700 words 3 minutes to read

By Anonymous (Work sent to us by a former prisoner who does not wish to be identified)

I ‘did time’ in several prisons in Canada a few years ago.  First, I had nearly 3 weeks in segregation in a provincial jail waiting to be transferred to federal prison.  I was told I would be there for a week but it ended up being three.  Every day I was told that my transfer was imminent, except it didn’t happen.  Every day or two I was told that they didn’t know why it was taking so long. That was my introduction to the fact that jails and prisons tell prisoners anything they want except what might actually happen to you and why.  And that what they tell you may or may not be true.

Lessons from provincial jail

Of course that is only one of the lessons you learn about being powerless in an institution where there is very little oversight of how prisoners are treated.  Other things that happened in that provincial jail:

– mail, both incoming and outgoing, never arriving;

– rules being applied sometimes but not other times – for example access to showers or yard;

– lights are left on 24 hours a day, while the mattresses and bedding make it hard to get a decent night’s sleep;

– actual or threatened violence by prisoners against prisoners was not really addressed.  I was told once when I complained that I could make an official complaint, but this was said in a way that made it clear that doing so would yield no result and would be held against me, both by staff and by other prisoners.

What you learn very quickly is that nobody cares about you or anything that happens to you unless the result will be to create work or a paper trail for the institution.  Anything that might do that is actively discouraged.

Terrible conditions

Provincial jails are especially bad in that they provide few or no resources to prisoners.  There are no education or treatment programs of any substance except in a few special-purpose places.  There is no work or any other activity to fill the time.  There are few or no books.  Writing materials were restricted to paper and the kind of stubby pencils used in golf.

And in one of my ‘favourite’ instances, prisoners were given toothpaste that actually had a warning that prolonged use could be injurious to your health.  Then there were tiny toothbrushes that didn’t allow you to clean your teeth well in the first place.  Meals are served only with plastic spoons, which means no food that needed to be cut up.

All of these measures are justified on one of two grounds – security (you might use a pen or a full length toothbrush to stab someone) or cost (which explains the toothpaste and the awful quality of the food).

A comment on segregation

A comment on the recent effort to reduce or eliminate the use of segregation in jails. Yes, segregation is very hard on prisoners, especially over prolonged periods of time. I know that seg is used disproportionately against certain kinds of prisoners.  Even in my relatively short time – less than 3 weeks – I had only 6 showers and 3 short periods of ‘exercise’.  Exercise consisted of being in a concrete area where the only ‘outside’ you could see was the sky.

However any jail time is hard on prisoners.  Being alone in a cell is difficult.  But being the third person in a cell with two bunks, sleeping on the floor next to the toilet, and not having anywhere to sit when you are locked up – which also happened to me – is not exactly an improvement.  In seg you can get use of a phone twice a day whereas on some ranges you have to pay the prisoners in charge to use the phones at all.  And if you are on a range (a unit of cells) with some crazy people, then it can be worse than being in seg, where at least you won’t be beaten up.  Although some prisoners in seg do get yelled at pretty much incessantly by others – something the guards do nothing to curtail or prevent.

My point is not to defend segregation, which no reasonable person could do, but to argue that reducing the use of seg is at best a very minor victory in the struggle for a better correctional system.




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