1200 words; 5 minutes to read

(Work sent to us by a former prisoner who does not wish to be identified.  Previous section can be found here. )

My dominant recollection of my 11 weeks in a federal prison assessment unit  is a combination of anxiety, fear, powerlessness, and boredom.

Anxiety because you are at the very beginning of a sentence without any sense of what that might mean, though a strong feeling that it will be bad, and possibly horrible.  Fear because you know – and can see around you – that prisons are places of violence and, ironically, lawlessness.  Where nobody will protect you from mistreatment.  Powerlessness because you are aware that you are entirely under the control of other people, and there is little or nothing you can do to improve your situation or even protect yourself.  Nobody really cares who you are or what you want, and there is little or no interest in your positive potential.  And boredom because there is nothing to do the vast majority of the time; no useful activity to perform and hardly even a way to be better.  You are mostly just waiting; waiting for something to happen while hoping that something will not be terrible.

A much longer stay than necessary

Presumably time in the assessment unit is intended to allow the prison service to decide where to place you, in terms of security levels and geography, but also to determine what programs or services you might be required to do as part of your sentence.  (Many people are surprised to learn that the Correctional Services does not have to abide by any recommendations made by judges about placement or programs).

During your time in assessment you are given various tests – psychological, educational, drug use as well as seeing a doctor to have your health situation assessed.  You may meet with a psychologist or with a parole officer.  But all of that really takes very little time.  My experience was that the total assessment activity could easily be completed in a week, and certainly did not require 3-4 months.

The biggest issue in assessment was that there was literally nothing to do.  One or two prisoners had jobs, such as being the range cleaner.  The rest of us had to find ways to pass the time, mostly in our cells.  There was a lot of sleeping; many prisoners quickly sought, and got, prescriptions for sedatives or sleeping pills. The combination of boredom and anxiety is not a good one!

Daily routine

We were locked in our cells most of the time.  We were unlocked at around 7:30 AM until about 9 AM to eat breakfast, then unlocked again from 11 to about 12 or 12:30 for a hot lunch served in the common room, and again from 3 PM to about 4 or 4:30 for a hot dinner also served in the common room.  In the evening, we were unlocked from 6 to about 7:15, when those who wished to do so could also go out into the exercise yard.  Half the range was unlocked from 7:15 to 8:30 and the other half from 8:30 to 10 PM, with the halves alternating daily.  That cycle operated seven days a week except that on weekends half the range was usually allowed out for another hour in the morning and the other half for part of the afternoon.

When I say ‘about’ or ‘usually’, this is because one could not ever depend on these times being strictly observed.  The only times that were almost always adhered to were 7:30 AM unlock and 10 PM lockup.  But for all the others, the times we were let out or locked up could easily vary by half an hour in either direction.  The reasons for this were never explained to us so we assumed it depended on who the guards were and how they felt on any given day.  It frequently happened that we were locked up before we could finish our meals, for example.  In that case you could either take your plate to your cell, or leave it in the common room and finish it later.

Being locked up

I write this casually, but the whole act of being locked in a small, decrepit cell is, each time, experienced as an act of violence, an act that demeans you as a person, an act that reinforces the feelings of powerlessness mentioned earlier.  Neutral language should should not disguise something so emotional, every time it happened.

Other activities were fitted into the day at various points.  Methadone or other medications (perhaps 6-8 guys at any given time) were dispensed each morning through the door of the range.  Anyone allowed or required to leave the range that day would get a pink slip early in the morning telling them when and why they were leaving – for example for a medical appointment, or testing, or a meeting with a parole officer.  These pink slips were eagerly sought as a way to break the monotony of daily life locked up.

Who’s on the range?

The nature of one’s experience in assessment depended largely on the particular group of people on the range.  The guards rarely came on the range, staying outside the large locked door except at times when they were required to be there for a count or for other purposes.  (We were counted while locked in our cells about 5 times a day.) So for the most part the range was run by the prisoners as, indeed, many aspects of any prison are run by prisoners.

If the range is dominated by reasonably decent people, it’s vastly easier than if it is run by prisoners who are malevolent. I was fortunate in that for most of my stay the prisoners in charge were pretty reasonable guys who tried to keep the place peaceful and clean.  However I certainly heard stories of ranges where the prisoners in charge would extort or threaten or bully or extort others. In a place in which nobody is treated as a person, such behaviour seems much more normal.

My first cellie, though only in his early 20s, had already served quite a bit of time on multiple offenses but nonetheless looked after me at the start. This meant telling me how the place actually worked, loaning me things I didn’t have at the start – paper, a pen, stamps ,shampoo, and various other things and associating with me so that the others on the range would not cause me problems.

Few possessions allowed

We were allowed very few personal possessions in assessment.  Most men had a few photos of loved ones.  We could keep extra food and canteen purchases in our cell, and there were hookups for a TV if you had been there long enough to acquire one.  (It took at least a month and often longer to get a TV even if you had started the process on your very first day.)  We could have paper and writing materials, including an actual pen – in comparison with the stubby pencils that were all that were allowed in provincial jails. I remember how excited I was to be able to write a letter using a pen!

There were a couple of shelves old battered books in the common room for shared use; I read virtually every book on those shelves during my time there.  One day, part way through my stay, the previous set vanished and a new set, equally old and battered, appeared.  Although the prison had a library, prisoners in assessment were not allowed to use it.

More posts to follow.