The Indigenous Struggle and Imprisonment

In this blog about prisons I want to talk about indigenous people today, for several reasons.

Firstly, because our awful reality is that the Canadian prison system is reliant upon the exploitation of indigenous people to exist. The struggles of indigenous people and the Canadian prison system are not separate nor isolated problems.

Unfortunately, I lived for 21 years without knowing much about either. For 16 of these years I lived in my home city of Hamilton. I was raised there, I received my education there, I grew up blocks away from a jail, an hour away from a prison, 40 minutes away from a reserve and still, I knew nothing about either prisons or aboriginal people here.

Why is that ?

Had I not had a passion for caring for living things in the environment, I never would have moved to BC and sought out life experiences rich in aboriginal culture. I never would have visited self- sufficient indigenous spaces that welcome in any people to learn and live a way of being that respects life and is not based upon destruction and consumption.

I would have carried with me the extremely racist mentalities that my school teachers put into my mind as a child, when I learned that “what happened to natives happened a long time ago and they need to learn how to adjust to the Canadian way”.

I would have never know about residential schools or the 60’s scoop and I never would have known about the violence, poverty and addiction that exists on reserves, or that these problems exist entirely because of the lasting and ongoing effects of colonization.

And I never would have known that all across this country stood cages called prisons that were filled, just filled with indigenous peoples, criminalized for nothing more than the heritage from which they were born.

Indeed, had I not been stolen from my own life and wrongfully convicted of murder, I likely never would have understood how much of the Canadian prison systems resources are used to over imprison and isolate indigenous people.

Many prisons is Canada, specifically those in the prairie region, imprison aboriginal people almost exclusively. Stoney Mountain Prison, for example, keeps and average of a 90% indigenous population.

Here, in the Max unit of Grand Valley, there has not been less than a 50% indigenous population since I have been here. And once within the prison system, aboriginal people receive higher security classifications and continue to experience systemic racism on a regular basis .

I have been in prison for almost two years, and the full and terrible effects and true nature of the criminalization and domination of indigenous communities by the Canadian state and by Canadian culture are still sinking in. It is no wonder that most of us in Canada do not know or teach our children the truth about the history and the current state’s relationship to indigenous people here—the truth is unbearably harsh.

The stories I hear from the women I live with make me weep. These women, young and old, have been raised under conditions most Canadians cannot fathom, either by their natural family in unthinkable poverty, or as wards of the state in residential schools and foster homes alike.

Women after women, month after month, I learn a new tale of a woman who had every odd against her. In northern Ontario today indigenous teenagers actually have to leave their homes and live with families they do not know in cities they have never lived in, should they want to go to high school because there are no schools on or near their reserves. The popular CBC documentary show, the Fifth Estate, reported on some of the problems that stem from this issue last year, in an episode entitled, Stories From the River’s Edge.

It is but one in a sea of unacceptable occurrences that form the current daily realities of so many of our brothers and sisters.

The second reason why I am writing about indigenous people today is because of the remarkable uprising that is occurring in response to the Harper government’s assimilation agenda. On top of all of the struggles that aboriginal communities face, the same state that took my life and put me in prison and the same state who is selling our land and resources and who is dismantling every environmental safeguard we have, the same state who put forth the Omnibus crime bill C-10, which effectively birthed a Canadian prison industrial complex is trying to trample on what few legal rights and agreements it has in place with indigenous people.

But from this prison, where I see racism inflicted daily on my indigenous sisters, I have been watching and listening, wide-eyed and inspired by the resistance that the states tactics have sparked. I cheered for the CN rial blockade, and I am galvanized by all of the actions of the Idle No More effort and by the huger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence.

Yesterday, two women in the max and I began a solidarity fast with the huger strike and all of the actions that are occurring. We planned the fast from Friday January 4th to Monday January 7th, and it is successfully under way. Last night another women approached me and told me she would join our fast, increasing our numbers to four of the the 14 women imprisoned within Grand Valley’s maximum security unit. This woman, who is an aboriginal woman, had been looking for a time for a way to contribute to the resistance. She is not just fasting for 72hrs, but in support of the existing actions and in opposition to all of the injustices inflicted upon aboriginal women, she will fast until Friday morning.

The show of solidarity by her and everyone who is participating is incredibly inspiring. To often we feel powerless with in the prison system. Any type of political organizing is highly criminalized, so most women her feel that they have no choice but to accept what ever happens to them, not just in the context of the government’s aggressive policy overhaul but also within the context of the treatment we receive as imprisoned people.

Yet there is much injustice within this justice system, and all of it disproportionally affects aboriginal people.

The aboriginal struggle is at the forefront of social problems here, whether we acknowledge it or not. And even if the present resistance achieves the political reconciliation that it aspires to, there will still be prisons filled with criminalized, isolated aboriginal people, and this needs to be addressed. But we have got to start somewhere and it seems that we have.

So, with an empty stomach and full heart I will close this post in solidarity with my sisters within this prison and with everyone outside who is aware that we are living in a time where much change is still needed, and who is standing up and announcing that it is time to do something about it.


A Big, Big Thanks to Everyone Supporting Me

I want to thank every person so much for their support and for believing in me. Being imprisoned as a murderer when I am not a murderer is worse than any nightmare I ever could have imagined, and knowing that so many good people know that I did not kill anyone gives me the strength to continue. I put most of my energy in trying to talk about problems with imprisonment itself because if I see something wrong, I cannot look the other way. It seems that you cannot either.

As more and more months pass, I am becoming more and more scared, each day is getting very hard to make it through. At least once everyday I have to stop, breath deeply, and think of each of you, who bravely stand up for me while I cannot stand up for myself. Thank you for being my voice. I cannot tell you how much I regret listening to my lawyers and not speaking out and getting on that stand and screaming as loud as I could.

I wish I could buy an endless amount of stamps and write everyone, but I can’t. So I’m doing what I know how to do, and that is trying to give back by breaking the silence and distance between the justice system and our communities, by trying to ‘pay it forward’ and be a voice for all of the people in here who have no voice, like you have done for me.

It seems like everything to do with the justice/penal system is a big, complicated mess, my case included.

I want my life back more than anything. Everyday and night I wish that the person responsible for the crime I am convicted of would do the right thing and come forward. I wish that any of the people who know the truth would come forward.But I realize that’s probably never going to happen. And I also realize that each of you caring for and supporting me through this has saved me, if not from imprisonment then from losing my faith in humanity. So thank you, so very much.

Punitiveness or “Self Sufficiency” in Canadian Prisons

In April, 2013 the myriad of structural changes within the Canadian penal system that the conservatives have developed in line with their neo-liberal, tough on crime agenda will take effect. This post explores the financial and economic aspects of the changes as they will occur within an already flawed system of supposed ‘self-sufficiency’.

Inside Canadian prisons, there has long existed a system in which imprisoned people must work to pay their own room and board. They must pay for all communications costs, as well as purchasing hygiene products, food items, clothing, school supplies and any hobby items one may be permitted to have.

There is an internal welfare system, which imprisoned people’s labour funds, to provide for those who cannot work.

There is an eternal “inmate committee” system, which imprisoned people’s labour funds, that controls purchasing of large and small appliances for the prisons, among other costs.

On site within each prison exists a small factory operated by the for profit crown corporation CORCAN, which uses prison labour to make all the linens, towels and other products issued to imprisoned people by CSC.

What food and other products that people in prison can purchase are sold at market value or are marked up.

The system was modeled not only towards self-sufficiency, but to also encourage work and budgeting skills that people can utilize upon release to avoid recidivism.

But there exists a detrimental flaw within the system.

Imprisoned people work for only dollars a day. Imprisoned people in Canada are forced to sustain themselves on unsustainable income.

Below explains the current pay level system, which has not increased since the 1980’s. Note that raises can only be pursued every 90 days and that one can only raise a level one level at a time. Note that there are not as many jobs as imprisoned people and that many must take welfare until a spot opens.

Pay level F- $1.00 per full day – welfare pay. For those who cannot work but actively try to.

E – $2.50 per full day – default entry level pay

D – $5.25 per full day – 1st possible raise level

C – $5.80 per full day – 2nd possible raise level

B – $6.35 per full day – 3rd possible raise level

A – $6.90 per full day – highest possible pay

For those who work at CORCAN an additional $1.50 per day incentive pay exists – until April, 2013 that is. Not only does CORCAN produce most product issued by CSC, it produces several products, which it sells to various corporations. In women’s prisons many linens used at popular hotels are produced, while in men’s prisons couches, tables and other large furniture are produced.

But beginning the next fiscal year, April 2013, CSC is simultaneously reducing prisoner pay levels by 30%. the difference will apparently contribute to ‘room and board’ costs. New pay levels will be issued as such;

Pay level F – $0.70 per full day

E – $ 1.75 per full day

D – $3.67 per full day

C – $ 4.06 per full day

B – $4.44 per full day

A – $4.83 per full day

In addition to the 30% decrease, GVI has announced it will deduct a additional 10% to fund “inmate committee” creating pay rates as follows:

Pay level F – $0.60 per full day

E – $1.50 per full day

D – $3.15 per full day

C – $3.48 per full day

B – $3.81per full day

A – $4.14 per full day

In addition to the decrease, totaling 40%, mandatory deductions reduce possible earnings even further. A mandatory cable charge is already deducted from every imprisoned persons bi-weekly pay period; the charge is $7.00. Every federally imprisoned person pays his charge, regardless of whether they have access to a television or not. Many imprisoned people are paying the charge without accessing television. Further, many among those who do have televisions would gladly forfeit their access to have the extra $14 -$21 monthly to eat and communicate with family, had they the option. Make no mistake, though public outcry often sparks over the fact that imprisoned people can watch tv – at night times and on weekends – CSC wants nothing more than for every prisoner to have television. It is the greatest pacifier.

In addition to the cable charge, come April, 2013, a new mandatory deduction has been announced to us: an ‘administrative phone charge for upkeep and maintenance of the telephone’. The Charged has been announced as having a presently undetermined rate, however it was been announced as having a presently between $5-$10 bi-weekly was being negotiated. The charge does not provide phone access; to use the I Bell payphone per “living unit” we must pay in advance to purchase phone minutes. Though we do not have a written statement of rates, local calls cost $1.00, calls in Ontario cost $0.11 per minute, and long distance and international rates seen to vary, but are drastically more expensive. Because Canada imprisons such a high number of non-Canadians, many people’s entire families are overseas, leaving them virtually inaccessible. But most Canadians in prison cannot afford the system either. And if a person does not have funds to put onto their phone cards on the approved upload dates (which occur once monthly), that person has no phone access to call families and communities, unless collect calls are accepted.

Most women I am imprisoned with are mothers, and at the current pay rates I watch daily as women choose between food and calling their children. What small amounts of money that women can afford to upload goes quickly, and certainly the new “administrative charge” in conjunction with the 40% pay decrease will swallow any available income.

Imprisoned people should not be forcefully positioned to lose their families because they cannot afford to access them! This forms a cycle which will perpetuate generations of broken families, dually perpetuating prison populations.

And when envisioning a person in prison working for such rates, know that the labour being done equals workloads to any standard job. In addition to the factory work done at CORCAN, imprisoned people work to maintain the prison. There are garbage people, landscapers, janitors, librarians, office assistants, maintenance workers, painters… the list goes on.

Imprisoned people work hard for our already low rates. We already choose between being full and telling our loved ones that we love them. We are punished from when we wake to when we sleep. Punished by guards treatment, punished by cages – being taken from everything we have and know and love and every opportunity to find success and happiness is an immense punishment in and of its self.

It is needless and harmful to work us for dollars a day in a forced system of supposed ‘self sufficiency’, leaving us no option to maintain our families, leaving us no option to eat enough food in a day.

This system punishes not just people in prison, but their families too. For the only people who maintain regular contact with home are those whose families are able to financially support them.

I am an adult who, by my imprisonment, am forced to be dependent on my family who struggles with all of the high high costs of imprisonment. Worse still, because most people in prisons come from poor and marginalized communities, I am among the margins inside. I contribute to a great class disparity that prevails within Canadian federal prisons because of their persistently insufficient pay rates, and system of ‘self sufficiently’ I am among the few who can, generally, call home daily. I can purchase nuts and vegetable juice and vitamins and nourish my body. And because of the strict ‘NO SHARING ANYTHING’ policy in Canada’s federal prisons, I am told to have it in the face of everyone around me who have nothing, though not for lack of their hard work.

And come April, 2013, all the poverty, disparity, sadness and isolation created inside these prisons will be dramatically exasperated, and for what end?

A Poem

Today I received truly horrible treatment by the max-unit staff. But this post is not to share what happened. The women I am imprisoned with think the treatment is because of this blog. It could be, it could not be. Either way I wrote this in a cell today, this poem to the guards.



Dear jailer


I just wanted to say hello.

You see me everyday

But you never say hello.

You’ve yelled at me before

You’ve touched my body before

You’ve written reports on me before,

But you’ve never said hello.


I bet we have a lot in common

That we’re more alike than not

I wonder if you spoke to me,

You’d still afterwards want me to “rot.”

Did you know that I have feelings?

I bet you have them too.

I bet you laugh at funny jokes

And cry when you are blue.

I have many feelings to,

And I get hurt by what you do,

But you don’t know this, and I don’t share;

You hate me and of you I’m scared.


But I bet we have a lot in common

I bet if we had a cup of coffee together

We’d learn that we share interests, hopes and fears.

And we might wonder the same wonders.

And we might come to talk about important things.

We might come to argue, but some truths it could bring.


For you might say that “criminals” all hurt one another

And I might admit I think it’s the guards who are trouble

And then we may argue about who could be wrong

But we’d also agree on one point that is strong:


It’s only the labels that make us feel hate

On a personal level you may think I’m okay

You may say, “that girl’s not your average crook”

And I may respond, “you’re not as cruel as you look.”


But I’d still conclude guards commit a crime by being guards

And you’d still probably believe in walls, cuffs and bars.


And that leaves us at odds and divided and angry,

And forgetting that we come from the same human family.


Jailer, I just wanted to say “hello” today

And wonder what would happen if we let go of hate.



Dominant Mentalities About Imprisoned People are not just Socially Destructive, They’re Dangerous

To be imprisoned during a natural disaster is a source of pure fear for many of us who are kept in cages and rightfully so. Time and time again imprisoned people needlessly die in the face of environmental destruction, be it a hurricane, flood or fire, because our lives have been devalued to a subhuman standard; keeping prisoners safe in a emergencies is seldom any community’s priority.

It must at least be a priority of prison officials, but it is not.

In my first weeks here, a guard saw me crying. He callously asked, “what’s the matter, you scared of doin’ time?” I was crying because I was scared, but the fear was of my life being in the hands of embittered angry people who do not believe I have any right to exist. I remembered the loss of life in New Orleans and Honduran prisons, where people were left to die without any fighting chances, and I became very afraid.

Only recently, after having filed a formal complaint did GVI explain to us what our fire evacuation protocol is. They explained that in the event of a fire our doors would unlock and we would independently exit into the yard. Management said guards would enable the lock steel doors which imprison us from a nearby control post so we could evacuate our cells. But would they enable the doors? Or would they desert us?

At Rikers Prison  in New York, there was certainly no evacuation order in place as hurricane Sandy rapidly approached. Public outcry sparked after it was learned that during hurricane Irene, the prison had not even a plan in place. The reaction form Irene seemed enough to spark officials to respond that this time a plan was in place; still, no evacuation order was made. Those imprisoned in Rikers were left to wait, and to hope.

Being imprisoned, it is frighting to witness how such disregard for human life develops. Many paid staff at this prison express worse than a blatant disregard for our humanity. Not all, but most staff express a contempt for us who they imprison. Their mentalities become clear through their actions and their comments. Never does a week go by where I am not made fun of or condescended for attempting to take university-level courses, which I am also neither financially nor structurally supported in doing. And I am what they consider a “low maintenance prisoner”, “high needs prisoners” hear far worse from staff regularly. I have even heard staff tell women to commit suicide. And rarely does a day go by without the staff referring in one way or another to how privileged we are.

Well, as far as education and prisons go, there are currently nine of us who can take, through outside support, sporadic university-level correspondence courses. Nine out of a 181 women. And CSC requires getting a high school diploma to be on every woman’s correctional plan, the set of objectives one must complete to get parole, yet many of the courses women take cost $40. $40 is more than most women earn in a month. And the teachers regularly suspend women who cannot complete enough work; suspensions last for 90 days at GVI. We are kept hungry, isolated, without adequate sunlight and with no opportunities. We are far from privileged, yet staff seem to need to feel like we are. Sometimes their notions of what our lives are like border delusional.

I argued in front of a correctional investigator at length with a guard who works regularly in the max who insisted we received “egg breakfast everyday”. At the time however, we barely received breakfast at all, what we did receive was not hearty egg breakfast, but individual packets of regular oatmeal once or twice a week. The living conditions in prison also coincide with our permanent exposure to receiving whatever emotions that staff wish to unload on us, which are overwhelmingly negative and not infrequently abusive.

Indeed, the clear message this system sends to us through prison’s structure and staff mentalities is that we will never again be full citizens, nor do we deserve to be. I recently read an apt characterization of the penal process which states, ‘a person starts out as one status, a person or citizen, and emerges at the other end, an offender or criminal’ (Garfinkel, 1956).

“Rehabilitation” is a notion contrary to every aspect of this building. Instead, through our treatment by staff, demonization in mainstream media and lack of ability to further our lives, the penal system tells us that we are inherently and permanently deviant and different from “free” people, and that we are wholly undeserving of ever returning to an equal social status.

Is it such a surprise then, with such mentalities dominant in such a vengeful and destructive system that there also exists a disregard for imprisoned people’s lives in emergency situations?

It is as if sentence length’s matter no more; once convicted of a crime one is a convict for ever. And whether one becomes a convict by a violent act or by stealing to put food on the table; whether one becomes a convict for a crime they did not commit or for an addiction that harms no others, the label of convict evokes the same undeserving and apathetic attitude in too many of us!

The “convict” does not deserve to eat well, sleep well, dress well, or feel well. The convict inherently deserves less by label alone.

But is our society so cold that we feel imprisoned people deserve to be left to die?

It makes me very sad that labels hold such power in our minds and culture. Even though it is well proven that people become imprisoned by socio-economic factors far more often than do they by any factors of “criminality”, people become enraged when imprison people experience nourishing living conditions or are released.

Imprisonment is a complex social issue. There are no prisons full of bad people run by officials who are well intended. As canada embraces an americanized, industrial approach to penality, more and more people of all natures will experience prison. We urgently need an informed public discourse on our resort to and reliance on imprisonment.

Prisons cannot privately remain a permanent stigmatizer and truamatizer of already disadvantaged individuals, while being publicly touted as a solution to crime where the violent and bad folks go to be punished and forgotten.

We cannot condemn one another like this. We are not this bad of a species. Instances of imprisoned populations being disregarded and deserted in the face of environmental emergencies highlight the dangerous extent to which we have forgotten to care for one another. I know issues of crime effect people on an emotional level, but valid emotions cannot be left to overrun the fact that there are just as many innocent, mislead, afraid, strong, confused, angry, bright and loving human beings inside prisons as there are in every neighborhood in every community.

There are red flags flying at society’s level of comfortability with leaving some humans locked in cages during imminent threats to their lives while other humans are cared for and moved to safety.

The treatment of imprisoned people during environmental emergencies is but on clear manifestation of the deep social illness that is the system of mass imprisonment and the dominant mentalities about it which we falsely refer to as justice.

Update to: The “Unempowerable” Prisoner

I wrote the blog post entitled, The “Unempowerable” Prisoner on Saturday morning at 2 a.m. At approximately 8:30 p.m. of the same evening, the woman who was involved in the incident that I described in the post, who had been in segregation, was rushed to the hospital and we were locked down. We did not know what had happened, but by the frantic response of staff, we knew that it was serious. The woman returned the next day but has been isolated ever since. All that we know is, while she is safe,  she remains in segregation, this time on suicide watch.

Below is a beautiful picture she drew, and gave to me.

The “Unempowerable” Prisoner

By Nyki Kish

As easy as I claimed writing this blog is, experience is proving otherwise. I have not been able to successfully put pen to paper all month, except for what I have to do to trudge through school. Sometimes weeks, even months go by, and I have only stared at the wall and wondered how the wall can be so hard. I try to think and theorize and make sense of all this, but be being stuck in the middle of it, too often all that I can do is hold on and hope that I can hold on tight enough, and for long enough, to survive.

But I am worried for two other women more than I am for myself right now. They are aboriginal women and they are being severely failed by this system. I am seeing on the news a lot about the Ashley Smith inquest, and I am thinking of the cell in the unit where she died just a few feet away, and I am worried for these two women here now who are being treated just as Ashley was. Both have been labeled “unempowerable prisoners” by CSC. The women do not know this; I am only just learning about CSC’s “empowerable vs. unempowerable” prisoner rhetoric. Indeed, it is the premise which legitimized this ‘secure unit’. The Max: a unit that was never suppose to exists but does and is expanding because of the growing amount of imprisoned people who CSC say dot not fit the general population’s ‘rehabilitate-domesticate’ style. Max: for the “problem” prisoner, the “unempowerable” prisoner and, thanks to the politicization of imprisonment, the lifer.

The lifer must serve at least two years in the max to prove they have suffered the worse of the system. The “problem” prisoner must serve at least six months as a punishment for misbehaving in general population. But the prisoner who cannot adapt to the conditions in max becomes the “unempowerable” prisoner, and to these imprisoned people CSC says: there is no hope.

Stays in max may as well be indefinite.

Neither of the two women I am worried for are lifers. Like Ashely Smith, both have been in max or worse — on management protocol, CSC’s permanent segregation status — for the majority of their sentences. One woman is approaching fifteen years on what was originally a seven year sentence, the other has been here for three years and was set to be released next summer, however an incident between her and staff last Monday will likely extend her sentence. Sentence extensions are quite commonplace, unfortunately. The woman on her fifteenth year had her sentenced extended once already this year and now has new charges, for destroying federal property, which will most likely extend it again.  Since I have been here I have seen property damage charges extend two women’s sentences, and I have seen two women receive additional time after fights erupted. Others have pending charges.

Both women are diagnosed and identify as sufferers of mental illness, both take varying psychotropics and one is also on the narcotic methadone — she actually quit methadone just days before Mondays incident. Suffice it to say, almost every woman labeled here as “unempowerable” will be heavily medicated, and medications are switched and adjusted frequently. However when incidents occur the women are held solely and completely responsible; attention is neither given to the nature of a woman’s mental illness(es), or to the medication they were on at the time of the incident. And the incidents happen and often. The women are living in a constant state of trauma. We all are, but it is far worse for them, as the trauma causes them to panic and lash out, to which CSC responds with force and segregation, which only heightens the trauma. This is permanent for them. The secure unit has three max pods and one segregation unit and CSC’s solution for the women is to constantly move them from pod to pod, to seg and back: each move being a response to an incident. As a side effect this results in all of us other women being constantly moved, double-bunked, and moved again to accommodate CSC’s response to the traumatized, “unempowerable” prisoners.

The Nature of the Incidents:

Prisoner on prisoner violence occurs in the max. However in the majority of the incidents which perpetuate the permanent confinement that effects these women who I have come to know as peers, it is the women lashing out against the prisons: not against us.  We do not get to go outside in the day time, the pods are small and overcrowded, we lack adequate nutrition, and the amenities are often locked or broken, and this leaves us in a permanent state of stress. The women hit the walls, attempt to break the toilets and sinks, and generally try to destroy that which confines them. Or they attempt to destroy themselves. Late nights accompany loud screams as women, in such anguish and pain, lose control and try to hurt themselves to make the pain stop. But whatever the type of incident, the result is always several guards rushing the involved woman with helmets and bulletproof vests and riot shields, and all to often forceful contact between the guards and the woman is made.

During last Monday’s incident, a canister of what I assume was tear gas was thrown into the woman’s cell, and women in neighboring cells were threatened to be charged by the guards when they attempted to protect their faces by lying underneath their blankets. Guards said these were attempts to “conceal their bodies” and did not offer any remedy for their burning skin and eyes.
The woman had first attempted to flood her cell, then attempted to hurt herself, then an inevitable conflict arouse when the guards responded. And while she, in track pants and a t-shirt did not harm any of the armored guards, what happened could add years to her sentence when she is eventually taken to court; years in which the same violent cycle will continue, and in which more time will be added to her sentence. Where does it end?

Will these two women ever be released? What will be left of them if they ever are? I laugh with these women, try to comfort them and tell them there is hope. But as I write this and think of them both, one in segregation, one in the pod across from this one, I do not know that there is hope. Here is the place where Canada hides and abuses its most victimized and its mentally ill, and I will not except that we keep these cages standing to keep women indefinitely captive, women who need only our effort and support and community to heal.

I know that with love and support, both women could flourish. Both are kind, and both write so well that I get chills, and one makes art that could be hung in galleries. The other is a talented indigenous craft maker, her dream catchers really do keep the nightmares away. But both, like so many others, will likely never leave this system and I ask you — how many must perish in women’s federal prisons before you demand change?

A Slice of Optimism

By- Nyki Kish

Much has happened in between my beginning this blog and now. Outside, my appeal is slowly trudging along. Inside, the prison has been shaken for the women and staff alike by Prisoner Justice Day events. And coming here as a 24 year old, I write this now, having turned 26. Reflecting on my age and the time that has passed I have asked myself-what are my dreams? Am I living them, have I achieved any of them? Does being in prison deny me my dreams?

The easiest part of blogging from prison is that I can intimately share my dreams and fears as if readers were pages in my diary. The scary part is knowing that my words do not remain locked in this small world that is my imprisoned life; they find freedom, they travel far and flow widely in the fast paced world I was taken from. But I guess that’s the beautiful part too.

I want to live on a boat. That is a dream of mine. A great boat, a galleon in fact. I want a Spanish galleon, filled with friends and comrades, with a deck transformed into an organic garden and a great stage where I can sing and perform for people in the towns we will stop in. I want to allow anyone filled with wanderlust and passion to make change in this world to come on board. That is a dream of mine.

And I want to change the world.                                                                                                                                                                               That is a dream of mine.                                                                                                                                                                                                      I dream of world where some people do not have to suffer for others to prosper, where our existence does not destroy this planet, where our actions come from a place of understanding, not fear. And I believe this is entirely possible.
Prison will keep me from my dreams of music and oceans and boats, yes, but it cannot take my dream of change. I can live this dream everyday, and I do. Yeah, I feel inadequate and afraid that I am not doing a good job and that I am having no effect, but I am trying. Every day, every challenge I am faced with allows me to act for change, or to act against it. Even if my small decisions do not make big ripples, I can smile knowing that I still have opportunities to make my dreams come true. And I do.

As I begin to write this out today to mail home, the fire alarm went off here. My pod and I watched as the entire prison was evacuated, except us, the max unit. We knew by the constant ring of the alarm, instead of the sectioned ring we are used to that this was serious. We asked each other as we watched everyone else inside to filter outside-do they not think we are people? No one told us what was happening or why. We all felt scared, and before anyone was cleared to enter the prison a voice came through the speakers telling us to go into our cells for an emergency lock up. I was reminded of Hurricane Katrina, where the New Orleans jail guards left the people to die, and those on the 1st floor did. I was reminded that people die all the time in prison, and that my life is not in my own hands. It made me want to be even louder. I want to go to sleep everyday knowing that I did and said everything I could on that day to emphasize that this world does not have to run on hate and fear. One day it will not, of this much I am sure. And until that day, it does feel wonderful to be committed to such a dream. Like a blanket of ease and comfort to hold me each night as I must sleep alone in this cell, I find so much peace from the fact that they can’t take everything from me no matter how hard they try. I can nurture my dream for change still, and it in turn, nurtures me.

A Prison Within a Prison: GVI’s ‘Secure Unit’

Past the brightly lit, window lined corridors of GVI’s medium security section; a narrow hallway leads to the secure unit’s door. It opens to the segregation portion, dark, dingy, and for many, frightening, as this was the place where Ashley Smith died. There were only four seg. cells, however more are being built as I write this. They are small, stereotypical prison cells, they have nothing but a sheet of metal protruding from a wall as the bed, a metal toilet, sink, a camera in each cells corner, and the sound of human suffering constantly escaping them.

 Another door to max; three small pods, two program rooms used for everything from ‘court’ to a church, and many guard and staff office spaces. At first glance it seems impossible that humans are kept here. There seems to be no living area for 27 women to be held for years and years.

Open any of the pod doors however, and you see us. Kept in long, narrow, hallway shaped pods, these small spaces where we experience so much pain will exude a sense of isolation to any who enter these walls. These pods do not look like living environments, but makeshift cages built in hallways meant for other uses. But here we are kept, sometimes for decades.

In each of the 3 pods there are 5 cells; 4 are double-bunked while one is kept single for wheelchair accessibility. Because people in wheelchairs need to be imprisoned in maximum-security prisons. Up to 9 of us are kept on a pod at any given time, though there are only seats for 6. and we are left on these pods, permanently, only leaving for short periods of time if we have programs or appointments. We are locked in the cells on the pods for 14 and half hours each day, though in the past it has been as high as 19. We are only allowed outside for a maximum of one hour daily, and only after 6p.m., giving us virtually no sunlight in winter months.

We are given 2 nutritionless meals a day. Occasionally, the food improves, drastically, and we eat proper portions for a day or so. We know this is the time where the prison is being audited or inspected. We even, during these times, get a cold breakfast provided with dinner, which we are supposed to receive everyday. But it ends as quickly as it comes, and we return to empty, nutritionless meals. Twice daily: lunch and dinner, no snacks’ of any sort. Certainly not the steak and lobster we are claimed to be eating by the media.

There is one phone, which most women cannot afford to use, and one shower, which is locked for the majority of the day. There is a coffee pot and a fridge, which we seldom have food to put in, and we spend our days alone like this, guards only briefly enter the pods once hourly to count us.

There is little hope in max. Few women can get involved in any activities or schooling and we are kept in a overcrowded, undersized area, often double-bunked in the 6×9 cells. What programming and training that is available at GVI is only available in the medium and minimum security compound, with the exception of two very rudimentary ‘behavioral programs’ that are offered to some in max. In max, Canadians are paying extraordinary amounts to keep us sitting idly, and isolated, and as I mentioned, often for years. And never is any consideration taken to the many women here who have severe mental illnesses; we are all double-bunked, we are all punished the same. By the structure of max alone, just weeks, let alone months or years here, causes our mental and emotional health to plummet.

But no one ever hears about max.

No one hears how the women who often need the most kindness from society receive the cruelest treatment. Even most of the medium and minimum security population are oblivious to what max is and who is kept here, and they are feet away! They know only that it is a prison within a prison, and to avoid it accordingly.

Recently I was lucky enough to go to medium to hear Charity Lee speak here, an event my mum and I assisted in organizing, and her words were strong. She said, speaking about imprisonment, perhaps not verbatim:


What is hurting people going to accomplish?

What is punishing and hardening them going to achieve?

It is needlessly awful in max. this is the unit where they test their new policies, where we worry we’ll collapse of heat exhaustion, where they taunt us by constantly covering and uncovering what few windows we can see from.

Because max is CSC’s dirty secret. Every time one cruel portion of the S.U. is exposed, like management protocol’, a new wrong is imposed upon us. Because no one is looking, no one is watching.

And what of rehabilitation? The word is scarcely thrown around here, for here it has little meaning. But punishment is clearly understood. We are not allowed to have cleaning supplies, we have to sleep with our heads next to toilets. We have to let guards make fun of us and not say a word back. We can not afford to stay close to our families, and we are denied any opportunities to grow as human beings. We often do not even have cold drinking water, just taps that endlessly run hot.

We are, even though many here are getting out very soon, having our futures permanently destroyed by isolation, depravation, and needlessly cruel treatment. If the true objective of imprisonment was to rehabilitate, then denying people any opportunities to educate themselves and learn job skills would surely be a peculiar method. There are, at least, several programs outside of max. In medium and minimum people can apply to be trained with food handling skills, hospitality training, and to become certified to drive forklifts. Now, though I don’t personally agree with CSC’s only providing entry-level job training it is at least something. In max, we have nothing. If your family has money, you can apply to take a correspondence course-but few here have money. Few have money, and even fewer ever transfer during their sentences to medium where those programs are available.


Charity Lee is right. Tell me, what good the max is doing, where everyone who leaves here leaves more broken, and traumatized than when they came?

I am talking about soft-spoken women, trying to heal.

I am talking about nineteen year old girls.

I am talking about elderly women, kept here while dying.

I didn’t know anything about max before I came here, I didn’t even know it existed. But it is a dangerous breeding ground for trouble, and it is as pointless as it is cruel, for none who leave these pods will be ‘rehabilitated’.

It’s a myth.


June 30th: A Quick Update

Nearly a week has passed since I wrote last, about CSC’s proposals concerning visiting and searching. But the story’s not quite finished.

As I mentioned, CSC was obligated to inform us, and to accept any written comments or concerns we have concerning the proposals. I prepared a 2 page letter, focusing predominantly on the strip-searching portion, and, as per my instructions, handed it in to the V&C department (visiting and correspondence), at my family visit last Thursday.

When I did, I received much eye-rolling and under-the-breath murmuring. It was made apparent that I was foolish and wrong for submitting something. I found the reaction typical, and didn’t loose any sleep over it.

However, when Sunday morning (my next visit) came, and I had to watch my mom and 5 year old sister be turned away from the prison for the first time since they’ve been visiting (except once when a stabbing occurred), after having driven the hour long drive to see me, I began to wonder if the two events were connected.

Though no staff would tell me why they were denied, my mom later told me her experience went like this:

  • She arrived, after booking her and my sis in 72-48 hours prior, as she has done every week since she was approved.
  • Staff would not let her in, saying she did not book
  • She refuted them, stating she was booked in.
  • They replied, “okay, she had booked, but not confirmed” (conformation is not, and has never been apart of the process)
  • She told them that conformation did not exist in their process.
  • They told her, “fine”, but that it didn’t matter anyway, as was they were short on staff.

She was forced to leave, by the department that has never denied her before, by the department in control of collecting our comments about the proposed legislative amendments who made such a scene when I contributed (also I believe I was the only one to contribute).

So are the two connected? They could be, they could not be.  Either way, it’s a glance into the prison. Uncertainty and anxiety accompany every interaction we have. I just really hope their denial was a one-time occurrence. It was too hard to watch my little sister leave in tears.

But I’ll move on.

Perhaps I will end this post, and begin to describe some of GVI’s conditions, and perhaps describing the max unit  is the place to start.