This post is 1500 words; 6 minutes to read.
This post deals with aspects of life in a federal assessment unit – rules, TV, mail, and the telephone.
One central problem of being in jail is how to occupy your time in a constructive way. In an assessment unit there are few if any meaningful activities – no ‘jobs’ as there are in regular institutions for most prisoners, few or no programs, less recreation. The hours hang heavily – which was why so many prisoners took so many drugs such as sedatives. I was astounded by how much some guys could sleep, and by how easy it was to get a prescription for sleeping pills or tranquilizers. Though prisons are supposed to be drug free zones, and many prisoners have substance abuse issues when they arrive, ‘legal’ drugs of many kinds were readily available, dished out by the system itself presumably as a way of keeping prisoners more passive.
Learning the rules
The first few days involved a huge amount of learning. Although there are many rules and required ways of behaving in prison, some set by the authorities and others by the prisoners themselves, nobody tells you what they are. You learn them either from other prisoners or because you violate them unwittingly and suffer the consequences. It struck me from the first as bizarre that the system would expect you to obey all the rules yet have no process for teaching you what they were.
For example, when a guard came into the range they would call out ‘on the range’ and you then had to get into a cell or the common room. If you happened to be at the other end of the hall from your own cell, you just ducked into whatever cell was nearby – which was the only time you could enter someone else’s cell without being invited. Virtually every new prisoner violated this rule, which could result in a guard yelling at you and threatening to ‘charge’ you for it. As another example, prisoners regularly had to ask guards about various matters when the guards were on the range, but if the guards were doing ‘counts’ of prisoners, you were not allowed to talk to them. Again, many learned this the hard way.
Then there are other rules set by prisoners, such as no whistling, not looking into other prisoner’s cells, and many others that can vary from one range to another depending on which prisoners are running the range.
TV was important in jail, in part because there were so few other activities. There was a large TV in the common room; I have vivid memories of a few prisoners who would spend long stretches of time standing as if frozen 3 feet in front of it watching virtually anything that was on. The main favourites were actions movies and ‘reality’ shows, as well as sports. News and public affairs were rarely watched.
Prisoners can buy a small TV for their cells if you have sufficient funds in your prison account. It typically took about a month for a TV to arrive after being ordered – 3 or 4 days for it to get to the prison and several weeks for the prison to get around to allowing you to pick it up. Cells had access to a cable TV package paid for by inmates from deductions from daily pay (more about that in a future post). The assortment of channels was odd. For example none of the Canadian news networks was included, nor was US Public Broadcasting. But we did get US stations from Los Angeles and Boston, CNN, and HBO, as well as several movie channels.
During my time in assessment the cable never worked very well. Reception was very poor on some channels, the system crashed during storms, and sometimes channels would suddenly be replaced by others for no apparent reason – such as the couple of days in which we had two copies of the aquarium channel replacing a music and movie channel respectively. As usual, the causes of these problems were never explained to us, nor did anyone ever apologize when the system did not work properly.
Mail was a very important part of the AU experience for many prisoners, including me. For the first seven weeks I was there, mail was my only means of contact with anyone outside, so letters were truly a lifeline. Letters were fantastic for my morale; I re-read them many times. And it didn’t matter all that much what was in the letters. People sometimes apologized for writing to me about things that were very happy for them, somehow feeling that this would hurt me. But it was precisely the opposite. I was very glad to hear of good things happening to others, and would have felt worse, not better, had others I cared about also been suffering misfortunes.
We were supposed to get mail three times a week – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Not that this was written down or formally told to us; it was just what the grapevine said. However during my 11 weeks in that unit, this delivery schedule happened only 3 times. More often mail arrived randomly, on any day of the week (though never more than 3 days a week) – and there was never any explanation as to why we did or didn’t get mail on a given day.
All incoming mail was opened at the institution. All stamps were removed. Prisoners could not receive stationery (such as paper or envelopes), stamps, lipstick or cosmetics, sparkles, or glue. Other kinds of enclosures were uncertain. Newspaper clippings or pages from the internet were not supposed to be allowed, but in practice most of the time they were. Occasionally a newspaper clipping would be taken out and returned to the sender with a rejection notice. Yet another area in which one never knew when a given rule would be applied or not.
As for writing letters, this was also a constant frustration. A new prisoner has nothing to write with – no paper, pen, envelopes or stamps. You either have to borrow these from other prisoners – which was usually possible – or you had to wait to buy them from the canteen, which could take several weeks. And you could never be sure that the canteen would have, or provide, what you ordered.
The lack of writing materials was exacerbated for new arrivals because you also couldn’t make any phone calls. Cellphones are prohibited, and I never saw any illegal ones during my time. The federal prison phone system requires prisoners to request in writing permission to call particular phone numbers, and to identify the people who will receive the calls. CSC staff then phone these numbers to confirm that they are the people identified, and that they are willing to receive your calls. Prisoners are given a card with a computer chip to place in the phone that identifies you and the numbers you are authorized to call.
You must also have money in your special account to make calls. Prisoners pay all the costs of the phone system as well as pay for their individual calls; the institutions make money on these deals. Phone rates paid by prisoners are vastly higher than they are on the outside; during my time, a local phone call cost about 60 cents, and long distance to anywhere in Canada was 11 cents a minute, vastly more than anyone else in the country would pay. If you had no money, you could call your approved numbers collect – at up to $1 per minute!
There were two phones on our range, and that seemed adequate for the demand, especially since at any given time quite a few of the prisoners were new and so didn’t have any approved phone numbers they could call anyway. There was no privacy on the phones and of course we could only make calls during those hours we weren’t locked in our cells.
Communications made difficult
The main problem with telephoning in the AU was that it took many weeks to get any numbers approved – 7 weeks in my case. Why it took so long was – you guessed it – never explained. So you arrived in a federal jail and were unable to let anyone close to you know where you were or how you were doing except by letter, if you had access to writing materials and stamps.
This lack of ability to communicate with loved ones was a very big stress for everyone who came to the AU – and for their loved ones on the outside. There seems to me to be no justification for this long interruption of family communication, and it would be easy to give new prisoners the wherewithal to make a couple of calls or write a couple of letters. But despite the prison systems’ rhetoric about encouraging family and community ties, in practice many things are done to restrict these ties. More will be said on this in the discussion of visiting in a future post.
More posts to follow