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What It’s Really Like to Spend Time in a Canadian Prison

I was 5'9", weighed less than 160 pounds, and I didn't know how I was going to make it in the pen.
Photo via Flickr user Henry Hagnäs

I'd heard the horror stories about prison. I'd seen the TV shows, movies, and news reports about the rampant violence, race-based wars, and sexual abuse that occurs behind the walls. I heard the advice from friends on how to survive in jail. Some say to find the biggest guy on a range (what inmates call a cell block) and pick a fight with him immediately. Some say to keep your head down and stick to yourself. Some say to go into protective custody. But above all, don't drop the soap. So when I spoke to my lawyer for the first time and heard I was facing over two years in prison, I was scared—two years and over in Canada means time in a federal penitentiary.


I was 5'9", weighed less than 160 pounds, and was overall a very docile person. I didn't know how I'd make it two years in the pen. The Crown offered me an olive branch and I turned it down because, above all, there was the cardinal rule—don't snitch.

So I sat there for 12 months in pretrial detention at Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC). The Crown argued that since the police were still looking for more accomplices, and that I mainly worked unsupervised from a company truck for my job, there was a risk I could compromise the police's investigation. During my time there, EMDC gained a lot of public notoriety, and became the subject of a class-action lawsuit (full disclosure: I'm a member of the suit) for civil-rights violations and deplorable living conditions. It was a place where no cameras existed (this has changed since my time, though), and lockdowns were a near-daily occurrence. For the first four weeks I sat in the exact same spot day-in and day-out, staring at the reflection through a cell-door window to make sure nobody would sneak up behind me.

I was out of my element—a nerdy-looking, brown-skinned 24-year-old whom everybody believed was in for some petty crime. Nobody talked to me except to measure me up and see if they could try and punk me. Until they found out I was in for doing a home invasion on an alleged drug dealer and that, no matter what, I was going "down below," as the inmates say in reference to federal time.


Then the former pen-timers took notice and took me under their wing. They liked me because I was quiet, respectful, and didn't get involved in anybody's business. They told me that the pen was full of guys like me—mature men who just want to do their own time. They told me that nobody ever really gets raped in jail because the general population looks down on it like they look down on a man raping a woman—except the victim would probably get beat down too. They told me that, typically, the "heavies" (prison versions of bullies) don't last in the pen because nobody will tolerate them. They told me to have the utmost respect for lifers because they have nothing to lose, but not to trust them either for the same reason. They told me if I could stay out of trouble, my time would fly by.

They also emphasized that it was no joke either. I would be a short-timer but I'd be living among dangerous offenders and lifers. I would need to stand up for myself if it came down to it. They told me to avoid the politics, the drugs, and gambling, because that's when people get stabbed. I tried to beat my charges and lost, and in the end I went from facing two years to being sentenced to five.

The day the COs (corrections officers) in EMDC told me to pack my shit, I was nervous. I was comfortable on my range "at the London bucket"—I was the second-most senior inmate on my range at the time. I no longer had to ask to use the phone, and I got extra food from the servers if I wanted. Everybody knew my name, who my family was, and that I was solid. The COs called me a survivor, because I never checked into protective custody or ever had to switch ranges, and did all that without ever having to raise a fist.


So when I got to Millhaven Institution's Assessment Unit in Bath, Ontario, I felt like I was starting over again. Right out of the gate it was culture shock. My tattoo was photographed and sent to the Security Intelligence Officer to investigate any gang ties. They had me write down any emergency contacts they might need to know. They instantly put $80 of my personal money on hold until my release—but I knew that would happen. Months before, I asked a former pen-timer why they did it, and he chuckled and said, "For your body bag."

Walking down the wide corridor towards my new unit, I could see COs behind bulletproof glass with assault rifles slung over their shoulders, and small gun-ports in the glass. My range in assessment unit was merely a long hallway with steel, electric sliding doors on either wall. A control room with gun ports in the glass overlooked the hallway; it reminded me of a gun range.

Photo via Flickr user Joshua Davis

I was told that Assessment was purposefully designed to be stressful, to find an inmate's breaking point and see exactly what level of security he needed. I spent every day in 22-hour lockdown with a cellmate. We got 20 minutes every two days to use the phone and/or shower, which 40 other guys were trying to use at the same time.

But we also had an hour-and-a-half yard time every day. During the week our yard time was at night, and since I hadn't set foot outside at night in over a year, I barely ever missed a chance. My first time going to yard in Millhaven (on a Saturday, so we got it in the morning) I felt slightly agoraphobic. At EMDC only 60 inmates were allowed out at a time in an octagonal concrete yard in the centre of the jail itself. Here at Millhaven I set foot on grass for the first time in 12 months, and was surrounded by hundreds of other inmates. Once I found some people from EMDC who knew me, I felt normal again.


I could also open the window in my cell—my first night there I wrote my mother and told her I could actually hear crickets. I could also switch on and off my own light, and own a TV in my cell. Almost every day I would just lay down on my bunk, write my novel and watch TV.

Millhaven wasn't just a jail for guys to be assessed on their security level, it was also the institution where maximum-security inmates lived. Over on J-Unit—the long-term custody side of Millhaven—riots happened almost every week, and I could smell the tear gas leaking through my vents. I woke up every Friday morning to the sounds of gunshots at the firing range.

After 90 days I was classified medium security, and approved placement at Fenbrook Institution—one of the best institutions to be placed in Ontario. From what I heard, it was basically the medium-security joint that was more like a minimum-security institution.

When the COs came and told me to pack my shit I was nervous, because I was comfortable there, and had to start all over again.

I was also very anxious to see what was next for me. For 90 days I was only allowed out of my cell to shower and walk in a counterclockwise circle out in the yard. The only time I was allowed out of my cell during the day was to grab my food, or have appointments with staff members of almost every profession except for the guards. I received several stacks of paper that detailed almost every aspect of my life and gave it a point rating to determine my security level. They knew who I was, who I interacted with, and what I wanted and needed. They asked me if I wanted to keep the papers on me or put them in storage, and I chose to keep them. Partly because I was amazed at the functionality of CSC's OMS—Offender Management System. But mainly as my "paperwork" in the pen, it was proof to any cellmate I might have that I wasn't a rat, child abuser, or sex offender.

The way I saw it, the hardest part of my time in prison was over. And I would be a damn fool to screw anything up and be transferred to a worse prison, or J-Unit. And given what I had just experienced and what I witnessed when it came to the vast network of professions, I felt like federal time, in an ironic way, deserved its term "down below." It was nothing like a provincial jail in Ontario—it was more like an alternate society living on the outskirts of Canadian cities, uniquely different to civilian life or military life.

Like I said, I thought the hardest part of my time in prison was over.

The first in a three-part series.