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.