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This post is reprinted with permission from Law360 Canada (formerly Lawyers’ Daily) as one of a series on prisoner experience they are publishing. The original link from last September is: https://www.law360.ca/articles/39965/food-generosity-in-prison-david-dorson-?category=opinion This series of posts recently won an aware for online publishing: https://canadianonlinepublishingawards.com/2022/winners
Summary: Sharing among prisoners is prohibited in most prisons, making them even worse in needless ways.
by David Dorson
(David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. The Lawyer’s Daily has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after completely serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.)
‘Don’t offer to share things with other prisoners. It will make them suspicious’.
That advice, given to me by a staff person in a minimum security prison, was highly revealing about prison life.
In most settings where people live together and know each other, generosity is a way of building social solidarity. It can be that in prison as well, but sometimes your effort to be generous will be understood very differently – as a way to gain an advantage or create an obligation. Prison is an environment where trust is low and fear is high, and that distorts the way people think.
Sharing not allowed
Sharing of any kind among prisoners is prohibited in Canadian prisons. Anyone found sharing something with another prisoner could face an institutional charge and loss of privileges. Even more, a few such charges, even for minor things, could get you sent to a higher security level prison.
There were two main areas where this operated – food and possessions. In the minimum security prison where I spent most of my incarcerated time, prisoners lived in houses and did our own cooking. We had a weekly allocation to buy food from the grocery store that was operated by the prison. (It would take several columns like this just to explain the way buying food was organized in this and other minimum security prisons. Like almost everything in that world, it was ridiculously complicated, often made no sense, and was subject to sudden and arbitrary changes.)
We were forbidden to share food supplies, and also to share meals. You could not invite someone who lived in another house to have a meal with you. Since guards came through the houses frequently, having guests so was risky, though in fact I did on a few occasions have meals in other houses. We knew the timing of the guards and we knew which guards were sticklers about rules and which ones really didn’t care as long as we were not creating a problem for them or others.
With six or 8 prisoners living in a house and sharing a kitchen, it made no sense for each of us to buy, say, all the spices we might want – especially because these were sold only in large and expensive packages. Or you needed a rare ingredient. Or you ran out of something in between shopping days. So food was shared even though this was officially not allowed. Of course the guards knew this was happening but ignored it – unless for some reason a guard decided on a particular occasion not to ignore it.
Can’t loan or borrow anything
The second main area where sharing was prohibited was possessions. It was against the rules to loan another prisoner a book, an item of clothing, even a pen or piece of paper. The prison maintained an inventory of the possessions of every prisoner. A guard could ask at any time for you to produce anything on that list, and if you could not produce it, or if you had something not on your list, you could be subject to discipline.
For example, one of my housemates had some lovely classical music CDs. He happily loaned them to me to use on my player, but this was actually against the rules and he (and I) could have got into trouble had someone told on him or had, for any reason, a guard demanded to see his collection or asked me where the CD I was playing had come from. Since some guards particularly disliked some prisoners, this was something to be careful about.
Policy driven by fear
Why would the prison prohibit sharing among prisoners? In prison everything is seen through the lens of the worst possible outcome. If I do something for you, the thinking goes, then you owe me – and to repay that, I might ask you to do something, like have a visitor smuggle in drugs. That’s the kind of fear in the minds of prison management, who seemed to be preoccupied with these kinds of concerns to an extent that led to many stupid practices.
Of course the fear is not entirely groundless. Prisons are places where many people (and that includes staff as well as prisoners) are angry, frustrated, lonely, bored, and without dignity. In such a setting the potential for violence inevitably lurks just below the surface. For example, one of the things that provokes problems and violence in prisons is debt. In all prisons there is gambling – cards or betting of other kinds. Playing cards – often poker – is one way for prisoners to pass the endless hours in which there is nothing else to do. Sometimes there is betting on these games, often not for money but for, say snacks from the canteen. Prisoners who cannot or will not pay their debts from gambling are pariahs and may well be beaten up for it.
The problem is that the effort to address one problem instead creates other, larger problems.
Not always followed
Prisoners often ignored the rules against sharing. Many prisoners strive to create some humanity in an inhumane setting; sharing is one important way to do that. And as suggested, many guards were aware and chose to do nothing about it. Though some prisoners were indeed suspicious of generosity, if done correctly it was widely accepted, as it would be in any other social setting.
I experienced some real kindness from other prisoners. On my very first day after being arrested, in a small provincial jail cell with 2 other men I did not know and would never see again, one of them spontaneously shared some snacks with me and offered me a sudoku to do. That small gesture helped me through a couple of pretty terrible days. Most of the time I felt able to ask other prisoners for use of things that I needed and most of the time got a positive response. I tried to share as well, because I felt better about myself when I could help someone else, even in a small way.
What is sad is that the prison as an institution, instead of building on the human desire for kindness and connection, chose to prohibit it as a potential danger. What is said is that the institution focuses on fearing the worst instead of helping to promote something better.
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