.

“It is something I felt would not take place in my life and I argued with people saying that ‘no I don’t believe that is going to be a problem.’ It is a problem.”

When a prisoner is released, he may not feel free. Only when a prisoner no longer thinks about it, is he finally free, said Milgaard.

“I am (free) to some extent yes,” Milgaard told SASKTODAY.ca in September 2021. “How it was for a long time for me, I was free but I wasn’t really free in my mind in relation to dealing with living and being outside in a completely different world that it was before I was inside. At a certain point you realize you aren’t feeling that anymore and you are free.”

ljoy@glaciermedia.ca