Closeup/Prisons

The halls of anger

Canada’s prisons: a study in failure

Michael Enright March 21 1977
Closeup/Prisons

The halls of anger

Canada’s prisons: a study in failure

Michael Enright March 21 1977

The halls of anger

Closeup/Prisons

Canada’s prisons: a study in failure

Michael Enright

I’ll endure anything, your red-hot tongs and molten lead, your racks and prongs and garrotes—all your fiendish gadgets, everything that burns and flays and tears—I’ll put up with any torture you impose. Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough.

-Jean-Paul Sartre in his play. No Exit.

What I do is lie in my dormitory and watch my fish; that ’s what I can look forward to for the next six years, raising guppies.

—Rockland Foley, 26, an inmate in a Canadian prison.

Notes from the prison front: around 9 p.m. last October 5, some inmates at Millhaven Maximum Security Institution near Kingston, Ontario, were working out with barbells in the cool air of the prison’s exercise yard. Earlier that day, one convict had been stabbed by another and rushed to a Kingston hospital. The mood of the inmate population was sullen and tense. At the end of the exercise period, a guard picked up a bullhorn to order the prisoners back to their cells. The guard, who had a history of harassing inmates, began calling them names. “Okay, girls, exercise is over, back inside. C’mon faggots, down with the weights. There’ll be no more stabbings at Millhaven tonight; the blood bank’s pretty low.” The men, angered at the guard’s taunting and at being herded back to their cells, moved slowly. At first they refused to enter their cells. Members of an inmates’ committee persuaded them to go to their cells after exacting a promise from the head keeper that they would be released to watch television after a count was taken. For some reason, a count was not taken and shortly before 10 p.m. the inmates started to smash their cells. Throughout the night and the next day, they wrecked 166 cells, causing $250,000 worth of damage. The smashup had three results: the inmate committee was disbanded, prisoners were locked in the cells for 23 hours a day for more than four months, and Millhaven retained its reputation as the most dangerous and desperate jail in Canada.

At the other end of the country, the British Columbia Penitentiary at New Westminster, BC, is a fortress perched on a hill

AIIphotographs accompanying this article are of actual prisoners ( orformer prisoners) in Canadian federal penitentiaries. They were taken by Pierre Gaudard, a freelance photographer living in Montreal

The most blatant instrument of human degradation is solitary confinement-the hole'

13 miles east of Vancouver, overlooking the Fraser River. Long condemned as archaic, the BC pen was designed as much to keep the world out as to keep prisoners in. To understand what kind of place it is, you have to go back to Christmas, 1966. Prison guard Frank Newton and his family were preparing to enjoy the holidays when a package, wrapped as a Christmas present, was delivered to his home. With his 10year-old son standing beside him, Newton opened the parcel. The package exploded. Newton’s arms were blown off and his son was blinded in one eye. On Christmas Day, when the inmates heard what had happened to the guard, they cheered from their cell ranges—loudly. His arms replaced by steel hooks, Frank Newton now works in the administration office of the prison.

Item: Somewhere in the Canadian prison system there is a man who, bureaucratically, simply does not exist. Two years ago he applied for a transfer from one maximum security prison to another. His file was forwarded to the receiving institution, but he was not moved. When he asked what was causing the delay he was told he couldn’t be transferred without a file and that his file was not available. The receiving prison had a file but no man and the transferring prison had the man and no file. He has been waiting for two years for someone to find him.

Item: A young inmate with three years university education was serving time in a western penitentiary for fraud. Because of his good behavior record he was given temporary parole. He landed a job as the superintendent of the largest luxury apartment in a nearby city. He had a master key to every suite, collected rents, checked in new tenants and was generally trusted with running the building. He was given a rentfree apartment and a salary of $1,100 a month. After three months, his parole officer decided that he would have to quit the job because it exposed him to “too much temptation and pressure.” When the young man heard that he was to be enrolled in a community college to learn to drive a bulldozer, he fled. Two days later he was returned to the institution to serve out the remainder of his sentence behind bars.

Item: In Archambault Institution in Quebec, an English-speaking inmate sent the following request to the administration: “I would like to know how' to go about having a wristwatch brought in.” The reply, in French, informed him that the request must be made in French, because the classification officer’s job had been designated as francophone only. The officer's union was trying to get extra salary for its bilingual members and the man wondering about a wristwatch became a pawn in the argument.

Item: An inmate in a prairie institution asked permission to rearrange the furniture in his cell. The request was turned down by the director. As is his right, the inmate appealed the decision to the regional administration. After some time the region sent out a memo upholding the director’s decision. The inmate, still following the grievance procedure, sent his request to the national office of the Canadian Penitentiary Service in Ottawa. Ultimately, it too turned down his request. The process took 10 weeks.

Item: Inmates in the creaking medieval horror of Montreal’s St. Vincent de Paul (now known as the Laval Institute) are given 10 minutes once a week to shower. If they run over the time limit, a report on their tardiness goes into a file that could bear on a man’s future application for parole. One convict has an artificial leg and it takes most of his 10 minutes’ showering time to remove it. As a result he now has a number of late reports on file against him.

The silent—and often vicious—war being waged inside the angry Gulag that is Canada’s federal prison system is continuing and all-inclusive. It touches the thinking and the behavior of everyone connected with the correctional system. And it costs more than $250 million a year. The inmates are at war with the guards, who in turn are joined in battle with the administration. The administrators, for their part, are up against a smothering, inflexible behemoth called the Canadian Peniten-

tiary Service. It is a war where men become file cards and everyone is doing time one way or another. The guards, backed by a muscular union, want more money, more authority, more training, more protection. The inmates in almost every institution complain of brutal treatment at the hands of their keepers and cry out for simple gestures of dignity. The people who run the system stare at the failure of the rehabilitation ethic and wonder what to do next. The practice of caging a man to make him repent has become a celebration of despair behind the stone-grey walls. And outside the system is a generally uncaring public that calls for more repression and complains—as 56% did in a recent Gallup poll—that prisons are too soft on convicts. No other public bureaucracy in this country has as little public input or attracts as little public attention as the penal system. Only when a major incident sparks headlines does the public respond.

Last year gave the public plenty to respond to. Throughout 1976. there were 27 major incidents of strikes, riots or hostage takings in Canada’s prisons, most of them in the 13 tough maximum security institutions. Some 40 people were held hostage in 15 separate incidents. After a riot last September at the BC pen, parliament established a select subcommittee to study the problems of penitentiary systems and recommend solutions. Its report is expected in mid-May.

Canada has always had the reputation of being harshly punitive toward its criminals. Criminal offenses that in other countries are dealt with by heavy fines or strict probation result in prison terms here. In Canada the rate of committal to prison per 100,000 population is 240 but in Britain it is only 59. Far too many first offenders are sentenced to prison, an act that is socially self-defeating in terms of rehabilitation. A recent study by the federal Law Reform Commission reported that “nonviolent property offenders imprisoned following their first conviction are almost twice as likely to commit a second serious offense as those whose punishment doesn’t include jail.” When a man is consigned to penitentiary, he becomes a member of a closed but fully operational society, independent of everything he’s known before, with its own codes of behavior, its own system of justice and punishment and its own set of values. He becomes a target individual, forced to conform to a social structure of which he has no working knowledge. If he is too friendly with the guards, he becomes the object of hatred or even violence by his fellow inmates. If he conforms too readily to his peers, he opens himself up to harassment from the guards and administration. He is told he must rehabilitate himself, yet is given little opportunity or incentive to do so. In an eloquent definition of prison, former inmate Andreas Schroeder, who was sentenced for drug possession in BC, wrote in his book Shaking It Rough: “Prison is a huge lightless room, filled with hundreds of blind, groping men, perplexed and apprehensive and certain that the world is full of nothing but enemies at whom they must flail and kick each time they brush against them in the dark. Prison is a bare and bewildering marketplace in which sellers and buyers mill about in confusion, neither having the remotest idea of what to buy or sell.” The convict becomes entirely dependent on the parallel systems of his peers and his keepers. Whatever powers of judgment he had when he went in are broken by the unending need to conform. Says William Outerbridge, chairman of the National Parole Board and a criminologist for 25 years: “The obscenity of prison is very clearly this fact: a criminal is viewed as a man who can make choices and, out of all the available alternatives, chose to commit an offense. When we put him in prison we take away every opportunity of choice he has and then we expect him to be able to make the right choices after he’s been released.” A young inmate at Alberta’s Drumheller medium security institution put it this way: “You are never too sure what is going to happen to your life. It’s all out of your hands. You never know why a request is turned down. You never know what to say to a staff member because you don’t know what he’s going to put in your file.”

Hanging in the air in Canada’s maximum security prisons is the constant aura of incipient violence. There is a feeling that everyone on the inside, guard and inmate, is at risk. It has been established that in some cases guards have beaten and gassed uncooperative prisoners. Some inmates make a practice of throwing bags of excrement into guards’ faces. Inmates commit acts of self-mutilation and attacks on sexual offenders and informers occur regularly. Homosexual rape is also horrifyingly common, including assaults on younger prisoners by groups of older cons. The suicide rate among prisoners is 13% higher than in the general population. Between 1970 and 1976, there were 62 suicides in Canadian pens. In one week at Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert maximum security institution, three inmates killed themselves. Last month a group of inmates at the Laval Correctional Detention Centre in Montreal publicly threatened to mutilate themselves unless living conditions were improved. The rights of prisoners are often ignored by the administration. In a study of the rights of prisoners, Professor Gordon Kaiser wrote in the Queen’s (University) Law Journal. “The fundamental rights of prisoners in the United States have developed to a higher degree than experienced in Canada and in England.”

In short, Canada has adopted the worst of each system without incorporating the individual protections provided by either country. The violence need not be physical to be destructive. What on the outside would be considered a minor annoyance, in prison will often take on the enormity of calculated cruelty. “Try to recall how it is to be a patient in a hospital where you are confined and have to take orders,” says Inger Hansen, the federally appointed inmates’ ombudsman. “A cold meal can be a staggering act of violence. The surroundings of a prison themselves make for a chapped soul. Think of being 10 years in a place without ever sitting in a soft chair or walking on a carpet.”

The most blatant instrument of human degradation is solitary confinement—the hole, or in the euphemism of Millhaven pen, the Environmental Control Area. For breaches of discipline, an inmate can be sent to the hole, with a restricted diet, for up to 30 days at a time. The punishment can be meted out for flagrant acts of defiance, violence, or for any act that the administration views as detrimental to the “good order of the institution.” Solitary confinement has been deemed cruel and unusual punishment by a federal court in BC and a tool of dehumanization by scientists. In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in California conducted an experiment on the effects of forced confinement using student volunteers. Students assigned roles as guards began to lose control of themselves and harass the students who were acting the roles of prisoners. The experiment, scheduled to last two weeks, had to be canceled after six days

when it got out of hand. In Manitoba, a group of university students volunteered to be placed in solitary for a week. Most lasted three days. One student who stayed a full week had to be treated by a psychiatrist for severe paranoia. In England, no prisoner can be kept in solitary for more than three days because it is assumed that after that time his personality begins to disintegrate.

Canadian prison administrators, while condemning the hole, see it as a necessary tool in dealing with hard-core inmates. Part of the reason for the increase in violent acts inside Canada’s prison is a result of the changing nature of the offender. Fifteen years ago most convicts were in prisons because of property crimes and fraud. Now, more than half of the inmates are in prison for violation of parole, narcotics offenses and crimes of violence. As one federal official puts it: “We have ended up in our penitentiaries with a poorer quality of inmate than we had in the past.”

Much the same thing could be said of the system’s custodial officers—the guards. Veteran guards talk with relish about the old days when they faced roll call every morning and were subjected to quasi-military discipline. The only thing more boring than being a guard in a federal penitentiary is being an inmate. For hours on end. the guard does nothing but open and close doors and watch the prisoners in his charge. The time passes with a tedious rhythm. He is the frontline officer, charged with the security of the prison and, as such, becomes the focus of the collective frustration and hatred of the inmates. To the convicts, he is the bull, the screw. The hours are irregular and the base pay is low, between $9,000 and $14,000 under the existing agreement. But most guards work heavy amounts of overtime that have become a permanent feature of the job. A guard earning upward of $25,000 is not unusual. One man in Millhaven boasted openly to me of his paid-for Cadillac and his Florida vacations. In 1975, some 185 Millhaven guards worked more than 70.000 hours of overtime.

For the most part, guards have nothing but contempt for the inmates of an institution. “Only by working with these people [the inmates] can you learn they’re out to take society for all they can get,” says a guard at the federal Stony Mountain medium-security prison near Winnipeg. “The employees of a prison are the forgotten element. Nobody gives us anything, nobody outside the prison understands that we are human beings too.” To the average guard, the science of incarceration is a dark ritual, an arcane field about which outsiders have no knowledge. They disdain do-gooders and social behaviorists. They feel the public has no use for them and they tend to be inward looking in their relationships. They associate with other guards and their wives and see society as paying too much attention to the problems of criminals and not enough to their own. They were hurt and angered by the abolition of corporal and capital punishment. They are deeply suspicious of any new theory of penology. One guard at Stony Mountain, when asked what he thought of ex-inmates coming into the jail to work with convicts—a program that has been helpful at some U.S. prisons—replied with a sneer: “We’ll be willing to take ex-inmates working in the institution when the RCMP or the Winnipeg city police take them.”

While the penal system demands much of its custodial officers, it does little to train them properly. The best guards seem to be those with a military background. They are more disciplined and know how to give a man an order without taking away his dignity. But most guards have less than highschool education, yet are expected to have a working know ledge of the thousands of regulations contained in the Penitentiary Act, the Regulations, the Commissioner’s Directives, Divisional Instructions, Regional Directives, Institutional Standing Orders and hundreds of policy memoranda. They are put directly on the job after a short indoctrination course at the staff college. Little is done in the way of follow-up training. One man who has been a guard for 15 years said that he has had only tw'o weeks of in-service training.

The result of failing to provide proper training has been a disaster. Typically, one guard at a western penitentiary was put in a perimeter tower with a loaded rifle after having failed his weapons handling course. When tear gas was used to quell a 1975 disturbance at Millhaven. one guard testified that he didn’t believe warnings that gas could harm a person with a cardiac condition.

The guards are protected by a strong union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada. In the past few years, the P^AC has laid down a hard line dealing with its custodial officers. There has been a one-day national work stoppage to protest the abolition of the death penalty, and union officials have

warned of further militancy unless working conditions are improved. Warren Richardson, the tough-talking president of the Millhaven guards’ local, has declared openly that he and his men would try to impede new inmates’ programs if he thought they threatened the security of his members. In late 1975, former Millhaven director John Dowsett ordered a 20-day suspension of a guard for misusing tear gas. Richardson told Dowsett. if the disciplinary action went forward, his members would withdraw all overtime. Dowsett refused to back down and the guards refused overtime for three weeks. Some 75 inmates had to be moved to other institutions to keep the prison functioning.

‘You are never too sure what is going to happen to your life. It’s out of your hands’

PSAC members flush with anger at the suggestion that, inside Millhaven, there are between 15 and 25 guards who run the place. The name given the group is the Millhaven Mafia. Says union leader Richardson: ‘if there is any proof of a mafia or goon squad in Millhaven, bring the proof forward and charge the offenders instead of making unfounded accusations.” There have been reports not only of guard brutality toward prisoners but also toward other officers who want to obey the rules. Arthur Trono, CPS Ontario Regional Director, said he had reports of guards’ cars being smashed in the parking lot by members of the hard-core group. Trono admitted there was a group of Millhaven guards “that we should get rid of,” but said he did not have sufficient evidence to fire them.

Millhaven is not an isolated case of guard rebellion. Dragan Cernetic, the former director of BC pen, has accused a group of guards at the prison of using “counterrevolutionary tactics” that have resulted in violence. “It’s getting so bad that guards in the BC pen are threatening each other,” he says. In testimony before the parliamentary committee, Pierre Goulem, director of the Correctional Detention Centre in Laval, had an even more alarming tale to tell. He said a small group of guards virtually run his institution and have at times committed what amounted to mutiny. “Sometimes when I am in my office and there are two [custodial] officers outside, 1 wonder if I yell for help would it not take some time for them to come. I do not know; it depends.”

During its cross-country hearings, the parliamentary committee heard all the horror stories, but it also encountered a few encouraging signs. In some institutions, inmate programs are working and relationships between guards and inmates are improving. At Archambault, Millhaven’s Quebec sister prison, inmates staged a peaceful 110-day strike last year which was resolved without incident. The atmosphere there is good and inmates and guards are talking to each other. The Saskatchewan pen in Prince Albert is one of the best run institutions in the country. An inmates’ advisory committee is active and work programs for inmates show every sign of being successful. It is also run as an open penitentiary. It was the only institution in the committee’s travels that allowed inmates to tour the prison with the MPS.

In at least a few prisons, inmate committees are being listened to and efforts are being made to improve food, accommodation and recreation programs for them. There is some sign that overcrowding may be reduced in the next few years as the CPS undertakes a $350-million building program. The problem is not in financing prisons but finding places to put them. Many communities are opposed to any maximum security prisons in their area. For instance, in the Ontario region, 75% of all prisoners come from an area around Metropolitan Toronto and west to Windsor. But for the past six years, the CPS has been unable to get a site for a new institution in that area.

The committee’s report will likely recommend that some guard locals be placed under a form of trusteeship. The government and Francis Fox, Solicitor General, will be unable to ignore the committee’s report. The 13 members of the committee are uncharacteristically nonpartisan in trying to reach consensus. The committee members have worked long hours and have listened carefully to witnesses.

Since 1913, there have been a dozen major parliamentary inquiries into Canada’s penal system. Some of the hundreds of recommendations made have been implemented, but many have been ignored. The present committee is going about its business with a quiet sense of urgency. There is the feeling that if this inquiry fails, nothing can stop the system from exploding. Said one MP after a chilling day at a maximum security pen: “We’re trying to stop Attica from happening here.” Even barring that frightening prospect, the failure of the existing Canadian prison system as a rehabilitative tool is, in the view of the Parole Board’s William Outerbridge, such that “if a man gets out [of prison] and stays out, he has no one to thank but himself.”0