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.

 

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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.

This is How Abuses Occur: Part 3/3 Strip Searches

This change will only affect the ‘secure unit’ (max and seg.), where I am held. They will dominantly affect max women who are trying to ‘do well’.

Current procedure:

As it stands, every time we (max prisoners) are taken from max to a different area in the prison, we are heavily monitored. Depending on our levels, (I will post a piece explicitly about levels shortly) we are shackled or handcuffed or both, and all of us have as many as 4 guards (level 1) and as few as 1 guard (level 4), remain with us for the entirety of our absence from max. We are never unsupervised, and we do not come into any physical contact with any other imprisoned people or staff. Also, as we leave and return everything we are wearing and are carrying (if anything) is written down, and we are ‘frisk searched’. A frisk search is a female guard putting her hands first under our breasts, then along our arms, down the sides of our torsos, across the front of our hip lines, and up and down both the inside and outside of our legs. Every time we leave and enter max.

 

The changes are written in the memo as:

 

“Staff will be authorized to conduct a routine strip search of an inmate where the inmate is leaving a secure area of a penitentiary.” Secure areas include but are not limited to max units. They continue with an example:

 

“…the following example illustrates the additional searches for inmates:

 

in this example, a control post within the Bowden Annex could be designated as a secure area. If a inmate housed at Bowden Institution goes to the Bowden Annex for a specified purpose, e.g. to attend a program, and then returns to the institution, he may be subjected to routine searches in the following manner:

  1. When leaving Bowden Institution
  2. When entering the Bowden Annex
  3. When leaving the Bowden Annex, and
  4. When returning to Bowden Institution”

 

(*Note: CSC does not differentiate between male and females in its implementation of the strip search policy. I’ll talk about this trend in the future.)

 

I wish writing this, that I could have had more time to post about what this prison looks like and how it operates, because there are no rational or logical grounds on why or how a strip search in these conditions is needed. It’s impossible to see any benefit for the prison. Max is not some different building – it’s simply the other side of the door. And there aren’t any drugs or contraband issues – and we are all constantly in arms reach and sight of guards anyhow!

A better understanding of this prison would also help you understand there are psychological implications to this change. So, they’re now telling us that anytime we leave max we will be strip searched – but max runs on a system of “get your levels – get out to medium to do programs – it’s the only way you’ll get out of max.”

 

I personally do as much as I can out of the dark and highly negative max unit. But if I have to expose my body to the guards who work in max, who belittle me everyday, I will not.

I cannot.

 

Max guards aren’t social workers. They are not our friends. They are not nice. They routinely talk about us to other max prisoners – when they attempt to talk negatively to me about someone I express how I do not like it. But the point is that they do. They make fun of us, throw out our personal belongings, and some of us, myself included, feel like some, not all, but some of the guards already use our bodies as weapons against us.

I don’t say such things lightly, and I certainly didn’t want to approach this issue so soon into the blog, but it has approached us, so I will share what I mean.

 

I will share 2 stories. Mine, and peer ‘A’s’.

 

Peer A was in the shower. Guards entered the pod for a round. It was in the afternoon, when we are not generally allowed to shower, but Peer A had permission. The guard banged on the shower door, then proceeded to open the shower door where Peer A was naked in the shower, and proceeded to tell Peer A to get out right away, staring at her refusing to close the door again. I watched horrified. Peer A thought she had permission, but it was needless for the guard to open the door to scream at her naked. Peer A had been sexually molested as a child. This devastated and triggered her. She tried to file a grievance about the incident, which brought her months of subtle gestures from the guards indicating their unhappiness. She eventually lost, and felt worse for having tried.

Shower incidents such as this are frequent, unfortunately.

 

I was dressed up and waiting to go to school in medium. Guards entered the pod for a round. One looked at me and shouted “ Kish do up your sweater, put your breast away.” My breasts were not ‘out’ I had on a spaghetti strapped floral sundress which I had worn frequently, and a button up sweater open, over it.

I always dress nicely to go to the inside-out program. Occasionally I’ve been made fun of by guards, but never like this, and I certainly wasn’t exposed in any way.

But I didn’t want conflict. I was overwhelmed. She said this is front of my whole pod. I did up my sweater and went to the cell I was in, and began to cry.

She followed me.

“Kish, lets go, hallway, now.”

I didn’t want to go, I told her.

“It’s not a question Kish.”

In the hallway things got worse. She didn’t want to talk or apologize, she wanted to berate me.

“Your breasts offend me Kish” …I’ll never forget those words.

“There’s men working here, don’t you know what you’re doing to them!?”

I told her my breasts weren’t out and that I wasn’t comfortable having a conversation where my body was talked about in such away.

She went on and on about how wrong I was until I literally put my head in my hands, turned and faced the corner and repeated over and over “I did what you asked me to, I want to go back to my cell.” She eventually stopped and let me go, but not before telling me we would “finish later.”

 

I just wanted to look nice for school. Anyway, shortly after the teacher came for me, the same guard was waiting to frisk search me. I didn’t want her touching my body, but she did, and I didn’t say a word. I knew better than to file a grievance.

She still works here, and she is the only guard who scares me. We don’t talk, I stay in my cell when I see her. But she looks at me, late at night when she does rounds, and her eyes are hate-filled, and it scares me. Soon she’ll be able to strip search me.

 

There’s no reason for a strip search when we don’t leave their sides, when we are shackled and watched by them. And perhaps the 2 incidents I shared don’t sound harrowing in themselves to you, but they hurt us. We can’t walk away, and now, on top of all else, we will live in the fear of more incidents, and worse incidents happening. Not a small number of women who end up in max, have been sexually abused. They’re already in jail. They should not have to feel like the abuse is continuing.

 

 

 

 

This is How Abuses Occur: Part 2/3 Arbitrary Authority

To begin I will restate the proposed change, as written in the internal memo provided to us:

“With respect to visiting, an amendment is being sought to change the legal test that must be satisfied by an institutional head or a staff member when granting a visit without a physical barrier to an inmate. Currently, S.90 of the Corrections and Conditional Release Regulations indicates that every inmate shall have a reasonable opportunity to meet with a visitor without a physical barrier to personal contact unless the institutional head believes on reasonable grounds that the barrier is necessary for the security of the penitentiary or the safety of any person. The regulatory proposal would amend the legal test to that of “suspect” on reasonable grounds that the barrier is necessary for the security of the penitentiary or the safety of any person.”

This change may sound small, but what it creates is a position where guards can arbitrarily apply restrictions to some, and not others.

It was recently ‘family day’ at GVI, a day where select approved visitors were able to come in for a few hours, where funds collected by us imprisoned supported food and children’s entertainment. From my position in max, I was able to watch families as they entered in the parking lot. I was one of few in max approved to attend, and was pleased when my family was quickly and easily admitted. Others were not so lucky. For all, the process involved entering the parking lot, speaking to local police, being sniffed by drug dogs, and turning their cars over to be searched and sniffed by police and dogs.

I worried as I saw cars being towed out, faster than they had come in, when I saw handcuffs on people waiting to be hugged. I learned later a few young people had been arrested for having small amounts of marijuana in their cars, but I learned something else.

Everyone seemed to agree that the lighter a family’s skin, the sooner they were processed. My family had been treated respectfully, but I spoke with a separate family who were repeatedly subject to having their car drug sniffed, who felt as if the prison had suspected them of trouble from the moment they arrived. I worry, had staff been able to deny the family on suspicion alone that they would have ( this family of course was eventually found to have no contraband and were permitted in).

A situation is never good, where rules do not have to be equally applied. Suspect is a vague term, and not taken in isolation, but considered alongside all the other many changes regarding visiting that the prison is currently implementing, it seems as though, like in many American prisons, CSC wants to phase out non-restrictive visits.

Further, even if this amendment was not a disastrous blow, which I believe it will be, why are they making it virtually impossible for our families to provide input – where their input is legally encouraged? The memo states “the process requires that consultation be conducted with all stakeholders affected…” but none of my visitors, or any other max woman’s visitors will have a chance to contribute, given the 2 day window. I wonder, if CSC are not doing anything wrong, what have they got to worry about? Why not let our voices be included?

This is How Abuses Occur: Part 1/3

I had planned to continue this blog by backtracking and explaining some of the static and structural conditions and policies of GVI, to help readers form a clear picture of the realities of imprisonment. I want to write objectively about this prison, because I don’t want this blog to just appear as some angry rant against the system, but instead to form a clear and knowledgeable narrative for people to form their own opinions from.

I still intend to; shortly I will post several pieces about everything ranging from how our units look, to what we eat, to what opportunities and restrictions we do and do not have.

However, in the meantime, another drastic change to the prison has just been announced to us, and I think it’s important to talk about it.

So many needless and abusive changes are occurring right now, all part of the radical transformation that the canadian prison system is presently undergoing. One came this morning in the form of a printed memo being left on our pods table, as they always are.

There are two major institutional changes in the memo, which I am going to address in the two subsequent posts. They are so major they require legislative amendments. They concern our visits, and in prison searches. Yet even the manner in which the changes were announced to us needs discussing.

The memo, titled, Consultation on Regulatory Amendments Affecting Searching and Visiting is comprised of 5 pages:

  1. A cover letter from GVI deputy warden Rob Campney
  2. A two page copy of an internal memo to EXCOM members’ by the assistant commissioner, policy dated June 20th
  3. A question and answer sheet about new search policy
  4. A question and answer sheet about visiting policy

Within the 2 page internal memo, which details the legislative proposed amendments that CSC needs to pass in order to make institutional policy changes, it interestingly states that as these are legislative changes, “ the process requires that consultations be conducted with all stake holders affected…” and that “CSC must consult with staff, visitors, inmates, and unions in order to report on any concerns or issues that these groups may have as a result of these changes.”

It continues, as written by Elizabeth Van Allen, that August 31st, 2012 is the deadline by which all comments must be submitted.

However, Rob Campney writes in his cover letter to us, that all of our comments must be submitted by July 26th, two days from today. Strangely, we only received the memo this morning (the 24th), and though the staff who we have asked have not heard of or read it, Campney listed the memo as having been written on the 19th, which would not have given us much time, but it would be more reasonable than two days.

There are no visits between now and then, the earliest is on the evening of the 26th, and this is only a max visit. How can we, and our visitors be reasonably expected to offer our insight to be heard in 2 days? Most of us do not have much money to call home, and the institution knows this… so reasonably, we ought have had time to send mail home about it, at least.

But we weren’t given that time and, in fact, today as I read the fine print and began to fret I was met with a ‘why are you doing anything?’ response, as usual.

But I can see clearly why we were not given adequate response time, and it is because they don’t want our involvement. They were legally obliged to notify us, so they send a memo with a 2 day deadline, and hope for the fewest and most ill-prepared responses possible. Nothing is done here in an upfront 6r transparent manner. This system thrives by keeping us uninformed and divided.

I invite you to read the two other posts to this issue, in which I will explain each of the proposed changes, and how they will actually affect us.