Home > Uncategorized > A Conversation about Entitlements and Agitations in a Provincial Prison

A Conversation about Entitlements and Agitations in a Provincial Prison

Recently while we were enduring yet another lock-down at the Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC), one of the most decent guards here came to the door of my cell. “Let’s go for a walk,” they said. I was taken to a room with all three of the guards that were on duty. “Don’t worry,” one of them reassured me, “we are not here to gang up on you,” they claimed.

Based on the conversation I had with them it seems that the guards don’t appreciate it when they receive messages to the staff who are screening my mail, in the margins of the letters written to me, even when those messages are no more than requests for information about the mail policies here. I told them that while I do understand the need for security protocols, most people will not like knowing their personal correspondence is being read by security. It is just a little too Orwellian for some.

It would seem that the guards don’t like the pen-pal project that we have been working to establish between prisons at the CNCC and the Vanier Centre for Women. Apparently, they tell me, some of the prisoners here are “pretty bad guys” (and therefore must not recieve any mail one must suppose).

And it seems the guards do not appreciate when I try to bring arguments about policy directly to prison management; for example when I ask to talk to managers about the “arbitrary application of rules here.”

And it seems they also don’t like it when people call into the facility to ask questions about policy and practices; like why are we locked out of our own cells all day now, or questions about mail delivery, or about books. As one of them explained, as far as they are concerned with regards to what happens inside this place “frankly it’s none of the public’s business.” They may even believe that. However it is indeed the “public’s business” because “the public” is in fact complicit in everything that happens here. But while the guards may not like it when prisoners and the public create pressure for more dignified and less indecent treatment in these places, whether they like it or not, it seems to work. I guess that’s why they decided it was time for a conversation – in an attempt to make it stop.

Since the beginning of my prison sentence I have been working to secure access to books for prisoners locked away in these warehouses. And since I started taking this on there has been some change (in large part I think because of pressure implemented by friends and family, from community agencies and through media). While the situation has improved – it is still far from good enough – there are actually more severe problems here. There is a gradual erosion of living standards for imprisoned people, which will only continue to decline as austerity measures cut per-prisoner spending (which includes even more chronic understaffing). There is also the more fundamental problem that such institutions exist in the first place.

I was going to write a fourth instalment of No Books for Prisoners detailing the success and ongoing struggles to regularize access to books here and at other provincial prisons and I will include some updates on that.  But I feel that talking about attempts to silence dissent and halt organizing are both more subversive to, and a better window on, the oppressive nature that operates in these places.

Now most of the “agitation” I have undertaken while I have been in prison fits into a box appropriately labeled “reformist.” It has been fighting for access – predominantly a ‘rights’ and ‘entitlement’ discourse.  While it may intuitively seem to the contrary, there is very little opportunity for insurrectionary action that is in any way sustainable or radical organizing that is in any way structural. The options one might find in longer term incarceratory facilities simply do not exist here.  I have been doing what I can based on the duration I expect to be here and given what can plausibly be accomplished. But I want to recognize and name theoretical caveats.

First I want to name that the notion of “entitlement” is a corner stone of privilege and not something I would want to ideologically reinforce. Second, the notion of “rights”, I find inherently implies a central authority that must grant or recognize individual or collective “rights.”

In theory I prefer moving from a concept of rights to one of responsibilities. One thing this concept does is to frame the egregiousness of imprisonment less as an infringement of our state-sanctioned rights and more as a denial of our ability to fulfill our responsibilities to our communities.  But while it is a form of a resistance in here for us to find ways to continue to fulfill human responsibilities, because of the nature of these institutions, one of those responsibilities is to fight for the recognition of “rights for prisoners”, and this is the primary means by which one can improve the material conditions for others in these places.

It would seem that some of the low level agitation I have been engaging in has been somewhat effective. The fact that they want it all to stop attests to that.

I was told by the guards that it is not actually in prisoners’ best interests to have practices implemented in accordance with policy here. For example, it turns out we are only “entitled” to 20 minutes of yard-time a day as opposed to the 45 – 60 we are typically afforded. We are also not “entitled” to put pictures up in our cells or to make weights (for exercising) from stacks of old magazines or use pop bottles (ordered from canteen) to drink water out of. They suggested that if I continue agitating, all this will be taken away from everyone and inmates would know that I was to blame – the guards knowing and acknowledging that would put my health and safety in jeopardy.

Now I’ve never been one to worry much about my own personal safety, however, the reason I am telling this story instead of advocating or agitating further against the “arbitrary application of rules,” or for things that we are or should be “entitled to,” is because it is clear to me that there is not a sentiment amongst inmates that we are willing to risk “privileges” (weight bags and yard time) in a fight for “rights” and “entitlements” (let alone over library access and mail policy).  Writing this piece seems like an appropriate compromise for now.

For the first three months I was locked up on this sentence, I did not see a library cart come to any range on any unit in either of the prisons in which I was held. This has now changed. Here at the CNCC, on Unit 5 the book cart has now come around 3 times in the past 6 weeks. Additionally, I have become able to receive books sent in from the outside delivered to me with almost no delay now. This is not insignificant. That said, I cannot also say that the same rights have been extended to other prisoners here. Similarly, I have heard that other units do not enjoy the same access to library books that we have achieved.

Last month several guys where transferred to our range from the Toronto West Detention Center  (TWDC) in Rexdale, where I was held when I wrote the initial instalment of No Books for Prisoners. They tell me that almost immediately after I was shipped out – which (perhaps coincidently) happened just after I wrote my piece, as well as a letter to the superintendent there – the library cart at the West finally started moving again. Now at the TWDC books come to the ranges regularly and the jail no longer prevents prisoners from receiving books sent from the outside.

Despite the fact that, as I reported in No Books for Prisoners – Part 3, the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services refused to fund a paid part-time librarian there. The jail has since brought on a volunteer to fill that role.

Here not only is there access to a library – at the West it is just a closet with books in it or so I have heard – but I have actually been there too (once) and found myself pleasantly surprised by both the quantity and quality of books (in contrast to what I have been led to expect by some other people imprisoned here). I came back with books by Rohinton Mistry, Isabel Allende and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Despite all this though, what really stands out as exceptional, is the fact that only prisoners enrolled in the education program here – run by the Simcoe county board of education, not the prison – are allowed to go to the library ever. I would have thought that (from any political prospective) people not taking classes would be those that a so-called correctional center would be most interested in encouraging to read.

There is allegedly a literacy program here too, supposedly run by volunteers, however neither I nor anyone else I have spoken to have ever seen any sign of this program ever running.

In my recent conversation with the guards one of them mentioned that from their vantage point I’ve “won” the fight for access to books. But while the cart is moving well again on our unit, and I am able to get books sent in, and I’ve been “hired” as the unit librarian, there is nothing to say that other prisoners or other units have the same access. There is nothing to say that any of this change has been regularized by the prison (and I should note that would be something out of the hands of the guards on our unit anyway).

At first when I was writing the piece that was to be called No Books for Prisoners – Part 4, I was going to encourage people to call the prison en-masse to put pressure on the institution to regularize access to books for all people imprisoned here. But after the threat was made to take away things that prisoners care more about than books, I have decided not to publicize the phone number.

That conversation with the guards was not as mean-spirited as I may have made it sound. Actually, it was quite cordial. There were even points of agreement. I want to suggest that the guards are not the problem. A couple of them are quite nice and friendly to me, and most of them are fair and relatively respectful and professional. The problem – what is undignified, indecent and oppressive – is the system, the structure, and the role in which they are employed. I do not have a personal grudge against any of the guards who partook in this conversation.  But I cannot allow that to be a reason not to speak about it.

One thing the guards were correct about is that what we are technically “entitled to” according to the Ministry of Correctional Services Act in many cases is even less than that which we are afforded in practice. One thing on which we were in agreement is that the “rights” of provincial prisoners are minimal when compared to those of federal inmates. It is as if we have an entirely different and sub-standard set of “human rights” here.

After that conversation I decided that instead of encouraging people to call this facility (in case the guards were not bluffing) I would instead encourage people to direct inquiries and complaints to the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, Madeleine Meilleur, or to their local MPP (at least for people who believe in doing such things – others, as always, I’d encourage to do as they see fit). I was going to suggest that people ask why it is that provincial prisoners are not “entitled” to the same basic “rights” as federal inmates. However now that provincial parliament has been prorogued, I’m not certain there will be anyone in MPP administrative offices to talk to. So much for democracy.

For my part my next post is going to be based on a roundtable I’m conducting with several convicts who have much more experience in the incarceration system than I have. It will be about differences between conditions in federal and provincial prisons. Maybe by than I’Il  even have been able to get access to the Ministry of Correctional Services Act – the legislation that governs this place – so I can compare it to the Canada Correction Act, which governs federal Institutions. Over a month ago I made a formal request to see it, but of course to no avail. After all, this place is just a warehouse, why should I be “entitled” to see the rules?

Now all this talk of entitlement, rights and rules is, as I have suggested, somewhat antithetical to much of what I believe about (anti) prison politics and political resistance in general. I have a tremendous amount of respect for abolitionist perspectives and those who advocate the destruction of the prison system. However I firmly insist that we have a superseding responsibility to support and to struggle for better material conditions for those ensnared by a system that we have thus far not abolished or fundamentally and radically altered. Sometimes that means engaging with the system, compromising and fighting for reforms, which does not negate revolutionary struggle for more radical goals.

POSTSCRIPT: The pen-pal project we have been working on is something that already exists as a program run by the institutions in the federal system. I’d like to suggest that while the mentality fostered amongst the staff here tells them that the people imprisoned in this place do not deserve mail – that mentality being one of the fundamental problematics of the provincial system – what is in fact at the root of it, is that they do not want us to self-determine the terms of, and organize for, our own needs. This system does not want us to recreate a service that we might otherwise depend on them for. They need us to be dependent because that is a big factor in how they control us. And this is a microcosm of State and otherwise centralized power and authority more generally too.

But we can provide for ourselves, even in here, we can still find ways to be independent of their system, and to self-determine the terms for provision of our own needs. After they do not grant me parole, I will seek more opportunities for this kind of radical organizing inside this prison warehouse system.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Anon
    October 30, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    It would appear to this observer that society bifurcates, others itself when stressed. Picks on the most vulnerable. Everything I’ve read on the subject, considered together, indicates that the Cons are creating for-profit gulags on the US model. So clearly this isn’t ethical, and it creates an economic construct, a state-funded industry around keeping more people in pens. Maybe with some prisoner assembly work on the side, company towns springing up around them. It’s a sad irony that the Cons still somehow have the electorate sold on the idea they’re paragons of free enterprise – I’d always thought that having big state-corporate partnerships was called fascism.

    An ethical prison system, assuming there isn’t some better alternative, would have prisoners living safe yet circumscribed lives one might think. Isn’t the removal of freedom of travel itself supposed to be the punishment? Yet from all accounts the new goal is to create crowded dungeons. What the hell… this issue transcends all partisan lines

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