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?