By Nyki Kish
(Published in Mayday Magazine and on Toronto Media Co-op)
Inside maximum-security prison, life is very unlike what most would believe. The stereotypical image of prison that most media paint, with hundreds of prisoners interacting in large cafeterias, yards, and cellblocks, would in fact be a great improvement to most us here. The jail we know is one of deprivation and isolation.
Six women including myself live in what is known as "pod two". Two other separate but identical pods make up the maximum-security portion of the prisons, each with a total of seven beds. The number was lower, with a capacity of five women per pod, only months ago. However, bunks were recently bolted into two cells per pod to compensate for the rising inmate population, attributable to Harper’s recent and grossly regressive changes to the judicial system.
This double bunking, as it is termed, has created a very tense atmosphere among incarcerated women. The pods were small to begin with, and so an augmented unease has been added to an already claustrophobic environment. At their widest, the pods are no more than 18 feet and are no more than a hundred feet long. Also, there is not proper seating for seven. The steel table, bolted to the ground, that we share has six attached stools, and when seated next to each other, we are shoulder to shoulder.
Indeed, the concept of housing long term prisoners in such a small space was a poor one to begin with, and double bunking is only the first of many additional issues surrounding the maximum unit that need to be addressed.
In addition to the space issues, there is an extreme isolation from inadequate social interaction. Apart from short hourly rounds by the guards and infrequent programs, the only human contact we have is with each other. Being both crowded and alone is psychologically trying to each of us, and each prisoner attempts to adapt differently. We are offered an hour off the pod daily in the evening in the yard, which helps but does not suffice.
They say that the women here are the worst of the worst, placed in maximum for one of two reasons. A woman comes here either because of a conviction of a violent nature or beause of conflict with another inmate. In the five women I live with however, I do not see hardened or violent criminals. I see a fifty-two-year-old woman who has not walked free for thirty-one years who only wants the best for each young girl that comes in. I see a twenty-four-year-old mother of two who cries for her children, and another mother who spends every waking minute on the phone attempting to maintain her relationship. There is a twenty-one-year-old girl convicted at eighteen, who is still young in mind struggles heavily with prison life and lives in constant anxiety. Finally there is another young woman in jail like so many others, because she is native. She is smart and talented and fights for rights in prison, a quality not appreciated by the staff.
Each day, we crowd around our table and acknowledge the difficulties we face living in these conditions. We agree that any human being, jailed and jailer alike, would find this environment trying. We also agree that constructive uses of time would lessen the anxieties that stem from being locked stagnantly up. Not only are the simple things that would presumably be available in prison, such as art supplies not available, they are actually discouraged. Idleness is literally forced, when many would otherwise engage in activity. In fact, in order to partake in simple activities such as drawing or painting, a prisoner has to first find the money to buy the supplies and then sacrifice their daily yard hour to use them in a separate room where they remain locked. Supposedly, permits are available to apply for supplies to be kept in cell, but there is no information on how to do so.
On weekdays, our shower is locked from 10:15 a.m. until after dinner, or roughly six pm. According to Correctional Services Canada (CSC), showering is a recreational and improper use of time. The broom and dustpan are also taken during these hours. These hours are to be spent productively, we are told. Between nine in the morning and six at night, we are expected to work and complete school. But jobs are scarce. There are not as many institutional jobs as there are women, not by half. There are high school level correspondence courses, but the teacher is only available for minutes a day. Worst, and what should be described as punitive, without a job and for those of us who have graduated high school, there is no pay.
Pay is an integral aspect of federal sentence. For example, we are only provided two meals daily. The meals are given in very small portions and often lack substance. They do not provide anything close to adequate nutrition, offering only a fraction of what the Canada food guide recommends from each food group daily. We are expected to buy any other food from our pay, which begins at $2.50 per day, can rise as high as $6.80 per day.
As a vegetarian, a typical day for me consists of a white bun with lettuce and tomato for lunch, with a side of iceberg lettuce; perhaps a few hash browns. Diner might be a bagel with melted cheese on top, and a small portion of mixed veggies. To the contrary on our grocery canteen offers wide array of items available, from trail mix to oatmeal, to vegetable juice. Prices are usually inflated, though there are often sales on junk food. Regardless of price, it is essential to buy, and to be able to afford to buy grocery canteen to maintain some health while here.
Hygiene is also maintained mostly through the canteen. Officially, CSC does provide basic necessities once a month through request forms, but the women on pod two cannot remember the last time forms were honored and supplies were given. Cleaning supplies such as paper towels and disinfectants are provided often, but personal care items such as mouth wash, deodorant, and conditioner must be purchased.
Pay is further important in supporting the high costs of communication with the outside world. Telephone use costs eleven cents per minute, and stamped envelopes sell for just under a dollar individually. There is an inmate welfare fund that each prisoner pays into, offering ten dollars per pay period (every two weeks) for those who have nothing. However, even prisoners on the highest pay level still struggle.
The final product of all this is a room full of very bored individuals lacking any means to use their time well and without many basic human necessities. The maximum security system is failing at every level.
Sadly, many people think that this is okay. If we complain, we are most often met with the popular saying, “you shouldn’t have come to prison then”.
The fact is life doesn’t work that way. There is a never-ending supply of factors that can lead any person to these grim walls. Within these walls much is wrong. I am only beginning to learn how much. There is too large a gap between what our prisons actually are and what most people believe they are. This must change. Society will never be healthy when so many of us know this atmosphere as a reality.