Penned In

Former inmates tell grim but all-too-credible stories

In an entirely unexpected exception to its locked-door approach to the outside world, Correctional Services Canada agreed in the late 1980s to let a newspaper reporter wander around a protective custody cellblock at Kingston Penitentiary. Not just any protective custody range, but a virtual murderer’s row known as H Block, home to almost two dozen of the country’s worst villains—killers such as Clifford Olson, Saul Betesh and Melvyn Stanton.

Some inmates were withdrawn and resistant. Some were voluble. Olson, memorably, jabbered at high speed while he hopped about his cell like a spider monkey. Oddly enough, though, my strongest memory is that of a young man—a relative unknown in this pantheon of killers—who had recently been transferred to H Block at his own anguished request. Skittish and frail, he was the sort of vulnerable soul who more aggressive inmates gravitate toward.

Unfortunately for the timid inmate, H Block was full to bursting. Under a policy change, he was about to be ejected back into the general population. The man shook, wept and moaned, begging me to do something to help him avoid what he perceived as certain doom.

These are the rare moments that provide piercing insight into the alternate universe of the Canadian prison system, a universe to which sociologist Rose Ricciardelli gained vicarious entry via exhaustive series of interviews with former prisoners.

Ricciardelli was unable to observe her subjects in their native habitat—the 60 interviews she conducted involved male inmates on parole who had spent at least a portion of their sentences in maximum or medium security—but she came away with a wealth of material. She made contact with her subjects through advocacy organizations such as the John Howard Society, loosening their tongues with a promise of absolute anonymity and a modest honorarium. While her subjects were located in Ontario, some had spent time behind bars in other regions.

Ricciardelli’s goal was to extricate prison reality from the grip of Hollywood stereotypes. How do the approximately 15,000 inmates in Canadian federal prisons—roughly 60 percent of whom are in medium security and 20 percent in maximum security—negotiate their own safety and well-being behind prison walls? Does incarceration help cure or merely solidify criminal traits? What is the true nature of sexual behaviour within prison walls? How do institutional social hierarchies dictate daily behaviour?

Ricciardelli, who teaches at York University, came to corrections with an intriguing range of interests. She has written about cosmetic surgery, attitudes toward wrongful convictions and dementia, and has produced a most intriguing paper entitled “Masculinity, Appearance and Consumerism: A Look at Men’s Hair.” This all suggests someone with a rich and curious world view.

Interviewing former inmates who have moved into a non-custodial environment runs the risk of skewing or diluting their responses. However, Ricciardelli’s interviewing skills are enviable. She evidently put her subjects well at ease, appearing, if not supportive, then certainly -non-judgemental.

In return, relative youngsters described the mind-bending transition into prison culture, where a simple failure to avert one’s gaze can mark an inmate for death, where aligning oneself with a gang is a necessity that, somewhat paradoxically, also enhances the likelihood of being attacked by a rival gang.

Long-in-the-tooth ex-convicts spoke wistfully of the good, old days and opined that a new generation just does not respect the time-honoured code of behaviour, such as minding your own business (known as “doing your own time”) or deferring to older prisoners and lifers.

Ricciardelli found the primary ingredients of an inmate’s reputation to be sexual orientation, masculinity and type of offence. Fraud, drug dealing and violent offences, good; sex offences, bad. It is hazardous to interfere in another man’s business. Flex your muscles when a situation warrants it, or else prepare to live the life of a chronic victim.

“In the pen, the smallest guy will come stab you up,” one parolee summed up. “Size doesn’t mean shit.”

To be a pedophile or rapist is to remain on high alert at all times. Yet homosexuality is not necessarily perceived as a flaw. As one subject put it: “If you want to hook up with his dick … I don’t care, right? Just respect the brotherhood enough to know that there is no fucking holding hands and that shit when you’re out front. I don’t care what the fuck he’s doing when that fucking cell door is closed; just don’t flaunt it in my face.”

For anyone who might have thought that Canadian prisons are far tamer versions of their American counterparts, Surviving Incarceration is replete with references to the tension and danger that pervade both maximum and medium security prisons in this country.

“Nobody’s safe,” said one parolee. “[I kept] my back to the wall; I went to the shower with my shank [homemade knife]—went to the shower, washroom, gym, and yard. I ate with my shank, [never felt safe], stressed all day.”

Inmates describe some guards as being provocateurs who purposely goad inmates and spark violent responses. Others guards are cowed, more likely to close off a range and steer clear than to risk their own safety by quelling internal trouble.

In some cases, interviewees showed unexpected insight into their culture, such as one who describes the baffling intricacy of what conduct is or is not deemed acceptable: “It’s so stupid; I never understood it. We go to jail because we can’t follow rules. We can’t follow rules, and then we go there and make up our own rules. Fuck, the guys are so stupid. It’s so stupid, it’s ridiculous.”

Ricciardelli’s subjects almost universally dismiss prison as being a wasteland where lessons in crime and the law of the jungle gravely off-balance the value of therapeutic programs. The battle to survive dwarfs all else. “You’re either the predator or the prey,” observed one parolee. “You’re a lion or a cub.”

As a narrator and guide, Ricciardelli’s writing style ranges from stuffily academic to breezy (a sub-heading for a section that details her methodology is entitled: “How I Found the Guys”). At first blush, the sprawling length of many of the responses she excerpts suggests lazy writing, but the strength of the material quickly justifies including these imposing, italicized blocks. In fact, many of the strongest portions of Surviving Incarceration involve inmates constructing elaborate mental images of misery, terror and intimidation. Subjects speak of watching as unpopular inmates are stalked in the prison yard or have barbells dropped on their heads in the weight room.

Unexpected findings are scattered throughout. Who knew, for example, that Ontario prisoners are notably more homophobic than those in Quebec or the Atlantic region? Who knew that being unhygienic can quickly result in a serious beating? Nobody wants to share a shoebox with a malodorous cellmate.

One former inmate offers a shocking reflection about the effect a murder that many are aware is coming can have on a cellblock. What really eats at inmates is the realization that they will inevitably be locked up for days while police investigate the crime, he said. “Instead of, ‘Oh my God, someone’s going to die!’ it was more of, ‘Oh, I want to take a shower.’”

When it comes to rehabilitation, those able to qualify for relatively scarce programs often find them largely irrelevant. Inmate dynamics also make it dangerous for participants to reflect openly on their offences and insights into themselves: reveal too much and you risk a beating.

Surviving Incarceration is destined to have limited appeal. While not overburdened with statistics and citations, it remains far from being an August weekend read. Adherents of tough sentencing will also find it namby-pamby, while those with first-hand knowledge of prisons and prison conditions may find much of it too predictable.

Due to her limited scope, Ricciardelli also leaves some of the most profound correctional questions untouched. How can a country that glories in its reputation for moderation and social progressivism so slavishly emulate the notoriously repressive U.S. prison system? Do Canadians genuinely understand—or care—that prison sacrifices the ideal of rehabilitation to the dubious satisfaction of vengeance and containment?

Many of the author’s formal conclusions are familiar: Alleviate harsh conditions. Provide sensible skills training and work opportunities behind bars. Improve treatment for the host of mentally ill prisoners. Yet there is a good reason we have heard them all before. Denying their truth is as absurd as gainsaying the link between smoking and lung cancer. Prisons are unquestionably the preserve of the mentally ill or deficient, the abused, the addicted and those raised in impoverished homes by inadequate or absent parental role models; these are findings reached so often that they feel near-axiomatic.

At the same time, Ricciardelli sometimes conveys personal views about the politics of incarceration; observations that are both welcome and rendered more credible by her general recalcitrance. For instance, she speaks with weary conviction about the failure of “get tough” sentencing measures and the costly repercussions they have had, observing that the Harper government’s signal item of tough, correctional legislation—Bill C-10—has had serious after-effects and “was not met with the opposition it warranted.”

Ricciardelli also identifies breath-taking cynicism on the part of a federal government that cashes in on uninformed public sentiment by stuffing too many inmates into too small a space and ignoring the needs of the mentally ill. In addition, correctional policy all too often plays to those who believe criminals can be effectively deterred by the prospect of lengthy sentences, that punishment alone is a fitting central goal for correctional policy.

Contrast that with the born-again reformist fervour of celebrated ex-convict Conrad Black. His recent, post-incarceration conversion to penal progressive would have been merely laughable had it not carried such symbolic value. If a modest stint behind bars in a half-decent prison can turn around an unreconstructed neo-conservative like Black, is there anyone who might not see the same light after a few sleepless nights in a cell bunk?

Federal policy also runs counter to another Conservative tenet—budget reduction. Ricciardelli notes that federal correctional budgets have shot up an astonishing 36.6 percent between 2005 and 2009, reaching a total of $2.3 billion. Much of the increase is owed to the inmate population having grown from 12,000 to about 15,000 in the past decade—notwithstanding a steady decrease in crime rates.

Prisoners who are supplied with effective rehabilitation programs and employment skills would be less likely to recidivate, Ricciardelli reasons, a fact that is, “overlooked or simply ignored.”

The inescapable inference one comes away with from Surviving Incarceration is that the penitentiary service tolerates—and to some extent, even facilitates—the hell of inmate existence so that inmates who are transitioned to lower security settings will toe the line and do whatever they can to avoid being sent back.

Why have these cynical mechanics not been effectively conveyed to voters, taxpayers and opinion leaders?

The news media face two problems in tackling the Canadian prison system. The first is persuading editors or producers to buy in. Many news managers have serious reservations about the degree of interest or sympathy their audiences have for prison conditions. (As The Globe and Mail’s justice reporter in the late 1980s, I well remember being instructed by a city editor to quit devoting time to prison coverage because the publisher had been getting negative feedback from business readers about the Globe’s apparent “liberal bias.”)

The second difficulty lies in locating savvy sources who can provide tips and corroborate story angles. Time and again, journalists are compelled to fall back on a tiny coterie of articulate, forthright critics—correctional investigator Howard Sapers, criminologist Anthony Doob, Elizabeth Fry Society director Kim Pate, legal academics Michael Jackson and Allan Manson.

Ricciardelli may or may not find a wide audience for her book, but the expertise she acquired in writing it has made her a very useful resource for journalists and researchers hoping to tackle this most closed of systems. One hopes her authoritative voice will be heard often.