Posts Tagged ‘prison staff’

It seems to me that I am always criticizing our prison system. But yesterday I had a very positive experience in a local pre-trial center.

I had the privilege of taking a famous writer to this facility. As you probably know, pretrial facilities separate people, so that those who were in a crime together cannot work on their stories. As a result there are many separate sections in pretrial, and they can’t be mixed.

The famous writer did not object to speaking to only two of the six or so units. She was her usual engaging, personal self. Nothing was a problem for her, having her picture taken with the men, moving through all the heavy metal doors, and repeating her talk three times, twice to the men and once to the staff.

Everyone was in a good mood. Was it her charm? Was it the fact of having a NYTimes best seller visit them? Was it that I only saw a small segment of the staff and of the inmates?

Whatever, the morning was filled with laughter and good cheer. There are staff who are human beings and inmates who know how to get along with staff.

It was a lesson for a critical person like me.

Prison officials are experts at euphemism. Just a reminder as to what euphemism is:

The substitution of an inoffensive term for one considered offensively explicit, as in

Pre-owned for used or second-hand

Enhanced interrogation for torture

Wind for belch or fart

Convenience fee for surcharge

“Neutralize” for “kill”


Correctional Centers for prisons. Very few get ‘corrected.’

Convicted offenders are called ‘inmates,’ labeling them as institutionalized and powerless, instead of calling them ‘prisoners.’

‘Feeding Time” is for prisoners. ‘Meal Time’ is for staff.

Guards are just that, they keep prisoners from escaping.

They are not ‘correctional officers,’ living unit officers, classification officers etc.

For more on this, see the latest edition of Out of Bounds, from the prisoners at William Head Prison, page 23

I, for one, fail many times to avoid the euphemisms associated with prison. It’s something to work on.

An opinion from a former inmate of the federal prison system in the Fraser Valley.

What do we do?

I think something needs to be said about Raymond Caissie. As I’m sure everyone knows he is the man charged for murdering a young girl recently and is now the poster boy for why criminals shouldn’t be released from prison. I’m not trying to defend him; I only seek to point out that it is not for the press to convict him in the media already. If I’m not mistaken that is the job of the courts. I’m sure there will be some readers out there who may not agree with my opinion, but emotion needs to be set aside, so that the situation can be analyzed objectively.

We are talking about a man who served every day of his 22 year sentence and that to me represents a failure on the part of the system to prepare this man for his eventual reintegration. I heard that at one of his hearings he said that he was afraid of what he might do when released. This was a cry for help that went unanswered because the system as it is structured is not capable of dealing with certain types of offenders. Sure the prison staff will say that programs were offered and that there is no responsibility on their part. They are partially correct, inadequate programming was offered but they bear some responsibility just as the rest of us do. How is it our responsibility you might ask? Our elected government – that’s right I said elected – chooses to go with harsher sentences as a deterrent rather than trying a new direction. Caissie’s sentence was 22 years, a sentence he got as a young man, and it didn’t have any deterrent effect.

What could have been done differently? I don’t know anything about what was done to try and rehabilitate this man, the public isn’t privy to that information. If I had to guess by the nature of his previous offences, I would say that he served all his time in Mountain Institution which among inmates is known for housing a large population of sex offenders. Now I don’t know if he did programming or not during his time, but clearly there needed to be more done in the case of this man.

Through all his time in prison and 8 parole hearings, no progress was made. This is a man who had an eventual release date. I know that from public opinion there are those who would call for the suspension of civil rights for those convicted of violent crimes, but I’m here to say that is a very slippery slope. We as a society decide that we must arbitrarily keep some people locked up indefinitely despite the fact that a sentencing judge did not see it that way. Where does it end? In this case a tragedy occurred, and a young girl died. We need to seek solutions not knee-jerk reactions if we are to prevent future tragedies. Let’s call on the government for meaningful change and let’s call on the Correctional Service to lead the way towards creating a system that recognizes the need to change the way it does business. As a society we need to be involved in changing things, and not just count on the people that we have elected. Let us remember that they work for us.

A man in one of our local prisons has written a book about his trial and the fact that two DNA experts don’t find him at the crime scene. It’s hard to believe that such injustice can happen in Canada. The book is called Overlooked (the testimony of the DNA experts was overlooked.) He’s giving the book away, so he doesn’t run into a violation of profiting from his so-called crime. (

Does the prison system encourage people to write? Do they believe with Aristotle that “Art releases unconscious tensions and purges the soul?”

I got a letter from this man yesterday.

Hi Ed, Denied education. Denied French Classes, Punished for writing. Another year, another ebook with more retaliation by the prison system courtesy of …, the head of … This man has promised me, “I’ll ban you from computers.” (computers are very limited in all our Canadian prisons. There are usually a few in the library and a few in the school. Out of a population of 300 inmates, there may be 10 computers. Compare this to American federal prisons which now allow email and the computers to send an email.)

The man goes on to say that he can’t use the school computers to write on, and some of his work that was already there has been deleted by this official without his permission.

We don’t have to go to Russia or China or the Ukraine to find human rights abuse. This abuse is in institutions that our tax dollars are paying for.

The man ends his letter with this note: “I keep plugging away with writing.” He reminds me of the struggles Olympic athletes often have. He struggles to write despite difficulties that would stop the normal person.

Let’s assume for a moment that prison staff are there to rehabilitate people. And assume that a staff goal is to prepare inmates to lead normal lives in society.

Currently there are several steps in the right direction. However, my experience over twenty years is that the small steps forward don’t seem to last long.

One prison had some sympathy for lifers, mainly those with a life sentence for murder. Off the main hallway, a ten by twenty room sat abandoned except for a sink, an old stove, and a freezer. The lifers’ group asked admin if they could buy their own food and have a meal there once a week.

The warden approved, and soon the freezer was filled with steaks, roasts and ribs.

I watched the men prepare for this…it could only be called a banquet, a royal banquet. Guys who gave the finger to jailhouse jobs worked hard testing recipes and finding real silverware (or making it).

The meal went off without a hitch, that meal and others for over a year. The room got to be called, “The Lifer’s Kitchen.” People tried to up their crime classification so they could join the group.

Of course, like most good things prison does, it died a year later. “What will people think, the convicts are eating T bone steaks?”

In Canada, to give the system credit, minimum security prisoners live in four to six man cottages, and each man gets $35 a week to buy his own groceries.

Several other great self-management programs had similar histories – inmates beg for permission, finally get it, the program is very successful and helps people rehabilitate, and then admin kills it because some in the public object.

Some cases are:

The men developed an empty field into a small golf course for their own use. “Those damn convicts are hanging around playing golf. And we pay for it.” Now community people use the golf course, but inmates can’t.

A tattoo parlor. Inmates decorate an old room in the prison with tattoo posters, and they get an old record player to play anything but elevator music. The warden likes this idea, because only clean needles will be used. Hep C and HIV are practically eliminated. Then, “those damn convicts are getting free tattoos.”

Men and women prisoners ask to grow their own veggies. (Somebody send me a recent example of this in an American prison, but I lost it). Everything is fine – prisons include a lot of land. Then a new security chief is hired and he thinks the garden is a security leak.

Inmates cannot have the internet. But the security chief could set up an “Internal Net” where the prison would put ‘on line’ several informative pages about a whole variety of subjects. This gave the inmates a feel for what the real Internet was like.

Good idea, don’t you think? The idea was vetoed before it got off the ground. Prison officials are deathly afraid of the computers and the Internet.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a story like this – an idea that almost got off the ground, but died at the beginning?


visiting room

prison visiting room

I learned a lot the first time I went into a prison to visit an inmate. It happened in a maximum-security prison in the States back in the eighties.

I wanted to see one of my students, Brian, a man who didn’t finish grade school, but talked and wrote like a college graduate. I had to apply in writing, and it took several weeks for the approval.

I sat in the small vestibule of the prison.  I was part of the visiting public, mothers and fathers to see their sons, wives to see their husbands, children to see their fathers.  On Friday, when I taught, I might assume a little status as a ‘volunteer.’ Today, it seemed, the brand ‘friend of a convict’ blazed on my forehead.  The guard on duty in the gatehouse treated all of us as vermin.  If we claimed friendship or relation to the disgusting animals in this prison, then we must be animals too.  He phoned the cellblock for one convict after another, finally coming to me.

“Who are you here to see?”

“Brian Grancorvitz.”

He looked up Brian’s cell number, just one of a thousand men in this prison.  When he found it, he called the guard in the cellblock.  “Send Inmate Grancorvitz to the visiting room.”  I noted how he and everyone else on staff in this prison referred to people as ‘Inmate’ so and so.  No one used first names.  I couldn’t think of any other institution that did that.  “Patient Jones, Student Jones, Welfare Recipient Jones, Driver Jones.”  Only prison reminded the men at every turn that they did not have an identity other than ‘inmate.’

The guard ordered me to put the contents of my pockets in a locker, everything except my pocket change.  Why the exception? I wondered.

I did as he had instructed and then a guard escorted a few others and me to the visiting area, a windowless room above the area where the men were strip-searched. Fifteen groupings of molded plastic chairs and nicked coffee tables filled the room. At one end of the room a guard watched the whole scene from a platform. Another guard patrolled the groupings of people. The ceiling was low, the paint old, the ventilation poor.

The guard assigned me to a coffee table/chair cluster.  “It’s going to take a while for us to find your inmate and search him, so you can relax.”

Search him?  He’s been in prison.  What was he going to smuggle out of prison?  License plates?

I sat down and waited.  I could hear everything the family in front of me said.  The father was the prisoner.

“Dad, can I play with that truck?”  The five-year-old boy had his eye on a sturdy, prison-made, wooden truck that another boy played with.

“When the other boy is finished.”

“When will that be?”

“You wait.  He’ll be done soon.”

The woman sat back and looked at her husband and son.  She looked tired.

After a few minutes the boy saw that the other child had abandoned the toy. He moved to the floor and began to work the truck.  The man and woman moved their chairs closer together.  They kissed, then broke away from each other.  The woman looked as if she’d come alive again.  The tough convict appearance of the man softened.  He was a lover now.  They kissed again, their hands reached out to embrace each other.

Then a tap on the man’s shoulder.  “Williams, you know the rules about embracing. Visit’s over. Say good-bye.”

Williams’ face changed.  He wasn’t a lover anymore, he was a convict.  Hate filled his eyes.

The woman stood and called the boy to come.  He refused to leave the toy truck.  His mother pulled him away.  He began to scream.  The sound filled the low, windowless room.  She slapped him and dragged him back to her husband.  “Say good-bye to your father,” she ordered.  The father picked the boy up, but he continued to scream.  He tried to push away from his father.  Holding the boy with one hand, the father spanked the boy with the other.

While all this screaming, slapping and spanking was going on, the guard stood right behind the father to make sure there was no more embracing.

The woman took the man’s hand.  Her eyes spoke of longing, of loneliness and of fatigue. She alone had to deal with a screaming child.  One minute, two minutes they held hands.  I could feel their desire to hug each other.  The guard stepped forward. “I said, ‘Break it up.’ Now get back to your unit, Inmate Williams.”

The convict went through the door where I assumed he would be searched again.  The woman and child left.  I sat and thought.  How could this separation be good?  A boy needs a father, a man needs a wife and a woman needs a husband.  What kind of system breaks up the family in order to punish and supposedly rehabilitate someone?

I wondered about all that slapping and spanking.  Abused children can easily become abusers.  As I watched Mr. Williams slap Son Williams, I wondered if I was not looking inside picture within picture?  Would Son Williams be in prison someday and spank his boy, who would then – and so on into infinity.

My attention turned to a quiet middle-aged couple.  Their son came into the visiting room.  He was lean, six feet tall, with an acne-covered face.  He didn’t walk toward his parents – he swaggered toward them, his eyes on the other convicts in the room.  The woman stood and hugged him.  Tears filled her eyes.  He let her hug him, but he glanced at neighboring tables to see if anyone witnessed this emotion.  He saw me eyeing him and snarled.  I looked away.

I’d waited twenty minutes and still no Brian.  The prison wasn’t that big.  You could walk around the whole place in twenty minutes.

I glanced back at the young man.  He sat now and his mother talked to him.  The father listened, but an intermittent look of incredulity flickered across his face. How could this have happened to my son?

Here sat two parents who cared about their son.  Why were they seventy-five miles away from him?  Why were they not part of his treatment plan?  What the hell was this place I was in?

I thought about my own family. It was my family that kept me on the ‘straight and narrow.’ I may have longed for wild adventure, but ultimately my son and my daughter determined my behavior. Look after the children – the message is written on the human heart. This crazy place ripped a man from his family. Yes, a small number of men destroy their families or their families destroy them, but don’t the vast majority of convicts belong in the basic unit of our society, the family?

I watched more and more of this family action.  I saw fathers come into the visiting room, I saw fathers being told to leave.  I saw more emotion than I could handle.  Through it all one guard sat at the desk, the other made the rounds and tapped people on the shoulder when it was time to go or when some illegal embracing had occurred. Both of them looked bored.

As I waited, I discovered why the prison allowed people to keep coins. A cola machine and a candy machine occupied a corner of  the visiting room.  Visitors, unable to bring things into the visiting room, fed many coins into these machines.  A promising area for an enterprising reporter to investigate, I thought.  What kind of kickback was necessary for the privilege of keeping a machine in this lucrative spot?

After forty-five minutes the door from the prison opened. Brian stood in the doorway and searched for a familiar face. When he saw me, he paced over to me carefully. No emotion showed on his face. He shook my hand and sat down.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked, the cliché hiding my discomfort.


“This visiting room – it’s quite an experience,” I said.


“I mean, it shows me how stupid the whole idea of separating families is.”

“Two-thirds of convicts end up divorced.  This is a system that’s supposed to rehabilitate men.  It does nothing but tear them down.”

I relaxed. Our discussion had begun.  Brian had an opinion about everything I asked.  “How are the guards in here?”

“Some haven’t even graduated from high school.  If their father had a job in the system, they get a job.  Many of them are in the same economic class as most of us.  Many have severe personality disorders.  They feed on a job like this.”

“No decent guards?”

“You have to understand.  There are two systems here, the men and the guards.  It’s clearly us against them.  This is not a therapeutic atmosphere; this is a war zone.”

Therapeutic atmosphere? And this man did not graduate from grade school?

“And the caseworkers and the shrinks?”

“They come in here with preconceived ideas. They’re mostly middle-class so they think middle-class is right. The black brothers say the staff tries to make them into little white men.”

Preconceived ideas? Something was vaguely disturbing about that.  What did he mean?

Our conversation switched to gangs in prison.  “I think the warden wants gangs,” he said.  “If men fight each other in the yard, they don’t storm the warden’s office.  Prison encourages convicts to hate other groups of convicts.  It’s the old divide and conquer strategy.”

“How about race?”

“Same story.  If the blacks and whites fight, they don’t attack the administration.  Thursday a fight broke out in the yard.  A black against a white.  The warden threw them both in the hole and used the fight as an excuse to lock down the institution.”

Lock down, what does that mean?”

“Everyone’s locked in their cells twenty-four hours a day.  The staff gets a breather, an easy day.”

I squirmed in the hard plastic chair and there was a pause in the conversation. Brian’s brow knitted and he stared at me. I guessed that the silence made him nervous.  I tried the line my father always used when he visited me in the seminary: “How’s the food?”   My dad believed if I was enjoying the food, everything was all right.

“Prison food is nutritious,” Brian said, “but it’s not individual.  I mean one guy likes his toast dark, another light.  There’s no such thing here.  And mealtime is usually a tense time.  A lot of fights happen at mealtime.  Meals are served when it’s convenient for the staff, not when it’s good for the men.  Most prisons have very early dinners, about 5 PM, because the staff want to get home.  Once everyone is locked in their cell for the night, most of the staff can leave.  The trouble is we are in our cells from 6 PM at night until 8 AM the next morning.  So the institution is run, not for the benefit of the inmates, but for the employees.”

We started talking politics and he got enthused.  He was well read.  News magazines, of course, but also the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic and several books, his favorite author being Noam Chomsky.

“Who’s Noam Chomsky?” I asked.

He told me that Noam Chomsky was the guru of the left wing. I felt embarrassed because I was supposed to be a left-winger, a liberal Democrat.

The conversation switched to Reagan.  Brian tore into Reagan and the Republicans in Wisconsin.

But the real Brian hid under all this criticism. I knew nothing of his background or his family, I didn’t know what he thought about me, I didn’t even know the details of his crime.

The Catholic Church had familiarized me with ‘hiding feelings.’ For years I stuffed fear, love, anger and sex behind a Roman collar. Only the slow, gentle work of my wife freed me.

I tried to break the political discussion by a trip to the machines with him.  “What would you like?” I asked

For a second he was a kid again.  “Peanuts, any candy with peanuts.”

I fed quarters into the candy machine.  “How about a soda?”

“I don’t care.  Anything.  And another thing about Reagan….”

He backed up every charge he made. When we spoke of Reagan’s policies in Nicaragua he said,  “The US General Accounting Office has affirmed that much of the aid already sent to the Contras has ended up in the offshore bank accounts of Contra leaders.”

I felt inadequate.  I wanted to challenge some of his negativity, but I couldn’t – he had too much information.

He talked about Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor, something I knew nothing about.  He discussed the power of the big fruit companies in Latin America and the CIA’s murder of Allende in Chile.

As he talked, I tried to think up ways to shift the conversation to the personal, but the guard came by and tapped him on the shoulder.

He stood up immediately.  For all his criticism of the system, he followed orders to the letter.

“See you in class on Friday,” he said.

“Yeah.  Listen, can I come again some Sunday?”


“Next month?  First Sunday?”

“Sure.  I ain’t going anywhere.  I’ve got a life bit.”prison visiting room

The guard nudged him toward the door.  He complied immediately. As he entered the doorway, he turned and looked at me, a question on his face: Did you really mean it? The first Sunday?

I drove home in a reflective mood. It certainly seemed that Brian was a writer who was willing to criticize the system. I had found the first citizen of my new order. What disturbed me, however, was that comment about middle class professionals coming into the prison with preconceived ideas.

Did he mean me?

Images courtesy of:

Carol looked up when the inmate entered the office. I was there getting my class list for the day from another secretary. Carol had what people of my ancient generation call ‘a motherly figure.’ She had a round, soft face that also was motherly.

“How can I help you, Sam?” she asked of the tough looking inmate, tattooed from head to the tip of his hands.

“I didn’t get the right pay last month,” he said. “This place screwed me again.”

The secretary who was dealing with my class list, shook her head, like this was an outrageous comment from an inmate.

But not Carol. “Let me look it up, Sam,” she said.

“Tsk, tsk,” my secretary said. She always put the word ‘Inmate’ before anyone’s last name. Like if Sam’s last name was Schmansky, she would have said, “I’ll check it, Inmate Schmansky.” No, more than likely, she would have said, “We don’t make mistakes here. File a complaint if you want.”

Carol looked up from her report, “No, Sam, it looks right.”

“What the hell. I got screwed.”

Carol stood up, walked over to Sam and showed him the report.

“Well, I guess so,” he said. “Thanks, Carol.” And he left.

The woman was amazing. She knew inmates’ names. She knew where everything was in that office. If the director of education came into the office and asked for a report from five years previous, Carol would zip open a file drawer and hand it to him.

As I observed her, I thought to myself, if I ever open a business and need a super efficient secretary who knows how to work with people, I’d hire her away from the prison system.

That was then, before what I call the ‘Harper’ people moved into the prison administration, just a few years after Mr. Harper became prime minister.

I was there again one day when the new director of education came into the office. “Where’s the report I wanted on my desk, Ms…?” She used Carol’s last name.

Carol handed her the report. She almost snatched it from her. “Next time on my desk. And I understand you don’t use the word, ‘Inmate’ when you are addressing these…people.”

Carol said nothing. I saw she was upset, almost on the verge of tears.

“Well, is that right?’

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“From now on it’s ‘Inmate.’ Is that clear?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And what are you doing here, Mr.?” she turned her guns at me. “Are you a program instructor?”

“No. I’m a volunteer who teaches creative writing once a week. I’m turning in my attendance list for today.”

“A volunteer, huh?” It was almost a snarl. I could just hear the unspoken words, “If you volunteer to help these scumbags, you must be one yourself.”

The director got back on her high horse and rode over to her own office. I heard from others that she hammered Carol daily, why I don’t know.

Two months later, I heard that Carol had taken a leave of absence, and a month after that she resigned.

Why are good, caring people being driven from the prison system? Carol’s case is not isolated. In one prison I know of three others with similar stories.