What I Learned From My Time in Canadian Prison
You're not a free man just because you are out of jail.
As I travelled down the highway in a Greyhound bus to London, Ontario I started to feel uneasy. I wondered if anybody on this bus could tell if I had been in prison. Everybody here had tablets and smartphones in front of their faces except me. Would they think that was weird?
On layover in Toronto, I left the bus station to buy a pack of cigarettes and I felt like a fugitive. I remembered how uncomfortable I felt my first week at the last prison I was in and how I felt nervous in the open exercise yard there. Except now I was afraid to cross the street in a pleasant Canadian city. I felt I'd really gotten out just in time—I was only slightly institutionalized.
Months earlier, I was making another trip, headed to my fourth prison facility. I'd already been to Elgin-Middlesex Detention Centre (EMDC) in London, Ontario, Millhaven Assessment Unit (MAU) in Bath, and Fenbrook in Gravenhurst. I was tired of the long drives across the province but I had to make one more trip in the prison van to Frontenac Institution in Kingston.
My first night at Frontenac I realized that "camp," or minimum security, was nothing like what I had experienced so far. I found out the institution's lockup time wasn't until midnight, which blew my mind. At EMDC we were locked up for the night at 7:30 PM, at Fenbrook it was 10PM, and at Millhaven we were on constant lockdown.
The next day I explored the institution and saw full-grown trees in the yard, and no perimeter fence, both of which I had never seen before in prison. The "out of bounds" zone was marked by thick walls of tall grass. They also had a small billiards room in the basement. So when I wasn't working out, watching TV, or writing my novel in the library I was down there practising eight-ball. It almost felt like I was here by choice.
Later that day I was ordered to go to the programs building to speak with the work board (a group of staff supervisors that employ inmates around the institution). The programs building was outside of the actual prison building, on the other side of the parking lot. This was the first time in over two years that I had set foot near a civilian car, and as such I was compelled to look over my shoulder, expecting a guard to chase after me and tackle me to the ground.
Back in Fenbrook I told myself I would never work for Correctional Service Canada's work program CORCAN again. Granted, working for CORCAN was a trusted position to CSC, but there was just no reason to care anymore. They used to pay me enough that I could live decently inside and still save enough to start over, and all I had to do was work a little harder and longer. Now, some parole officers were forcing inmates under their supervision to work for CORCAN just as they stopped giving the "incentive" hourly pay.
I used to be grateful that I was making $1.50/hr (overtime was $2.75). I used to even joke that I could literally say that to my grandkids now. I guess you could say CORCAN kept me focused on my goals because I could afford to keep in contact with my family. And they helped keep me grounded when I just felt like saying, "fuck it."
But just as I arrived at Frontenac, every single federal inmate across Canada received a mandatory 30 percent pay reduction, under the guise of covering "Food and Accommodation" (which we technically already pay for) and the "Inmate Telephone Service (ITS) Administration Fee." I have no idea what the hell that last one meant, because the phones were just broken more frequently, and for longer periods after that was put in place.
So I figured, "Why the hell would I work for some for-profit government corporation?" But there were no other jobs available and I needed to work to stay at Frontenac, so I had no choice.
Every day I left the prison, and walked along a narrow roadway parallel to the perimeter wall of Collins Bay. This roadway was the patrol route for the CSC security vans at the Bay. The vans didn't patrol Frontenac, because two-thirds of the perimeter is surrounded by marshlands and a river, and the front door to the prison is always open. Basically the attitude inside the prison is, "There's the door if you're stupid enough to want to leave."A few months after starting the CORCAN job, in the spring things started to turn around. I was approved for Escorted Temporary Absences (ETAs) and was able to leave the prison to take a course at St. Lawrence College, just a 15 minute drive away, to obtain apprenticeship hours as a brick and stonemason. Soon after that I was approved for work release and worked on an apple orchard in the community. I got fired three days later however; the boss said I wasn't picking apples fast enough. Personally I felt I was working just as hard as everybody else, but I already knew from talking to some of the older inmates that my boss made a habit of firing about three inmates every year to set an example. But in those three days I made more money than I would have made in two months working for CORCAN, so I was disappointed.
During the spring I heard that many Inmate Committees (ICs) across the country organized work stoppages due to the pay cuts—particularly inmates working for CORCAN. I remember back in Fenbrook how we had all talked about it, and now I regretted that I wasn't there to be part of it. After I was denied parole I remember saying, "The last day they pay me is the last day they see me." And even though I did what I had to do, I now felt like I had just been talking shit.
But because of the strikes, before I got fired as an apple picker, CORCAN had come up with a new incentive program—they now granted apprenticeship hours for construction trades. So I became an electrician's apprentice and I stopped saying I was sick after that.
I thought things might be turning around for us down below. However one evening I watched the news, and the Correctional Investigator (a CSC watchdog) reported on the systemic racism in prison and recommended ways to combat it. The then-Conservative government didn't seem to care, and then-public safety minister Steven Blaney said the only minorities they were targeting were "criminals." I thought they only cared about punishment, not justice, and there was nothing we could do about it.
One day I saw a notice on the cafeteria wall from CSC, which advised that all Muslim inmates would be served vegetarian meals from now on, instead of Halal meals. I started to wonder just how low our government was willing to go until I saw Harper announce the Victim's Bill of Rights during the throne speech. Almost immediately after the throne speech, one critic of the bill said it would give criminals who are victims of crime full disclosure of the accused's living situation. This worried me.
It also seemed like no matter what, things were just going to get worse. The $500 I had saved for my first parole hearing had diminished to $150 due to the pay cuts, using money to call my family, and buying canteen and hygiene products. My next parole hearing was scheduled for January, and regardless of their decision I would get out in March. I no longer cared about looking good for the parole board.
That didn't change the fact that I was nervous the actual day of my hearing. However, the board granted my release two months before my "Stat." It almost seemed like they were looking for any reason to let me out this time, instead of keeping me in. As it began to sink in I felt excited and relieved. I gave away all my property that I wouldn't need, as is customary in prison because, well, we already have very little as it is.
As I approached everybody that I associated with and gave them something as a token of camaraderie they told me, in their own way, a few things. First they expressed that they never wanted to see me come back, but that if I did, they would give back everything I had given them. Finally they wished me the best of luck, as I did them. The ones that I spoke to every day I exchanged contact information with, with the understanding that we would probably never hear from each other again. Or at least until both of our sentences had ended.
When it came to the lifers that I had associated with, they were surprised to hear I was being released, because I never spoke to them about my release date—it's rude to do so with lifers unless they ask. But they were happy for me, and told me they would beat my ass if I ever came back. I promised that I wouldn't, for my children's sake.
On the day I was released I gave my breakfast away to my cellmate—as is also customary. They brought me "over the wall" to Collins Bay, where they handed me a bus ticket, my property boxes and my cash. They escorted me out through the front entrance of the Bay to a waiting cab that brought me to the bus station.
Later on that trip, as I stood on a Toronto street with a smoke in my hand, I reflected on everything that had happened to me, what I used to think, and what I know now. I used to think jail was a lawless jungle filled with no morals, culture or code. I felt much different now.
I remembered how seriously we inmates took Remembrance Day. I remembered fasting every August 10th for Prisoner Justice Day. I remembered the children's Christmas gift drives the prison chaplains and Inmate Committees organized.
I remembered how in MAU we were allowed to shower only once every two days in the summer of 2012—one of the hottest summers I ever experienced. Almost the entire assessment unit went out to yard one night, and jammed the gate closed with anything we could find. We refused to return inside until we could speak to the warden about showering every day. It was four o'clock in the morning when the warden arrived. I remembered thinking that I met a lot of guys in prison that were far more honorable and trustworthy than many people I had met out on the road. But I didn't glorify prison like Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, because there were also things I remembered that I would neither forget nor talk about.
To this day I remember the postal code for Millhaven by a phrase I had seen written on the wall, "Keep On Hoping I Get Out." I remember watching guys come in and get out more than once, while I sat in the same cell I was in when they first got arrested. Lifers hate seeing that and I could understand why, because I hated it too. So I knew I would never go back, and I hoped that all the guys I associated with during my time would get out and do well for themselves eventually.
And now I was about to do the rest of my time as a federal inmate on conditional release, commonly known as parole. I knew that if people found out they may look at me differently. I knew some people would think I wasn't punished enough, they may even believe I don't deserve a second chance. I knew some would even be so ignorant as to judge my children for the sins of their father.
But I didn't care what they thought, because I knew I deserved my sentence, and now it was time to prepare for when it ended. I felt that if I had done my time in an American-style prison system I would either devolve beyond rehabilitation or be killed. But that wasn't Canada yet.
But there are still people out there who wish we would. And with that in mind there is another thing I learned in prison—something I feel gets lost in the midst of all the controversy of prison reform: In Canada there are about 15,000 federal inmates in custody, and 11,000 of them are going to get out. That is inevitable. I want them to have an easier time than I did turning their lives around, because prison tends to embitter a man, and one day they might be my neighbour, or the neighbour of someone else who may not be as understanding.
In the end, I may have left the pen, but I'm still not free. Instead, I feel like my prison just got a whole lot bigger.