Buried Alive

A look at Canada’s “correctional facilities” from the inside

By Peter Collins

Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005

The Canadian public has recently seen several shocking crimes perpetrated by prisoners out on parole. It is of cold comfort to know that these types of shocking offences are rare. Agenda driven individuals, media groups, police and lobbyists use these crimes to promote harsher treatment of prisoners and longer sentences. It is an easy position to promote, and it is difficult to see the inherent flaws in this reasoning. As frightening as they are, crimes committed by prisoners on parole should not be used as vehicles to frighten the public into demanding harsher treatment of prisoners. Rather, these tragic events should be a wake up call to our society to look at why our monolithic, obscenely expensive “correctional” system does not accomplish what it so lavishly and self servingly boasts that it does.

Canada is constantly promoting itself as a leader in corrections; it is a bold-faced lie achieved with a simplistic series of smoke and mirrors. Canada has a prison system that spends on average $80,000 a year per prisoner and feeds them on $3.00 a day.

So called “Correctional Programming” is sparse and ineffectual, lacking in continuity, and generally a shameful facade. I have served 21 years of a life sentence and over this course of time have been given nine weeks of “correctional” programming. In theory these programs address problems officials say they have identified in me although I have had no more than two hours of contact with a psychiatrist in over two decades of imprisonment.

Correctional officials relinquish their moral authority by twisting rules and breaking the law to accommodate their own personal views in order to visit punishment on prisoners. Correctional officials never admit wrongdoing, never accept responsibility for mistakes, and the grievance system is corrupt and useless.

The justice system, victims groups, politicians and the media at large are always discussing the prevalent mainstream feeling that convicted prisoners are mollycoddled in resort style prisons and parole is handed out freely for the asking. Penitentiary and reformatory realities for most prisoners reflect a totally different environment. Prisoners often experience total emotional overload from the shock of imprisonment, often followed by emotional shutdown.

Prisoners find themselves thrown into a cold, hostile, brutal prison range where other prisoners are trying to come to terms with their own personal and public humiliation. Once in the prison system they experience the shredding of their humanity, being placed in a locked cage and counted hourly. Stripped of all clothing and possession they are submitted to searches of every bodily orifice. These searches will be repeated for the duration of imprisonment, often for no other reason than to humiliate. Food is received through slots in the cage door. The actual delivery or the condition of the food can become a tool to inflict further punishment.

Prisoners are tasked with the serious job of surviving a prison system so filled with danger that it is impossible to articulate. It does not take long to realize the role of victim. It can be very difficult for a person in such a situation to adopt an attitude of responsibility or contrition for the behaviour that broke the social contract, hurt others and brought them into conflict with the law.

However complicated this job is for prisoners, it needs to be attended to. Without genuine insight and understanding about the causes and impact one has had on others, as well as themselves, they will be destined to repeat the tragic pattern. The current “correctional” environment does nothing to assist in the development of sight; it does the opposite.

From the beginning the us/them, good/bad, law abiding/law breaking nature of the division is impounded upon the psyche of prisoners. Reduced to nothing more than a socially undesirable dangerous pariah, self esteem quickly takes a nose dive. The results can range from depression, anger, self pity, self mutilation, suicide, projecting blame on others, substance abuse and addiction, unfocused rage directed outward on others, and even murder. The grieving process is usually not an acknowledged part of the prisoners experience, but in their solitude it is extensive and can be heart and spirit breaking.

Although Canada does have several “community style” prisons where prisoners live in an environment that is far less physically dangerous, very few prisoners are afforded the opportunity of this type of environment.

Labelling the prisoner as an offender and clearly presenting the position that this is all they ever were and ever will be totally demolishes self esteem. Over the course of months, years and decades the ability of a prisoner to usefully explore and deal with fundamental personal issues is fully eroded.

Canadian society sees the correctional system as an effective response to those who have faltered; a social humanitarian project delivering effective humane treatment capable of encouraging change. The reality is that this system is a response to social inequity and problems that simply destroys human beings and then suggests they are rebuilt healthier through being caged.

Prison is prison and will never change regardless of the flower beds and lower profile prison architecture currently embraced by those who would like you to believe prison has changed. The labels have changed to allow the correctional community to present a sanitized version of what is really going on. Examples of this are that we now call penitentiaries “Correctional Institutions,” we call jailers “Correctional Officers,” we call prisoners “inmates” and we call the hole “The Environmental Control Unit.”

Canada has abolished authorized beatings and physical punishment so there is very little sanctioned physical torture going on in Canada’s penitentiaries today. This reality is of little comfort to those who receive this type of treatment unofficially.

Where Canada has done away with physical torture, they have replaced the void with psychological torture. While many prison officials will vigorously deny this charge, the prisoners reality is consistent with the definition of psychological torture. I back up the charge of torture with the following: Some of the longest sentences in the world. Prisoners being warehoused in extremely dangerous, volatile, brutal and often explosive environments where absolutely no sanctuary is available. Paid correctional psychiatrists and psychologists delivering negative agenda-driven assessments. Also, prisoners recognize that they must participate in psychological testing and assessments or it will be recorded as uncooperative behaviour detrimental to release from prison.

The cumulative effects of being imprisoned are deep and far reaching. Prisoners are condemned and put down constantly by the media, politicians and guards. They are held up as useless failures. They are exiled from society and bear the responsibility for their family’s and friends’ embarrassment and shame. Relationships collapse, children grow up without a parent. If their crime caused the loss of life, they live with the crushing knowledge that they have ended that life. Sometimes prisoners never seem to get free of the prison system and they become what society now refers to as recidivists. All can look forward to a future of poverty—oftentimes the period of-incarceration spans the time that would normally be used to save and prepare for retirement. They will become a further drain upon society.

While in prison they can expect no comprehensive training or reasonable guidance. Prisoners will be asked to relive the worst mistake of their life on command by an endless series of parole and case officers as well as psychologists or psychiatrists and program facilitators. This is done, in theory, so officials can evaluate the level of personal insight and understanding through clinically viewing the expression of pain and remorse —if the prisoner cannot comply or fails to meet the subjective standard they stay in prison longer. One of the many problems with this is that it holds prisoners in a constant pattern of grieving and self deprecation. How can anyone move forward under those conditions? Prisoners begin to wonder about their ability to function in society, about their worth as a human being. Will they ever be of value to anyone?

You cannot beat someone down and lift them up at the same time, and expect to be successful. I totally support the premise that people be held accountable for their offences; there should be discomfort and if necessary some pain, but it needs to be coherent.

We need to be intelligent about trying to develop a healthier society. We need to look at the causes behind the actions of those referred to as the “common criminal.” Is society not responsible for the conditions in which people live? Can we really believe that a lifetime of depravation—whether it is familial, social, educational, economic or correctional—will not harvest negative results for the individual as well as society?

People need that human connection; we seek approval, acceptance, loyalty, support and love from others. This fact of life makes the current mandate and approach to “corrections” fundamentally flawed and socially negligent.

The optimum approach would be the Transformative Justice model and would be inclusive of victims and perpetrators along with members of the community. The repercussions of crime would be clearly presented. People would be able to take responsibility for their mistakes and work toward reparation where possible. We would look at the history of people, we would treat them with respect, and we would try to help.

Our current “us versus them” approach, laced with cages and abuse, is always going to fail. If we want our society to be safe, we need to reorient the lense with which we peer out at the world.

Peter Collins is locked up at Bath Penitentiary in Ontario. He is involved in prisoner’s issues such as the war on drugs, harm reduction (education, needle exchange, safe tattooing, methadone) and the promotion of Prisoner’s Justice Day. He has written guide manuals for new prisoners and those preparing for parole.

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