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…Until One Has Been Inside Its Jails: My experiences at the Millhaven Institution

By Joey Clavette

Prison is punishment; in a sense, imprisonment is an act of violence. If I were to abduct someone and lock them in my house, that would be kidnapping. Now, obviously prison has a different end. It finds justification through an assumed capacity to suppress possible societal dangers. However, this does not detract from the fact that forcibly confining someone is an act of violence, an act of ‘socially acceptable’ and federally enforced revenge. We ought to look for viable alternatives which better foster societal safety.

With that said, let me talk about the trip I took to Millhaven Penitentiary on February 10th to visit a group of prisoners serving life sentences – “lifers”. In Canada a life sentence is 25 years long. I was invited into the Millhaven Lifers Liaison Group, an action group of OPIRG at uOttawa.

I got up tired that morning, skipped two classes and a midterm. I hopped in my prof’s car at uOttawa along with two other volunteers. We drove for about two hours and after some jumps, bumps and wrong turns, we emerged from farmland and approached the Millhaven compound.

The first thing that struck me was the fences: two of them, parallel, about 10 feet apart and about 15-20 feet high with barbed wire on top. The fence wrapped around a compound of utilitarian buildings, with rifle towers stationed along the outer perimeter. You really get the feeling you’re not in civilian land anymore.

We had to pass through a security checkpoint, which felt like an airlock into another world. The first gate opens. You stand there with some strange men in suits. The door behind us closes. The door ahead of us opens. We walk on. Entering the main building, there’s an obligatory picture of some old white guy in a suit next to a Canadian flag. I see prisoners for the first time but I mistake them for custodians. If you want to know what a prison looks like on the inside, just imagine your high-school but dirtier. It isn’t uncommon for the same architects to work on prisons, schools and hospitals.

Next came the grueling volunteer training. We’re shown an archaic-looking PowerPoint presentation. It’s repetitive and full of propaganda describing prisoners as manipulative.  We’re told that we can’t help them at all and we can’t talk about anything that happens in here.

We were to meet the prisoners in the chapel. The doors were to be locked behind us. The prison’s volunteer coordinator reassured us that guards sat behind the glass at the top of the room equipped with guns and unspecified gas. I remained unassured.

The first man entered. Being alone with the four of us volunteers he was fidgety and a little awkward.  I was too. He cracked some jokes to break the ice and told us he was surprised that we actually showed up. More men crowded in, 11 in total. They were allowed to wear their own clothes. As a result most were wearing snapbacks, sports shirts and baggy jeans. When I looked in their faces I saw poverty, they looked like my family who live in projects. I see the faces of the exploited, impoverished construction workers whom I used to work alongside.

The inmates were much more intelligent than I had unfairly stereotyped them to be. They were open and friendly. One was appealing his case and could likely pass the bar. Another was keeping up with my prof’s prison theory which I could hardly understand. There were some seeking university degrees from the inside. One very pragmatic gentleman was ardently seeking the administration forms that explained how he could move out of maximum security. It was general consensus that the documents are very hard to come by, either by staff negligence or intentional withholding.

The men told stories of abuse. One had spent two-and-a-half years of his life in solitary. All of the inmates had been in solitary confinement at one time or another. They said the guards provoked them, especially around the time when they’re up for a review to move to lower-security confinement. One man illustrated this point, saying that when the men left the showers, a guard had accosted him, asking if they “sucked each other’s…”

The men told me the mental health unit was where most of the solitary units were found. That was maddening.

The inmates told us there was very little recreational or rehabilitative programming. There was an overall consensus that most rehabilitative programing, when it did occur, was patronizing. The men tried to organize to build pet toys for the local animal shelter but to no avail. Meetings for programs could be, and were, arbitrarily cancelled by the prison staff. Even my  volunteer group experienced this arbitrary cancellation when we tried to return to the prison later.

Normally, the prison cancels visitations for the summer between April and September so the staff can plan vacations. This year they had not resumed the break until February and despite this extended break the staff still plan to end visitations in April of this year. Many of the inmates have not seen their partners, children or families in months due to visitation cancellations and lock-downs. The inmates are locked up; nobody is looking in just as they cannot look out.

The treatment of these human beings is…criminal.

I know it’s hard for a lot of people to have feelings for these men. Still, imprisonment is violence. We know that corporal punishment, lashing and such, is cruel and ineffective. Imprisonment is also degrading and violent. We need to reexamine the goal of the justice system. It should not be about revenge. There’s no morality or sanity in that.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 8 No. 6 (March 2016).

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