What it’s like to be in a Prison Riot
Why did a fury of senseless violence erupt in the Kingston pen that hot afternoon last August? An excon, released while the wreckage still smoldered, now gives his answer and tells why he thinks prison riots will continue just as long as men are kept in cages
á‘The feeling of being trapped, pressed, confined - -. then the pressure gauge reads ‘danger’”
LAST AUGUST 15 a vicious, senseless, unexpected and unplanned riot exploded in the yard of Kingston Penitentiary. About sixty or seventy of the nine hundred and thirty inmates set fire to three of the pen buildings and smashed what would not burn. Less than two hours from the moment the riot started a huge cloud of smoke hung above the penitentiary walls like a question mark a two-million-dollar bill for the taxpayer outside; more punishment for many of the cons inside. Those were the net results of the costliest prison riot in Canadian history.
Why had it happened?
No one had escaped. No one had tried. No one had been seriously injured.
As one of the onlookers I agree that it was wanton, stupid and mad. But as a convict (an ex-con now) I can understand why it happened, why such riots have happened before, why they will happen again. I took no part in that Sunday afternoon’s two hours of havoc, mainly because I was due to get out the following day, but my sympathies were wholly with those who did. My sympathies were with them because I have spent twenty of my fifty years in prisons for trying to make a living without working—by burglary, safecracking and counterfeiting—and I can understand all too well why caged men suddenly go berserk.
I know that while riots don’t happen every day in the pen, what happens every day has a lot to do with them for behind each prison riot are the terrible restraints of prison life—the monotony, the longings and frustrations, the drab colors, the rattle of metal plates, the shuffle of heavy boots on con-
crete, the click of locks, the feeling of being trapped, pressed, confined. Because of the monotony and the clockwork routine, there is always an underlying tension. Then comes an incident a little out of the ordinary—and something snaps. That was the story at the Kingston pen.
I don’t know the exact area enclosed by Kingston’s four thirty-foot walls although I have done two three-year bits there. The main gate is in the north wall. It is a little fortress in itself. Two heavy oak doors face the street outside. Behind them is a steel grille covering the complete opening, with a smaller door in it at the left. Giving on the yard is a third grilled barrier with its door. Guards armed with rifles patrol the walls from their stations in small towers at each corner of the walls. Floodlights bathe towers and walls at night.
The main cell block is directly south of the gate. It is a four-wing structure of stone, steel and concrete like all the other buildings. The wings are at right angles to one another, sticking out from a central rotunda like four spokes from a hub. Each wing is four stories high and each story contains about a hundred and sixty cells. South of the main cell block is the four-wing two-story main workshop building containing the carpenter shop where I worked, the “mail-bag” wing where all the mail bags in the country are made and repaired, the tinsmithing and paint shops, the machine shop, garage, engineering shop and the boiler room.
There is also an east cell block with drums (cells) for about a hundred and fifty men and, over near the west wall, another hundred and twenty-five men are locked up in a three-story building which
“Half a dozen aimless gangs of rioters ... firing and destroying everything they could reach"
also contains two tailor shops and the printing plant. Tucked away in the northwest corner of the yard is another small cell block for twenty-five or thirty men. The “onion patch,” a small vegetable garden, is in the northeast corner. The softball diamond and bleachers are in the southwest end; near them are tennis and handball courts, a horseshoe pitch, and an area where card tables are set up in tine weather. There is even a dartboard. A stable for eight horses is between the east cell block and t he ball diamond; the horses are used to haul things around the yard or on the pen farm.
The main cell block, the shops, all t he buildings stand within solid limestone walls as though each had been hewn on the spot from one massive block of stone. Grey stone, khaki-clad guards, prisoners in varying shades of brown (depending on how many launderings each man’s garb has had), brown earth -except for some strips of lawn and a splash or t wo of flowers in the north and west sections of the yard are the colors that influence a prisoner’s thinking for months, years, a lifetime. All areas of the yard, except the southeast sports section, ar^ out of bounds, even during recreation periods.
When not working or on recreation time prisoners are confined, one man to a cell, in ten-byfour-foot cells with a steel-barred door at one end. A wash basin is fitted into one corner, a toilet bowl in the opposite corner. A bed hinged to the wall, and folded against the wall when not in use, and a small table opposite the bed complete the furnishings. There is a three-foot shelf above the table for books, and tools and materials for those who pass the time at hobby crafts. A sixty-watt bulb
hangs from the ceiling above the table.
There is a large hell in the centre of the rotunda. A guard whams it with a hammer at 7.30 and you’re out of bed. It is the first of a hundred bells you hear throughout the day as you shuffle through t he dreary prison timetable of eating, working and playing. After dressing in brown denim pants, shirt, jacket and cap, and pulling on the army-style prison boots, you give your face a dab at the basin. You don’t have to shave every morning; you may go a week if you wish. You fold your bed against the wall, pick up your tray and mug, still dirty from last night’s supper, and stand at the cell door. Another bell sounds and the hack (guard) in charge of your range unlocks the master lock for the whole range of cells. This moves a steel I-beam out of position at the top of the cell range, so that the vertical * locking bolt on each cell door may be raised, and the cell door opened. The bolts are tripped up by a lever on the outside of the door. This is done by a tripper, a con who moves quickly down the row of drums flipping up the bolt levers. You lean on your door, ready to shove it open as soon as the lever is tripped. If you are slow, the bolt falls back into place and the tripper is three or four cells away. But it doesn’t much matter. One of the cons now in the corridor, seeing your predicament, will reach over and trip it for you. In the corridor you stand in line while the guard counts heads. Another bell goes and you march through the corridor, down the spiral stairway into the kitchen.
The ranges move off at one-minute intervals. There is a bell to send each on its way, and there
are thirty-two ranges in the main cell block. You hear t hat bell clang through the block and through your brain thirty-two times before breakfast and thirty-two times after. The tread of heavy boots along the corridors and up and down the steel stairways sets up a metallic clangor that stays in the ears like the noise of far-off battle long after you have entered the comparative quiet of the shops. It is the noise that returns in sleep and can suddenly rise above the din of traffic when you’re standing on a street corner months after your release.
In t he kitchen you hand in last night’s dirty tray and mug, lake clean ones, and passing slowly past the steam tables, load up cafeteria style. The file wheels around and climbs the stairs back to the cell range to be locked in t he drums to eat. By t he time you have reached your drum again the food is cold. You t ake a few sips from the coffee mug while you’re still in the kitchen, for it will be dish-water temperature when you’re ready to eat; and the metal does something to the flavor. It’s good coffee when served, but poor stuff ten minutes later. The food at Kingston is plentiful; the variety is good. You can get fat on it if you’re a pig. But t he march from kitchen to drum dissipates most of the flavor.
After breakfast another bell brings you to your cell door. The unlocking ceremony is repeated. Again heads are counted. A bell sends you on your way again to the kitchen; the dirty tray and mug are tossed in and this t ime you keep on going, out of the cell block and down the yard to the shops. As soon as you are safely locked inside, the guard counts all present once more, frisks the lot of you, and the day’s work is started.
Except in the mail bag, all shop work at Kingston is for the furnishing and maintenance of the penitentiary. We make our own tables, beds, shelves, uniforms, boots, and even the bars for our windows and doors.
A con is graded like any civil servant in Grades One, Two and Three. It depends partly on the length of time he has been in the place and partly on his efficiency. A Grade One con gets ten cents a day. Three cents of that is held back and given him when he is discharged. Grades Two and Three are paid fifteen and twenty cents respectively, wth five and six cents held back for discharge money. The remaining seven, ten and fourteen cents, depending on the grade, are set aside as a credit to be used to buy food and sundries at the penitentiary canteen.
Every two weeks you are given a list of the articles in stock candy bars, gum, tobacco and cigarettes—and you tick off the items you want to the extent of your credits, and pick them up. There is a second canteen run by cons elected by the prisoners. Called the welfare canteen, it is stocked like a combination confectionery, tobacco, fruit and stationery store. It adjoins the east wing of the main shop building. Prison Continued on page 114
Continued on page 114
On his way to freedom,
No. 1604 waves a glad good-by to the pen. But his sympathies remain inside.
What It's Like To Be In a Prison Riot
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 15
scrip is used there. It is red cardboard, about an inch and a half square, bearing only a photograph of the pen radio control room. Scrip is issued for money sent the prisoners from friends and relatives. The tickets are valued at fifteen to the dollar and you are not allowed to carry more than a dollar’s worth at a time.
The carpenter shop employed thirty men while I was there. It contained about twenty individual workbenches and was well supplied with hand and power tools. All the prison shops are well lighted, well equipped and well ventilated.
There is a mid-morning break of fifteen minutes for a smoke. At noon you go to the sink and wash up, then get in line. You are frisked again, counted, and when the door has heen unlocked you file out and over to the kitchen. After dinner you have a chance to stretch out for a half hour. Then the bell goes again, you hit the door, line up, are counted, go down to the kitchen to leave your dirty utensils, then on to the shop. Again the count, the search, and back to work. There is another fifteen-minute smoking period in the afternoon. Some time during the day you are let out in the yard for a forty-minute recreation period. At the end of the work day there is another search and count. Then to the cells for the night, carrying your supper tray.
There are earphones in each cell. The cons can listen to a two-channel radio service all evening. It is controlled from the radio room. The programs start at seven o’clock but before that a pen announcer, an inmate, gives the “joint news.” We learn who are the newcomers that day, their sentences and crimes. There is gossip about the prison ball teams and any other topic of general interest. Those who don’t listen to the radio, or who find the program boring, talk from cell to cell or play checkers or chess by calling their plays by numbers but the main theme for general conversation is sex. Many cons like to pretend they have a woman in the cell with them and graphically outline their progress to their fellow inmates. Perverts shout methods of procedure from cell to cell. Fouler than any barracks or forecastle, the cell block keeps reminding the prisoner of his isolation and sex hunger.
At eight o’clock a gong rings for silence. No talking is permitted from then until ten, when the cell lights go out. If your cell door happens to be opposite one of the corridor lights, there is nothing to stop you from reading all night. The envy of everyone is the man who goes to sleep right after supper and stays asleep until the 7.30 bell. There is an old prison saying: “You’re not doing time when you’re asleep.”
Talking is not permitted when inmates are in line or singly under guard or after the eight-o’clock bell, or, according to the rules, when in the shops. I have never known a shop guard to go by the book as long as talking in the shop was subdued. Smoking is not permitted when walking or waiting in line under guard, or when singly under guard, or in the shops—except during the two quarter-hour breaks. Else-
where and at other times there is no curb either on talking or smoking.
There are quite a few privileges. Smoking and talking are privileges. So are the canteens, baseball and the other yard games. Hobbycraft is a highly prized privilege. A man may buy tools and materials and do woodwork, leatherwork or shell work in his cell between supper and lights out. His work can be sent out to relatives for sale; some cons who are rapid and skilful workers have made as much as $2,000 a year from their hobby crafts. Two of the basic privileges are two letters a week to the outside; a letter may be to father, mother, wife, child, sister or brother and to no one else. You may receive one visitor, from the above categories, once a month.
Between the noon meal and supper on Saturday, and all day Sunday, except for one compulsory church attendance a month, you are as free as four stone walls allow. Week ends and the daily recreation period are the times you get into the yard to exercise, bask in the sun, spend your tickets at the welfare canteen, jaw with friends, or just meditate on your sins.
As many as eight or nine hundred men will be gathered in one quarter of the prison yard at one time. No more than a dozen guards will be with them and all the guards will be unarmed— not so much as a truncheon. At night, when every con is safely locked in his drum, the guards carry rifles or revolvers. It sounds like an anomaly but it isn’t. Not more than ten percent of pen inmates are violent by nature. Most of them—the forgers, abortionists, embezzlers, burglars, counterfeiters, confidence men — are as peaceful as so many undertakers or real-estate men.
You Can’t Get Used To Pen
But they are not inside long bel '-'' they are wise to the reason for unarm e ! guards by day and armed guards bv night. They know that a guard would rather be unarmed than run the risk of having a weapon wrested from him ard turned on him. At night he might encounter one or two cons who have broken out of their cells; being armed then is an advantage. So every con soon gets the idea that he is feared. Being searched four times a day either for escape tools or for weapons eventually adds to the inmate’s new estimate of his fearsome nature. Having his group counted eight times a day is further proof that an escape attempt is expected of him at any time. It isn’t long before most eons—including some highly peaceable ones—are firmly convinced that they are very dangerous indeed. That idea is an important condition of prison riots.
But the chief cause is simply that you are in prison. A convict understands why he is in a penitentiary. He might even admit that he deserves to be there. But he still isn’t going to like it. Putting a man behind bars is more than removing him from one environment and placing him in another. It is an amputation.
You may think you can get used to prison life with all its constrictions and indignities but you never can. The prison clothes, the clanging of a steel door behind you, the animal-like patience with which you wait for a man to come and let you out, the tone with which some guards can place you in a subhuman category when giving the most commonplace order, the furtive
Every con knows lie he’s dangerous. He
's feared and thinks 's ready for a riot.
overtures of the homosexuals, the sudden realization that months of solitary eating have turned you into a pig—all these things stoke the boiler. Eventually the needle on the pressure gauge reads “danger” and one more straw in the kindling starts the explosion.
August 15, a Sunday, started as just another day for my fellow inmates. For me, it was something special—my last full day in the pen. Your last few days in the pen make you feel like a kid at Christmas time. Will the big day really come? Or will something happen so that Santa Claus doesn’t make the trip?
My first moment of uneasiness came on the preceding Friday afternoon in the shops. I was sanding school desks when another convict stepped over to me and murmured, “Don’t look now, but we may be losing our happy home.” The sound of fire sirens approaching from Kingston swelled over the walls before I could reply. I stepped to the window and saw smoke rising from the roof of the main cell block. Everyone dropped tools and crowded to the windows. We were like schoolboys watching the school burn down, or hoping it would. There were a few dissenters — the men whose cells contained months of work on hobbyerafts. They watched the fire like mothers returning to a burning home in which children have been left. Within an hour it was apparent that the firemen had the upper hand. By suppertime some of the hose lines had been withdrawn. I think the fire was accidental, caused by a short circuit. But its consequences were far more serious than the destruction of part of the cell-block roof. It had eased the tension in lives keyed up to perform every major movement at the clang of a bell or the command of a guard. Even before our hack (after a brief conversation with one of the keepers at the door) announced that we would have supper in the shop instead of going to our cells, we sensed that things were going to be different. What kind of difference and how farreaching? No one knew but ignorance didn’t prevent wild and happy speculation. Whatever was to happen, it would be good for us and awkward for the pen authorities. That was how everyone felt, so everyone felt good.
We filed to the kitchen and loaded our supper trays. Back in the shops we chattered like picnickers as we spread out the food on tables and benches, reveling in the novelty of eating together instead of being separated by the stone walls of our individual cells. After returning our trays to the kitchen, we were wheeled around and did not go to our cells for the night. We went back to the shops.
Routine had gone by „the boards. There was a relaxation which could not be checked. It was as heady as three or four swigs of goof (cheap wine). An impromptu quartet provided close harmony. Some card games were started. About a dozen men spent the evening walking around the shop, enjoying the almost-forgotten freedom of having more than forty square feet to pace in. The shop guard watched indulgently. Authority had been forced to loosen the reins, and perhaps was uncertain how much slack could safely be allowed.
Red, a man doing a long bit for manslaughter who had been my particular pal during the past year, came up to me and started kidding about my expected discharge: “They’ll forget all about
you Monday, Curly. They have other things to worry about now.” “Yeah,” Pappy, one of the old ones, chimed in gleefully, “didn’t you know about them moving the records into the big dome only yesterday? Fact,” he cheerfully lied, “they’ll be burnt. Have to check everything now through Ottawa. Takes months.” Even when you know you’re being kidded, and by friends, little clouds of doubt can gather in the mind when the subject is life and death or freedom and imprisonment.
The Story New Shoes Tell
For breakfast on Saturday we had sandwiches of some kind of meat paste, and cheese. We had a hard-boiled egg each and biscuits and coffee. Not much work was done in the shops. In the afternoon we had the usual recreation period.
I had just handed in my dirty lunch tray at the kitchen when a guard told me to go over to the shoemaking shop. My spirits soared. That meant new shoes, always issued a day or two before a man is discharged. Everything else is done within the last hour behind the walls, hut the shoe ceremony takes place well beforehand — why, I don’t know. I picked out a pair of brown oxfords. From then on I came in for uninterrupted kidding and envious remarks from everyone. Until Saturday only my pals and the men in the carpenter shop had known of my discharge. But the new shoes are an advertisement to the whole population that you’re about to leave. Guys you have never spoken to before come up to you with wisecracks or envious remarks.
After supper on Saturday (still in the shops) the guards told us that the cell block was fairly dry and those who wanted to return could do so. There was no compulsion about it. Another night of sleeping in the shops would
A mob was growing, ready to storm the shops and capture the key to freedom.
be allowed for those who feared the dampness. Most of us went back to the main cell block. The hobbycrafters were anxious to see what had happened to their work and the others were curious about the smoke and water damage. But even the return to the cells did not clear away the relaxed air that had settled over the place.
Early Sunday afternoon Red and I started for the ball diamond. The Sunday afternoon ball game is the big attraction of the week. Our best team takes on teams from Kingston, Belleville and sometimes Ottawa. There was quite a crowd there as we approached. When we were less than twenty yards from the bleachers we heard several voices on the diamond raised in an angry shout. Red said, “Sounds like they’re starting a bingo. Funny time for it—funny place.” A bingo is a sudden chorus of shouting and yelling, usually indulged in when in the cells so that tables and utensils can be rattled as accompaniment, to let off steam and annoy the guards. We went on a few steps. An old con passed us, heading north. He was going slowly, like a sleepwalker, stifflegged. There were two white spots on his cheeks and the skin around his mouth was drawn tightly in fear. As he came up to us he said: “Those guys are really hot. Scram, if you’ve got sense.”
At the ball diamond enough could be gathered from the yelling and screaming to get the drift of things. A story was spreading that a full team couldn’t be mustered because some of the players were locked in the mail bag. It was the first we had heard of it. A con standing in front of us turned and said, “Them jokers in the mail bag broke some windows in there Friday night. The hacks have kept them locked in there since. Some of the ball team is locked in there too. The boys want to get ’em out.”
A knot of about thirty men stood on the edge of the diamond, about twenty-five yards from the south entrance to the shop building. I could see and hear them. It was now clear that our informant’s explanation was correct. The cons around the diamond were pep talking themselves into getting into the mail bag and releasing the men who were supposed to be imprisoned there for breaking the windows
-players and others alike. Other cons began gathering and I could see two guards walking toward the group slowly, one from the east cell block and the other from around the north' end of the shop building. I think they believed they were about to break up a fight.
Abruptly the cons between the diamond and the shops parted. The men from the diamond had argued themselves into action. They disappeared from my view behind the south wing of the building, making for the door to the west wing, the mail bag. I had no desire to see what they would do next. Red and I moved toward the east cell block in the opposite direction. We learned later that when the cons stormed the shops building they encountered a lone guard—Leslie McCallum -at the mail-bag door and demanded his keys. Apparently McCallum retreated with his keys behind the engineering-shop door.
I glanced over the entire scene again before turning to move away from the danger zone toward the north. The
guards who had been approaching were nowhere in sight. They, and all others in the south section of the yard had fled to safety farther north. Some cons were running toward the main shops from the masonry shop armed with crowbars, prises, shovels, sledges.
Within minutes the steel doors to the mail bag, and to some of the other shops, were twisted metal. If there were men in the mail bag they certainly got out. But the fifty or sixty cons who were now tearing through the building didn’t care about a ball game any more. Through the windows we could see them clicking their cigarette lighters on and off (cons may not carry matches), starting flames dancing in a hundred different places. The flames quickly spread, joined, and filled the east and north wings of the building. Shouting “burn the hell hole to the ground” and “come on you chickens (to the hundreds of us who were looking on) let’s all make a job of it,” they went on to other buildings south of the main cell block.
Some ran to the barn and fired it, but others rushed inside and brought the eight horses to safety. The west shop and dorms came next. There are cells for about a hundred men there, as well as the tailor shop and print shop. Then the lumber shed. Only a new fireproof roof saved the east cell block. The few guards who had been in the south yard sprinted northward to safety, and made it. McCallum was still locked in the engineering shop.
Wrecking Gangs at Work
The whole thing had been unpremeditated and unplanned. From a crazy scheme to release a few supposedly irreplaceable ball players, less than a hundred cons had worked up a first-class head of steam.
When the first wisps of smoke came through the windows there was a minor stampede—in which I joined —to buy out the welfare canteen before it might be destroyed. The canteen adjoins the east wing of the shops building. The three men behind the counter did a land-office business. Cons surged around the place, waving their scrip like women in a bargain basement. The shelves were emptied in less than ten minutes. I bought a cantaloupe and a brick of ice cream and shuffled around with the fruit in one hand and the rapidly melting brick in the other. At least the guards could see that my intentions were innocent.
By the time the shops building was well alight, the rioters had become half a dozen small aimless gangs firing and destroying everything they could reach. Huddled along the east path, were the rest of us. Those who had bought pop when the canteen was bought out swigged their drinks as they watched. A few at the southern end of the spectator group shouted encouragement. “Burn everything—do it right!” and “Get the main cell block, you dummies, there’s nothing to stop you!” Others were just as vocal in their reproof: “Do you want to spend the
rest of your lives here?” or “What are you trying to do—get somebody killed?”
We could hear commands being shouted by the guards on the walls: “Everyone stand still.” “Stay where you are.” And the occasional, less formal, “Stop being damned fools.” They might as well have called to the
flames. Half a dozen men who had found a length of two-by-eight used it as a battering ram against the main door of the main cell block. They made several assaults on the oak-and-steel door without effect.
The guard McCallum startled everyone b.v suddenly appearing north of the main cell block and dashing for the north gate, yelling to the guards, “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.” He had found a con’s uniform in the engineering shop, put it on, and passed unnoticed through us all. I found out later that another guard had remained locked in the boiler room, which the fire didn’t reach.
The warden, deputy warden and head keepers and guards were standing in front of the north gate. The walls were thick with guards. A heavy cloud of smoke was carried toward the City of Kingston by a southwest breeze.
The Only Shots All Day
After little more than an hour of rioting a few cons were ready to throw in the sponge. One group, still clinging to their crowbars and pick handles, walked toward the north gate yelling, “We want to talk; we want to talk with you.” The deputy warden eyed them a moment and called back, “We are not talking with anyone. Stay where you are.” He glanced over to where about thirty of us were sitting beside the onion bed in the northeast corner. “You fellows are sitting this one out, eh?” he called. “All right, stay put.” Warden Walter Johnstone didn’t do any talking except to his staff.
Soon after McCallum made his escape we heard explosions from the shops building in muffled sounds that probably were tins of paint bursting. The smoke hid the southeast section
of the yard so that the guards on the north walls couldn’t be sure what was causing the explosions. They fired one volley of about twenty shots against the north wall of the cell block, over our heads. They were the only shots fired all day.
A little less than two hours after the first rush at the mail bag I noticed the guards on the north wall looking intently to the east, beyond the prison. A moment later there was a stir in the ranks of the pen brass—warden, deputy, chief keeper, assistant chief and otheis who had been ranged before the north gate. The warden left the group and spoke to the keeper on the gate, then came back and they all stood clear while the big doors swung open. Troops from the Kingston garrison entered the yard, steel helmeted, armed with rifles, Bren guns, tear-gas guns and other weapons. The troops had drawn up in line across the entire north end of the yard before anyone but those of us at the onion patch knew they were in the place. They were nearly all kids who appeared as uncertain about what would happen next as we were. When word passed the length of the yard that soldiers had arrived, no one felt fear of any kind. The cons at the southern end gave a mock cheer, but there was relief in it, and in the feelings of all of us who had not had a hand in the riot.
It was all over. The soldiers moved down the west end of the yard right to the south wall, leaving small detachments strung between buildings to stop any die-hards from playing hide-andseek. All inmates, rioters and onlookers alike, retreated slowly before the bayonets. When everyone had been corralled on the ball diamond the fire trucks came in. They had been waiting for nearly two hours on the street outside ti._ north gate. Hose lines were hauled
through the gates and over me walls. The fires were under control by five o’clock.
Guards swarmed into the yard and began their job of cutting us out of the herd two at a time, frisking us, and sending us at the double back to the main cell block for the night, ft was eight o’clock before the last two men were under lock and key again. Back in the cells no one spoke. When the last cell door had clanged shut you felt that you had been entombed alive. Not a whisper. By midnight a few snores could be heard. They were the only human sounds to break the silence until morning.
I didn’t sleep very well. I thought it certain that 1 would be kept in my cell for a long time to come. The warden had the power to keep me in for another nine months if he thought he had a reason. What about yesterday? I had been within speaking distance of the men who started the riot. Had some guard reported me as an instigator, or at least as one worth detaining for questioning? It seemed probable.
On Monday morning breakfast was brought to the cells by a handful of trusties. We were literally fed through the bars. Two pieces of toast, a dab of jam, a boiled egg and coffee. As I look mine I called to a guard, “Do I hand in these shoes after all?” He looked «puzzled for a moment, then grinned and said, “Oh, you’re worried, eh?” But the grin helped. Half an hour later a keeper came to the cell and unlocked it. I took the first, step toward freedom.
From the cell block I was marched to the office adjoining the undamaged east cell block where the final rites in the discharge of a prisoner are observed. I was given a haircut and a shower; a suit of clothes and hat were next. They returned the club bag containing the clothing I had worn into the pen and they photographed me again. At the administration building I got back my ring and wrist watch and was given a railway ticket to Toronto.
When I reached Toronto I bought the evening papers and read all about the riot, and life in Kingston pen. I wished some of the others could have been with me. You fec i kind of silly laughing by yourself.
The papers spoke of big-time gambling in the pen—of fifty and hundred dollar bills floating around the poker tables. There is gambling in the pen —bets made on card games (craps and poker are not permitted), on baseball games or on when it will stop raining. Prison scrip is used —valued at fifteen to the dollar. I have never seen more than forty of these chits change hands at a card game (bridge or gin rummy) and I’m sure no one else has either. Sometimes card players will be at a game from Saturday noon to Sunday evening. If the payoff amounts to more than three dollars in scrip it’s the talk of the yard for weeks. Bank notes of any denomination are never seen.
Drinking orgies were also given a sensational play. The reports on that phase of prison life led the reader to believe that nine hundred inmates reeled about the place all day and all night, juiced up on prison-made moonshine. Actually, a few lushes will sneak a cup or two of fruit juice from the kitchen once in a while, put it in as warm a place as they can find, and hope for the best.
Still another report said that a plot had been uncovered to spike the wall guards’ coffee with potassium cyanide. The idea was that during the ball game the effects of the potassium cyanide would strike. The guards would drop dead and cons would march arm in arm
to freedom through the north gate. My knowledge of chemistry is not extensive but I’m quite sure that the action of potassium cyanide is not delayed more than a split second after reaching a person’s lips.
A report which always follows a prison riot is the kind which speaks of a plan having been discovered for a mass breakout: “It has been known for some time that a group of the more hardened criminals have been planning . . . etc., etc.”
Of course there is a plot to escape. It’s going on all the time. Sometimes it is organized but, organized or not, it is there from when you go in until you come out. There is a plot to escape in Kingston right now, and in Stony Mountain, Dartmoor and Leavenworth or any other place where men are locked up against their will. And everyone is in it. For the great majority it is a vague hope, often to
The doorways fill with passers-by Who concentrate on keeping dry.
And while they block the way and
They thoroughly infuriate
The folks inside who want to get
Outside at once and soaking wet.
P. J. BLACKWELL
be rejected when the opportunity does arise. But it is there as part of every inmate’s thinking.
People on the outside become exasperated when there is a major riot such as that of last August. Too much mollycoddling, they say. The taxpayer looks at the staggering bill, gets understandably angry.
Very often the reasons given for a prison riot—and by the rioters themselves—are not the true ones. Prisoners don’t riot, knowing the painful consequences they may suffer, because the porridge is lumpy or because a guard has taken a swing at some con when no one was looking. The lowest IQ in the place knows there is no future in that sort of outbreak.
I think prisoners riot because they can’t help it. For the hyperemotional ones especially it is a natural reaction to an unnatural existence. It is a kind of therapy for the suffering men undergo when kept in cages. They go to the hole. They have a large chunk of remission time taken from them, or they may have to face trial and hear their sentence being prolonged. But the act of rioting opens the safety valve.
Mollycoddling has nothing to do with it. Ice cream and baseball never make a man forget the freedom he has lost. They help him a little to bear the emptiness of prison life, but there is no substitute for freedom. Telling himself that he is there through no one’s fault but his own doesn’t alter anything for the con. The man who has been clowning in a canoe and suddenly finds himself in deep water with his craft floating away from him can tell himself the same thing but he can’t be expected to accept his plight without a struggle.
A prison is an active volcano — churning and bubbling under the weight of stone and steel; under the pressure of routine and discipline are the uncontrollable urges for freedom and female companionship. So, there are eruptions. Even though the convict is a wilful wrongdoer, I don’t think he can be blamed for them. Neither can the prison authorities. ^