GOING TO JAIL: THE INCARCERATION EXPERIENCE
Ford Mountain Correctional Centre
It took about two hours to be transported to Ford Mountain camp, cuffs but no shackles, and I enjoyed the trip which went through parts of the Fraser Valley I’d not seen before. The camp is located a considerable distance up the road to Chilliwack Lake in a scenic mountain valley. Jagged peaks, one of which still retained a trace of snow when I arrived in mid August, surround the camp which is in a fairly flat forested area. It is a beautiful location and I believe being surrounded by nature makes difference in itself. I was placed in Holloway House, a newer structure that was originally built as a medium security facility separated from the older minimum security camp which was unfenced until about 2000. Today they are combined as one facility although unknown inmates and those thought to need more surveillance may be placed there. I found out that many inmates preferred to live in the simple huts of the older ‘Downtown’ part of the camp.
The maximum security FRCC was a pressure cooker compared to Ford Mountain where inmates can walk around outdoors in their free time and have a choice of ninety inmates to relate to rather than just fifteen others. The camp comprising perhaps thirty acres is surrounded by double fencing, the outer one curved inwards and topped with coiled razor wire. There are also motion detectors and cameras covering the perimeter and most outdoor areas.The perimeter is brightly lit at night. There is a sports field with a baseball diamond, a walking path around it and a horseshoe pitch.
Over half of the ninety inmates (which increased to one hundred and fifteen while I was there) were housed in four wooden row huts, something like a 1950’s motel in the main Downtown part of the camp. The others were housed in a modern one storey semi panopticon structure where I lived for the first half of my sentence. This has 28 mostly single occupancy rooms in two units. The small rooms contain a steel bunk, minimal shelf and storage space, a TV with headphones and a prison toilet and basin. The place is quiet with music only available from the TV headphones.
The units have a large common area with a kitchen, tables and a lounge area. One day I was in the lounge reading a newspaper when a noise from control came over the speaker asking if Sharpe was there. I didn’t understand quite was being said. With my poor hearing and all the hard surfaces, I often have difficulty making out what is said. Others told me to get up and stand in front of one of the cameras covering the lounge to show that I was there. It was interesting to learn that there might be a blind area in the lounge. I felt a bit like Wilfred Smith in 1984 when he discovers a corner in his room where he can’t be seen writing things down. A failure of panopticism?
Downtown includes an admin building with the ‘Bubble’ at the front where inmates go to make requests or wait to see the doctor, nurse, counselor, etc. The Bubble in no way resembles a Bubble but I’m told the term derives from the central domed part of prisons which served the same function in the radial panopticon layout of penitentiaries of a century or more ago. Off the admin building around a quadrangle are the Library, laundry and the dining hall or the Kitchen as it’s called. The Library has a several hundred books, three video games, a piano, and also serves as a chapel and meeting room for programs. There is also a gymnasium building and a woodwork ‘Hobby’shop plus a few industrial structures including a small sawmill and a plastics recycling (chipping) plant.
Things were bewildering at first as except for Sammy I knew no one, and he was immediately welcomed by old Native friends and I seldom spoke to him after. I did not feel welcome and was initially anxious about my personal safety. I was assigned to work at the recycling shed and found Sidney, the old Fijian in charge interesting to talk to. The other worker there a young body builder type slept much of the time hidden in piles of plastic sheeting. I was also interviewed by the staff psychologist, Dr. David Weibe.
Life with its routines soon became rather normal, perhaps too normal. The days at Ford Mountain are regulated by horn blasts; for wake up, meals, work breaks, medications and programs. There are no lockdowns, and in Holloway House the doors are only locked during working hours. Men living in the huts in Downtown, the older part of the camp have keys to their rooms. For those not receiving meds the day begins with breakfast in the Kitchen, followed by military like room inspection and then morning parade assembly, roll count, announcements and work assignments. There was a five hour workday with a morning coffee break with all inmates going to the quad for a count. There were five, I think, formal counts on work days as well as guards regularly moving through the camp taking counts. After work there was an afternoon parade and count, mail distribution and some banter, and possibly a lecture. I felt like a kid in elementary school back in the 1940’s. Except for programs it was free time until dinner and again after. I looked forward to the newspapers. Each unit received copies of the Vancouver Sun and The Province daily. Incidentally, the day I arrived at Ford Mountain there was a picture of me in connection with an article about the BCCLA in the Sun.
Sometimes I am amazed by how busy I am. If things were more efficient, rational and not so circuitous I would be horribly bored. As it is there is always something to do or look forward to. A tolerance for absurdity helps. Trivia becomes magnified, giant mountains out of little mole hills grow if I may mix my metaphors.
The week is organized. Monday is canteen day. The orders that inmates put in the previous Wednesday for tobacco, toiletries, and confections like chocolate bars and junk food were distributed after dinner. Protein supplements are popular with the weight crowd. There will be a line up and inmates will go to the med window to pick up their bags of goodies. Many smokers who have run out must pay back two, three or even more rollies for each they borrowed previously. I typically get some peanuts, hot chocolate, a few chocolate bars and some toiletries. Monday evenings are the equivalent of Welfare Wednesday on the streets of East End Vancouver. People have their canteen and everybody has enough to smoke and the mood of the camp is merrier than usual. I am usually repaid for loans and services, such as letting others use my phone card, and have more chocolate bars than is right for a diabetic. Monday is also doctors parade and I may get my monthly blood tests and weighing. I lost 15 pounds while I was there. Most inmates, especially those who were strung out on hard drugs, gain weight, sometimes as much as sixty pounds.
FMCC describes itself as a treatment based facility. All inmates have to take programs related to their offence. For addicts who steal to support their habits or commit offences related to booze the SAM, substance abuse management programs are a logical and may even be an effective policy. The implicit theory behind FMCC policy is that the inmates offences are caused by treatable conditions or thinking. There are no crooks or at least no programs that claim to deal with simple dishonesty. Maybe there is no such thing?
Thursday is a program day. Early on I was in the deniers’, Sex Offenders Awareness Program, or SOAP. Later I was enrolled in the Substance Abuse Management program, SAM, not because I currently had any substance abuse problems, thanks to my liver and lungs in part, but because Ford Mountain is a treatment facility and one has to take programs to justify being there rather than Fraser Regional which is Hell.
The policy of fixed meal times was probably good for me. Not that I look forward to eating but certain days are better than others. Breakfasts: Saturday is bacon and fried eggs day, Sunday is scrambled eggs and sausages day, Monday is a boiled egg day, Tuesday is oatmeal day, Wednesday is pancake day, Thursday is Cream of Wheat day, Friday is another boiled egg day but not quite the same as Monday’s. The meals were quite adequate and I often gave away part of my dinner. Weekends were when some inmates were running low on smokes and they would trade the choicer portions for a rollie or puffs.
Inmates are an odd community, an involuntary community whose membership keeps changing according to external factors. .As most men were serving 30 day, 90 day & 6 month sentences there was a high turnover. I try to think of a comparable one, but can’t. Where else are people with little in common aside from gender thrown together so intimately? It’s a community but no other segregated community is so diverse in age, education, life style, skills, etc. Some inmates may not want to keep in touch with family or friends while in prison although they may want to restore their relationships after. Keeping in touch with their friends and families may make it harder to adapt to incarceration. Others have no personal resources outside beyond the street. Jail is a world of its own.
Not long after my arrival at Ford Mountain it was Prisoners’ Rights Day, August 10th 2004. This I was told, honours inmates who have died violently in prison and celebrates the advances that prisoners have won such as access to telephones, the right to vote, medical treatment, dietary concerns, television and more respectful and humane treatment by staff. We were supposed to fast and refuse to work on this day. Some told me they were eating anyway and some who have little money in their canteen do not want to forego the two dollars or more they make working each day. I decided not to work and truthfully there was very little to do at the recycling shed where I was assigned. The commemoration does not seem particularly organized. No inmate made a speech that I know of and participation was voluntary, "Only if your heart is in it", one experienced inmate told me. I noticed little unity or solidarity among the inmates although being in the small minority of older ones and a sex offender I may not be aware of much that goes on. After breakfast I overheard a small blond muscular youth tell another inmate, "I bet the guys who were killed were all solid dudes, not fuckin’skinners". After a month or so I briefly thought that my experience in jail had been sufficiently interesting and stimulating to be almost worthwhile but that assessment did not hold up very long.
My first job was working at the recycling shed and I collected old newspapers, cardboard boxes, plastic and pop cans for recycling, and I picked up garbage bags and emptied the outdoor ash trays. This only took two to thee hours and allowed me to wander, with an excuse, over much of the camp. I could pick up the cigarette butts from the staff smoking patio which made me popular with the most desperate scroungers. The senior inmate at the shed was a middle aged Fijian Sidney who had been convicted of a welfare scam. He has a business as an immigration consultant and is able to keep it running through his wife without revealing his whereabouts. He says he spends $500 a month on phone bills. His welfare scam would pay ten thousand for each month of his sentence if they were unable to seize any of his assets, properties owned by family members. About all he did was to sweep the shed and sidewalk in his role of proprietor. The other shed worker, a husky young tobacco and crack addict slept much of the time. I had plenty of time to read newspapers and anything else I could find.
The main inmate obsession at Ford Mountain is tobacco. Being able to smoke is a major reason why some inmates sought transfers there. Bumming, borrowing and sharing tobacco and cigarettes are the basis of social life and the most common topic of conversation. The Fijian who claims he never smoked before he came here now indulgences, but claims he will stop when released. He also deals and I suspect turns a profit from dealings. Inmates drop by to ‘buy’ rollies. The price in exchange rises towards canteen days. Just as crackies outside, nicotine addicts here debase themselves with their pleading and persistence. Tobacco, one could argue, is the equivalent of crack and junk on the outside. If the righteous succeed in prohibiting tobacco as they have other drugs we can expect the social consequences to be equally disastrous. I can’t see that preventing inmates from smoking in prisons serves any correctional purpose. For some it is a form of self medication. The very real benefits of smoking have been obscured by anti-tobacco propaganda and hysteria. Money would be better spent on developing less harmful ways of delivering nicotine.
One thing that I noticed was that the men in jail were a lot happier than those on the street in the East End where I lived for several years. More than a few were the same people. The inmates were generally a cheerful bunch. Today after morning roll call a guard dryly told a group of inmates "No laughing. This is jail." It was funny. Another time at the end of work afternoon roll call the senior guard announced, "Don’t bother us at the office unless you’re ratting out on someone." There is a fair amount of good natured banter back and forth and I have heard very little in the way of resentment towards the guards who are available and courteous. They can still be pricks however.
Inmates are not allowed cameras and it’s probably a good idea although I would have liked to record some of what I saw. Aside from the everchanging mountains, I recall several powerful visual scenes, some that would have better been recorded on canvas than film. Ninety odd inmates lined up on the parade square with the sun making their bright prison reds brilliant in contrast to the deep green of the firs behind. One image that was etched into my mind was this tall, very blond and very slim, still teen inmate who wore his loose prison reds like a fashion model, and looked quite sexy as he lounged and slouched in the common area. I heard that his avocation was stealing muscle cars.
There were a few boys, or rather young men in Ford Mountain who aroused my boylover instincts. As the oldest inmate in the camp I could only be helpful and where practical generous. I prefer to care about boys rather than care for them. I had an ersatz ‘love’ for a Native teen from the eastern end of the Fraser Valley, no idea what he was in for, but he was handsome with big dark eyes and chiselled features which is not typical of the local Salish people. When he arrived he had no canteen money and was faced with bumming smokes for over a week so I bought a small pack of tobacco for him. He repaid me the first chance he had. I also relished the play, horseplay, the fooling around that the younger inmates engaged in. They were being young males and I surreptitiously got off on it. I remember two who fought in savage play, eagerly smacked each other around, and next day displayed their blue bruised torsos. I can see where a more orthodox minded person would have missed out on the perverse delights available.
Sex did not seem to be an important factor in Ford Mountain but then I was not in a good position to know. There were condom dispensers but I have no idea how many were used for sex. I know some were used for smuggling tobacco. If someone knew he was going to be transferred to FRCC where smoking was totally prohibited, a few ounces of compacted tobacco stuffed in triple condoms inserted in his rectum would help him get off to a good start. I was approached for sex by two different inmates in my early months and being over seventy I found it very flattering. One guy who vaguely connected me with pornography sought my advice about making pornographic videos and big money. I explained that I didn’t know much about making videos and asked him if he knew how to operate cameras. The technical aspects did not interest him: He just wanted to fuck women and get paid for it. The gym, before it was renovated and the washrooms and showers were eliminated, was where much of the action happened. Much of the gym was, perhaps deliberately, not covered by cameras. It was also where inmates sometimes administered beatings to others if they were felt to have violated the inmates’ code. There was also a large area of stacked firewood which could provide concealment for sex but care would be required to avoid the surveillance cameras which covered almost all the outdoor areas.
A young and entertaining guy in my unit is to be released tomorrow. I sometimes gave him the apple that was included in my diabetic snack. On the night before there was a minor, occasionally loud semi party for him with teasing and horseplay. By tradition he was subject to some hazing the next morning. As I followed him out the building for breakfast he was doused with two buckets of water, something I’d seen happen before. At morning roll call I found out another man was also being released. I know him by sight and the two went in to get their ‘personal’, the possessions they had when jailed, and change into their street clothes. Inmates as far as I know can only keep their spectacles and dentures in jail and these may be initially removed ‘for their protection’ Those being released are taken to Chilliwack and given a bus ticket back to where they were sentenced or other agreed location in the province. We noticed an RCMP car pull up to the camp gate and back around to park. The men immediately assumed that one of those being released would be gated. Gating is the much resented practice of arresting an inmate on other charges just as he is being released. Often the inmate could have been charged at the time of his previous case with everything dealt with then. The possibility of gating may encourage offenders to confess to other crimes at trial. In other cases it is nothing more than malicious discrimination. I never found out if either of those released was gated.
Six weeks after my sentencing I am not a satisfied consumer of Ms. Gaffar’s legal services. I am not sorry that she is no longer my lawyer although I may still need her for certain things. Today, six weeks after my sentencing I wrote Deane Gaffar a letter requesting copies of her sentencing book of authorities, the eleven cases she used to argue for a conditional sentence at the hearing as I did not get a chance to look at them before the hearing. Mr. Poll submitted a book of 30 authorities which I thought was a lot of effort for my case. As you know I am very unhappy with the way she handled her submission — her narrow focus on advocating a conditional sentence for a sick old man. I want to examine them if only for what I might write about the case later. I feel that she failed me by not explaining sentencing alternatives and their implications, not listening or taking seriously my preference for jail if it shortened the time I would be tied down and generally being professionally perfunctory.
Later I talked to two inmates who’ve been in the federal system. They both claimed things are much better there; the food, the rooms and the service. They also say it’s much easier to get parole. I may have mentioned it before but one said that my lawyer should have asked for two years after I got a deuce less. Maybe next time I’ll try the federal system.
Ford Mountain turned out to be a much mellower place than I expected after FRCC. While the inmates are less likely to be violent there is far less supervision and more opportunities for things to happen. Twice in my first week an inmate told me that if I am bothered by others to tell him, rather than the guards I presumed. At no time at Ford Mountain did I experience any really threatening behaviour and I felt more or less accepted. I saw angry words and heard obscenities but for months I never saw any real confrontation, and that never got to blows. It looked like horseplay that went too far.
After six weeks I suppose I am getting over my thinking stage about being here and that I should just get down to doing my time. My appeal makes that impossible. Earlier I’d been thinking that jail time is like a coma; it has a beginning and an end but is indeterminate in between. It’s sort of like the beginning is over. I am here. The outside has largely receded. My urge to write and phone friends has diminished. In some ways my life is not all that different. My social standard of living has been impaired ever since my bust in 1996 and got worse with the publicity that came with my initial acquittal. There have been interludes of excitement and rewarding times but on the whole it has been, to adapt a phrase, a low intensity hell. My mind has been too focused on my legal problems and less free to wander. Poetry doesn’t happen like it used to; I’ve barely written any since 1995.
Prison reduces my standard of life-style further. And it’s a break, an immense non sequitur that doesn’t meaningfully relate to what went on before. And after, I had long decided I would move to Montreal to join a friend. Ford Mountain is like living with a bunch of kids in some ways. Most of the men in my unit are in their twenties and not your stereotypical criminals. They’re generally quite ordinary guys who horse around and are sometimes loud. There are a few nasties and mental cases amongst them. I spend most of my time in my room as do most of the others do although I don’t watch TV. There are six channels: Muchmusic, TSN a sports network, CTV, a religious channel and others selected by inmate vote and rotated. CBC is never selected. The only inmate in my unit that I know, the husky young desperate smoking addict, who supposedly works with me at the recycling shed, is an intelligent body builder guy who is profoundly depressed. And addiction prone. He struggles with tobacco, quits for hours and then goes around scavenging miniscule butts and begging puffs. He did shop lifting and B&Es to support his coke habit, and prospered for a while. I picked up a few tips about boosting although I doubt if I ever try them out.
In September I found we were losing our camp pet. Today is Blackie’s last day as tomorrow he’s to be put down (the ultimate put down?). Everyone knows. When I first saw Blackie I thought he was a vicious guard dog. He had that stance, head low and forward where you expect growling and hackles up. I soon found out he wasn’t threatening and later realized he was lame, half dragging his rear legs. Word of Blackie’s demise spread and today it seemed everyone was petting him. I’ve never known a dog to get so much attention. Something must have come up as his demise was twice delayed. That left only some resident cats who been around for a while.
Soon raccoons started turning up in the cages attached to the units where people smoked; I saw as many as eight at a time, including little ones. They were scavengers and we began feeding them. I am diabetic and on medical advice I receive a special evening snack from the Kitchen. It is always an apple and a sandwich, which is almost always jam and peanut butter, not a favourite of mine. Inmates are always hungry and I often gave away my apple and sometimes my sandwich. I had to be careful as giving away my apple was an offence. It would be contraband in anyone else’s hands. The raccoons liked the sandwiches but not the apple. They really liked the junk food some inmates fed them. They became quite tame and would take food from people’s hands. I and others fed them out of our hands but after a couple got bitten and went for treatment, the administration set about getting rid of the raccoons using poisoned bait. Months later there was still a few around.
Occasionally I feel I have more fun that I have had in years, or at least since my best friend left town over two years before I was sentenced. Today I was fooling with the guys painting the recycling shed. My prison reds ended up with gray daubs and spatters. I felt like a boy. I seem to have adjusted and am involved with my life and the people here. My life is not all that different than before and I do not acutely miss the things I most thought I would; my computer, mobility and booze, and some pot would be nice.
This evening I saw Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ; the film was put on by the organized Christians who see it as useful propaganda. The movie is very indulgent. The flagellation scenes are both gory and excessive. They go on and on. The indulgently sadistic flagellators, Roman soldiers, are entertaining at first but eventually become tedious. Not my cup of S&M. You can only get so much sarcastic pleasure out of whipping one messiah. A lot of the bit parts were well acted, I liked Pontius Pilate and a lot of the devices were clever. The inmate audience was impressed by the gore — that Jesus guy could really take it — and would verbally flinch at times.
I just had a talk with a guy of Caribbean origin but speaking Canadian English. He was happy as he was unexpectedly getting out tomorrow. He got 90 days, has served nearly a month and his lawyer has got him switched to EMP. He was convicted of spanking his six year old daughter with a plastic coat hanger, a child’s one I think. The family split up over a year ago when he was arrested, and he spent a year desperately taking anger management and parenting programs to impress the court. He thought he would get a conditional sentence as the judge (a woman) seemed sympathetic, but she gave him 90 days. I asked him if he got anything out of the programs; he didn’t think so. He had been working as a drug and alcohol counselor at the time and believes he can tell if programs are any good. He is an outgoing, cheerful guy and I must again wonder if the law isn’t counterproductive. The charge was based on the girl’s comment to a social worker. I don’t know if there were other concerns but presumably social workers were already involved.
Spanking a child with anything other than the open hand is illegal according to the 2004 Supreme Court’s spanking decision. A child’s plastic coat hanger did not sound particularly lethal compared to the guy’s beefy hands. And the marks left by a hand may be easier to explain as some accident compared to those of a coat hanger. It is complicated by the fact that many Caribbean immigrants to Canada believe in what others might see as severe punishments, and this has led to conflicts. He may be one of the first victims of McLaughlin’s new spanking law. I will refrain from saying spanking new.
Five new guys arrived today. Some had been here before and were given a welcome by other inmates. I overheard one man, a tall swarthy young man, being teased, "Did you miss the food and a warm bed?" He had been gone five weeks and some I am told are back in less than two. Many here are repeaters. I have to wonder when I look around at the boisterous young men, some still in their teens, playing hackensack or engaged in horseplay, laughing and bantering. It’s a year round camp where the residents keep getting reminded that they are in jail.Jail Journal menu
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