Reliable information on Canadian prisons and jails is hard to come by. You would think that an institution that deals with many thousands of people each year plus their families and friends, almost always involving a high degree of anxiety, would want to provide reliable information about how that institution operates. But just try to find out, on the website of the Correctional Service of Canada (which runs federal prisons) or most provinces (which run provincial jails) basic things like how to visit, what prisoners are allowed to have with them in jail, how the money system works, or even how parole and release work – and good luck! That information just isn’t available from those operating the system.
Enter prisontalk.com (PTO).
PTO is a website set up for and run by prisoners and those who support them. All the information is provided by people who choose to log on, and almost all of those are people who have loved ones in jail or were in jail themselves. It is possible to look at the site as a visitor, but in order to post on it, you have to register. For obvious reasons, the site takes considerable pains to protect the actual identity of those who join; everyone posts under a pseudonym. But given this voluntary approach, it’s amazing how many specific questions do seem to get answered.
However PTO is much more than a source of information; it’s also a window on the human condition especially when people face very difficult situations.
What’s on the site
PTO hosts a very large number of discussion pages covering anything and everything to do with jails and prisons, from changes in law to conditions in particular jails to the things people do to cope with being inside, or having a loved one inside. It’s also possible to send and receive messages privately from others registered on the site when you find someone with a common interest. There are hundreds of posts each day on the site.
Value to Canadians
PTO is largely an American site; the great bulk of the people logging on are in the US – not surprising considering how many millions of Americans are or have been imprisoned. But the site is still very useful for Canadians for two main reasons.
First, there is a section of the site that is specifically about prisons and jails in Canada, and it does seem to have enough people to provide answers to many of the questions posed on it – for example around the conditions in particular jails, or around how visits work, or how phone calls work, or how prisoners can receive money, or how medical care is handled.
Second, many of the themes of most interest apply to anyone in jail anywhere. For example, many people appear to sign on to get advice on how to cope with having a loved one in jail, especially when the situation may have estranged them from their normal social support network. The pain and anxiety that go with jail time apply around the world, even if conditions in specific prisons vary greatly.
In fact, PTO is probably more about emotional issues and needs than it is about information per se. It can be agonizing to read through posts from parents with children in jail, or children of jailed parents, or couples facing years or decades of separation. People tell the stories one might expect – of poverty, addiction, family problems, malevolence or prejudice in the justice system, or plain bad luck – that we know are related to being jailed. Just about anyone feeling sorry for herself or himself would have no trouble finding stories on the site that would make you feel thankful for your own relative good fortune!
Yet PTO also provides boundless examples of persistence, resilience, and hopefulness in the face of horrible difficulties. You read about people who just refuse to give up – on themselves or others. You learn about the coping strategies that people employ under very difficult conditions. And, reasonably often, there are stories those who have managed to overcome terrible situations and reconstruct satisfying lives.
There are also very lively debates on the site – on policy issues related to criminal justice, but also on the choices individuals have to make. A person who posts a situation and question about what to do may sometimes get lots of conflicting advice, and there can even be vigorous disagreements about what is ethical or desirable – for example on whether to continue to support someone close who has done something very wrong.
In short, PTO encapsulates much of the human condition, even if its raison d’etre is on the negative side of the ledger. It is a terrific source for anyone facing serious problems with the criminal justice system, but it’s also a great resource for anyone who wants to see how people think, feel and act in difficult circumstances.