1250 words; 5 minutes to read
By Anonymous (Work sent to us by a former prisoner who does not wish to be identified)
Part 1 can be found here.
If you are sentenced in Canada to more than two years of incarceration, you serve your time in a federal prison, not a provincial jail. Immediately after sentencing you are moved from the court house to a provincial jail and held there until transferred to the federal system. The first part of a federal sentence occurs in an ‘assessment unit’. The actual purpose of this phase was never explained to me as a prisoner, but after a time there – usually from 10 to 16 weeks – you are transferred to what is called your ‘home’ institution, where you serve the bulk of your sentence. This post is about the assessment unit.
I remember vividly arriving at the assessment unit, after a trip of several hours in the kind of ‘court services’ van that you can see driving around the city from time to time. Prisoners hate these vans, which are very uncomfortable even if you weren’t handcuffed, sometimes shackled at the ankles, and chained to other prisoners. I do recall that at one point the drivers stopped at a McDonald’s for 20 minutes or so while we remained locked inside.
Upon arrival at the prison, we were taken to a common area where, after examination for drugs by dogs, our provincial jail jumpsuits were traded for the jeans and t-shirts that are standard wear in the federal system. We were photoed, fingerprinted and issued prison ID cards that had our ‘FPS’ – federal prison service identification – a letter followed by 6 digits that became as important as our names.
We were then being given the things we’d need: federal prison clothes – 2 pairs of blue jeans, 2 blue t-shirts and a blue long-sleeve polo shirt, several pairs of underwear and black socks, a pair of plastic slippers, a pair of sneakers; and essentials such as a plate, cup, bowl, knife, fork, and spoon (all brown plastic), 2 blue towels, 2 blue sheets, a blue pillow case and 2 blue blankets. All of this was new, made by prisoners at a CORCAN facility, and filled two large plastic bags. This process was assisted by an odd looking older fellow who I later determined must have been a prisoner assigned to this task.
Then we each met with a nurse, whose main question was whether I felt I suicidal, and with an orientation worker who explained to me some of the basic workings of the place – though in fact some of what she told me, even if it was the official line, was not what actually happened. (This gap between the official and the actual is the rule rather than the exception in prison.) My real orientation would come from other prisoners. I remember asking the nurse about whether I could get an off-the-shelf herbal supplement I took. She looked at me strangely and said it would probably take longer than my sentence to get approval for it.
Then I met with a prison officer who assigned each of us to particular ranges and cells – a role called ‘the keeper’. From there I was taken to the ‘range’ – about 20 cells housing about 30 prisoners – where I would spend my next few months. I remember the door to the range opening, being started at by what seemed to me a bizarre looking set of humans, though they would soon become very familiar to me. The addition of any new person on the range was a subject of great interest.
Someone steered me to my cell and I began to put my stuff away. Someone produced a mattress (very old and thin) and a pillow (also old and thin) for me. I soon realized I was lucky to have a pillow as many prisoners did not. The mattress was terrible; so thin that I had to change sides several times a night, as my hip would get sore from the metal bunk underneath.
This assessment unit was part of a very old and dilapidated prison. Prisoners in assessment were kept strictly separate from the prisoners assigned to that prison as their ‘home’. The assessment unit had several ranges. Each range had about 20 barred cells off a long hallway with exposed pipes and a very old tile floor.. At the end near the door were two showers, 1 sink with a mirror, a toilet, a urinal, 1 washing machine and 1 dryer for the 30 prisoners.
On the other side of the corridor near the main range door was a ‘common room’ – about 30 by 30 feet – for eating and recreation. The common room had a serving area for food, a microwave, a toaster, a hot water machine, a milk dispensing machine, a fridge, a small bookshelf with the range ‘library’, a TV set, and 9 bolted-down tables, each with 4 attached and unmovable seats. It had a green and gray tile floor vintage 1940s, a wall of windows that looked out onto the exercise area, and a one way window looking in from the guard’s office that was just outside the range. There was one telephone in the hallway near the door to the range. The whole place looked old and rather decrepit.
We were locked in our cells approximately 16 hours a day, usually two prisoners in a cell that was about 6 by 9 feet, with metal bunk beds, a small battered metal desk bolted into place, and two fixed shelves in the wall under the window. Each cell also had a tiny sink and a toilet. The windows here could be opened. The doors were metal but with a barred area so that you could see out and guards could see in. That was a plus over the sealed units and full metal doors in the provincial jail where I had previously been held.
The cells, and the whole facility, were in very bad physical repair. Cells might have several different paint colours. The tiled floors often had missing pieces. Everything was peeling. The windows didn’t fit properly. The unit seemed relatively clean – prisoners cleaned the common areas every day, and were able to get supplies to clean our own cells. In general there was a strong ethic of cleanliness on the range, though we also had a few prisoners with serious mental health problems that resulted, for example, in them not washing their clothes or themselves.
Times we were allowed out of our cells were primarily around meals. Lunch and dinner were served from food delivered in a cart by some prisoners in the common room. Breakfast was from food previously distributed – cereal, bread or hard-boiled eggs. In general the food was quite bad, and sometimes inedible. Moldy bread and brown, liquefying lettuce were fairly common. We got some fresh fruit – mostly bananas and cantaloupe. Any fruit, such as citrus or grapes, that could be fermented to make alcohol was not allowed.
These conditions were quite depressing. You are in a dilapidated setting, constantly subject to arbitrary orders, with no privacy, locked in a cell most of the time, served bad food, with nothing to do and no way to be productive. And yet, compared to conditions in the provincial jail where I had just spent several weeks, these were a big improvement. I remember lying in my upper bunk close to the ceiling (lower bunks were obtained by seniority in the cell) on my first night, thinking that this was a step up! I was still at the very start of my sentence, and had so much still to learn.
More on the assessment unit and other experiences in future posts.