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This post is reprinted with permission from Lawyers’ Daily as one of a series on prisoner experience they are publishing. The original link from last May is: https://www.thelawyersdaily.ca/articles/36007. This series of posts recently won an aware for online publishing: https://canadianonlinepublishingawards.com/2022/winners
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.)
When you spend 16 hours a day locked in a 6 foot by 12 foot prison cell that includes an exposed toilet, it matters a lot who else is in there with you. In a setting that is physically ugly, isolated from everyone you care about, with few comforts and virtually nothing to do, and reminded constantly that you don’t matter in any way, emotions run high. Cellies (cellmates) can have a huge effect on your experience. I had three during my 11 weeks in Assessment, each very different from the others. After that I was in minimum, where I lived in a house with 5 or 6 other men, but because you are not locked in a cell all the time same way, the person you share a room with matters far less.
Who you end up in a cell with in prison seems almost entirely arbitrary. Prisons make an attempt, not always successful, to separate prisoners known to have a conflict, such as different gang affiliations. Prisoners can, and do, ask to be moved to a different cell or even a different range. This was sometimes accommodated and sometimes denied, for reasons that were never explained. Which is not to suggest that any other decisions were explained to us as prisoners!
My first cellie, a young man I’ll call Billy, made the strongest impression on me, partly because I was new to it all and partly because of who he was. Billy was 22 and told me he had more than 50 criminal charges going back to age 12 when, he said, he was beaten up by his school principal and hit him back. He was not a big guy, but obviously a tough one. He had a long record involving drug offences but also violence – mostly fueled, he said, by alcohol or other drugs. (This became a familiar refrain – several men on our range also told me that drug use was the root of their criminal behaviour, yet as one said, he intended to go back to using as soon as he was released, a pattern over the previous 20 years of his life.)
The charge that had landed Billy in a federal prison was (again, his telling) hitting someone with a baseball bat during a home invasion. I did not ask for details. What I soon saw was that Billy knew and felt comfortable with prison culture, as shown by having his head shaved, being tattooed, and using a lot of prison lingo. He was loud and did a lot of shouting down the corridor to other prisoners, including a lot of comments that to me felt gross but are a part of prison culture.
Billy might seem like someone you would be afraid of. And indeed, before my sentencing, when I knew I was going to spend at least some months locked up, I had regularly imagined being surrounded by people who terrified me – a common fear among prison newbies. This is a world in which you can be bullied and extorted with very little recourse.
A good cellie
Yet Billy turned out to be a really good cellie. He realized immediately that I knew nothing about how to cope with prison life and, for reasons I will never really understand but for which I am deeply grateful, undertook to teach me and look after me. Perhaps it was my age (I was over 60 then). He introduced me to others on the range, and because he was a tough guy that nobody messed with, I was left alone by some who might have been tempted to do otherwise. In my first week or two, before I could acquire things like a pen, paper and stamps, he freely shared his with me, along with snacks he bought through the canteen until I could buy my own.
Locked up together all those hours in an ugly and uncomfortable space, we played countless rounds of cribbage. We did not at that point have a TV in the cell – he because he had no money to buy one and me because it took 6 weeks for the TV I bought to be cleared for me to have in my cell. We talked about our vastly different lives. I learned about his troubled family, his horrible experience at school, his ‘baby momma’ and their young child he seemed to love dearly. I told him about my life, one that must have seemed as foreign to him as if I had grown up in North Korea. I grew to like him quite a bit, and to be reminded again, given his record, of the contradictions that exist in all of us.
After a couple of weeks, Billy moved to another cell, with a prisoner with whom I guess he felt he had more in common. After that we had little to do with each other. A few weeks after that, he was gone from the range, moved to a permanent placement in another prison. I’ve never seen or heard from him again.
After Billy I had two other cellies. Trevor was a quiet man in his 40s who spent a lot of time sleeping. Though health care in prisons is generally bad, it was very easy to get a prescription for sleeping pills or sedatives and many prisoners took them so they could sleep 12 hours a day or more. One guy on our range appeared to sleep almost all the time; he only came out of his cell for meals. Despite quite a few weeks sharing a cell, I never knew much about Trevor. He tried to be as invisible as possible and as inoffensive as possible. Unlike Billy, he didn’t talk much and didn’t socialize much with others. There was no tension between us but we had little to do with each other. After I got a TV, he liked watching home renovation programs on it.
Then, in my final weeks, James arrived. He was even older than I was and had been convicted of a crime committed several decades earlier. His life had been completely uprooted, his marriage ended, his children not speaking to him, his employment terminated. That kind of life turmoil was not uncommon on the range, but James couldn’t adjust to it. It wasn’t my role to tell him that this was now his life and he had to get used to it, but equally I didn’t want to abet his fantasies that he could have his old life back. There is no going back after a criminal conviction. He was still there when I was moved on.
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