Riot in Cell Block Canada

JUDITH TIMSON October 18 1976

Riot in Cell Block Canada

JUDITH TIMSON October 18 1976

Riot in Cell Block Canada

The message, crudely printed on an old bedsheet hanging on the door to a destroyed cell block in the BC Penitentiary, caught the essence of the matter: “Under new management,” it boasted. After almost a week of insurrection with rioting inmates smashing an entire wing of the century-old fortress in New Westminster, and an armed group of them holding a young guard hostage for more than 80 hours, the prisoners, it seemed, were in control. “This is not a normal riot,” one of the inmates explained. “There has been no demand for escape. This is a movement.”

And by the end of the first week of October, to the satisfaction of the prisoners, the chagrin of guards working in a clearly rotting prison system (see page 80), and the consternation of newly appointed Solicitor General Francis Fox, the movement seemed to have spread. Across the country in Quebec’s Laval Institute—the present name for the infamous St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary—264 prisoners rioted, setting fire to the main cellblock before embarking on a prolonged hunger strike to back demands to be transferred out of the seriously overcrowded prison. In the fouryear-old Millhaven maximum security prison in Ontario, inmates wrecked 100 cells in two days of uprisings before they were finally quelled by tear gas. And in Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert Peniten-

tiary, a lone inmate who was a psychiatric patient added a feeble postscript by holding his doctor hostage for an hour while he demanded and received a transfer.

The con at the BC Pen was partly right. These were not frustrated prisoners, clawing desperately to get out, but extremely well-organized, and for all the damage inflicted on their physical surroundings, surprisingly self-controlled members of an institution demanding: better living

conditions, access to the media and no physical reprisals for their actions.

But in Ottawa, Paul Gascon, vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the union representing more than 7,000 prison employees, warned darkly of a “conspiracy to smash and destroy all federal penal institutions,” aided and abetted, he said, by members of citizens’ advisory groups working within prisons to better re-

lations between the cons and prison administration. “This is a war situation,” said Gascon, “a war between honest people of this country and criminals. If the guards don’t get the support of the people, I don’t know if they will have the nerve to continue.”

But continue they did, when threats of mass resignations to protest the agreement that ended the BC Pen siege did not materialize. The union vowed it would take its battle to the courts, argiring a deal that gave the BC inmates a say in who could supervise their security (the RCMP) was immoral and dangerous. The inmates in New Westminster clearly felt they were winners. But, as Ron Stern, a lawyer acting for their committee pointed out, “Victory in this case is somewhat illusory and also short-lived. All something like this does is increase the focus.”

Flowever, if the focus was increased, so was the public fear of anarchy in the prisons, and if the inmates thought theirs was the only “new management” in operation, they got a swift surprise when Francis Fox stepped in. Facing one prison turmoil after another in the first two weeks of his new cabinet posting, Fox had initially taken only tentative steps, such as guaranteeing he would give top priority to phasing out such obsolete prisons as the BC Pen. But before the end of the week, perhaps reacting to what he described as still unfounded reports of a conspiracy, Fox toughly announced the government would not tolerate prison disturbances, and would move quickly to dispel them, with the RCMP, with the army, with tear gas, and with anything else needed to convince inmates “there is nothing to gain by that type of action.”

In Vancouver, it was the guards’ turn to feel cautious satisfaction: “Jt looks like the corrections system finally has a boss it can look up to,” proclaimed one guard on a radio call-in show, while John Lakusta, local spokesman for the union, agreed, explaining it was “a good thing to let the inmates know where they stand.”

Inside the BC Pen, although a negotiated agreement had secured the release of 21year-old guard Wayne Culbert, there was no guarantee the prisoners would not rise up again. “It can happen any time the inmates want it to happen,” warned James Spears, a reporter for The Vancouver Province, and a member of the citizens’ committee authorized to be present in the prison during the transfer of all prisoners.

The 230 inmates whose cells had been destroyed in the rampage of the east wing were sleeping and living on the floor of the auditorium. Damage to the prison had been estimated at $1.5 million, and because of the Laval and Millhaven uprisings, authorities were having a hard time finding other places to house the prisoners.

“We have no normal routine here,” admitted prison spokesman Jack Stewart, a statement that carried the poignant reminder that the aging stone fortress has been in constant upheaval since February, 1975, when the first of a series of nine hostagetakings (one of which took the life of social worker Mary Steinhäuser) took place.

Consistent with prison policy, criminal charges were to be laid against the leaders of the recent riot, and the nine hostage-takers. In the meantime, prisoners are placing their hopes on a public inquiry of the system, one of the points they won during negotiations to free the hostage. Lawyers and outsiders connected with the prison turmoil stress the need for a perplexed public to understand the cons are not trying to get out of paying their dues but are only trying to maintain theirdignity. To Michael Jackson, a University of British Columbia law professor and a member of the citizens committee, the demands the prisoners are making coincide with an emerging pattern in society in which “people on the lowest rungs—welfare recipients and prison inmates—whose lives are totally controlled by the system are saying, ‘Look, we’re people, too’... in that respect it’s all part of a civil rights movement.” While Jackson scoffs at the conspiracy theory, he does concede “there’s a network of information across the country. When the lid goes off in one place, it sparks another incident, somewhere else.”

One of the ways to defuse tension in the prisons, argue Jackson and others, is to "share power with the cons—let the cons run it.” Why not make the BC Pen a pilot project? he asks. But that is the major fear of the guards, locked into an adversarial system that many of them deplore as much as the cons. “You let the inmates run the prison and you’ll lose most of your staff,” warns John Lakusta.

In Ottawa, although everyone seemed to agree it was time for a change in the prison system, no one knew exactly w'hat to do. Fox, facing budget problems and community hassles in his drive to phase out the older maximum security pens (very few towns or communities would welcome smaller, replacement institutions in their midst), did declare he will recommend to cabinet an accelerated building program to replace such antiquated fortresses as the BC Pen and Laval.

And Paul Gascon, of the guards’ union, got angry when asked whether there should be more extensive training of guards and a further screening process to weed out the troublemakers. “Why not screen the inmates?” he snapped. “That’s what we really need—a higher quality inmate.” JUDITH TIMSON