A book unpublished is never really written. For that reason I’ve released this before it’s really finalized. I plan to work on a little content, but the goal is to get it out on the streets, and this accomplishes that goal.
Click on the title above for a table of contents – this is a long post.
I think I’m going to Jail in Canada. Now what??
Hi. I’m writing this in May of 2018. If you’re reading this you are probably facing some big problems in your life. You’re probably not reading this if you’ve served a ton of time in jail because by now you know the program. Instead, it’s more likely that you’re a first timer, never been to jail before, maybe don’t even know anyone that’s been to jail before. What follows is in large measure a letter I wrote to a young man who was going to jail for the first time. He was in his early 20’s, and had been sentenced after an automobile crash that took two lives. Writing to him finally gave me the impetus to put to paper what I could that might help others. You will note that the style is in part still like a letter (though I’ve removed any identifying information that pertains to the guy I was writing to) and is aimed more directly at someone in that situation.
My name is William Mastop. I was a lawyer for 15 years in the Vernon B.C. area, and practised a lot of criminal law. I like to think I was quite good at it. Eventually however, things did not go as I had expected, and I was sentenced to jail. I was initially sentenced to one year in jail, but the crown appealed, and the sentence was increased to 2.5 years in prison. I no longer practise criminal law, and I’ve been out of jail now for 4 years.
If you’re in British Columbia, Canada the chances are good that I’ve been to the places that you are going. They are not places where I’d willingly book my holidays, but they are only for now, not forever, and they will pass. I hope that my experience can help you. If it does not, you’re welcome to throw this in the garbage, or use the back of it to write to someone you like (Paper and a pen are hard to get at first, but that gets easier. I wrote my first letters in jail with a pencil onto napkins, and was very happy to finally get a pen.)
Part 1 – Getting Ready for Jail
Dealing with the shock of what’s coming
I would guess that you think of yourself as a good guy, and that what happened is not the sort of thing that you’d usually engage in. You may also have really been struggling with the results of your conduct. That’s good, you’re a human being, and you should struggle when something awful happens as a result of your conduct. You may feel that the prosecution itself is unfair, or that the evidence against you is fabricated (aka bogus). With these things in mind, you may be torturing yourself on a number of levels. It’s time to move past that. This is not your life, it’s a thing that you did once in life. It’s not you, it’s a thing you did, and a very small part of all that is you. You have to focus on the people in your community that do support you. You will get through this, and the support you do have is what really matters. That’s the real world. The place you’re potentially going to is a bizarre creation, has little relation to anything that is the part of the real world, and is something you just have to get through.
Getting ready for jail
Usually you will have a good idea if you’re going to jail. Ask your lawyer. He/she should have a good idea whether this is a realistic possibility or not. It’s not about what they think is likely to happen, your question should be a two part one. Firstly, what do you think will happen, and secondly, is there any reasonable chance that I’m going to jail. The answer is not necessarily the same. If there’s any reasonable chance, you want to get ready. Here are some tips for that:
1. Get your stuff into storage unless you’re in a very long term relationship or have very stable family that you can count on. There are lots of people who’ve gotten out only to find that all their belongings are gone. If you’re into any kind of risky lifestyle your friends probably are too, and your stuff will look great to them while you’re away.
2. Get some money ready. Take it with you on the day of court. A few hundred dollars is a very helpful thing as you go in. You will not have access to the bank machine or a debit machine after you’re taken into custody.
3. Get into shape! Get healthy. Pushups and pullups are your friend. Being in shape going in makes it a lot less likely that you’ll run into problems while you’re there. I started with 10 pushups and 5 pull-ups. that’s pretty sad, but that’s what I started with. I did three sets of these. That means doing 10 pushups and 5 pullups, waiting not more than 5 minutes, and then doing 10 pushups and 5 pullups, waiting not more than 5 minutes and repeating this. Well, actually not quite right, what I did was do as many pushups as I could one day, wait about 5 minutes, and then then as many pushups as I could again. I found this dropped about 5 or so. After another 5 minutes I did another set of pushups, again as many as I could, perhaps another 5 less. The next day I did as many pullups as I could, then I gave it about 5 minutes, and did as many pullups as I could. One more set of these and I’m good to go. No… Are you kidding me? You’re going into a place where people trade in the currency of hurting you. They want your chicken. While you are on the outside, each time you use the bathroom for any reason, go into the toilet and put your feet on the toilet, and do as many pushups as you can. Push-ups mean going all the way down until your chest touches the floor. If you’re not doing this you’re not really getting ready. I got to where I was doing 60 push ups – Do them right, all the way to the floor, and you’re getting ready to protect yourself. Become an expert at pushups and pullups. Learn to do them different ways. You can put your feet up on a bed and hands more at hip level to really stress the triceps. Feet up on a bed/toilet/ledge/chair and hands at shoulder level and shoulder width, hands at more than shoulder width, hands down at hip level and very close to the body. Pullups can be done with palms forward or palms backward, arms at shoulder width or wider, or narrower than shoulder width. I appreciate that there are many ways to get fit, but the nice thing about pushups and pullups is that you can keep doing them in jail even if you are locked down or for whatever reason have problems getting access to exercise equipment. If you have the cash for a personal trainer and a gym membership, or kickboxing training, great, do it. If you don’t have the motivation to do any of this, well, not so great. You can do nothing at all but understand that you’re giving up a significant possible advantage.
4. Don’t delay. Usually, immediately after the sentencing, you will be taken into custody. There is not some future date that you turn yourself in or surrender yourself. There will be no opportunity for family members to hand you anything, or for you to grab your stuff, or kiss and hug family. Right after the judge pronounces a sentence of jail the sheriffs take you out of the room and down to a cell. If you’re not ready as set out above, there’s not much chance to fix it right away.
* On this topic, I had an experience that has really stuck with me. Before I was sentenced I was looking into what I might need to know about doing time. You’d have thought that in my line of work I’d have a good grasp of this but I do think you can never be too well prepared. With this in mind, I had been watching a lot of reality tv that dealt with prisons/jails. My spouse found these shows quite upsetting, and asked that I not watch them. I found this frustrating, and said that “it wasn’t her that had to do the time.” I have many times come to regret those words. The thing is that it really is your family that does the time, and for a lot more hours than you do. If you’re in a cell by yourself and perfectly safe, your family does not know that. If you’re out in the yard and the unit has been stable and the risk level is extremely low, they don’t know that. They don’t know what situation you’re in at any given moment, and they worry constantly. Know that if you’ve got a good family, they absolutely are doing the time.
Medications are a big problem in prison. The whole focus that corrections canada adopts is that anything that you bring with you, or that you ask for, is meant to get you high. It’s all drug seeking. You might be in your mid 60’s, some heart issues, maybe high blood pressure, been on medication for 10 years, and you went to jail for a driving offence, but they’re pretty sure you’re drug seeking with those blood pressure medications. They can’t quite put their finger on it, but that doesn’t stop them from stopping your medications. You have to be really ready if you’re on serious medication that you can’t live without. When you first go in, make sure you have medication with you. Bring a letter from your doctor as well setting out what the drug is, why you need it, how often you need it, and what the potential result is if you don’t have it. When you go in they will take all that you brought with you and put it far far away from you. Immediately file a request to see the doctor. Also immediately file a request to get any medication that you have with you in your personal stuff to come with you. They will ignore the request, but at least you have paper to back you up when you sue because you have irreversible kidney/liver/heart damage. If you have any hope at all about staying on a medication that’s important to your health you must document everything. There is more than one cop that takes the view that now that you’re in jail, you’re not really entitled to anything, including medication.
If you need eyeglasses, for reading, walking, anything, bring them with you , and keep them with you at all times. Do not set them down. Do not “put them with your personals”, do not leave them anywhere. Anything “with your personals” means that it must have drugs in it and you’ll never get it back. I have seen multiple inmates try to get their reading glasses from “their personals”. “Their personals” is a term that describes the stuff that you came in with, that corrections took away and put in a box that you don’t get to have until you are out. Once stuff is in that box corrections takes the view that anything in there is the stuff of insurrection, and they are very resistant indeed to giving any part of it to you while you are inside. Keep your eyeglasses on your head or in your hand. If anyone asks you for them, or asks you to set them down, tell them that you can’t see without them. If you tell the cops that they are for reading then they will take them away. If you can’t read you won’t be able to read the rules. Now you’re going to the hole because the cop took your reading glasses away. Great. “I can’t see without them” . Make that clear, and do not give them up. If you do, you’ll be months getting them out, or getting a new pair.
Strip Searches and forced Nudity
When you first arrive at the RCMP, and generally each time you are transferred from one system to another (like from RCMP to Provincial, and Provincial to Federal) your belongings will be catalogued and taken from you and you will be strip searched. They are wanting to find anything that you have hidden on your person, and that entails doing some looking. In most cases this will occur with only persons of the same sex present, but this is not invariable (even though the rules require it). You will be asked to remove all of your clothing, lift up your testicles so that they can see underneath them, turn around and show your ass and bend over and spread your cheeks, show the bottom of your feet, and your armpits, open your mouth, stick out your tongue, show the front and backs of your hands, run your fingers through your hair and flip your ears forward. You may be required to step into a shower, or you may be disinfected. You are then generally permitted to get dressed again, either in your own clothes if you’re at an RCMP facility, or into jail “reds” if you’re going into a provincial facility in the course of your transfer or into federally issued clothing. One “trick” in this procedure is to place your clothes at the other end of a facility, or fail to place them where they can be reached by the inmate at all. This puts the inmate in the position of having to stand naked for much longer than the process requires, or forces the naked inmate to move through and among other inmates in close quarters who are also naked.
In BC if you work in a kitchen environment you can expect to be frisked on your way out of the kitchen to stop the smuggling/theft of food or contraband items brought in by the kitchen staff or brought in the food packages. This frisking can be more or less invasive depending on the cop doing it.
- On one occasion the cop was so enthusiastic in his frisking that he left my pants so low that my ass was entirely exposed, then went on to the next guy, leaving my ass exposed. They were clear that we are to remain standing with our hands against the wall. The guy next to me took it up with the cop, saying hey, you’ve left his ass hanging out, what the hell?” To prevent any hard feelings the same guy added “you’ve got a nice ass Will, but hey”. The cop told me that I could take my hands off the wall to fix my pants.
In Alberta in at least one institution I understand the guards enforce a D parade. Guys are required to walk naked across the unit to get to their showers. In other institutions I understand that sudden unit searches can force inmates to stand naked at times out on the cell block while their cell is searched. Most of this stuff is prohibited, but that doesn’t prevent it from occurring.
Being forced to stand naked in front of others can be very difficult for some people. They may feel that their dignity is in some way stripped away. I accept that there are occasions where it is necessary to conduct strip searches. However, there are ways to do this with basic dignity and ways that do not accord with that. If it’s you on the receiving end of this I urge you to think of it in a different way. You don’t lose dignity by being forced to stand naked in front of others for no reason. There’s nothing that you can do about that. It’s the cops that lose dignity for failing to treat a human being fairly. On each occasion where these “tricks” of the strip search were applied, I thought that the cops lost a little more dignity. After a few such experiences like this you’ll hardly think of them as human beings at all.
Restricted environments- RCMP and Classification
Yep, even in jail it can get even more restrictive. Once you are sentenced you will usually be taken to RCMP cells, and may have some solitary time there waiting to be transferred to a provincial institution. [I’m writing this on the presumption that the reader is expecting to be sentenced to a sentencing of 2 years or more. If you are not being sentenced to a sentence of two years or more, you will just stay at the provincial institution though you may be transferred by request, or involuntarily as otherwise set out in this document.] These can be very difficult hours and days. There’s nothing to read, no television, no radio, just walls to stare at that have had shit and piss and puke thrown at them and not much effort has been made to clean them. I note that while I was at such a place for a few days I asked for some cleaner and a cloth to try to clean the walls. This request was refused. As you sit on the concrete “bed” take a look along the edges. I bet you can get a decent count of pubic hairs as well. These first few hours and days are very difficult. There is no exercise or yard time, you’re just sitting in a cell. You may be entirely solitary, or, if you’re in a busier lockup, you may have one or more people placed with you. If it’s a weekend its a lot more likely that drunk screaming assholes will be placed either with you, or in adjacent cells. Some of them yell all night. While I was in cells in surrey one jackass was brought into the cell across from me, all set to fight the world. He pissed all over the floor and all over his blanket, shouting for half the night. The smell of piss all over the floor and in the hallway was disgusting. The cops don’t care, and left him to sleep in his piss soaked blanket. It’s cold in jail because you’re surrounded by concrete, and a cell block is usually in the basement and a bit colder than what your basement floor might be. Sleeping in a piss soaked wet blanket on a concrete slab is a pretty miserable experience. By the next morning everyone wants to kill him during transport.
Keep in mind if you do share a cell at this stage that your cell mate may well be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and may either have mental problems or be facing things that for them are very serious. This is a time where people can be extremely erratic. Stay alert, keep your back to the wall, and spend a lot more time listening than talking. At times there is insufficient space for everyone to lay down on the “bed” and you may have to sleep on the floor. This occurs sometimes in provincial jails as well. Understand that who sleeps on the floor is very political, and politics can be very applied. There is more on the subject of applied politics below.
Eventually you will be transferred to a provincial jail. You will be held there until a 15 day period has passed unless you sign a waiver. [The Corrections and Conditional Release Act provides: 12 In order to better enable a person who has been sentenced to penitentiary or who is required by law to be transferred to penitentiary to file an appeal or attend to personal affairs, such a person shall not be received in penitentiary until the expiration of fifteen days after the day on which the person was sentenced, unless the person agrees to be transferred to a penitentiary before the expiration of those fifteen days. ] It’s usually best to sign the waiver right away, as you want to get on in the process and you’re not going to be staying at the provincial institution long enough to do anything with it.
Once the 15 day period has passed, or when they’re ready to transport you and you’ve signed the waiver (whichever comes first) you will, in BC, be transferred to what is called the RAC or Regional Assessment Centre. Each province has their own such centre. The purpose of the “assessment” is to get an idea of what programming your might benefit from, to give you 1001 vaccinations, and to determine which security classification you are to be assigned. When you first arrive at RAC (Regional assessment centre) you’ll end up in an assessment unit to start with, in a cell by yourself. At first you’ll be allowed out only long enough to grab yourself some food and then take it back to your cell to eat. There’s no opportunity for yard time, gym, socializing, nothing. This lasts for a few days, and then you’ll be able to be out on that unit with others, but your time out will still be extremely restricted. The cops are watching you very closely during this time, to see who you socialize with, what trouble you get into, how you deal with the environment as an inmate, that sort of thing. This is a big part of your early classification. After a couple of weeks on that unit you’ll be moved to another unit at RRAC. That will again be a cell that is by yourself, but it’s a lot more like regular jail. The time out is a bit longer, you can eat with other people, etc. Note that I said you can eat with other people. In fact you won’t have a choice, they will make you eat your food outside your cell. I believe this is to allow them to watch how you interact with other inmates. The total time in RAC will tend to be about 6 to 8 weeks at which time you will be transferred to the institution where you will serve your time. Security classification is what determines this placement, and it’s important. It takes a long time to change your security classification so don’t do things that will mess it up.
Note that at some point during the classification process you may be asked if you have any “incompatibles”, meaning inmates, or groups of inmates, that you can’t get along with. Corrections at this point is looking for any gang affiliations in particular, but also issues that are likely to lead to violence for any reason on the range. It is important to understand that as you start listing off guys that you’re not compatible with, or groups that you’re not compatible with, this goes into your corrections file, and never comes out. They will then determine where you are to be placed. The more people or groups that you identify as having problems with the more difficult it is to place you, and finally they are out of options and you end up in PC (Protective Custody). I’ve written a chapter about PC below, and it’s not usually where you want to end up. Unless you have some kind of really serious hardcore issue with someone that you’re sure is going to lead to a stabbing or worse (not just a fight, a stabbing or worse) it is a poor idea to identify them. It changes where you may go, and as I note above it follows you in your record forever, perhaps long after you’ve worked out whatever issue you may have had.
Where will you be sent? What’s your mother institution to be?
The very idea of referring to any prison as anything like a mother rolls my stomach over. Nonetheless, sometimes this is the term that is used. There are a number of options for prisons in BC, and each province has some federal institutions to choose from to send you to. As well, keep in mind that this is a federal system, so they work together. If you’re a really bad guy who creates mayhem wherever he goes you can expect to be sent to a prison in Ste-Anne-des-Plaines Institution. This is a special handling unit maximum security facility. You’re probably not nearly that much of a problem. Good thing, because that place is a hellish place to do time. In BC there are a number of other options including Kent Institution (Maximum Security), Matsqui Institution (Medium Security), and Mission Institution (Medium Security) and Ferndale Institution (Minimum Security). A description of each of these places is beyond the purview of this writing. You can look them up in wikipedia if you wish (here’s the link: https://en/wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_prisons_in_Canada) I note that I did look up Kent Institution on wikipedia and noted that the article lists “major incidents” that have occurred and includes stabbings. I can say with certainty that the article greatly understates the number of serious incidents that have occurred there.
Classification is really important. It takes a long time to change your classification. Treat it as a very important job interview. That being said, it is possible to change your classification, it’s not forever. If you’re classified to maximum or medium, you do have a chance to work your way down, but it takes a while.
Maybe I can do my time on weekends!
Doing time on weekends is called an intermittent sentence. Ugh! There are few things as unpleasant as doing time on weekends. This will usually put you in the RCMP lockup unless you live nearby a provincial jail. You have to turn yourself in, usually on a friday, and are then released on a sunday evening. It’s a very slow way to do time. It’s loud, people are yelling all night, and it’s not set up for people actually doing time. There’s no exercise time, no recreation opportunities, no access to a phone. This option does allow you to maintain your job, and if you have a good job then this is a good bet for you. However, a sentence can only be an intermittent one if its total length is 90 days or less. Think about this, a 90 day sentence, being served intermittently, works out to 30 weekends. Even with credit for good time that’s still half a year of spending every weekend in jail. This is not how I’d want to spend half a year.
Part II – Now You’re In, what to do
Jail Guards and Prison Guards
Guards, aka cops, are never ever your friend. They may at first seem a lot more like you than the guys around you, but they are not. It is a person with some problems that wants to imprison other human beings. Do not try to be friends with them. Do as they direct, and that’s it. Do not try to build a relationship with them, no matter how pleasant they may seem. They will at some point treat you in an entirely arbitrary and unreasonable way because they don’t really see you as a human being. By the time you’ve been under their care for a while you surely will not see them as a human being.
Female guards: This is one that I never thought I’d write. I’m a liberal guy, I don’t generally have issues with women, or anyone really. I believe in equality for all. But… I came to learn a bit differently in Prison. In BC it is common for women to work as guards on male units. When I first went in, I thought this was a good thing. I came however to learn though observation the following:
- Firstly, you have to look at who is attracted to this kind of work and environment. A very large number of the woman who work on male units see themselves as the ultra hard core woman. I liken it to little man syndrome. Their very attitude stirs the pot and they come absolutely unglued at the slightest thing. You’ll end up on charges or in lock down because of it.
- The next observation was the dynamic that being female has on the male guards. There’s a damsel in distress phenomenon that occurs. At times there’s stern words spoken between inmates and guards. It’s not a friendly relationship. If this occurs between a male inmate and a female guard the response from the other male guards the female guard calls borders on something you’d expect after a possible riot starting. I appreciate that this is the male guard’s response, and it’s their responsibility, but I could not help concluding that I’d rather not have female guards on a male inmate unit. That being said, you don’t have a choice. Suck it up and find a way to work around their issues. Remember however that they do have issues, and if you don’t have them in mind, it may not go well.
Fellow cons, inmates, convicts, prisoners, are there for the most part for a reason. They are not your friends, they are simply in a similar boat as you. They owe you no loyalty, and you sure as he@@ owe them none. Be pleasant, but regard each of them as a potential threat. They may be pleasant today, and after a quick chat with their fellow idiots may decide that you have a million dollars tucked away all ready to pay to them, or that you weren’t fitting in with the other guys, or that you take up a bed in their cell that they didn’t want to give up. There are a hell of a lot of dull witted guys in jail, really dull witted, and you have to be alert that at times they can seize control of politics. I cannot stress this enough, you are not there to make friends. You have family and friends on the outside that love you, and you are going back to them. All of the guys around you are people that you’re going to pass by in this system. You’re not one with them, you’ve moving beyond them. They’re going on their own walk. I hope you understand when I say that for many of them, they don’t have a life on the outside, they don’t have friends and family waiting for them, instead they have a fucked up dysfunctional existence that is similar to a train wreck, and that’s not near the motivation and support that you have. By the time they’ve gotten to jail a few times they’ve victimized their families and loved ones, and those closest to them are frequently just as dysfunctional. If you have that outside support count yourself very lucky as well. It’s a lot easier to do time when that support is there.
With all that in mind however, you’re stuck for a while, and it’s best to get along. Treat others as you would like to be treated, be respectful of others, and try not to affect the time that others are doing. It’s about making minimal impact without trying to fly under the radar. You’re not trying to be a mouse, but don’t compensate by being a jerk. Examples of some do’s and don’ts:
- If you have music in your cell, close the door if this is allowed. Not everyone is thrilled with your choice of Katy Perry as being the most awesome singer ever.
- If you have to use the toilet, close the door of your cell afterwards so that the smell isn’t drifting all over the unit.
- If you have access to a communal microwave, get your food out of it immediately upon the microwave finishing.
- If you have access to the communal microwave, pull your food out one second before the timer runs out. Other inmates get very tired of the microwave beeping to say it’s ready.
- Keep your telephone use as brief as reasonably possible, and have in mind that telephones are always in high demand.
- Wear actual footwear while moving around the unit. No one likes the idea of your foot fungus being spread everywhere.
- Keep your voice down a bit on the unit. Yelling and carrying on just irritates everyone.
- Pick up after yourself. This includes your dishes or garbage in a unit kitchen or laundry area, and definitely includes the shared areas of a cell.
- Keep yourself clean. Body odour is disgusting in close quarters. If you’re in lock down, use your sink.
- Be respectful and make room for others in shared areas. Laying down across an entire bench is worth a punch in the stomach.
- Share things that are for shared use. A unit newspaper is a valuable thing. The coffee pot is not for your table.
- This is the last one, but I hope it will stick. Spend more time listening that talking. Shut up, and listen. There’s a lot of potential information out there, but if you’re talking all the time you won’t hear it, and others will not want to hear any more from you.
Corrections – Provincial or Federal – both entirely arbitrary
One thing that will become clear before too long is the arbitrary nature of corrections conduct. Some things just don’t make any sense. By way of example, let me tell you of musical chairs on the unit. I was on a unit that had about 40 inmates. There were two tiers of cells, with the eating/common area being on the first level. The chairs on this unit are the plastic lawn chair variety. Each cell has a desk area. There are never enough chairs in the eating area to provide for all of the inmates. As a result, when it’s dinner time, musical chairs develops, with inmates grabbing chairs as quickly as they can. This leaves some inmates with no chairs and hence they cannot sit while they eat. This leads to conflict. When corrections is asked to provide additional chairs their response is that inmates can bring out the chairs from their cells. This may seem an easy answer, except that if a lock down is suddenly called, as happens not infrequently, the inmate is left with no chair in their cell. As well, where inmates are on the second tier in the time it takes to go up to their cell to get a chair and bring it down some of the food (fruit for example) has been picked over, and inmates are left with “second choice” items. Food is a hot button issue on the inside, and anything that prevents an inmate from quick access to the lineup for food is greeted with hostility. The failure to provide enough chairs leads to conflict on the unit and eventually fights. These chairs cost, based on Home Depot single purchase prices, $11.98. The cost of not providing them in sufficient numbers is fights and conflict on the unit. Fights are hazardous to both inmates and officers. Corrections solution?? Keep having the fights, certainly don’t provide additional chairs. Musical chairs amongst inmates proved to be a constant source of interest for me.
What kind of bed will I have?
At first you will have a really really awful bed. Yep, it’s awful. At police cells you’ll start out, at best, with a 1 inch thick bit of foam stuff in a plastic cover. The plastic cover is intended to avoid the foam soaking up urine and other clever things that someone in custody might think to soak it in. That bed is placed on a lovingly crafted box mattress made of concrete. I’m serious, it really is a concrete bench/shelf. It will hurt. Your hips and anything else that might be bony will get sore. You’ll also feel really cold. I’ve never been a guy who had to live on the street, but I did catch on that concrete is a cold miserable substance that sucks the very life out of you. It’s a cold that seeps through, and never ever gets really warm. In addition to the one inch thick mattress, and that’s definitely the uncompressed thickness, you’ll be given one blanket. If you’re carrying on like an idiot, or have been identified as a suicide risk you’re not getting your blanket. If you do get your blanket it will be a single blanket that does little to keep the concrete cold out. If you get a blanket that is big enough, lay your mattress down on the concrete, then lay your blanket down on the mattress, lay down on the blanket, and fold whatever is left of the blanket over you. It’s the cold concrete that you’re trying to insulate yourself from. The cops keep the air temperature warm enough that you’ll survive, but they’re never ever the ones laying on the concrete, and it gets cold. Pillows are a special trick in jail. They really screw with you here, I’m not sure if it’s a suicide risk thing, or just a way to screw with you, but you won’t get a pillow. Everyone in the known world sleeps with a pillow I think, and I’d never seen any mention in any corrections material about the restorative or corrective effect of denying someone a pillow, but they can be a special trick in jail. At police cells, no way are you getting a pillow. You won’t have much here, but if you’re able to get warm enough it can help if you take your socks off, or a shirt off, and fold it and use it as a pillow. The pillow thing will become a theme throughout your custodial period.
Lights! Yep, lights, all day and all night. The cops at lockup are very keen to keep an eye on you, and even once you get to a provincial jail this is a feature. The light is on in your cell all day, and all night. In provincial the lights dimmed at night, which was a real luxury. That may seem thin, but after a while in police lockup where they do not dim it’s a thrill to not have the damn light in your eyes. But wait, I have a tip! You are not allowed to cover your face with your blanket in lockup because they can’t tell if you’ve died or not. Okay, that’s not fair, they can’t tell if you’re having breathing distress or not. So if you cover your face with your blanket the cops will show up pretty quick and start yelling at you to take the blanket off. If you don’t , they’ll do what they must to take it off, which means losing your blanket and freezing all night. Instead, grab some paper towel, or some toilet paper, and fold it, and put it over your eyes. I never got any static over a one inch wide strip that was folded over my eyes and wrapped around my ears like glasses. I came to love that strip of paper towel. I knew many guys that had something similar made out of socks even in provincial jails where the lights were turned to low at night.
- Little side story – I’m in a provincial remand jail, waiting to be transferred to a federal prison. I’m in a transfer area wearing what amounts to a pair of pajama bottoms and a top and socks with a pair of deck shoes on. . It’s cold outside, something like -12 or -15 degrees Celsius . It’s a real cold snap in the area of the country that I’m in at the time, and clearly the jail was not built for it. I”m cold, really cold, and have no blanket or mattress. It’s impossible to keep up an exercise program constantly or to keep much life at all happening because there’s no windows, no tv, no radio, no other inmates, there’s a bar box I’m in. I’m cold, curled up in a ball on the concrete bench. I ask for for a blanket. The cop tells me that we’re not allowed to give out blankets because it’s not night time. I say that I’m cold, that it’s really cold inside. The cop says “of course it’s really cold, it’s minus xxx outside” I don’t get a blanket. The cops are wearing their winter coats as they go about their shift.
Once you get to a Provincial jail things may brighten up a bit, in terms of a very slightly better mattress, being a foamy about 2 inches thick, that has been slept on a hundred thousand times by that number of people. It’s still such that if you have any bones to you at all you’ll get bruising. The nice thing is that you’ll now be placing it on a steel bunk frame. This may seem odd, but it’s strangely better than the concrete because it does not wick the heat away from you as badly as the concrete. Have in mind that if you’re in a really crowded jail you may still end up with your mattress on concrete, and should take the steps I mention above, or do what you have to in order to not be the guy who has his mattress on concrete. You’ll get the idea fairly quickly.
The pillow issue, as I said, will continue throughout your stay in corrections of any kind. After a while in provincial you’ll get a pillow, but it’s the thinnest pillow in the known world, about at thick as two t-shirts folded on top of each other. To improve your lot in life, use your other clothing that you can spare to fold and put inside your pillow. If another inmate is getting out, get his pillow and put it in the same pillow case as your own. You’re in a hazardous and challenging environment here, and it’s imperative to get the best sleep that you can so that you can function most effectively physically and mentally.
To improve your bed, using towels if you can get them. Once a week, or thereabouts, you’ll have the opportunity to turn in your towels for fresh ones. Some creative slight of hand during this process can leave you with more towels that you’re supposed to have. Fold these, and place them under your mattress at places likely to bruise like the hip area. This will at least reduce the bruising. Take every it of clothing that you are issued, fold it neatly, and put it under your foamy or add it to your pillow.
On arriving in a federal prison things will again take a down turn, though not to the 1 inch foamy status. At classification you’ll have a slightly better foamy, and more importantly will be issued your federal clothing. That clothing, in BC during winter anyway, includes a winter jacket. That jacket is the best thing in the world. You can wear it while you’re sleeping in winter. You’ll also be issued a toque. If you don’t know what a toque is then you’re not from Canada and probably have blundered onto this site by mistake. Wear your toque while you’re sleeping. Wearing this stuff allows you to save energy that you would otherwise burn keeping warm. That energy may be the difference between responding effectively and intelligently to an issue and not. There’s not a lot of extra food in jail and you have to husband your resources.
If you get to a federal minimum security institution, you’ll see a dramatic increase in bed quality. Things get really cushy here, and you’ll be relaxing on your 4 inch foamy. This will seem like luxury. By the time you get there, it is. During cold times it’s still nice to have your winter jacket and toque.
Let me offer a bit of commentary here, it’s a personal sore point, and I appreciate that my view is likely a bit perverse in light of my experience, but I’ve heard more than one judge say to an accused who’s being sentenced words to the effect that “I’ve been down there, I’ve seen what you’re going to”. As a young criminology student, and as a young lawyer in training, I too was “down there” and saw what “you’re going to”. We all got tours of the police lockup facility. Until you’re in there for hours and hours, either alone in absolute solitude, or with people that are a physical threat to your very existence, in your cheap thin pants and t-shirt, without a pillow or blanket, while you’re a bit cold all the time, with the lights turned on bright 24 hours a day, having a camera on you while you void your bowels, surrounded by walls that have excrement in their very seams and pubic hairs in every corner and you’ve done that for at least a day, you have absolutely not seen what anyone is “going to”. You do not have the slightest shred of it. Spend a few more days this way, no shower because they’re “too busy” and you’re standing in your cell naked trying to clean yourself with bits of paper towel from the sink thinking that it’s morning and soon time for some breakfast, but when you ask the cop it turns out that it’s 2 a.m. and you’re so damn cold but at least it’s better to die clean. Couple that with the realization that all that you’ve accomplished in life is going to be gone while you’re there, and you’re just starting to get there. I thought that I had seen what it was about when I was given the tour just as you were. I had not. Not one damn bit.
Race and race relations in Canadian prisons/jails
Racism is alive and well in Canada, and is a lot more prevalent in jail/prison than in wider society. I’m not sure why this is, but it is. I despise racism. That being said, it is a reality in jail, and you have to be alert to it. This is a place where you’re going to see people with swastika tatoo’s on their necks and so forth. It’s a good idea to stay away from this crap. It may seem easier to belong to something as a means of protection, but the trouble is that the environment can change. A unit might be all about “mighty white” until a really large black guy shows up, and then the balance of power can change. If you’re seen as being associated with a white supremacist group how much fun for the cops to send you to a unit that is predominantly native or black? Similarly, if you’re a black guy, it can be a real challenge to walk onto a unit that’s completely white. Guys will endlessly give someone on the down side of this equation a very rough ride, and some hardcore violence can start. Be alert to this stuff. These dynamics are utter bullshit, and it’s not really about race at all, it’s about power, but utterly bullshit dynamics can hurt. Here’s a couple of examples that give a feel for things:
* A fellow inmate whom I spoke with often told me about a time when he’d been in custody in Ontario, and a black guy took a moment to say to him “It’s not that we don’t like you Mike, it’s just that you’re white”.
* While I was on a unit that was almost entirely white (two brown guys) a black guy was placed on the unit. It was within 24 hours that another inmate (white guy) attacked him. That other inmate had been beaten an hour before this by one of the guys on the unit. He looked terrible, and was told that he had better go have a fight with the black guy or he’d been seen as a rat anyway because of his appearance. The black guy beat the hell out of him, and they were both sent to other units.
- Let me describe this a bit, maybe to make it more clear when you see it, maybe to give you an idea going in. Black guy hears from someone on the range “hey, that guy want’s to talk to you”. White guy walks near black guy who says you wanted to talk to me, to which white guy says yeah, and punches him square in the face, sort of a roudhouse punch. That punch hits the black guy on the cheek but there’s no delay at all, black guy (Clifton is his name) is already throwing back. Get it, the other guy throws back. The other guy always throws back. Maybe effecctively , or maybe not so much, but they don’t crouch and die. Have this in mind if you think you’re taking someone out. White guy is throwing, and Clifton is throwing, and Clifton catches him on the point of the jaw and drops him for a moment. Clifton jumps in, grabs white guys head, and starts slamming it into the concrete edges of the guard station. Where’s the guard?? Well, he had stepped back and is on his radio to get backup. The fight is not spreading and there’s no threat to him so he really doesn’t care. This was going to happen as soon as a black guy showed up on the range. Clifton slams the white guys head against the corner a few times until he’s a rag doll, and then punches him in the face until the white guys jaw is obviously dislocated or broken. It’s only when Clifton is tired and can’t do much more to the rag doll in his arms that the cops step in. Keep in mind that the rag doll he is holding is about 6 foot 1″ tall and about 200 pounds . The cops were not rushing. Life on 2D (the name of that unit) is like that. Note that before all this the white guy had been beaten because his arrival on the range meant that another guy who was fairly well connected would be double bunked. He had to go in any case.
Should I maintain relationships on the outside or just do my time?
There are different views about maintaining relationships or not with the outside. Guys who have done a huge amount of time in their lives often do not want to see their families or children while they are on the inside because the environment inside is so bleak and miserable, and they want their family to be about being out. Others want their family to be part of absolutely everything, and try to do their time on the telephone, or on visits. In my view neither approach is a good one, though I can understand each approach.
For a guy that is of a criminal lifestyle, if it’s all he’s really about, then sure, shut the hell up and do your time. Frankly, you probably bring very little that’s good to your family on the outside when you’re out anyway and your time in jail may be the only try they have at normalcy.
For a guy that does have a family and friends on the outside, a lot of guys get welded to the telephone. They are on the phone at all times that they’re not physically restrained from it (locked in their cells). In the alternative, they make their family and friends part of a mandatory troupe of visitors, using up all times that might be available to them. This approach has the down side that when you are on the phone with your family, they are restrained from actually participating in real life, and are in fact to some degree prisoner just as you are. Kids in particular are very vulnerable to this. They don’t want some tortured time with dad asking what did you do today. They want you to come home. Your tortured questions about what happened today are not being dad, they’re being unpleasant and self serving. Time with family and friends on the phone is very valuable, but trying to do your time this way is counter productive. You’ll start to push people away, and they will avoid your calls. Visiting you while you’re in jail is also a significant hurdle for family members. Jails/Prison’s tend to be out of the way, because no one wants a jail or a prison on prime real estate, and people usually also do not want a prison next door to them. This puts them either off of bus routes or at least in places that are pretty remote. It can take hours for a family member to get to a visit, the process of entering the institution is usually at least somewhat unpleasant, the visits often leave a lot to be desired, and then the family member has to get all the way back home. It’s a lot to ask, and even more to ask if you have children. For them the trip gets old in a hurry.
Be aware that visits can open up a lot of emotions. More about this below.
Do I somehow owe guys on my unit?
If I see a guy on my unit getting into problems when we are somewhere else, like as we travel to court, or on a walk to the visit unit, should I help him? No. You owe nothing to anyone on your unit. Prison is a place where a lot of scores come to be settled, and guys that have a big mouth get caught up with in the hallway. You’re not on a baseball team, you’re in jail. That guys problem is his problem, and very likely came to be by his own actions. Unless it’s your fight, stay the heck out of it.
These don’t happen often. I never saw one. I have however acted as counsel for guys that were in one and have talked to inmates that have been in them. Riots are seriously bad news. Riots are, unfortunately, also necessary. Prison guards have a mentality that tends to gradually shift to an “I”m all powerful, you’re nothing” unless they get corrected from time to time. That can mean an assault, a frightening moment, or sometimes a riot. Similarly the administration over time takes the view that they can do whatever the heck they want. This is not a normal dynamic you’d see in a workplace because one of the participants cannot leave and the other participant is charged with locking them up. There are inmate committees and representatives that speak with administration representatives to try to deal with things as they arise but from time to time that is not effective. Eventually things reach a point where everyone is on edge, and something stupid puts it over the rails. In a case that I worked on the thing that put it over the edge was a late delivery of pancakes that were too small.
…. Yep, that’s the thing that put it over the edge. Stupid right? No, it was not. Pancake day is on saturday at that institution. Saturday is a weekend. Why would that matter in jail? Well, on weekends you’re locked up for even more hours. Instead of getting out of your cell at 8 it might be 10. That creates friction. If you want to shit on the toilet your cellmate is not able to leave. If you’re hungry and have no canteen set aside you’re waiting another two hours for food. At this institution they were let out, and then another hour went by before the food showed up. That might seem small, but when you’ve been standing around hungry as heck with little else to focus on it becomes a big deal. Get up one morning and wait till you’re hungry. Now wait 2 hours until it’s time to eat. Now the food does not come and another hour goes by. Then…. the food comes, and your pancakes look more like silver dollars. The ration is two. You observe that the size differs widely depending on the tray you get, or maybe all of them on the unit are that way. This has happened again and again, and you’ve talked to the inmate rep about it. Give this a few weeks, and one morning an inmate, not a particularly large guy, has a coffee pot with almost boiling hot coffee in his hands. He asks about when the food is coming and gets a smart ass answer from the cop on the range. It is very easy to throw out smart ass answers about when the food is coming when you’re well fed. I note that the cop is probably very well fed. That’s it. The coffee pot goes straight at the cop. The inmate goes straight at the cop, the unit comes unglued because everyone on the unit (that’s 40 or 60 guys, maybe more) is at the bottom of their blood sugar, the end of their patience, and there’s never a real effort to address this crap. Riots are necessary. How does this scene end? The two range cops are locked up in the broom storage closet located in the back of their “secure” bubble. Some inmates have a fire lit against the door of the bubble and are shouting that they will burn their way in. One cop has a cell phone and is phoning the administration desk reporting that he thinks they are getting in soon,, and asks that the desk tell his wife and children that he loves them. The inmates at the door to the bubble are screaming like hyenas that they’re going to roast the cops like bacon. The cops are crying. (yes, they are crying, they’re scared out of their minds and so they should be. Ask any one of them if they would ever cry and you’ll get lots of self righteous “no way”, but when people are really really scared, scared that they’re going to die right now, with no way to help themselves, in an exceptionally violent and sadistic way they …. cry. ) The other inmates are all over the unit, destroying anything they can get to. Toilets, toilet paper, paper towels, anything at all that can be moved on the unit is destroyed in seconds.
Wow, that sounds awesome right? Maybe exciting for you? Or it’s about time the prisoners beat up on the cops for a bit? Or maybe you think that this sounds like a breakdown in society and is a terrible thing? I say that either way is a reasonable way to think about things. However, I’m writing for the guys that are going in on your first time, you’re not a lifer, and you’re not likely to be back. With that in mind, I’m telling you, the moment the coffee pot gets thrown, walk straight to your cell and slam the door behind you. Most of the cells lock when you do that. Turn on your sink, and soak a couple of t-shirts or blankets, because the smoke might get pretty thick and the water will not stay on for long. Put t-shirts soaked with water along the bottom edge of your door and have a look at any vents in your cell and figure out how you can cover them. It does not have to be an air tight seal, you’re just trying to keep out the bulk of the smoke that might come in. Canadian prisons/jails are pretty fire resistant, but the smoke can really spread. Absolutely do not stay on the unit, anywhere. If you cannot lockup go to a corner and be ready. When riots break out the animals go crazy. They’re hungry to hurt people of any kind, but they’re also cowards, and won’t go against something that is challenging, including you if you’ve prepared.
I understand going into riot mode. I think that it’s the only way to get changes sometimes. The thing is the cost is very high. The guys that were active in the riot that I represented them on got a rough average of 6 years each. These were guys that were likely doing less than a 2 year bit and now they are looking at federal time. No one was seriously hurt in that particular riot, but the cops sure got scared. In a lot of riots there are inmates left dead. The bully types take that opportunity to do all that they can. It’s easy to get a few guys on one when that’s what’s going on. It’s a very dangerous environment. When it starts, lock up. Cheer if you want through your window, or stay quiet, but don’t be out there. Note however that there are consequences to this. When you walk to your cell and lock up you have not stepped up. This is the time when the inmates are making their move. What the hell, c’mon man, you should step up like the others. That’s the lure, the fall through, the sucker draw. If you’re a first timer, not likely to be back, your fight is not their fight. You might be really sympathetic to it, with your food being cut back even more and then screwed with, and your lock up times longer and then being screwed with, but your fight is not theirs. You may get friction for not having done what you should, but at these points you have to look out for yourself. Get through your time safely.
Depending on where you are doing your time, visit types vary a lot. In some provincial jails in BC, a visit occurs over a video link. The prisoner enters a room just off the unit, and sits in front of a video camera. The visitor steps into a room in an administrative area, and also sits in front of a video camera, and each has a monitor to see and hear the other. It may not be obvious at first look, but this is a system cleverly designed by a fiendish son of a bitch who is intent on destroying any actual family connections that an inmate may have.
More commonly in BC provincial institutions, visits occur through glass with a phone on each side. This is also pretty remote, but a lot more personal than the first type. You can’t hug a family member, but you can at least each put your hand on the glass. With this system the prisoners are lined up in individual glass rooms. They can see each other, and can kind of talk but it’s pretty muffled. There is a reasonable measure of privacy in what you say. Some institutions have a pod sort of system, with a group of visitors sitting in one room and inmates on the other side of the glass in the other room. The difficulty with this is that the noise is such that everyone is yelling, and there’s no privacy at all. There is often conflict among the inmates because they feel that the other guy is messing up their visit by being loud.
For those moved to a minimum security provincial unit, I understand that some open visits as described below are possible.
When you get to a federal system, there are visits like the above, but, depending on your security level, you may also be eligible for open visits. If you’re in maximum security, you’re doing it through glass, but if you’re not, the open visits allow you to sit at a table with your visitor, and you can hug or hold hands. If you are at a minimum security place you may even be able to walk around outside with your family member or members. Being actually able to touch a family member is a huge thing. I cannot describe the level of emotion that being able to touch a family member brings.
The next level of visiting that is available at some places is an actual stay over visit. These are sometimes called conjugal visits but they are more than this as it can include a parent, or child. Some places have trailers, or a little house, that you and your loved one or family members can stay in for a few days, usually a weekend. You are given a reasonable amount of privacy, able to eat and cook together, watch TV, walk around in the little yard that is attached, sleep together, etc.. This is a huge thing if you’re able to get to it. There’s an application process, and there’s rules about how often you can have it. It can be very challenging on a personal level because you’re not out, you’re going back in, and this window can be very emotional. That said, this is also a very good way to maintain your relationships, and relationships are what keep people from going back to jail.
The trouble with visiting is that it can open up some big wounds really quickly. Inmates often have family disputes during visits, and can be a lot more erratic after visits. It is extremely emotional to see your family in these circumstances, and you do not really have a lot of privacy in most cases, so your emotions are trotted out in front of the cops and fellow inmates. As well, have in mind that all visits that involve a telephone or video link also allow the cops/guards to listen in on what you’re saying. I assure you they do listen in. What you say can affect your security assessment, and unit placement. If you’re sounding really emotional you could get pulled from your unit and be placed in administrative segregation so that you don’t harm yourself or others. If you blow a gasket you may no longer be eligible for visits. It is absolutely essential that you approach a visit with your job interview face on. Do not reflect wide ranges of emotion, keep yourself totally in check no matter how badly things may go. Do not yell, do not cry, and certainly do not react physically. They are watching and it can cost you very dearly. As well, you’re less likely to hopelessly screw up the relationship with your family member if you keep yourself very restrained. Inmates learn some really lousy stuff during visits. Relationships end, you learn of family members passing away, etc. A monitored visit is not the place to react to this.
Telephones and telephone time
Depending on where you are, telephone access at all can be a very sensitive issue. In BC most provincial jails have a reasonable number of telephones that should accommodate the inmates that want to use them. However there are problems that develop with this. These include the guy who is constantly on the phone, and the guy who seizes control of the phone and asserts that no one else can use that particular phone (this is usually a gang affiliated guy. Gang affiliated guy = guy who thinks that he’s an alfa male, but really has not been made aware of his own mortality yet) . Be alert to these dynamics going in. Take a look at who’s using the phone and how a line up is set up (sometimes it’s id cards stacked up or something like that). You may be told that a certain phone is for someones use and their use only. That can mean that the phone sits there unused for hours and hours. That’s a decision for you, how important that phone is. That said if you decide that you’re using any phone, you can end up in political trouble which is detailed below. If you’re using the phone have in mind that other guys want to as well. Do not hog the phone. Most of all, absolutely positively do not wreck the phone. That’s a good way to get beat up for sure. Also, when using the phone, it’s usually a good idea to keep your back against the wall so that you can see anyone approaching you. You may wish to face the wall in an effort to have privacy, but there’s no privacy if you’re dead because someone smashed your head in with a kettle.
Communications with the outside
When you’re in jail or prison your mail in and out is monitored. Yes, they read your letters. They don’t expect that you’re writing sunshine and love all day, but they do watch for the commission of criminal offences like threatening witnesses or trying to pass personal information about guards, or things that may affect the security of institution (ie. smuggling contraband). If they form the idea that you’re doing this your communication will be flagged for special interest, and be further delayed beyond what it already is because they read it. If you’re committing infractions of one kind or another it will come back to haunt you.
Telephone calls can similarly be monitored. As well you can expect that the guy next to you is listening for anything that he can overhear as well.
Restrictions on what letters you can receive
Jail’s and Prisons all have restrictions on what sort of materials you can receive in jail. Usually any outright nudity is prohibited, but photographs can be mailed to you. Postcards are a really nice thing to get as it can be a great reminder of home that you can post in your cell. Another advantage of postcards is that it really reduces the amount of writing the sender has to do and this makes it more likely that they will actually send it to you. Cards that have things stuck to them for decoration are often rejected as they could be an effort to send in contraband. I’ve seen lots of letters that have address labels on them get rejected and returned to the sender. It would seem that the jail system cannot find it in their heart to support the easter seals campaign. News articles coming in are often rejected. If you want your mail to be as unimpeded as possible it’s best to keep it pretty basic. Tell your loved ones to send it on plain paper, no cute perfumes or anything like that, no staples, etc. It’s best just to give the cops as little reason to screw with your mail as possible.
If you’re the loved one of someone on the inside, know that letters/pictures/postcards are a lifeline. They are an absolutely huge thing to receive. There are lots of guys who get no letters at all, and the guys who get letters sure know how lucky they are. If you’re on the outside, try to send one every day. This may seem horrible, like you’re doing a sentence too, but there’s an easier way to do this – postcards! As I note above, this really reduces how much you have to write. You can get postcards at any dollar store, scribble something like “I always think of you when I see this place”, draw a smiley face on it, and you’re good to go. Throw it in the mail.
Another method for those on the outside, take a bunch of photographs of everyday things around the house, yard and neighbourhood. Get them printed at the London Drugs or Walmart, and mail one each in an envelope.
This is complicated stuff in jail. Politics are a constantly shifting thing, and I’ve been on units that had no issues when I left in the morning to go to work, and by the time I’m back on the unit the more experienced cons have got the young guys or new guys convinced to stab another guy when the yard opens up. Why was this? The real reason was that that guy snored really loudly and it drove the older guy crazy. The reason he gave to the guys that were supposed to do the stabbing was that the snoring guy was a rat, had ratted out everyone on the unit, and was going to be a witness later. All of it bullshit. They just didn’t want to live next to the guy. Guys get the idea that if they do this or that for someone they’ll be looked after. Bullshit. I saw two young guys do a hit on one of their buddies. These 3 guys played cards together and worked out together all the time. One of them who did the hit was to have been released the very next day. One of the gang guys told him that if he did the hit the jail couldn’t do anything about it because he was being released the next day anyway and the jail wouldn’t have enough time to have a hearing and give him more time, and if he didn’t do it he’d get beat. Instead he does the hit, and the jail of course does not release him, and he loses his good time, and gets sentenced to more time, for a fight that wasn’t his. His family showed up the next day to pick him up and was told that he was going to be there for a while longer. Nice one. The other guy who was asked to do the hit got beaten up later in his cell as a warning not to say anything. Why did the gang guy want them to do the hit? The real reason was …. get this. …. the guy who got hit laughed too loud one time while gang guy was on the phone. The result? Gang guy stays on the unit. Guy who did the hit is fucked because he not only didn’t get released but is doing a bunch more time. Guy who got hit for laughing to loud once had all his personal canteen stuff stolen and then got transferred to another unit.
Politics can be a shifting or suddenly arising thing, and can have serious physical repercussions. Every once in a while you see a “fair fight” inside. It’s pretty darn rare. More usually one guy will have a significant physical advantage over the other. More common though are sneak attacks. One or more inmates wait until a guy isn’t looking and then go for him. One or more of them may be armed. Sometimes guys will use boiling water or boiling butter as a weapon. It’s nasty stuff. You may have the idea that you’re about the best fighter ever, and there’s no way you’re going to lose. The guy I met who had been hot buttered just a few days before was a seriously large and fast guy, but he said that he didn’t have much fight in him after it happened. Over the next few weeks his face improved a lot, but it sure looked like it hurt like he++ when I met him.
- A word to the wise, if you’re on a unit where you are issued shoes and sandals make it a habit to always wear your shoes and always keep them done up. Sandals are often used for showering but they don’t offer any protection there (more on this below. It’s very hard to fight effectively in sandals or in shoes that are falling off.
- Another thought on this, be also alert to what other guys are wearing . If the guys at the next table usually are wearing their flip flops and this morning they’re all wearing their runners laced up, there’s a good chance that something is going to go down. I saw a guy wearing his very thick winter issue coat walking across the unit. No one else was wearing one. He was on his way to assault another guy in his cell, and had worn the coat, with stuff stuffed inside it, as a form of protection if the other guy had a knife.
- When and where to fight: Fights inside a cell are extremely dangerous. There is a lot of steel and corners and edges and concrete that all make an excellent weapon if you’re holding someone’s head and have the better of them at all. When the fight is on the cops don’t come until they have their backup, so you’ve got some time. However, as I said above, it’s extremely dangerous to fight in a cell. One lucky punch, and then he’s holding your head and smashing it against the corner of the concrete bed structure. You’re the strongest guy ever, but just for a heartbeat you got clipped. You don’t get a second chance or the ref stepping in when you’re in a cell. If you are found in someone else’s cell after a it will be presumed that you went there to assault them, so you’ll end up going to the hole for a long time. If you’re wanting to fight in a cell, it’s better for you if it’s in your cell. Let me say again, fighting inside a cell is extremely dangerous. In my view, if you’re wanting to throw down, it’s better to do it on the unit, or in the yard during exercise time. I never did observe the cops stepping in during a fight in the yard. On the unit, they start spraying with the pepper spray pretty quickly. You do not want to get hit by pepper spray. Pepper spray can spread through the entire unit leaving everyone doing some coughing. It’s nasty stuff and takes the fight out of guys pretty fast.
- ** Case in point – I was in with a young man, Adam . Adam was a bold and brash young fellow, say it loud and say it proud kind of guy. Adam was also a budding white supremacist, and always had someone on the unit that he was gunning for. He never picked a really strong guy, nor the weakest guy, just someone doing their time, and preferably a different colour. He practically fell in love with an even louder and more vocally racist idiot who showed up on the range. That fellow actually taught Adam the say it loud and say it proud bullshit. Adam picked a lot of fights. I can’t say he was a good fighter, he was not, but he was willing to fight, and most people are not, so he did well. He was sort of a one punch (overhand swinging right) champion and a terror on the unit. Anyway, Adam had it in for one black guy on the range, Victor, and made his life a living misery for no reason at all that I could discern. I am told that when Adam first arrived on the range he used to work out with Victor as part of a gym group. Politics change, and Adam spent most of his days making that same guy’s life a living misery.
- Adam had sort of caught on to jail and to people. He had a sense of who would actually fight, and was on a mission to test that. Adam would pick out guys, again never the strongest guys, go to their cell, and start wrecking their stuff. Throwing their toilet paper into the toilet (sounds really small until you don’t have more toilet paper), tearing up their court documents, or tearing up their letters or pictures from home, that sort of thing. When the owner of the cell stepped forward the response was “what, what you gonna do about it” and it was an obvious invitation to fight. Most did not. Somewhere along the way Adam had figured out that most people also will not fight to protect their stuff. They might fight when you hurt them, but you can pretty much crush their feelings before the punches get thrown. One day I poked my head into Victor’s cell and Adam was in the process of really trashing it. I asked him, “seriously man, what the fuck would your mother say”, to which he replied “are you kidding, my mother would be worse”. Adam had a kernel of smarts to him. He had something that he could do better with, but Adam was on a road that was all about bad stuff. He made a lot of guys’ lives a misery when they hadn’t done a damn thing to him. I wrote to him after I was transferred to federal and told him he could do better, that he was smarter than what he was doing. I never heard back. While he was in protective custody (which was a big surprise to me as Adam was not a guy to back down) he went into his cell one day and another guy did too. Adam didn’t survive. He got a short write up in the Vancouver Sun. 27 years old. Fights in cells are dangerous.
Borrowing stuff and Favours
“Hey dude, here, I’ve got this for you. You can pay me back.” DO NOT BORROW SHIT IN PRISON. How do I know this? Okay, you’re dealing with this amazingly honourable guy, because he told you that he is, he’s always been fair, not looking to make a profit, been there just like you are, and he’s kinda funny too. He’s in jail dude, there’s likely a reason for that! He is not your friend. You don’t have friends in jail. They are just people that have not tried to take advantage of you yet. That’s yet. Yet. Get it? In fact they are probably taking advantage in some way from the moment you walk through the door. Prisoners are all about gauging the threat and opportunity. There will always be strings attached to borrowing shit, and they are not always clear right off the start. Do not borrow shit in prison.
Canteen – what you can buy
To the best of my knowledge in all provincial and federal institutions in Canada you can purchase various items if you have money in your account. The range of items varies depending on where you are and the level of security that you’re at. However, these things can be pretty great when you’re in jail. I have it on good authority that a hell of a lot of junk food is purchased, and by that I mean bags of chips, candy, chocolate bars etc. While I was in provincial you could also buy protein powder, powdered milk, peanut butter and packages of tuna. These are great if you’re doing much physical activity like working out because it’s difficult to get enough calories without having access to extra. You could also buy hot sauce, which made the food at least half way edible. Personal care items like shampoo or toothpaste or nasal spray can also be purchased. Again, this varies depending on where you are.
Canteen – can create envy, and that leads to political problems
There will be guys inside who have no money in their account, and no job, and no family. They have no way to get anything at all. They may be a drug addict off the street and be severely under-nourished. They are hungry like no one you’ve ever met. Guys on methadone are also constant eaters of anything they can get ahold of. Some guys are just thieving sons of **tches wherever they go. Any of these guys watch canteen orders come in like a hawk. They are very alert to who’s getting what, and who might have something good in their cell. These leads to theft or sometimes extortion. Be aware that this dynamic is at work. If you’re at all on the down side of politics it’s a very poor idea to be making large canteen orders.
Canteen items can be used as barter items as well, a form of currency, though this is usually against the rules so it’s better not to be obvious about it.
Canteen, and supplies generally – Supply line issues
At times, inexplicably, it becomes impossible to get the most basic of things in jail/prison. A unit will run out of paper towel. There will be no paper towel for 4 or 5 days. Salt will stop coming, and despite notes and requests it seems impossible to get it coming. Toilet paper ends up in short supply. Items that are always available on canteen are suddenly back ordered for weeks. Do not count on anything that is available this week being available next week. Keep a spare of things that you can. This may seem like hoarding behaviour. It is hoarding behaviour. But when you can’t get a new tube of toothpaste for over a month it’s awfully nice to have a spare. Hoarding is a normal response to shortages. When you run out of paper towel and everyone starts using toilet paper and the toilet paper gets low and there are supply line issues with that you can imagine how things go. Become an expert hoarder. Note that the cops do not like to see a build up of items in your cell. Take the time to place items so that they are not obtrusive. If they look in your cell and it looks like a department store it’s probably not going to go well.
As well, plan ahead. When you have a miserable cold and your nose is running constantly it’s great to have nasal spray. But, if you don’t have some on hand, and you get a cold, by the time you get to canteen order day, which could be 5 days away, and then place your order and wait another 4 days ….. you get the idea. Buy stuff that is medicine related before you need it.
Sugar is currency
When you first go into a provincial institution or into a federal institution you are likely to encounter a lot of drug addicts who are just getting off of whatever their drug of choice is. I’m not sure why, but for a lot of these people sugar is like another drug for them, and they’re crazy to get it. They’ll put 10 sugar packets in a cup of coffee and love it. This is an example of something that you can get that for you may have very little value, and to others may have a lot of value. It’s an easy step on going in to stop using any sugar in your coffee, hang onto the sugar packets that you can, and use them as currency. The same can be true of spice packets, which on some units can be challenging to get at all, though they really don’t have the lure of sugar packets. With some frugal conduct you can get your cell cleaned, or your table cleaned, or your dishes done, at no real cost to you.
Food is not properly prepared – even more than usual
So I’m working in the kitchen, working hard. It’s a tough go in the kitchen where I was at. Despite a crazy amount of potential help there seemed not to be a lot of actual help. I was on the vegetable station, but had a great view of the grill station. It’s a chicken day, which is big protein day, everyone wants theirs right the hell now. We’re a a ways through cooking and there’s a big hit on the floor, a lot of chicken falls on the floor, it’s done. New chicken is brought in, but it’s all frozen. Not a bit chilly, outright frozen. The head cook, who is a very poorly payed employee of an outside contractor ( about 12 dollars an hour in 2013) says throw it on the grill. When I get to my unit I get my food, and I get one of these chickens. It’s raw, straight raw, raw not like Gordon Ramsey carries on about, straight raw. I approach the guard on my unit and tell him there’s something wrong with the chicken, that a batch went out to the units that was not cooked. He tells me to sit down and they will deal with it. That’s not really a “hey, grab a seat and I’ll deal with it.” That’s more a “go sit down or you’re going to the hole as an instigator in a food riot.” I’m thinking they will announce that there may have been a problem with food prep and to check out what you’re eating. Instead they don’t do anything more than that. “Sit down and we’ll deal with it” is actually how to deal with it. There’s a large number of inmates there that had raw chicken as their only food. This was not a one time situation. Food more than once during my brief stay on this unit left insufficiently cooked, exposed to poop/pee/spit or otherwise contaminated. The thing is that you have to eat. That chicken was raw you stupid cop. Raw. You get it? A hundred guys ate totally raw chicken, and you made your focus crystal clear. It’s impossible to live on canteen only, so eat the prison meals, but watch carefully.
Of the food that does come into the prison, well… some of it is pretty good. Maybe some nice hams? Great! Yeah, not so great. Good food coming in breeds envy and theft in both prison workers and contract workers. I get it with the contractor workers. They are payed practically nothing, They see these big slabs of meat going by. Then I’m at the vegetable station and the manager of the food prep area says does anyone know where Rhonda is??? Then she goes into the freezer section where Rhonda is not. When she comes out her purse is huge, so big it’s hard to lug it around. She walks by with her nose looking everywhere an inmate is not looking. She has a fabulous ham for dinner. That ham came off the dinner plate of every guy in that prison. She’s pleasantly plump and I hate her. They have to fill every tray that goes to the guys in jail, so they slice just a bit more thinly, ,and sometimes there’s no slice at all.
Milk gets poisoned and food is a hot resource
In some minimum security institutions you are given an allowance each week for your food. You can place a grocery order once a week from a list of available items which are charged against your allowance. You go to a central distribution area to pick up your groceries and take them back to your unit/house. Usually your food is then kept in a central kitchen, with each guy in a house having his own cupboard or shelf in the fridge. In other higher security institutions food and milk come from an in-house kitchen. You may go to a hall to get your tray. Most commonly the trays are pre-made, which prevents favouritism problems when the food is being dished up. There have been some shifts in food preparation, with the actual preparation of the food increasingly being done entirely off site and arriving at the institution in sealed trays that are then heated.
Here’s the thing with food. There is never really enough to go around, and inmates mess around with other inmate’s food or beverages. The meal allowance is calculated based on an adult male with reduced physical activity. That may be true of some inmates, but not so with all by any stretch. Some are working out like crazy, or are very active in the yard. There’s three ways that can go. Those active inmates can either stay active and start to lose a lot of weight, greatly reduce their level of activity and start to hold steady or gain weight, or they can get more food. That additional food can either come from canteen or….. other inmates.
Do not give up your food. Ever. Doing so makes you look like you’re a bitch immediately.
You may be approached within moments of entering a unit and asked if you want to trade something like your chicken dinner on Tuesdays for someone’s pancakes on Sundays. This may seem like a friendly proposal, but the proposal will always come after pancake day and before chicken day. If you go for the deal you have to give up something before you get something, and now you’re in the position we described in the gambling section, you have to collect the debt. This can be very problematic. As well, have in mind that a deal like this involves giving up protein, which is very valuable inside, in exchange for flour and powdered milk. That’s no bargain at all.
If your food/milk is coming from a jail/prison kitchen where it is prepared, have in mind that the inmates that are working in that kitchen may choose to mess around with the food or milk. This can include spitting in the food or milk, pissing in it, putting excrement (shit) in it, putting snot in it, you name it. Inmates are endlessly inventive. This can occur because there’s a political issue between particular residents on the kitchen unit and another unit. Look closely at food that is delivered to you in this environment. If it taste’s funny, don’t eat it. If it smells funny, don’t eat it. If it has a weird consistency, don’t eat it. Avoid having political issues with the kitchen unit.
On units where your groceries are yours to pick up and keep on your unit watch out for theft. Theft is very common. You must respond to theft. If you let it slide your groceries will become the smorgasbord of everyone on the unit. As well, your groceries are vulnerable to tampering in the same way referred to above. This does happen. Try not to get poisoned while you’re doing time.
Air borne illness
When you get admitted to a federal institution you will be given all kinds of shots to prevent you catching various diseases. There’s a reason for this. The reason is that there are all kinds of diseases that enter the prison system. Many people who come into prison have some very serious illnesses that will eventually kill them. Prison is like a really large petri dish. There are a lot of people in close contact. Diseases that can be passed through exposure to someone coughing include:
Common cold, Diphtheria, Fifth disease (erythema infectiosum), Influenza, Meningitis, Mycoplasma, Mumps, Pertussis (whooping cough), Plague, Rubella, Strep (strep throat, scarlet fever, pneumonia). You absolutely do not want to get sick in prison.
Food borne illnesses, and why not to share food with others:
As noted in the University of Rothchester Health Encyclopedia which can be found here: (https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=1220)
Bacteria can spread anywhere in the kitchen. So, it’s important to wash your hands and kitchen surfaces before and after preparing food. Bacteria can spread from one surface to another without you knowing it. If the bacteria get into food, they can cause foodborne illnesses.
Sources of contamination
Most viruses and bacteria that cause colds, flu, and foodborne illnesses are spread by hand-to-hand or hand-to-food contact. People with hepatitis A, Norwalk-like viruses (noroviruses), or the bacteria staphylococcus and streptococcus can pass these illnesses on to others by handling food. Also, a person who is ill from a foodborne illness, like hepatitis A, can pass that illness on to others by handling food.
It is common in jail for some guys to act as cooks. One guy might put together dinner for everyone in their group. All the other guys chip in the food. This might be food from their canteen, or food that they have saved from prior meals. Some of the cooks are very creative guys and put together what seems amazing dishes given the sparse ingredients that they have. This is a way to beat the boredom, share some social time with your fellow inmates, and have something different than the same stuff that is on the menu week after week. Do not do this. There are three groups of problems with participating in a cooking group:
- Personal cleanliness. Most guys in prison are not trained in food safety, and of those that are very few actually follow through with what they’ve been taught. Some examples:
- *While working in a kitchen environment on a serving line, an inmate who was wearing sterile gloves said he had to use the washroom. He was told to be quick about it. He entered the washroom facility, and came back out the door a few minutes later having done his business. He was still wearing his (now highly un-) sterile gloves. He reacted with irritation when told to get fresh gloves.
- A group of inmates working in a kitchen each day enter the kitchen and walk by the sink meant for handwashing. In the space of a month only one inmate regularly washes his hands before commencing food preparation activities.
- Clean preparation area. These cooks are usually carried out on tables on the unit. Those tables are touched by every guy who comes and goes, and cleaned with the cheapest cleaner available using a piece of paper towel. The guy doing the cleaning probably has not washed his hands, and leans on the table with one hand while wiping it with the other.
- Safe and safely kept ingredients. There are often restricted food storage facilities and containers in prison. There may or may not be a real fridge that keeps temperature that you have access to. Containers that are used for storage might have been on the unit for a year and never been exposed to an actual dishwasher. On one unit I was on there was a fridge available to inmates, but that fridge had to be emptied each night. I saw a cook of a bunch of chicken going on one night, and realized it was about 3 nights after the chicken had been served. I asked about how the chicken had been kept in the meantime, and was told that it was kept in the fridge. What about at night I asked. The answer? “We put it on our window sill so that the coolness of the window keeps it”.
Stay away from cooks/cooking groups. Food poisoning in jail is not fun.
Athletes foot is something else that is commonly transmitted. Good places to catch this are in communal showers. The key to avoiding athletes foot is cleanliness and dryness. The athletes foot fungus cannot survive in a dry environment. Many prisoners shower with their sandals on in an effort to avoid getting athletes foot. In fact, this no doubt gets the athletes foot fungus onto the sandal as well, and soaks the sandal, giving the fungus a better environment for a longer time to have contact with the skin. Do not shower with your sandals on. Shower often, take time to properly clean yourself, then take the time to properly dry yourself, including your feet, armpits, crotch etc. Then wear dry clothes back to your cell, including dry socks.
Get a job!
In some jails/prisons you can get a job. These jobs pay very poorly, but then again your needs are not all that great since clothes, housing and some food is supplied. If you can get a job this will usually cover expenses like telephone calls and canteen. Jobs might include being a unit cleaner, or working on a prison farm, working in the prison kitchen, doing the jail laundry, etc. In my experience, and that of those I knew that had a job, it was a way to have the time go by much more quickly. The day can and does drag on awfully long when you’re sitting at the same table with the same guys talking about the same stories over and over again, or even worse celled up with someone that you don’t really like, listening to whatever idiotic stuff he might have to say. So, I think that most inmates like having a job. It breaks up the monotony. The jobs are still monotonous, but it’s better than nothing. However, in most jails/prisons it is not anywhere near possible for everyone to have a job. There are just not enough jobs to go around.
Why do I need money?
As noted above, it is not always possible to get a job, or you might lose your job for whatever reason, or you can’t get one because you’re being transferred or have just been transferred. It’s still very nice to have canteen, and you can also purchase telephone time. Some jails have a system where you have to call collect to your family but this gets very expensive very quickly. It’s way better if you can buy phone time. As well, as you go into some federal institutions is possible to purchase belongings (put together a “pen package”). If you have money in your account to start with that process is a lot easier. The way to have money in your account to start with is to go in with it in your pocket. Once you’re inside, family members can send you money which will be deposited to your account but this takes some time to get through the system. At some places family members can drop off cash for your account but this is not always allowed.
Gambling. Card playing
Stay away from this stuff. It’s always trouble that follows this eventually. It’s all friends and buddies and men of honour and so much bullshit, until the two guys across the table from you are cheating, and don’t have a shred of embarrassment about it. Then the guy that is running the game (keeping the paper) is actually fixing the books, and then you owe money, or someone says you do, and then things get very unpleasant. In the alternative, maybe you’re a superplayer, best player ever. Awesome, you win a few games, maybe lots of games. Then someone has hurt feelings about paying you, or losing, (these are not well adjusted people) and blows a gasket. Or, the guy that owes you tells you and anyone else that he’s not paying you. Now you have a problem. If you don’t collect, you’re a bitch. If you do collect you’re into a fight, and there’s a risk of injury, and there’s a risk of getting classified to somewhere you don’t want to go, like Kent. Kent = worst vacation booking in the BC prison system ever.
Games like handball, basketball, soccer. There are good things and bad things about stuff like this. The good thing is that they will make you tired so you sleep well, make you fit so that you’re best able to defend yourself and less likely to get ill and give you a sense of socializing so that you feel like a human being. The risk of games like this in prison is that the nature of the game gives others a license to have physical contact with you. We’ve all played games that involve physical contact in school, and sometimes in adult life. We’ve all run into the guy that has the need to take that contact to the next level, who simply can’t be satisfied unless a check leads to a head into the boards, that sort of thing. The thing is that guy, the one who just has to take it to the next level, is also the guy a lot more likely to end up in jail/prison. He’s a fucking idiot, and that follows him through every aspect of life. He probably also beats up his girlfriend and goes to jail. He’s going to try to run you off the court, or into the wall, or what have you, and now you have two choices. Be the bitch, or give it back. The answer is very rarely to be the bitch, pretty much never. But giving it back can open up a can of worms in a hurry, and now you’re fighting him, and if he’s a gang guy his two buddies will trot in too, (they’re all bitches but they’re dangerous bitches) or maybe later that day he pulls out a knife and goes after you while you’re sitting at a table eating. Don’t get me wrong, you can play, and push back, but it can all go wrong in a hurry. Maybe it’s worth it, maybe not, but know the challenge going in.
Social and gym time
Don’t get me entirely wrong here. Some guys are tolerable, and you’ll get to like some more than others. You’ll have some pretty good laughs along the way, and see some crazy shit from time to time. There’s guys that I still talk to from time to time that I met while inside. I don’t invite them to my house though.
If you can, build a routine. For me working out was important, and when I was able to I would do it a couple of times a day. It’s important to take very good care of yourself inside, which means showering every day, eating properly, sleeping properly, that sort of thing. Your body is a machine, and it’s important to care for it and feed it. If your body is staying healthy that will go a long way towards keeping your mental health right. The same thing applies all the more so if you are in a restricted environment where there’s less opportunity for doing this.
What’s wrong with being a bitch?
It’s important to have in mind the sort of people that are around you. Some are predators, in a hunt and kill others sort of way, and a lot are just inclined to take advantage of others to one extent or another. When you read the chapter about gambling, there’s a line “If you don’t collect, you’re a bitch”. That may not seem so bad. In the real world, if another guy fails to pay up on a bet, well, that says what kind of guy he is, and you don’t place a friendly wager with that guy in the future. In jail/prison though, it’s quite another matter. Other guys in the institution will catch on to this, and start to press the issue. For example, the next morning someone will ask for a cup of your coffee and then take the whole thing. If you let something physical slide, like a push, or a punch, not only will others take it that far again, they will take it a lot further, until your life is a living misery. They will never ever stop, and others will jump on the train as well. It is imperative that you stand your ground.
- I was in with a very small fellow who was from a country south of mexico. This was a place where the police are known to have death squads. He was a guy from the streets. He was a very small guy, maybe 5’ 5” and 110 pounds. My recollection is that his name was Frankie. He’d done a good deal of time over the years. He knew that he very likely wouldn’t win the fight if someone went after him, but absolutely no one thought they could hit him and get away with it free. One day another inmate hit Frankie. This other inmate was a young guy with some stupid tattoos who was a fair bit larger, and the guy hit him while they were sitting at a table together playing cards. He hit Frankie because he felt that Frankie had laughed at him. Frankie slapped him. He slapped him so hard that you could see every one of Frankie’s fingers on this guys face. Frankie told him very clearly don’t ever think you can hit me. That other inmate could likely have taken Frankie out, if he didn’t get stabbed by Frankie first, but other guys on the unit liked this response. Frankie stood his ground without looking to anyone else. It was within a few minutes that more than one guy spoke to the young guy with the stupid tattoos. Shortly thereafter, the young guy checked into PC (Protective Custody).
Drugs/contraband and the drug culture in the institution
There are drugs in jail. Guys come in carrying them in their ass (called suitcasing), drugs get thrown over the wall or fence, volunteers sometimes bring them in, they get shipped in with food or canteen orders, they come in with visitors, and guards bring in drugs to inmates. Corrections Canada and the Provincial corrections guys do not like to discuss this, but there is no shortage of jail guards and prison staff that have ended up in prison (that’s if they’ve got solid proof), or very abruptly terminated (less solid proof), for bringing in drugs. Drugs are a big problem in the jail, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they really de-stabilize an environment. Drug addicts are addicts. They will do almost anything to get their drugs. That means making promises that they can’t fulfill for payment of the drugs, or agreeing to do a hit on another inmate to settle their drug debt. Sometimes the best answer for the addict is to get the drugs that they can, then do a hit on the guy who brought them in. With a little luck they can take his drugs too. Strangely, the seller appreciates this is a risk, and is usually fairly prepared. Other times the guy with the drugs won’t make any deals without payment up front. This is the usual case, but then leads to an inmate prowling around a unit getting ideas about how he can pay. That might mean paying with your stuff, or having the idea that you’re going to pay for his drugs, either with canteen items, or maybe your friends or family are supposed to put money into the sellers account. Extortion is popular. Drug addict inmates prowling around getting ideas rarely get good ideas, but they do get ideas that are dangerous as hell. All of this makes a unit that may have been pretty orderly a lot less orderly, and that’s not good.
Another reason that drugs are a big problem in jail is the effect that a good smuggling situation has on the guards (cops). Stuff starts coming in regularly, everything becomes very unstable, and once the cops catch on they blow a gasket. Why you may ask? It’s just some drugs, what the hell do they care? They do care. The drugs create instability and violence. The cops are afraid of the same things that everyone else is. They don’t want to get stabbed while they’re at work, and that’s a lot more likely when there’s drugs moving around. As well, and this is a big one for them… this week it’s heroin, next week it’s a gun. Cops are scared to death of this, and they will hunt until they find the source. When they find the source, he’s going to be going somewhere very unpleasant (segregation, or maybe a lovely trip to an institution in Quebec if you’re in federal.- more on prison methods of handling problems below). It may take a while, and for that time everything’s cool, and the guy with the source is making money like crazy, and seems to have more friends on the unit than you can imagine, but it’s going to go to hell.
Contraband is another thing, and by that I mean things like cigarettes. Cigarettes and tobacco on the inside are a highly sought after thing. In British Columbia jails and prisons, and I believe all jails and prisons in Canada, tobacco and cigarettes are considered a contraband substance. At times the native guys seem to get access to some tobacco for ceremonial purposes, but my impression is that it’s highly restricted, not enough to really get something rolling as far as a sales operation. When I was inside in 2013 a cigarette sold for 10 dollars. That was 10 dollars cash money, put into the account of the seller from someone on the outside. That’s 10 dollars for a cigarette, and a pack of cigarettes for $200 dollars. Two hundred dollars is some very thick cash when you’re on the inside and no one ever buys a pack, but you get the idea. Tobacco addicts are slightly more sane than drug addicts when it comes to trying to get their preferred substance, but it still creates all kinds of problems and messed up personal dynamics. Guys are told no cigarette unless the money is paid. They talk to their friend of loved one on the outside who promises to put the $10 dollars into the account of the seller. Thing is, either they forget, or don’t want to bother, or they just lie a lot, but either way they tell the purchaser “Yeah yeah, I put it in X’s account yesterday). The purchaser talks to the seller who swears he never had any money deposited to his account. The purchaser gets more agitated, and talks again to his friends on the outside, who swear up and down that they put the money in. Eventually, it comes down to a purchaser who either accepts that his own family or mate are not telling him the truth, or comes to believe that the seller is not telling the truth about having received the money. That option could certainly be true because…. Wait for it… you’re in jail! There’s criminals all over the place! As you can appreciate, at some point this creates a highly charged situation, which is never good in prison.
Doing your time in your cell, or outside your cell
Some guys do all their time in their cell. I’m not sure why. Maybe they have no use for the guys they’re in with. That’s certainly understandable. Maybe they’ve done so much jail time that they’re just sick of the whole scene generally. I can sure understand getting to this point. I think this strategy has some risks. There’s a big social component of being a human being. If we are not socializing, we get weird, we don’t think right, we get down, and then one day they find us strung up in the cell with some dental floss. Or maybe we are seen by others as isolated, as not able to cope with the prison environment, and then seen as not able to cope, and then someone comes to your cell to get that bag of chips they saw you get at canteen. That’s an opportunity but it can go very wrong. I think it’s important on any unit to establish a presence. That presence does not need to be in anyone’s face, but don’t try to run from the situation or the environment. You can’t get away anyway. On one unit I used to set my chair just outside my cell, and sit there and read my book. This allowed me a full view of the unit. It was not exactly bonding with others, but I had a very good feel if people were talking about me or getting stupid ass ideas and could prepare accordingly. Spending time at a table or in the living room area of a unit (for those lucky enough to get to a unit in which you live in a house) is an important time to listen, learn tricks and tips, and what’s going on around the prison, and what the political scene is (remember that politics are applied, and politics hurt), share a laugh now and again, perhaps try to be an understanding human being ( a lot of guys are going through horrible shit, and could really use an understanding ear before they string up or kill someone, or kill someone else)
Being shipped to court for sentencing, or some variation, or even worse, being sent to court to fix a date
I wrote an article for the Advocate, which is a magazine for lawyers. I wrote the article while I was in there to give lawyers a better idea of what their clients experience when they get shipped to court. Here it is, though I’ve made some changes to it.
Re: Trials of Prisoner Transport
As a formerly practising criminal defence lawyer and now an incarcerated inmate, I have perhaps a more personal acquaintance with in-custody travel than many. I have seen some of my fellow inmates taken from the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre (“FRCC”) (note that this was written while I was still in the Provincial system) to 222 Main Street in Vancouver so that
they can appear for an adjournment, or confirm a date or even just sign documents. There are video conference facilities at FRCC, and postal service is adequate as well. To have a client transported in person to Vancouver without giving a video appearance or postal service serious consideration is a waste of resources and a heavy burden upon the client.
Let me tell you of the specifics of a recent court date for a fellow inmate.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013:
4:10 am. – Woken up by the guard rapping on the door, not waking just him, but waking up his cellmate and the guys in the cells on either side as well; getting dressed and brushing teeth in the dark while trying not to further disturb cellmate.
4:30 a.m. – Leave living unit and go to records holding cells (this is a concrete room). It’s cold. He has to use the toilet. Fortunately there’s no one in the cell. He uses the toilet and not 10 seconds later another inmate is placed in the cell. It stinks to high heaven. He apologizes to the new guy for the smell. He’s alright about it. (This is not always a given, it can be used as a source of conflict. “If you had respect you wouldn’t shit when others are coming in” This is a line of bull, but it’s a good way to ramp up to the fight if you’re feeling in control)
5:15 a.. – Loaded onto a bus to travel to North Fraser Pre Trial Centre (“NFPTC”); the inmate is handcuffed, shackled, sitting in a small cage shoulder-to-shoulder with other inmates. It is a cold ride. Something is wrong with the heat in the back, the windows actually have frost on the inside, and the people in the back can see their breath. They are wearing something like a jumpsuit, there’s no jackets. The prisoners at the front ask for the heat to be turned up for the people at the back. At first the sheriffs turn up the heat, but they use the wrong control and they are turning up the heat at the front rather than the back. When it’s too hot for the sheriffs because they are the only ones in the front they complain and turn the heat off. One of the inmates in the front goes off and tells them to flip the other dial. In a big turn of insight one of them finds it and turns it up. It still doesn’t work.
5:45 am. – Arrive at NFPTC, unload and into another holding cell; the shackles hurt when trying to get off the transport; use of the washroom in the corner of the holding cell is in front of everyone else. One guy finally actually shits, and everyone bitches about it. After a couple of minutes he’s off the toilet, but a couple of minutes later says that he hadn’t finished and needs to finish. Someone says they will smash his head in if he does. He stays standing against the wall.
7:00 a. m. – A breakfast of a muffin, peanut butter and jam, a cup of cereal and a cup of milk is provided.
8:00 a.m. – Handcuffed and shackled again, boarding the transport to travel to 222 Main Street. By now the shackles are starting to wear. It hurts, and if you wear them long enough you bleed. Jail is great petri dish, and it takes very little to get an infection
9:00 a.m. – Arrive at 222 Main Street and unload into holding cells.
9:45 a.m. – Meeting with lawyer in meeting room. Speak for 10 minutes and sign two documents, then return to a holding cell (a 5 x 8-foot room with two other prisoners in it. No court appearance occurs. The two other guys know each other but they don’t know the 3rd guy. He’s not a big fellow, so they start to bait the other guy, looking for him to either step up or get it. It’s a stand off with very unpleasant consequences.
12:45 p.m . – Provided with lunch, being 2 sandwiches, a juice and an orange; consumed while sitting in the holding tank; bathroom facilities are in the corner of the room with almost no privacy. The sandwiches are a single slice of bologna on two pieces of bread, with a very thin and less than even spread of margarine on the two slices of bread. There is something that might have been mustard also, but it’s hard to be sure. It’d be great if it were mustard. The 3rd guy loses his bologna, but he’s allowed to keep his bread. He just wants to get away, and the bread is better than nothing. He tries to make it look like he doesn’t mind and didn’t want his bologna anyway. It’s pathetic, but he’s trying to hold on to some respect, even if only within himself.
3:30 p.m. – Enter transport, handcuffed and shackled to return to NFPTC; this departure time can vary between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., depending upon when court concludes. The guy in the next steel mesh cell has some mental problems and spends the entire trip going on to his fellow inmate about how he’s the kind of guy that has always screwed him over, and now he wants to screw him over. The crazy guy goes on to the inmate who has the misfortune to be in the cage next to him about how he’s going to kill him for sure when they get to the other end. Then he drifts off into a diatribe about satan, and spends 20 minutes screaming at the gods and his fellow inmate.
4:30 p.m. – Arrive at NFPTC, then sit in holding tank. The ranting crazy guy from the Van is no where in evidence.
8:00 p.m. – Board transport, again handcuffed and shackled to go to FRCC.
8:30 p.m. – Arrive at FRCC; strip searched and returned to living unit; a frozen meal is provided; the meal is so bad that most inmates don’t eat it.
As can be seen, the travel time is extensive. In all, this trip to court to chat with counsel for 10 minutes and sign two documents entailed 13 hours in various holding cells and three hours on prisoner transport vehicles (handcuffed, shackled and locked in a small cage). This is a miserable 16-hour day for the inmate. Had counsel instead mailed the forms, or made use of the video appearance system, the inmate might have walked to records, made the appearance, and been back to the living unit in an hour or two at most. Please take a moment and think about this 16-hour day before making scheduling decisions. Your client will thank you, or at least think less ill of you.
Changing cells- a new cellmate
A new cellmate, or moving into a new cell, is an interesting social experiment. You have no idea who you are getting, often the prison system has no idea who you are getting, and the guy that walks in that is known by everybody as a really good guy has actually started to have mental problems and now has ideas that you’re the guy who really put the finger on him in his own case. Perfect! There are no shortage of guys who have been killed by their cellmates. There are a lot more guys who are made miserable every second of lock up by their cellmates. How about the guy who insists on having the cartoon channel playing all night long on the TV? Or the guy who insists that the country music channel on the radio play all night? Or the guy who snores so damn loudly that you can’t think, let alone sleep? Or the guy with one of those positive pressure breathing machines, even better if it kicks in each time he stops breathing. After a very short period of time you start thinking of ways to make sure his breathing stays stopped.
A new cellmate is rarely a pleasant thing, and the honeymoon period sometimes lasts for about half a second. A new cellmate means disruption in your life, and the possibility of violence or theft. Do not trust a new cellmate, and do not expect the new cellmate to trust you. That being said, there are some guys that are great cellmates, they make the time go by a lot faster, someone to talk to, that kind of thing. However, understand that when you’re sharing a cell you’re usually sharing a toilet as well. The polite thing to do is to try not to shit unless your cellmate is out of the cell, but this is not always possible. Also try not to leave any trace of yourself behind when you use the sink as well. The other guy does not want to see your spit from the toothpaste laying in the sink, or anything else you may have spit up. Clean up after yourself. If you have a shared desk get your stuff off it right after you use it. The other guy does not want to pick up after you any more than you want to pick up after him. Keep your area clean and orderly.
Medical care, dental care, and trips to the hospital
It takes a while to get to see the medical staff. You have to put in a request, and eventually you are told to make your way to where they are at. This can take days, or just may never occur. Once you get to see them, the medical staff in a jail or prison starts off from the presumption that you’re trying to work a scam, most likely trying to get drugs from them or from another prisoner seeing the doctor, or trying to get out of work. That’s the start point. When you advise them of the issue that you have, that’s “manipulation” coming out of your mouth, not a statement of facts. Your history of following direction, staying out of the mix, never having taken drugs in your life, all of these things are diversions, tricks to present as other than a drug seeker. You will get some of the absolute worst medical care in your life while in jail/prison. I cannot say with certainty that the nurses and doctors on site are incompetent, but they are so suspicious that there is no hope of actually being treated as a human being. Do not go see them. Instead, do everything possible to keep yourself healthy. Stay away from sick inmates, take vitamins if you can afford them, sleep regularly, exercise regularly, get outside as often as you can. If you get a cut or scrape clean it right away and keep it clean, use soap often, absolutely wash properly after using the bathroom, and each time you come into your cell after being in a common area. Cleanliness is strength and power if it means that you don’t get sick.
As to dental care, that’s a different animal. The corrections system is slow… s . l . o . w. How can I say it? They operate at the speed of a slug. They can screw up almost any request, misfile virtually any paper, and misunderstand the most basic communications. So if you notice that you’re starting to develop a cavity, for example a tooth feels a bit sensitive to hot or cold water, that sort of thing, put in a request to see the dentist immediately. Do not wait even five seconds. You can always refuse to go see the dentist if it’s gotten better, but you can never ever hurry the process along. If you’re screaming in pain you’ll get a reply like “you should have said something before” or “it’s not my problem, put in a request to see the doctor” (note, not the dentist, the doctor). Even better is when the guard responds with something like “welcome to [insert name of prison here]”. This is an excellent time to work on treating an inmate in an arbitrary way. It’s really easy to ignore or disregard someone else’s pain. Really easy. The corrections system has figured that out in spades and it’s one of the key lessons that they teach.
At times you may be driven to go to the hospital. Now there are two ways that you end up there. One is being so sick that you are almost on death’s door, and the jailer has no choice that they can see but to take you there. The other is that you think that maybe you will meet someone that actually gives a shit about you, and for some time either be safely away from some inmates, or interact with some normal people. Hahaha, you’ve gone the wrong way about this I can tell you. The first though that the prison has, if you’re been stabbed, are bleeding out, unconscious, or your heart has failed, is… how’s he trying to escape. You may be visually yellow in every respect (liver failure) or grey like death (which usually means not far from death) and they main issue is how can we be sure he does not escape. You’ve done your time with no problems, are due to be released in two months, you hit the panic button because you’ve never felt such tremendous pain in your right lower abdomen (appendicitis) and 3 hours later they’ll have you right out of there. Now lets talk about the other way. You’re among the walking wounded, and either sound off enough that you are really sick, and get the doctor to recommend that you go, or you’ve had some injury like a broken bone that requires additional xrays or something that need to be done off site. That means going up to the administration area, then the put on the ankle cuffs and hand cuffs, put you in the truck but don’t leave for a half hour since the cops have to have coffee, drive there, and park as far away as possible from the front door. The two cops then walk you to the door. Sounds civil right? The fucking shackles cause life long scarring around the ankles. Walking a block in shackles is a memorable experience. Listening while you’re in shackles to some stupid cop tell you to get off the bus faster because he’s in a hurry is a real delight. (read that, leads to ongoing dreams about doing to them as they’ve done to you). I was celled with a young guy (John) who broke his wrist while on the inside. He’d been playing hand ball. He was in for some little petty shit. By the time he was out, he had permanent shackle scars around both of his ankles because he had to go to the hospital to get his wrist cared for. Stay away from the hospital if you possibly can. If you cannot, take paper towel with you, tuck it into your pants, and try to wrap it around the cuffs while you’re in the back of the van. There’s a good chance the cops either won’t notice it, or won’t bother to remove it when you get out of the van. [*John at 22 died within months of his release. Drug overdose I understand. I’m still angry at him, he wasn’t on drugs while he was in, and never said he was an addict. What the hell John????]
Alcohol and home brews in the prison system
This is great, we can have drinks while we’re in jail! 🙂 Okay, not so much. Jail brews are common, they’re done on almost every unit or range at some point. Isn’t it great that you can have some alcohol if you’re of a mind to? No, it’s not. I’ve never met a collection of people with such a poor grasp of the making of alcohol in my life. I’ve had multiple people sit and tell me how their brew is 40 or 60 percent, maybe even 90 percent alcohol. And all they had to do for that was to have some oranges, bread, and water in a bag in a warm space for 20 days. Okay, I”ve made a lot of booze in my life. A hella lot of booze. It’s been a hobby to me. You cannot make any alcohol that does not use a still that exceeds about 12 percent. That’s the upper limit, at best, because the yeast dies around there. The yeast in jail comes from the bread. If there are in fact live yeast there they are not the type that are used to brew alcohol, but it is possible. Then again, more likely, the rotting oranges and bread in the warmth create a lovely illness laden creation and you get food poisoning. You drink it, and you feel really weird, and then you spend two days in your cell on your cot, trying to survive. Later you report to you buddies that you were so hung over it took two days to get out of bed. Bullshit. You had food poisoning. Prison brews are not stills, they can’t ramp up the alcohol, they are food poisoning in a bag. Do not drink them.
Asking for Help
At some point you may very well feel that you really can’t take it anymore. Maybe a wife or girlfriend starts dating your best friend on the outside or you’re on the down side of politics on the unit, and you feel that your physical safety is under immediate constant threat from everyone on the unit. Maybe you just don’t fit in very well and feel you don’t have a friend in the world or the one guy that you thought was your friend stole all of your canteen. Perhaps you’ve been informed that a family member has passed away. At times like this, it can be tempting to ask for help. Some guys ask for help by way of threats of or attempts at suicide. Some places have a counsellor available. The thing is, jails and prisons are very keen that you not die on their watch. If they think that you are having thoughts of “self harm” or suicidal thoughts, they have an amazing support system. That support system consisting of putting you into administrative segregation immediately. They place you under what is called suicide watch, and now you’re stuck in a totally bare room where you are watched on camera 24 hours a day, the lights never turn off and you’re given limited access to bedding or anything else that you might conceivably use to hang yourself (Or incidentally to be remotely comfortable) and you’re kept in complete isolation. You will recall that I said that people in solitary confinement get weird? If you were not really having suicidal thoughts when you mentioned them, you sure will be after a couple of days held like this. Prison is not the place to ask for help. Sometimes you can talk to the guys around you, but really you’re doing this part alone, and it’s hard.
Asking guards for help
Sometimes things can start going really badly on a unit for you. Maybe the guys all hate you, someone is stealing all of your food, you can’t sleep because the guy below you snores. Okay, that last one, you can go to the guard and ask to transfer to another cell. Maybe he agrees to let you, maybe he doesn’t. The other ones though, no, you can’t ask the guards for help. They are not there to help you. They look nothing like the front desk guy at your hotel and they sure don’t see themselves in that role. Going to the guards about issues is universally seen by other inmates as “ratting out”. It will earn you additional disrespect from the guards, and additional disrespect and outright contempt from the other inmates. The only time you can go to the guards on issues that are serious are to ask to transfer jails or units, or to go to PC.
Asking to transfer to another unit, to another jail, or to PC
Transferring to another unit/jail for work or family: At times an inmate may become aware of a family member on another unit, or someone who’s been like a family member. In the alternative, an inmate may have done time in a provincial facility before, and would prefer to be back on a particular unit, for example a kitchen or laundry unit. In these circumstances it’s fine to request a transfer to that unit. Ask the guard on duty and he can give you the form to do so. The same applies with respect to a transfer to another jail, with the added proviso that it’s perfectly reasonable to ask to transfer to a jail closer to your family, or closer to your lawyer or trial. These requests may or may not be granted, but no problem making them.
Transfer to another unit or jail/prison because you’re having problems: This is known as being a “hideout”. Inmates do not like this kind of behavior as it suggests that you’re running, and that’s not a way to maintain any respect. They will pass messages from the unit you’re from to guys they know on the new unit telling them about your history.
Transfer to PC (Protective Custody): This is a sensitive issue. There are a lot of people who go to protective custody immediately upon entering the system because they are afraid of the response of other inmates to their offence. This includes guys who hurt children. It also includes guys who are prone to talking to the police and courts about other inmates (rats). Rat’s are despised, as are sexual offenders. But… get this… there are lots of sexual offenders on regular units who just have not been outed yet. There are all kinds of guys who treat everyone in their lives in the most disgraceful, disrespectful way possible. These guys tell stories to fellow inmates about events that amount to straight acts of rape while laughing about how tight she was. There are a ton of guys on regular units who have ratted out their buddies to the police during questioning to try to get their charges dropped. PC is more about politics and not being able to cut it in the general prison population. Guards will have a further level of disrespect for you if you’re in PC and will delight in any further misery you may suffer. Exercise and recreational activities will be further restricted if you’re in PC. The chances that your food has been messed around with through spitting, excrement (shit), pissing or any number of other clever tricks sky-rockets. You will be regarded as a prize for assaultive general population inmates who are able to get to you because a guard “accidentally” left a door open. This is not a place to go if you’re looking for people to just be a bit more kind. It’s a place to go when you’ve failed and even then it’s probably not going to get any better.
Troublemakers for the jail/prison
Prisons and jails have a long history with dealing with guys who cause problems. Look at who they have for customers! They have seen it all by the time you’re at their door. They have a number of things in their toolkit to deal with those issues.
a) They have plenty of huge guys who really like to fight, and they will send all of them if they think it’s necessary. Sometimes an inmate gets the better of one of the cops, but it usually does not last for long.
b) Segregation – There are segregation units at every prison and jail. Segregation is very unpleasant. Solitary confinement is very damaging to people. It’s not long into a solitary bit that people start to get weird. Repetitive behaviours, talking to themselves, not talking to themselves, and some big issues dealing with others when they get out. I’ve met a number of people that have done lengthy periods of solitary, and none of them really gets back to entirely normal. Don’t get me wrong, it’s survivable, almost anything other than actually being killed is, but that doesn’t mean it’s something to be sought out. Stay away from gang shit, and anything that’s about smuggling stuff into the institution, and you’ll probably not end up doing a lot of seg time. It’s destructive as hell for the inmate and easy for the jailer.
c) Shipping. If you’re in the Provincial System in the lower mainland you may find yourself shipped overnight to Kamloops Regional or to Prince George. Literally, I mean overnight. The cops come to your cell, lead you out and down the hallway, and another cop packs up your stuff. By the end of the day Kamloops here you are. Two days later, after a stay overnight in some RCMP cells, you’re in Prince George. Now you’re far away from family, in a jail where you don’t know anyone, and you’re becoming the new cellmate. Very stressful for the inmate, easy for the jailor. On the federal side it’s a whole different ballgame. They have the same options, but a much more attention getting way to exercise them. Because the federal system applies across Canada, someone who’s being a persistent pain in BC can find themselves in New Brunswick, or even worse, Quebec. If you’re an english speaking guy who does not understand french, you can imagine the problems not understanding the language can put you in while in jail. You can appeal these transfers to other institutions, but you can imagine the kind of priority that your appeal gets, given that you’re appealing to the very people who shipped you.
Sexual Assaults in Prison
Do sexual assaults happen in prison? Yes, they do. Do they happen in provincial jails? Yes, they do. Do they happen in protective custody? Yes, they do. Do sexual assaults happen in facilities for women? Yes, they do. With that being said, Prison in Canada is not some version of Chained Heat (a prison movie that has sexual assault happening around every corner). There are a lot of power dynamics at play in a prison/jail environment, and a lot of seriously messed up people. This stuff does happen and you have to be alert to those risks. Is there a gang rape happening each day in the shower? No. Could you be sexually assaulted in the shower? Yes, though you’re just as likely to be assaulted in a non-sexual way there. When in places that are somewhat out of the way be alert to who’s there, what’s going on when you walk in, and focus on placing yourself in a position where you’re better able to defend yourself. If you can, change your clothes while sitting against a wall, that way you’re not getting hit from all sides. If you’re in the shower, don’t close the screen entirely or at all. That way you can see people approaching. For myself, I had a mental line in the sand. Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me friendly, don’t touch me haha, and sure as heck don’t touch me hostile. I adopted the same approach in not touching others. This prevents any mixed messages. Note however that while it’s easy to say this, it can be quite another thing to enforce it if you’re not inclined that way. It is imperative that you enforce your body security, immediately, each and every time that someone tries to interfere with that. This kind of stuff will usually start with someone testing you out somehow. A push, a slap, maybe stepping up and getting into your face, are all the start to endless problems. There’s a story about Frankie in here in the “What’s wrong with being a bitch” segment. Take heed of that story.
Part III – Trying To Get Out
Parole and the parole board. Let me be clear. I am not a fan of the parole board. Their real objective, as set out in the legislation, is to assess risk, and if the risk can be controlled then they have a duty to grant parole. That being said, that’s sure not what they do. The legislation that directs them is the Corrections and Conditional Release act, which provides:
Criteria for granting parole
102 The Board or a provincial parole board may grant parole to an offender if, in its opinion,
(a) the offender will not, by reoffending, present an undue risk to society before the expiration according to law of the sentence the offender is serving; and
(b) the release of the offender will contribute to the protection of society by facilitating the reintegration of the offender into society as a law-abiding citizen.
That “May” has been interpreted to be a mandatory shall. However, the parole board has instead gone relatively wild in Canada. They are all about extracting the pound of flesh. If your offense is a nasty one (likely to attract a lot of public condemnation) they are politically motivated to say the least. If you’ve done something that has family members of victims or victims themselves attending the hearing, expect that the parole board is going to deny you on the first try no matter what programs you may have taken, or how minimal the actual risk you may pose. The parole board appointments are political, and the parole board members are political beasts. Do not expect them to stick to their mandate. They can ask you anything at all, if you’re not keen on answering you’re “evasive”. If you suggest for a second that you’re not the worst offender of this class in the world you’re a “denier”. If you throw yourself on a bed of nails in an effort to end your existence because you feel so bad about things you’re a “manipulator” and a “poor planner”, who is even more likely to breach parole. If your offence involves drug or alcohol use you’re a “substance abuser”. That may seem self evident, but as a case in point I note someone I knew that had not consumed any alcohol whatsoever after a terrible drunk driving offence, for 3 years while on bail. No reason to believe that he/she was not being accurate in their report. No hint of alcohol use in the prison system. No breaches of any kind while on bail for 3 years. No prior convictions or administrative penalties in the 30 year plus lifetime for alcohol related matters, or indeed anything at all. The parole board did grant parole, but concluded that there had to be day parole, staying at a half way house in another community, to control the risk. Really?? Political todies. That’s not at all about controlling risk, that’s about preserving a public impression. Know that you have to dance to their tune, and the tune makes no sense at all. It’s about politics. They’ll start to give you a heads up as to what the political considerations are within a few minutes of the hearing starting. Listen very closely to anything they say. Do not interrupt or you’re “argumentative”. Let them pontificate (go on as long as they like setting out their particular view or position), and let it guide your answers. Make sure that you take every program under the sun if only to show that you’re keen to address whatever issues corrections may have identified. Be active in programs of any kind, get a job in the jail or prison, stay out of the mix. Cultivate a good relationship with your institutional parole officer, but know that they don’t drive the bus. They may well be telling you that everything looks good, they’re really impressed with the progress you’re making, it seems very positive, and then… the parole board comes along, and we start the political grandstanding. I regard them not as political animals but as political rats, with all the self interest that entails. Be very very careful in your dealing with them. They are not for one second up front and honest.
Quite apart from all that though, lets talk about eligibility guidelines. As present, in 2018, I believe that you’re eligible for parole after serving 1/3 of your sentence unless you have been sentenced to a set period without parole. This is an important consideration, because the period of no eligibility for parole means only eligible for parole, not paroled. Hmm, how does that make things clear? Lets try this.. Just because you’re eligible for parole does not mean you will get it. I served time with a guy who had been sentenced to life, with no parole eligibility for 10 years. At the time I met him, he’d been inside for 26 years. There had been no convictions for any crimes during the time that he’d been inside. In his case he was a guy who was very likely to leave the country, and in fact would likely have been deported. That means the parole board has no hope of controlling his risk so… they keep him, and keep him, and keep him. When he was sentenced he thought he would be out in 10 years. Big joke on him I guess. I’m sure his lawyer thought he would be out in 10 years too when that sentence was given. The thing is, the lawyer doesn’t do the time with you or for you, so they have a lot less interest in what’s actually going to happen as part of your sentence.
Your application for parole
Now that you’re at your parole application date good grief file your application! Maybe you can get out of this place! Okay, you filed it, a little before Christmas while you’re still in the assessment centre, and then a little cop shows up at the gate, and she’s really pissed, but she does not come inside. Instead, she berates you, and the part that I really remember (yes, this ones a bit personal) is “I don’t appreciate you applying for parole before you’ve even met with me. Now do you want to withdraw your application until I”m back or not!!) ” I got the idea, and withdrew my application for parole. That way she could go away for Christmas and not be bound up by the time limits required for parole applications. Her Christmas cost me an extra month. I hope it was a great christmas. I was wrong. The institutional parole officer carries a bit of weight, but not lots. If they seem all the way in your corner do not get all happy, the parole board will still be there to extract their pound of flesh. Be pleasant and deal with your institutional parole officer like you’re applying for a job but do not rely on what they say. You’re really doing this on your own and at each level they will want you to pay the price they think you should.
Part IV – Now You’re Out
Prison is a complicated place, but after a while it becomes sort of simple too. Life will get this predictable quality to it. Then when you get out there’s a whole new adjustment to go through. I found the getting out adjustment to be more difficult than the going in adjustment.
Traffic was the first big adjustment. Though I’d been in for only a little over a year I found that the world generally was moving very quickly. There’s a lot to concentrate on when in traffic and being inside gives very little to concentrate on. There’s just not that much that vies for you attention in a closed environment. I was only a few minutes into traffic before I was starting to feel very stressed out, and this was with my spouse driving.
Demands on your attention. When I went in I had been used to many things at a time requiring my attention, and felt that I was pretty good at prioritizing. After the time inside I found that I had much less tolerance for these multiple demands, and to the present day (2018) I find that this lack of tolerance continues. As well, where an inmate has served long periods in higher security levels they may not have been making their own food, or doing their own laundry, or choosing their own groceries in a very long time. Having to do all these things seems like a huge olympic event when you’re just getting out.
Reaction to others/perceived threats. In jail not much happens quickly but bad things happen very quickly. There’s hardly ever reason for running feet unless it’s bad. So when you’re shopping in home depot and hear someone run up behind you, the physical and emotional reaction is not great if you’ve just gotten out of jail. This sort of extreme response factor hangs around for a long time.
Changes in your world. Like it or not, things will have changed at home. The dishes get done at a different time or different way, the layout of the house is different, hobbies that you may have shared with a partner are not the same anymore, your partner or family has different activities or friends, things have changed. At first it’s like playing catch up. Stuff that was so familiar that it required no thought at all has changed, or perhaps you’ve changed, but either way there’s now thought required to keep up and participate. By way of example, my spouse got a dog while I was away. We had gone grocery shopping. I felt that the dog had a better grasp on the routine for getting the dog and stuff out of the car and into the house than I did. I just didn’t know the system. My spouse was frustrated with me and spoke to me as though I was a child. I to some extent felt like a child. The resulting reaction was not a good one.
Changes to your partner. If you had a relationship when you went in, that relationship may not have survived the time. It may have been some time since you’ve spoken at all. This is not the time to blow a gasket and start stalking your former partner. Keep your head screwed on straight. If your partner is still there for you, have in mind that they have changed too. They’ve had to do all the shared chores themselves, and keep things afloat. They’ve worried like hell about you for months and months, maybe years. They will have changed, and they will have a reaction to your release. At first it’s probably a thrilled reaction, but some resentment is likely to be there too. Understand that they’ve just been doing the time as well.
Changes in the rest of the world. Several years ago I spoke with a guy who had done over 20 years, who had experienced a lot of frustration when he got out. I asked him what the greatest sources of difficulty for him had been. He told me “cards, it’s the &&cking cards”. He explained that when he’d gone in the use of debit cards, membership cards, passcards etc had all not been around. When he got out these things were not only commonplace, they were absolutely necessary. He felt he’d been left behind, and everything seemed a struggle.
Part V – Conclusion
When I was practicing law I did a bail hearing for a man who was facing charges of sexual assault. He had been on bail, and allegedly breached it by hovering around outside the store where the complainant worked. He had a prior sexual assault allegation. The bail hearing was a challenge, and he was granted bail on some fairly restrictive conditions. His mother spoke to me outside, and asked how he was supposed to “live his life” with these conditions. I told her that he was going to have to figure it out and he was lucky that he’d been granted bail because this situation was “ fucking serious.” It had been a real challenge to get a new bail order and I guess I did not have the patience I should have. In any case, this woman later complained to the Law Society and in part said that she was seriously traumatized by my comment. Some things cry out for a “this is fucking serious” designation. If you’ve read all this you, or a loved one, is facing a situation that is fucking serious. You can get through this. Many people have gone to jail, and almost all survive. Not everyone does though, so you have to be careful, keep your wits about you, and plan and prepare ahead of time if possible. I hope you will be able to focus on what’s beyond, and consider this time now as only one part of the journey. This is not your life, this is only one part of it. This is not you, this is only some of your time.
Good luck to you.
p.s. You may write to me if you wish. Having someone to write to can help. If you have information that you’d like to add to this publication I’m very interested in hearing from you, and would be pleased to include that information here with appropriate credit if it’s a good fit.
Copyright 2018 William Mastop
– These are my words. Don’t steal them or call them yours or try to make money from them. If you want to quote them that’s fine but give the appropriate credit. If you want to print them and send them to someone who is inside or going inside I’m okay with that.
Some links that might be helpful:
The link below is an interesting article that appeared on Global news. it addresses the parole rate for those serving life sentences in Canada. There are no shortage of people that are actually doing life. Life in Canada is not 25 years as so often is quoted. Life in Canada is life, that’s till you die. It’s only parole eligibility that is at issue and this is discussed above. Here are the numbers: