Prison Life

I have had many jobs over the course of my life, but the one I liked most was at the Peterborough Public Library. I spent half my time on the adult reference desk and the other half in the children’s department, allowing me to work with patrons of all ages. I liked the staff and the environment, never took my work home, and got to help people on a daily basis. Perfect.

In the midst of all this perfection I had my second child, and I really missed her and my son when I returned to work after my maternity leave. The library wouldn’t allow me to job-share so I began looking for part-time work elsewhere. It just so happened that the librarian at the prison in my village was retiring after twenty six years on the job. I don’t believe in divine intervention or fate, but it did feel more than coincidental that the perfect job opened up right when I needed it to. I had full benefits and a pension plan, didn’t have to work weekends or evenings, and I was making more for twenty five hours a week than I previously had for forty.

I began working at the Millbrook Correctional Centre almost a year after my daughter was born. In my capacity as librarian I maintained the small prison library collection, supervised two inmates assigned to work for me, and provided readers’ advisory when inmates came in to find books. The bulk of my job entailed getting the mail ready for distribution to the inmates. First I quickly perused it in the front office, reporting any contraband I found – usually badly concealed drugs – then I brought it to my office in the library for a closer read. I would contact a member of the social work team if I came across a letter containing particularly upsetting news. The social worker would then bring the recipient into their office to read the letter in private, offering support should it be required. Lastly I sorted the mail into piles by wing, ready for the guards to hand out later in the day.

You may be wondering what a wing is. The prison had two levels, each of which housed different sorts of offenders. The first floor was called general population (known colloquially as genpop) and contained men guilty of theft and physical or verbal assault – the sort of tough guys one generally sees in prison movies and TV shows. The second floor was designated protective custody, or PC for short. It accommodated rapists, pedophiles, and anyone else who would be at risk in general population. There is a pecking order amongst inmates, and at the very bottom are rapists and pedophiles (known respectively in prison slang as “rape hounds” and “diddlers”). Men who have committed these crimes must be segregated or they would be regularly harassed and/or brutalized.

The two floors were each divided into about twelve ranges, or wings, each containing at least thirty individual cells. Millbrook C.C. was a provincial maximum security facility with massive amounts of video surveillance and locked doors everywhere. The doors that opened to the corridors where the inmates were housed, and those that opened to the ranges themselves, were operated electronically by a guard safely ensconced in a bullet-proof booth at the end of the hall. The library was located at the far end of the second floor, meaning that I had to pass through four electronic doors every time I came or went. This journey always reminded me of that taken by Don Adams in the opening credits of “Get Smart”.

I supervised a series of rapists and pedophiles because inmates assigned to the library were always chosen from the PC population. Most of these men were guilty, but two had been falsely accused. One was a grade eight teacher whose life completely imploded when a disgruntled female student claimed he had sexually harassed her. He was from a small town and when his story appeared in the local paper, the backlash from the community against his wife and daughters was so hateful and persistent that they had no choice but to move. He was found innocent and paroled about six months into his sentence, but by then the damage was done.

The other wrongfully incarcerated inmate had been incriminated by a 14-year-old boy from his local church. Stu (not the inmate’s real name) had been counselling this boy and was completely blindsided by the accusation. He was found guilty and was heading to his sentencing hearing when the Crown Attorney pulled him aside and informed him that if he pled guilty now, they would release him on parole and he wouldn’t spend a single day in jail. Stu responded,

“Let me get this straight – if I maintain my innocence I am looking at serving at least 18 months in jail, but if I tell you that I’m guilty you’ll let me walk out the door today?”

To which the attorney replied, “That’s the deal.”

Stu decided he’d rather spend time in prison than admit to a crime he didn’t commit, and that’s how he came to work for me in the library. The boy who had accused Stu was found to have been lying about a year after Stu’s release, and the crown apologized and made reparations for the mistake. Stu wrote me soon after this turn of events. He told me that the worst part of the whole experience, worse than being found guilty or having lost a year and a half of his life, had been the day he attended his grandfather’s funeral. The superintendent kindly granted Stu’s request to go to the memorial service, but once there he suffered the incredible public humiliation of having to wear shackles for the entire afternoon. He felt he could never fully forgive the boy or the system for putting him in that mortifying situation.

The most disturbing crime I encountered in my five years at the prison was committed by a teenage boy from a private school in Toronto. This boy’s offence was sufficiently heinous that although he was still a minor, the Crown charged and sentenced him as an adult. He initially came to Millbrook because he was underage, but was transferred on his 18th birthday to serve the bulk of his sentence in a federal institution. Len (not his real name) attended Upper Canada College, a prestigious institution educating the sons of Canada’s most influential and affluent families. He was tremendously charismatic and had been the ring leader of a select group containing the most popular boys in grade 10. I envisioned his entourage as resembling the group in “Dead Poet’s Society”, only more deviant.

Len and his cadre met regularly and had strict rules about who they would accept into their circle. A Pakistani boy had recently joined their class and was desperate to be accepted by the “cool” boys. Len strung the boy along with the promise of eventual acceptance provided he acquiesce to their every request. The boy faithfully held up his end of the bargain, but Len, who never had any intention of allowing the boy in, soon became tired of the whole thing. After stringing the Pakistani boy along for a few months, Len had one of his acolytes tell the boy that he had made the cut and should therefore join them that night in the woods for his initiation ceremony. The overjoyed appellant showed up as requested, but instead of being inducted into the group he was stabbed in turn by each of the boys, with Len providing the coup de grâce by slitting his throat. The boy fell to the ground and began to gurgle and sputter, noises which Len quickly found so annoying that he chose to stab his suffering victim in the heart to shut him up. Needless to say I steered well clear of Len while he was in residence.

The weirdest behaviour by a prisoner during my tenure behind bars was exhibited by a resident of the treatment wing. T-wing, as it was commonly called, was where they housed inmates with psychological problems. Every cell in T-wing contained a camera to facilitate constant surveillance of its occupant, and the guards took a walk down the range every hour in order to look into each cell and ensure the prisoners were all okay. There was one inmate in residence, who I’ll call Orson, who was crazed and brilliant at the same time. I saw samples of his poetry and it was amazingly original and well- written, but he was profoundly unwell and had committed his crimes while in a fugue state.

One day Orson decided that he no longer wanted his penis. He managed to chip a small piece of a razor blade out of its holder, and proceeded to sever his member with it. You might wonder, as I did at the time, how he managed to accomplish such a feat without being discovered considering that he was being constantly watched. He only had a little bit of razor to do the job so it must have taken some time to cut through his entire shaft, yet he was wholly finished by the time the circulating guard saw the pool of blood at his feet. He had simply turned his back to the camera and completed the entire excruciating operation without moving or making a sound, attesting to the incredible power of the brain, however diseased, over the body. They rushed Orson and his penis, now on ice, to the hospital, and the first thing he did upon waking after the reattachment was to try and yank it off again. He spent the rest of his recuperation handcuffed to the bed and did not return to Millbrook C.C. I hope he was sent to a facility better equipped to deal with his extreme illness.

Perhaps the most memorable event that took place during my tenure at the prison was a riot. Ontario licence plates were manufactured by inmates at Millbrook C.C. and they were paid $10 a week for their efforts – a token sum at best but better than nothing. Mike Harris decided to cut that wage in half shortly after becoming premier, and several months later determined that inmates didn’t deserve any pay at all for their labour. Prisoners I spoke to felt that they were now basically slaves of the state, and I tended to agree with them. They decided en masse that this situation was untenable and went on strike. I worked deep in the heart of the prison, a location usually rife with sound and movement, but with the inmates refusing to work the entire institution became eerily quiet and still. One of the more seasoned guards warned me that silence in a prison always preceded an explosion. He was right.

About a week after the work boycott began, the prisoners rioted. I came in to work on the morning after the event and heard the whole story from officers who had been on duty at the time. It all started on the yard with inmates refusing to come inside at the designated time. There was one guard on the far side of the grass who was in a very precarious situation with dozens of inmates between him and safety. The prisoners could have held him for ransom and/or given him a sound beating, but instead he was allowed safe passage into the building. He had always treated them with respect, and they now returned the favour. As soon as all the officers had left, a group of rioting inmates proceeded to storm the medical wing in hopes of scoring drugs. They stopped along the way to trash the social workers’ offices and defecate on their desks. Those still outside decided to torch all of their athletic equipment and some enterprising individuals began to pile up the picnic tables against an outside wall.

There is a protocol in place for prison riots. The OPP S.W.A.T. team is called to maintain the perimeter, and the I.C.I.T. (Institutional Crisis Intervention Team) is employed to handle the situation inside the grounds and building. I.C.I.T. members are correctional officers who have had special training in firearms and various techniques designed to quell riots. Prison uprisings usually run their course in several hours as the participants get tired, hungry, and generally come to realize the futility of their efforts. The Millbrook riot was true to form and petered out later that night without anyone being hurt.

At lunch the next day an I.C.I.T. lieutenant relayed one incident from the riot that really made me laugh. He was the designated liaison with the OPP commander patrolling the perimeter and radioed him when the prisoners had piled up sufficient picnic tables to scale the wall. The next thing he heard was the police commander’s voice blaring out of a megaphone,

“Okay men, we have information that the inmates are about to climb over this wall. I’m offering a case of beer to the man who hits whatever body part comes over the wall first.”

Then all of the OPP officers simultaneously cocked their rifles, creating an unmistakable and ominous sound. The inmates on the tables immediately froze and turned pale, frantically scurried down as quickly as possible, and ran clear to the other side of the yard without so much as a backward glance. The lieutenant relayed this reaction to the OPP commander, and roaring laughter erupted from the other side of the wall.

I didn’t realize how stressful my job at the prison was until, after a five year sentence, I left. It felt like I was shedding pounds of anxiety from my head and shoulders in the months that followed my departure, until one morning I woke up and realized I had come back to myself. The last few years of my teaching career marked a huge escalation in the amount of violence, disrespect and verbal abuse aimed at education workers by students. I sensed the invisible weighted armour I had shed all those years ago silently creeping over my body as these incidents increased, and I decided to retire rather than to yet again pay the physical and psychological price of prolonged stress and fear. Once was more than enough.

4 thoughts on “Prison Life

  1. Hard to believe all those years I toboganned down that hill you were working the library desk. I went for an interview there as a secretary once and that was nerve racking enough. You are a fascinating woman with a life perspective I value learning from through these posts. I wish I had more time spent teaching with you.

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    1. Thank you so much Amber. It’s always gratifying when someone appreciates my writing. I enjoy your FB posts with the girls and am glad to see you are all doing well through this difficult time. Take care.

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  2. I am one of the library staff privileged to work with you at PPL! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this piece of your history. Hooe you are enjoying your well earned retirement. Anne

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