1. My perspective
Last week, I posted on Facebook about what Christmas means for incarcerated people and their families. I wrote about how people on remand are trying to get bail to be out in time for Christmas, and how so many families are hoping that cases will go through court in time for children or partners to have their loved one home for the holidays.
Parker Donham suggested that the Examiner might be a good place to write about these issues. And I wrote back that I wanted people to know these stories, but I also had to balance writing news with protecting the people inside. It’s not exactly a secret that I have contact with people inside Burnside and in other prisons. So I wrote to Parker that I worried that writing about what I know would end up with the people inside suffering reprisals and being disciplined, including being placed in solitary confinement for speaking with me. I said I often worried about writing about stories I know from vulnerable people — not only those in prison, but those in low income and racialized neighbourhoods — because they are the ones who end up bearing the consequences of speaking these truths. I wrote about the ethical dilemma of sharing stories versus exploiting people, and how making the wrong decisions on what to share can hurt people.
I’m writing about this because on Thursday Tim wrote about the case of federal inmates placed in solitary confinement while in Burnside. Reading this case hit me hard because I know one of the men who took his case to court. Reading about the conditions wasn’t shocking because so many people inside have already told me about what happens to them — everything from having their medication cut off and experiencing terrible withdrawal and mental instability as a result, to being placed naked in suicide watch cells with the lights on 24 hours a day when they report problems with mental health, to assaults, to all the ways in which their humanity is destroyed on a daily basis. Talking about these stories is so difficult and telling them in detail — the kind of detail people often need to believe they are true — places the people already being punished at so much risk. Even writing this vaguely, I worry about who’s reading, who might get pulled in for questioning about what they’ve said, who might get disciplined as a result.
So I try to write generally. I write about people trying to get out for Christmas. I could tell you about last Christmas. Last Christmas, someone I cared about was in solitary confinement too. Like the men in Burnside, he wasn’t being disciplined or in there for protection — he simply had been through his 90-day classification and assigned to a maximum facility. And since Springhill, where classification is done, is a medium security institution, all maxed inmates have to be put into solitary until they are transported. They get the phone for 20-30 minutes every three days, which is wheeled to them and they talk through a slot in the door. Food is given to them through a slot in the door. They are handcuffed when they leave their cell for showers, which they get once every two days. And since the prison wasn’t transporting inmates until February, this is how he lived for three months, through Christmas, through the New Year. Not because he did anything wrong, but simply because he was a different classification and transport was backed up.
Imagine being the family member of someone in this situation. Imagine if you don’t get to talk to your child on Christmas because they don’t get the phone for another two days. Imagine if you’re a child and it’s your birthday but your parent can’t call you. Even if you believe the people in prison deserve this treatment, imagine what it does to everyone around them — if they are lucky enough to have family, that is. Many people don’t. There are many people in prison who never get mail, never get Christmas or birthday cards, never got a TV or CD player from their family to pass at least some time and stay sane inside, never got boxes and have to wear the correctional clothing all the time because they have no one to send them the small amount of clothes you’re allowed, or their family doesn’t have money. And what if you can’t write or read a card anyway? There are people who never use the phone because they have no one to call. There are mothers who can’t talk to their children this Christmas. There are people watching other people go to the socials to see their families, and they have to wait back on the range alone. And then maybe they act out because they can’t deal with the pain, and then they get taken to solitary, because they’re a discipline problem. And who can show pain inside, who can be vulnerable? So some people fight or yell instead, and then we call them hardened cases.
When I asked the guys inside to write about Christmas in prison, one guy wrote “I don’t know what Christmas means anyway, because I’ve never experienced it.” There are people who come back to jail or prison because they don’t have anywhere to go and they don’t know anything else. There are people institutionalized before they even get to prison, first by the care system, then in youth custody, sometimes from as young as 12. There are people who will tell you they don’t know how to survive on the outside. There are people, even if they get out, even if they come back to their family, who are so traumatized that they cannot love or care for their families the way they want. One young woman whose father and stepfather had both been long-term inmates told me about how her stepfather became quiet and withdrawn at the holidays and she never understood — only now when she’s learning about the prison system does she understand what happened to him and why he struggled at times to parent her.
There are children who never forgive their parents, families who never recover, parents who never learn how to parent their children because incarceration doesn’t teach families how to be stronger and support each other, all it does is break them. There are men who get out, get married, and have to live in a different apartment from their family because they can’t stand having people around them or in their space any more. There are men who never sleep beside their wives because they are terrified that they will wake up in the middle of the night, conditioned by years of being alert for doors opening, and hurt the person they love. There are families who wait and wait for when their loved one gets out, only to find that it doesn’t end with getting out, that the trauma goes on and on. There are women who never get their children back, there are women whose families abandon them the second they go inside, and they have nobody to help them rebuild when they get out. There are people who kill themselves, or try to kill themselves, so that they won’t have to go back. There are people who commit suicide by cop rather than go back. I’ve known them.
And most people will never talk about what happened to them inside. Maybe they’re on parole and they’re terrified to do or say anything that can get them sent back. Some people just want to put it behind them and forget. And how do you talk to people you love about prison? How do you get help for what happened to you, especially if your experience of therapy has been programs in prison (no matter how good) monitored and reported on with your parole at stake. How do you feel comfortable seeking help? Who can understand what happens to you inside? Who would care when people say criminals deserve what they get? And who wants the people they love to know what they had to do to survive?
I know these stories. And I can’t tell so many of them either, because the worst that can happen to me is losing jobs, or being branded “radical” or being banned from a few places. But the worst that can and does happen to them is being inside with no control with people who know you complained. There are people who work in corrections who can’t take it either. People who want to help the people inside and find that they get crushed in the system too. When you talk about what happens inside, a lot of times people think you’re just blaming the guards, but like the decision on Burnside using solitary confinement showed, it’s bigger than individuals. The system decides someone should be classified one way, and there’s no choice.
And the thing is, there’s kindness too. There’s kindness everywhere, even in the worst places. I can tell your stories of all the terrible things, the violations of human rights, the suffering, the physical, sexual,and mental assaults which people don’t imagine or think about because we live in Canada and Canada’s not like that, right? But there is also great humanity. Some of the best people I know are doing time. People who are loving. People who are working every day to change themselves. You don’t have to be wrongfully convicted in prison to be a person capable of good. And yes, there are terrible people in prison as well. And there are always people who have caused terrible harm and hurt, even if they regret it, even if they are making reparations, and that’s not a small thing. Victims and their families suffer terribly at Christmas too. Of course they do. I’m not saying everyone in prison is an angel. But that doesn’t mean everyone in prison is a monster. Families of prisoners are kind to each other, help each other in small and large ways. Prisoners care for each other, stand up for each other. “Just because we’re in prison doesn’t mean we don’t have morals” somebody said to me. You might laugh at that, like it’s ironic or something, but it’s not. You can be in prison and lay your head down on your pillow every night knowing you did the best you could. You can.
So for some lucky people inside, Christmas might mean a personal visit, three days with your family or spouse or children in a trailer. It might mean getting a card — no stickers, no glitter, not more than 8X10 laid flat, no ribbons (and every prison has different rules on mail). It might mean getting a package from the lifer committee with two bags of chips and some pop and some nuts and a bag of chocolates. Or it might mean just another day in solitary, with no calls, and no human contact at all.
These are the stories I know. Sometimes I have to choose not to write about them. Many people choose not to hear them. There are thousands and thousands of words I could write about this, and thousands and thousands more I could never write. And most of the stories aren’t mine to speak anyway. Parker Donham said, “wouldn’t it be great if you had a space to share these things every week…wait!” Wouldn’t it also be great if not me, but the people who need to be heard had the same space. Wouldn’t it be great if more of these cases got to court. Wouldn’t it be great if there weren’t any more of these stories, because we put a stop to it. And I guess it would be great if Santa were real, too.
2. Two perspectives from prison
I asked two lifers to speak to me about what it’s like to spend Christmas in prison. I have edited out some of the more personal and identifying details of what they said. Here they share their thoughts:
What does it feel like to be in prison at Christmas?
It hurts. It hurts. This time of year. Everyone’s trying to put on a face and walk like it doesn’t affect them. Like, some guys got kids in welfare services. If one person’s hurt then everyone hurts really. Anything can pop off. Because if buddy’s mad and he calls home and the girl’s stressed and he doesn’t know if his kid is going to stay in services, then he gets off the phone and he’s locked in his thoughts. So then he might get drunk or high or he’s involved in a card game and something sets him off. And now it’s everyone’s problem.
For me, Christmas is just another day of the year. I’m blessed that I have family. My child is with her grandparents and she’s good and we have a good relationship that’s strong. And I know they’re happy and healthy and enjoying the holidays.
What was it like for you when you first went in?
You have to adjust. All special occasions are hard when you’re in jail even if you celebrate them or not. You know someone is happy. You know people are with their loved ones. There’s kids all around the world opening their toys. So it’s hard to not be part of that or with your family. But as time goes on it’s just another day. Like I said, you adjust.
Does the prison do anything for Christmas?
We had Christmas parcels but we had to spend our own money for those. But basically that’s a gimmick because you’re buying all these things that you think are great because you don’t get them on a daily basis. But once you receive your parcel after you spend your money you realize you didn’t need half the shit you bought.
Maybe the day after Christmas or Christmas Day they’ll give us turkey or something. Depends on what jail you’re in. They have Christmas socials where you can visit with your family.
Everyone deals with it in their own little way. Once everybody’s locked up you can’t really see what’s on people’s minds. But when people are out and about they try to hide their true feelings.
Some of these guys have nobody, period. So like I said, Christmas is just another day for them. Christmas will come and you won’t even see them on the phone.
How does being in prison affect families?
Men being in jail on Christmas affects everybody. Some people are fortunate that they have resources and that their children have grandparents and it fills the void. But some guys in here have children in child services and they don’t even know what they’re being fed at night.
Over time you lose all concepts of special occasions and the true meaning of Christmas. If you asked the true meaning of Christmas out of 30 guys, maybe five will know. It’s about giving and sharing but they don’t do that in prison.
Have you ever spent Christmas in solitary?
I’ve spent many Christmases in solitary. What it’s like? It’s pretty much what you make of it. It can drive you crazy beause you’re isolated with your thoughts or you can make the best of it and be thankful for the small things. The canteen you have, the cards that come under your door. Just know that even though you’re in solitary life goes on.
Do you think solitary confinement is torture?
I spent three years one time in solitary. I mean, for another inmate to hear that they’re making a big stink about mental health and being in seg now, it hurts a little. No one cared about my mental health when I was in the hole. You’re in a hostile situation, and even if you’ve found inner peace and are trying to make time go by, guys are slashing up, flooding their toilets. I’ve even seen guys hang themselves. I’ve seen guys get down and depressed, hang themselves. I’ve seen men die in prison.
In the end, it’s pretty much what you make out of it. Personally, I try to find the best out of every situation. I tell myself Christmas comes and Christmas goes, and when it goes comes a new year, and with a new year comes new hopes of freedom.
I really don’t feel no way about mental health issues. What about guys who have been through it, and they’re still in the population of the jail. They should go back into the records and find guys that spent years and years in the hole and they should get some attention too.
What would you say to people who say that if you commit a crime, you deserve what you get?
I would tend to agree, because I know the true facts. I’m inside looking out, not outside looking in. For people outside to say all people that are incarcerated deserve to be incarcerated, that’s not accurate. There’s people inside for making poor judgements, for making bad decisions or choices in a moment. There’s a fraction of guys who shouldn’t be here and I feel for them. But then there’s guys that deserve to be where they’re at. Commit the crime you do the time. But not everybody should be painted with the same brush.
Do you think people can change?
Absolutely. I believe there’s a person in jail that has the cure for AIDS or the cure for cancer. I see a lot of these guys, their ingenuity to do the small things, it’s crazy. I’ve seen guys burn down crayons and mix it with charcoal and paint murals on their walls. I’ve seen some great tattoo artists come through the jails. Mainly what I’m saying is every man can change. Despite their crime, despite why they’re in jail. I look at jail as an opportunity to make the best of the situation. If you can come out of jail with something, if you can come out and do much better, if you come to jail and persevere and you can get through it and turn it into a positive, then if you can do it in here you can do it out there. The only thing is if people out there are willing to give you a chance.
What’s it like spending Christmas in prison?
At first it’s all about understanding the situation and getting used to it. For me Christmas was always special because my father’s birthday was the 24th so that was really important for me when I was out. We’d always open our presents on the 24th and on the 25th it would carry over and we’d have a big dinner with the whole family. So when I came to prison I tried to maintain it. In the provincial there were no visits, but in Kent I had my father and my mother and my family and the kids and we got personal visits. I always tried to celebrate Christmas with them. I never try to feel bad this time of year. I always try to live off the good memories I had before.
Even though my father passed away a few years ago my family still celebrate. I never wanted them to change what they do outside just because I’m in here. They’re passing on the routine to my sister’s kids and the next generation. We’re all following the same tradition. I call them all on Christmas day and talk to them because they’re always together at Christmas. It’s just a matter of, it’s still family to me and it’s still important. Even though I’m here we still have that connection because we have so many good memories from when I was out. It’s never really sad for me. It does hurt me a little, but I feel good the family traditions are being passed on. I’m grateful for that.
Have you ever been in solitary at Christmas?
Yeah, a couple of Christmases at least. You just hope you get a phone call because when you’re in seg there’s phone routines so you have to hope you get the phone on the day. I think I always did. I watch Christmas movies. It doesn’t depress me. I don’t know if that’s awkward or weird, that’s just the way I am. I enjoy Christmas. Wherever I am I always maintain the same attitude. I don’t let prison change who I am.
What would you say to people who say prisoners deserve whatever they get?
You mean, do I want people to feel sorry for me? I’ve never expected anyone to feel sorry for me for my time. I have no problem dealing with my own situation. I don’t ever want my family to feel sorry or anything. I’ve done my best over the last decade to help them with that, and I think they understand that I don’t even want them to feel sorry for me or to change how they are because of me. My objective is every day just move forward. That’s my objective. It’s just a matter of in life, you keep moving forward. Whatever comes up, you step over it, jump over it, push it over, just keep moving forward.
What’s Christmas like inside?
Every institution they give you a special dinner that’s not only regular dinner, so that’s not a bad thing. Here they give you a Christmas cake and a different style of chicken. They do their best, like at least it’s different, which is good. I don’t mind it, I enjoy chicken.
We have mass too, and everything like that. And the priests come around. They do a specific Christmas mass and everyone’s welcome, so they do their best for us there as well.
When it comes to Christmas I think people have their ideas in their mind of what they see on TV. I know there’s sad stories about what happens on Christmas, and certain guys do get depressed. But most institutions have holiday procedures. Guys get extra time out of their cells, more time to work out, guys don’t have to work, so like on the streets there’s some vacation time during Christmas.
There’s also socials. Every institution I’ve been to has socials where they have visitors. This year they had Santa, and if you have children you’re allowed to buy presents for your child, it’s a social atmosphere, and there’s trees and decorations. They try to give you that little bit of spirit.
At the end of the day it’s always going to be in your mind I wish I was out for this, but they give you what they can. Without leaving of course.
It’s not too much negativity for me because I choose to be positive. It’s always about your mindset.
3. A lawyer’s perspective
My sister Heulwen practices defense law in Winnipeg. While she was getting her children ready for bed, I asked her for her perspective on Christmas, incarceration, and how it affects prisoners and their families.
What’s the courts like at Christmas? Is it backed up?
Not necessarily. They open extra courts to handle the bail volume to make sure all the bails can be heard because they shut down over Christmas…All the other courts are closed for two weeks, so there’s no trials, there’s no remands happening, but they keep the bail courts open and usually they open an extra one on Christmas Eve to make sure everything gets heard.
People say more people get arrested at Christmas. I don’t know if that’s anecdotal, but I guess there’s probably more family get togethers and issues that arise from that. Impaired driving happens a lot, but they aren’t necessarily coming in for bail. So, there can be more people, and I think also what happens is some people who have been sitting in for a while decide they want to get sentenced or have a bail hearing now because they realize Christmas is coming so I think that’s more the issue.
You’ve done cases where you’ve gone in overtime trying to get people home for Christmas?
Last year I had a guy that I guess was needing some money. The Crown was saying if he had a surety they’d consider release and nobody was stepping up. I’d been talking to his girlfriend’s dad, and he was thinking about doing it but he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to. And I guess his daughter was pressuring him a bit. She couldn’t do it because she was on social assistance, but her dad had a job. And he decided to do it for her Christmas present.
So he called me on the 22nd or something and said, can you get this on for Christmas. And I thought, well, I really didn’t want to come in for Christmas Eve, but I guess I can probably get it done then, because it was two-day notice to get it on the docket. And he said, well, don’t tell him or my daughter. I’m doing it because I want it to be a surprise for Christmas for her and the children.
So we got him brought in, and the dad came and brought the money and took the boyfriend home. And he said he just walked in the door and said “look who I have” and the daughter just screamed and then started crying. And they all sent me an email saying, you made our Christmas, we’re so excited. They had a nice Christmas together. So certainly people will try to go above and beyond to make stuff like that happen, and you feel good about doing that.
How do you respond to people who, when you talk about incarceration and justice, say that these people have victimized others?
There’s a false dichotomy about victims and offenders that was brought up to create a them and us. It goes back to why we have a criminal justice system in the first place. In the medieval times they didn’t necessarily have that, so if someone did something wrong to you, you got revenge, or your family got revenge. So if someone raped your daughter you went out and killed them, or if someone killed your son, you went out and killed their son…
…And at some point it was decided, you don’t take the law into your own hands and be a vigilante. The state’s going to start doing that for you. We will prosecute people because when they do something wrong, they do something to all of us and not just to this individual person they’ve hurt, or this individual family. It’s offending against our values, so we’re going to prosecute.
And I guess some of that historical mentality is still with us. But the reason we have prosecutions is that the state is seeking justice for people. So I can understand where people are coming from on that for sure, they feel there should be some accountability and some rules for everyone to follow, and it would be a nice thing if everybody did that. But the problem is that in theoretical terms that’s what it is, but in practical terms, most of the people we see in the criminal justice system as offenders are disadvantaged people. So what the system has become is a way of punishing people for being poor and uneducated and not having options in life, and those are the people more likely to end up interacting with police or being in these situations.
And so many of them are victims of circumstance. Here in Manitoba of course we have a high, high proportion of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal offenders and we know now about the residential school legacy, and a lot of my clients are dealing with that. I have a lot of clients who are refugees and have come from war-torn areas who learned violence there and now are working through those issues. And some of them are victims.
And also what I see, which I find interesting, is that people will fluidly go from being offended against and being offenders. Because they’re living in neighbourhoods where crime rates are higher, and they probably know more people who are gang members and gang associates just because of where they’re living and who their friends and family are. So somebody who gets jumped or beat up by somebody one month might assault somebody two months later. Or women who are raped might get picked up on prostitution offenses. There’s movement between the two, so there isn’t this one group of victims who are always victims, and one group of offenders who are always offenders. Often victims offend, and offenders get offended against.
And certainly in custody people get beat up or jumped or smacked around in there. So if somebody’s a victim of a jailhouse beating are they still an offender or are they now a victim? Or somebody who is abused as a child and then grows up to look at child porn, are they still a victim? Because we talk in court about how when you rape a child you take away their childhood and their whole life, so if their life becomes ruined and then they act out on that, isn’t that exactly what happened to them? But now they’re an offender. It is a little bit of a misnomer to say we have victims and offenders.
What’s your take on solitary?
It’s being overused, and Canada isn’t complying with international standards on that. There may arguably be a place for it that’s extremely limited for people who are extremely unmanageable and dangerous, then perhaps there might be some justification for that. But the way it’s being used now, it’s overused. It’s being used for administrative reasons, it’s being used because they’re too crowded, it’s being used because they don’t know where to put people, it’s being used to segregate people that need protection or need to be away from other people, it’s used punitively when perhaps there’s other things they could be using.
And it’s really an inhumane way of treating people. Regardless of the fact of what they did or why they’re in custody, surely there should be better ways of dealing with it than that. And I wonder how it really helps. How are prisoners being rehabilitated, and not necessarily because we want to be “hug a thug” as people call it, but because it protects the public. What is the point of sending people to jail and then they get out and start beating up more people or stealing more stuff, or invading more homes? That doesn’t help anybody.
So part of the point of them going to jail is that they take programs and get better. But if they’re in solitary they’re not doing that, they’re more angry, they’re more unstable, so when they get out they’re probably more likely to be offending, so I don’t see how it helps bring down costs or protect the public either, in a practical sense.
What have you seen about how incarceration affects families, especially at Christmas?
Many inmates were wards of CFS and part of the reason they’ve ended up offending is the lack of parental guidance and sense of self through family. And sadly, many of them now have their own children in CFS who will end up disproportionately incarcerated, so it’s a vicious cycle, and we’ve failed at breaking it. You can’t keep family traditions at Christmas if you are incarcerated.
What is sad is that some clients actually like Christmas inside. They’re homeless or without family so at Christmas they have friends around, get a turkey meal, the guards wish them merry Christmas, etc. It’s better than what they would get otherwise.
And when people are in the community for Christmas if they haven’t addressed their issues it can end up that there are lots of fights, drinking that gets out of control, so for some, Christmas memories aren’t pleasant — their parents were worried about money and fought and now they’re doing it. There are lots of expectations that can’t be met at Christmas so you see shoplifting and dealing drugs to get money.
I think we need to keep in mind what Christmas means. It’s not just one big commercial enterprise. It’s about a baby born into poverty to an unwed mother in a time when that was scandalous who became a refugee and who ministered to the poorest among us. We need to remember the poor at Christmas, including those who are incarcerated, because that is how we honour the spirit of the season.
Next Saturday is Boxing Day, so I’m taking the week off writing Morning File. I’ll see you all two weeks from now, in 2016!