Authors: Stephen Reid
Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000
Prison writing, to survive, must return to that reflecting skin.
HIRTY YEARS AGO, IN SIMPLER TIMES
, I was sent to the penitentiary. They gave me a haircut, stitched a number above my breast pocket, and tossed me in a cell on the fish range. My biggest worry, besides my sentence, was whether I'd ever get the right-sized boots.
It's year 2000, and I'm back in prison. No haircut, I have to memorize my number, and my biggest worry is whether I'll get the right crimogenic index rating.
The fish range is now called an Assessment Centre. They have painted murals on the concrete, renamed guards correctional officers, prisoners have become inmates or even residents, we wear street clothes instead of blues, and there are more behaviour modification programs in here than bars.
The key to understanding the new paradigm in our prisons may lie in the corporate logo: the CSC. Corrections Services Canada â it works both forwards and backwards, and in both official languages. Thirty years ago this system was called the Canadian Penitentiary Services, and it wasn't forward looking, or working in anyone's language, so a handful of determined federal bureaucrats began to study some of the European models. They adapted them so well that Canada has become a world leader in penology. Other countries now come here to study us, even, belatedly, some Americans. America has gone through a twenty-five year devolution and their prisons are experiencing an unprecedented level of inhumanity and brutality. The Clockwork Grey of the new CSC seems a small price to pay to preserve our country's humanity. That said, this is an evolution with an absurd edge.
Designing programs and implementing them are the two solitudes of CSC. To order someone into therapy is often to subvert the purpose. Willingness is the key to change â you have to want it to get it. So there exists a jumping-through-hoops mentality by inmates, and an air of resignation on the part of the staff. But in fairness, the percentage of inmates who genuinely wish to change, and the calibre of instructors willing to help them is much higher than the skeptics would have us believe.
My Regional Reception Assessment Centre Handbook informs me I'll be here for ten to fourteen weeks, during which time I'll be evaluated, assessed, analyzed, tested, probed and profiled. A team of IPOs, CO2s, psychologists and unit managers will collect, collate, graph and interpret the data. They will determine risk factors, crime cycles, pen placement, treatment programs and how much fibre I'll need in my diet. It could be argued, and convincingly, that this is the evolution of penology.
The handbook is a humourless text, but as I read the earnest descriptions of available programs I can't help but wonder/ speculate. The Violent Offender Program? Would Billy the Kid have emerged nine months later as Billy the Inner Child? Anger Management? Could Vinnie Mad Dog Coll have become, Assertive Dog Coll? Would Bonnie and Clyde, made to enrol in Skills for a Healthy Relationship, have come to terms with their co-dependency and been granted a conjugal visit? Pushed into taking Cognitive Skills, Machine Gun Kelly would soon identify his trigger thoughts. Ma Barker, in her seventh week of Family Violence Circle might have reached the stunning conclusion she'd been a life-long enabler.
I'm ahead of myself. Before anyone reaches their inner child or enabling self, they have to take tests. Lots of tests. It is tests that drive the modern personal correctional plan.
My favourite so far has been the 560-odd questionnaire called the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Index. Never mind that it has been proved culturally biased and hopelessly flawed, the centrefold of my “critical needs assessment” will be determined by questions like, “Have you ever wanted to be a girl?” Think of the possibilities. Had the question been, “Have you ever wanted to be a woman?” I might have answered differently. But a girl? Did they mean a child, or a grrrl, or is “girl” what they still call a woman in Minnesota? Think, think. If I were a grrrl I could have a conjugal visit with myself. No, better play it safe and mark False.
Next question, “Do you love your mother? Or, if she's dead, did you?” You don't stop loving someone just because they're dead, but my mother is alive and I love her very much so I mark True.
“Do you believe you are being controlled by an unseen force?” Like an unavailable Warden? Or does this mean subliminal advertising and the all-pervasive consumer culture? I glance at the woman administering the test â she is staring back with the look of someone who thinks more along the lines of, “Did Satan order you to rob that bank?” I circle False.
I'm most intrigued with, “If you were a reporter, would you like to report on the theatre?” At first, this seems McCarthyesque, as in would you like to keep an eye on those socialist homosexual so-called actors? Of course it could also mean if you were a reporter wouldn't you prefer to report on child poverty or political corruption? In other words, something substantial. But, I like the theatre! Besides, if it's good theatre it deals with child poverty and political corruption. Stop thinking, just answer the question. Okay, True. I'll be a pansy art critic. At least I didn't say I wanted to be a girl, even if I did.
“Would you like to be a florist?” No, no. no. Read my lips. Give me some questions on hockey here, or how about them Blue Jays, eh?
I handed in my test, unfinished. I figured if I didn't have a personality they would assign me one.
Next came the real pick of the litter, the Psychopathy Check List Revised. It determines, unequivocally, whether you're a psychopath or not. I remembered John Gray, our John Gray, the playwright, not the Venus and Mars guy, interviewing the author of this test. John used the doctor's own statistics to extrapolate the fact that there had to be, at minimum, 40,000 psychopaths living in British Columbia. With a couple of hundred locked away in prisons that still left 39,800 odd psychos at large. The good doctor reassured John these were people who put their psychopathy to good use. They lived productive, well-adjusted lives as surgeons, CEOs and ambulance drivers.
The light bulb went on. The CSC doesn't have to go through all these gyrations to reprogram anyone, they just have to find every inmate the right job!
Psychos become CEOs. Bookmakers could work for the 6/49 Lotto Corporation. The government weenies currently running Sports Action Lotteries are rank amateurs compared to real bookmakers. The action would double in three months. Small time drug dealers could be issued white smocks and put behind the pharmacy counter. Dispensing fees are ten times the markup on an eightball of cocaine. A B&E artist would slip like a crowbar into the home security business. In custom protecting your home he could charge you more for alarm systems than what he could steal from your house, anyway.
The weight pit crews, all pumped up and tattooed down, could be recruited for the WWF Raw. They would take wrestling to new levels and earn up to ten thousand a night, just for being themselves. Even those criminals too corrupt or too incorrigible to be anything else, could hang out a shingle and practise law. The worst that could happen is nobody would notice.
But the CSC is not an employment agency. Its self-determined mandate is to reconcile the twin towers of punishment and rehabilitation, a difficult enough task without the public, political and media scorn. It takes a certain brand of courage â some would call foolhardy, some would call moral â to continue to pursue a humanitarian vision of Corrections, but to abandon course now would surely be a “Mistake”.
In simpler times, on that fish range thirty years ago, I was celled with a young man, one of the last to get the paddle. One of his memories, besides the scars on his skin, was of being bound at the ankles and wrists and having a hood pulled over his head. He was the last of a dozen men that day, and he remembers the hood, the inside being cold and slick with the mucous and spittle and blood from the broken lips of those who went before him.
I've spent years in American prisons, and more years inside here in Canada. I've observed the public mood in this country. I know the CSC vision is all that stands between me and a black hood filled with the blood and the fear of my fellow prisoners.
T'S FIVE IN THE MORNING AND
the deuces squad is standing six strong in front of your cell. The Lieutenant drops about forty pounds of chains on the cement floor and beckons you forward. You rub the sleep out of your eyes; you are confused. You haven't applied for a transfer and for damned sure it's not an early release. You have no idea what these guys got in mind but you know it can't be good.
Get steady boyo because whatever it is you've done to piss them off, the Bureau of Prisons has decided to disappear you, put you on the ghost chain. You are about to enter into the perpetual transfer zone. Every morning you will be wrapped up in waist chains and leg manacles, tossed aboard a bus or a plane and shipped around the country doing one night stands in prison isolation wings from California to Georgia and from Minnesota to Texas â for as long as the Bureau deems necessary. Welcome to the nightmare world of Diesel Therapy.
Twelve Step Survival Guide for the Transfer Tour:
1. Don't protest; it only makes them feel better. Don't ask where you are going, or why, they will only lie to you anyway. And don't ask to take anything, even a toothbrush. You can't.
2. When you kneel on the bench for them to put the leg shackles on, point your toes as far back as you can. Stretching the tendon on the front of the ankle will provide just that squidge of space between you and the steel bracelet when you return to a standing position. Your ankle bones will be grateful at the end of each day.
3. Start to grow your thumbnails.
4. On the first bus away from your home prison there will be faces you know from the compound, maybe even a friend. They will all be speculating on where you're headed and why. Listen to none of it. They don't know a godamned thing. Their jaws are working from the same nervous energy you're feeling. As you get deeper into the trip these familiars will be dropped off or sent off in different directions and soon you are doing the daylight bus rides with strangers. You will feel completely alone, because you are. Within a week you will forget you ever had friends.
5. You will notice that the seating arrangements on both the buses and the planes are colour coded. No matter how enlightened you believe you are on the issue of race, obey the colour code. If you're white, sit in the white section, if black be on black. America's prisons are the front lines of an undeclared race war. Don't be naive about it. Otherwise, one night your cellie is going to be a bald-headed bigot, who upon removing his shirt reveals two lightning bolts rippling across his chest and his enquiring mind wants to know “why you been woofing it up with the niggers all day?” Or if black, “why you been sitting side that blue-eyed devil all trip?” Either way it isn't a question you want to have to answer while locked up in a tight space.
6. A small white box will be tossed into your lap each day. This is lunch. It is, and it always will be, a pimento loaf sandwich on white bread and one of those pale oranges with the thin skin that is so hard to peel â even without handcuffs. This is why you are growing your thumbnails.
7. At each stop you will always be put in the transfer unit and unless you are the caliber of Pablo Escobar or have the heat of Timothy fuckin' McVeigh, you will be double bunked. So to avoid the monster racist or the rabid homo rapist, spend at least part of each day selecting your cellie for that night. It won't always work, but after you've been processed through induction at the prison du jour, make an agreement with, and stay in close proximity to, the person of your choice. The Looey doing cell assignments just wants a quick, no fuss lockup and no overnight incidents to have to write up so he will usually go along with your play.
8. If they haven't issued it already ask for toilet paper, towels, and soap. It's usually in a cleaner's closet at the front of the tier as you come in. Once the door slams on your drum that's it. You ain't getting out for nothing and there ain't no tier tender to go fetch you something either. The next time you see anybody it'll be five am and he'll be pushing cornflakes and blue milk in a cardboard bowl through your food slot.
9. Always treasure hunt. Check the bullpen and later your assigned cell for contraband. Feel under the benches, along any ledges, inside toilet bowls. Investigate the lump in your mattress. You never know when you'll get lucky, when someone's had to dump something or simply forgot. A handcuff key, a paper of dope, whatever.
10. You will have minimal contact with a few of the static prisoners from each joint â the one who brings your morning cornflakes or the guy who takes your picture during induction. Don't bother trying to get a message to your mother or your girl or your lawyer out through these guys. They have been handpicked; they are near you for a reason.
11. Two types to avoid on the chain at all costs:
(A) The Jailhouse Lawyer. A guy who uses words like mandamus and habeas corpus and who complains to the marshals non-stop how all this is all an abuse of his human rights and against the laws of America.
(B) The Stone Cold Desperado. The guy hobbling across the tarmac flanked on all sides by about fifteen escorts and he has a marshal bringing up the rear holding a ten-foot trip chain attached to his leg manacles. You can bet your pimento sandwich that this guy is just off a fresh homicide, with zero to lose. In all likelihood he has a sharpened toothbrush hidden up his ass and he's just looking for a warm body to stab up.
Do not sit near either of these guys even if it means violating the colour code. Because every marshal on the plane owns his personal copy of the
video and he's waiting to even the score. These badged-up, uniform-wearing mothers load their Remingtons and strap on their Glocks every morning the way the rest of us brush our teeth and pull on our socks. You give off even a hint of trouble and the marshals will not only violate your civil rights, they will ventilate them. Just be aware of who you're riding next to because when they use a shotgun you've only got to be in the vicinity.