GOING TO JAIL: THE INCARCERATION EXPERIENCE
I got into trouble and had to see the Senior Correctional Officer, SCO, which is a rotating position among senior guards. I discovered some small puffball mushrooms on the softball field, ate a few and showed them to a couple of others. If it were possible to fry them in butter they would be delicious but raw theyre rather bland. I was warned that admin would not understand and I didnt bother picking any more. A few days later someone Id told about them brought me a handful of little puffballs and I ate a few. While I was away from the shed one of the psychologists, Schimpf, on his way to give a SO Program noticed them near where I sit and expressed concern about them being poisonous. They were trashed. Later I was called to the SCOs office and warned. I explained that I know a bit about identifying mushrooms safe to eat and she seemed reassured. I get a note in my file but not otherwise penalized. She told me that magic mushrooms also grow in the camp, something I already knew, and that they could be a problem. I related my mushroom story to my preppy looking tablemate whod had his own problems with admin being found to have pasted pictures to the wall of his room. I knew he was religious and fairly conservative but I was surprised how righteous he was about drugs. Mushrooms could lead to all sorts of problems he told me. He feels himself above most of the inmates who he describes as addicts. To change his direction I made my standard speech about tobacco in camp being as bad as hard drugs outside. He agreed and said he looked forward to tobacco being made illegal. I hardly ever meet anyone who strongly favours drug prohibition.
The administration sees mushrooms as a serious problem. The previous year they had the camp sprayed with a fungicide which I was told by a guard, "worked just fine". I dont know what fungicide was used but I tend to think of the paraquat scare in the late 1970s when the Americans sprayed Mexican marijuana fields with the herbicide Paraquat. Mexican growers would harvest their crops immediately before the plants withered and rush them to market. Paraquat damages the lungs and liver in particular, and has caused deaths. It is banned in the USA. Of course being poisoned by sophisticated modern chemicals is nothing compared to the evils of the weed. The Americans are totally unscrupulous when it comes to their War on Drugs. Anyway, when the mushroom season begins after the first good rains in the fall all grassy areas in the camp are placed out of bounds. Inmates caught picking mushrooms or apparently stoned on them are disciplined. They may lose part of their 1/3 remission time and be sent back to FRCC, a very heavy threat. Picking is a way that more audacious inmates can earn currency.
There are rumours that the administration considers mushrooms such a serious problem that smoking may be prohibited in the camp. This would be the cruelest possible punishment they could inflict on some here. The resentment would create more problems. The rationalization is that some inmates are picking mushrooms to trade for tobacco and that prohibiting smoking would remove an incentive to pick. It reminds me of one police argument against marijuana grow-ops, is that the product is traded with Americans for cocaine. There are many inmates, who only have their 10 to 15 dollars a week wages to spend on canteen, and a small red bale of tobacco is $13 and a large green bale is $18. Ive heard boasts about making a green bale last a week. It had been many years since Id done magic mushrooms. I bought some tobacco to trade for a hit, waited until a weekend, told no one, played with and enjoyed the visuals, and did some writing on my Pagunan ethnofiction.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of tobacco at Ford Mountain. I had stopped smoking some years before because of my health and felt no urge to start again. However in camp I was somewhat tempted for social reasons. Treating, sharing and lending smokes is probably the main social glue at Ford Mountain. Informal estimates suggest between 80 and 90 percent of inmates smoke, and I knew of few who didnt. Smoking is perhaps the best way to talk to and get to know other inmates. It is an excuse/reason for verbal intimacy of which there are few others. For offering, sharing, bumming smokes you have to go outside of the units to smoke. Two or more people share a purpose for a period. Smoking sounds real neat.
The nature of smoking has changed since its suppression. I can remember years ago smoking on buses, rear seats only, and in the smoking lodges of movie theatres. Smoking was not just cool, it was an intellectual drug which enhanced ones wit and self esteem. The latter quality was most effective with only occasional use. Others have noticed how smoking now forms sub groups; those who hang around the smoke pits of high schools or huddle outside the side entrances of office buildings. It creates a certain cohesiveness which did not exist around smokers before. With no health concerns I would have gladly joined in.
Contraband is another concern of administration. One guard told me that according to the regulations anything not issued to inmates is contraband, and they could be charged. As a technical example he used a snowball. This is tough talk that they will back up if put on the spot. Food from the Kitchen is contraband. Inmates leaving after a meal are sometimes searched for apples and sugar, jam and peanut butter mini-packs. They are usually let off if they own up when questioned. Staff butts are contraband and inmates hovering around the patio at the rear of admin waiting for the staff to discard their cigarette butts have led to reminders that the area is out of bounds. I, as chief ashtray emptier, can pick them up as part of my rounds, although I never find anything worthwhile by the time I get there. The patio is close to the recycling shed and when some nicotine junkie seeing a guard or one of the women in the office put out a cigarette, he will implore me to go pick it up for him. I usually did but once he became slightly irate when I refused.
We had a little excitement when an inmate tried to escape. He climbed into one of the big palette boxes containing chipped plastic from the recycling operation here. About two dozen boxes are sent out at a time. One person said he was caught by a surveillance camera while others said the fork lift driver noticed him while loading the box on the truck. He will be sent back to Fraser Regional, FRCC, probably put in the hole for a while and will have his sentence extended. I found out that I know him having had a long conversation with him a few days earlier. He worked at the plastic shed and told me about the operation and the quantities they processed. He was an intelligent middle aged man and I had hoped we could be friends. I heard later that someone had informed on him. You dont know what to believe in jail.
There was an actual escape several months later. A special parade and roll call was held one afternoon and we all had to wait in our lines for what seemed like hours while the camp was thoroughly searched. Two young inmates had made it over the double fence by putting together a makeshift ladder using tools from the Hobby Shop. They had no outside help and two days later they were found by a helicopter on a logging road up a nearby mountain. They were cold and hungry and ready to give up.
The Hobby Shop became the center of my non-work life at Ford Mountain. The shop included all the basic woodworking equipment including an excellent table saw, a planer and a lathe. Aside from a pricy commercial do-it-yourself shop it was the best facility I ever had access to. I made several jewelry boxes, three pieces of furniture, carved eighteen masks and turned as many maple bowls for gifts as well a number of projects for the camp and the Native Brotherhood.
See images of selected projects
The masks I carved can be seen in the Pagunan masks section.
I was quite impressed by some of the projects of other inmates. They ranged from large wardrobes, heavy Harley Davidson style tables, rocking horses to fine cigarette cases with sliding tops made out of exotic woods which were the most popular project. Some inmates make things to sell, mostly to other inmates. Prices, often expressed in terms of rollies or bales were very low. For some, woodworking is a time passer, and for me an excellent one. One older guy, a gnome-like frequent returner, made beautiful miniatures of fire engines, antique cars and other mechanical things out of various kinds of wood which he finished naturally. When he was discharged he sold his work to another inmate for very little. Prices are generally very low in the jail economy. Wages, often for fairly heavy or semi-skilled labour, are from 2 to 3 dollars for a five hour day. This excludes the free room, board, clothing and medical. Canteen prices are a bit higher than outside and phone calls given Teluss monopoly are outrageous.
Not quite half way through my sentence I got myself transferred to Hobby Shop which gave me more time to work on my own projects, not strictly allowed but something all the other Hobby Shop workers did. Most of my time was working on camp construction projects and making drum frames and feather boxes for the Native Brotherhood. Twice I had run ins with a guard and was banned from the shop ending up working in the recycling shed again near the end.
Ford Mountain has an economy of its own, it is a work camp and working is part of the overall program for inmates. It is a highly subsidized economy but an economy nevertheless. It has industries: Theres a sawmill which uses logs from the surrounding area although at the time I was there I do not think the inmates did any logging but this may have happened in the past. Some lumber is used for camp construction and projects, and some, I am not sure how much, is sold. Theres a plastics recycling (chipping) plant which may be the most important money earner; Theres a firewood operation mainly to serve Provincial Government campsites and there is also contract bucking and splitting of hardwood logs for private fireplace fuel companies. A small stone cutting operation making decorative tiles closed while I was there. The kitchen does some catering, or at least food preparation and cooking for outside events. In the past the camp also produced a small amount of food for its own consumption. Outside the double fence theres a small barn now used for storage. The camps economy is a command economy, decisions are centralized and bureaucratized. It is like the descriptions of the old Soviet Bloc countries. Efficiency and profit is not the criterion. Like the former Soviet countries corruption, or rule bending allows the system to work as well as it does. Security is the equivalent to an ideology in that all things must be rationalized in terms of it. It leads to silly situations. I made a large pine toy box, and while I can buy urethane to finish it with, I can not buy thinner which is recommended for cutting the first coat and clean up. Presumably there is some dubious use it might be used for. Another example is coffee, we can buy ground coffee by the pound but not paper coffee filters and must use cloth or socks instead. Hobby projects can only be given away, sold or taken home if the inmate can show that he paid for the materials. This has some logic, but materials may be acquired through trade or gift. Not long after I arrived here I bought a very simple carving from a young Native inmate for a small bale of tobacco which I purchased from the canteen. It is made of red cedar which for I cannot get a receipt. I may not be able to take it with me when I leave. He was criticized for having dealings with me and avoided me after.
There is a large native population here, at least 30% offhand. I can remember reading about how they are over-represented and that this represents discrimination and an injustice. Think of the current fuss about racial profiling, the latest anti-racist twist. Racial profiling is probably unavoidable. I know that I am hardly typical but I have only met a few Native people in recent years, and several were young men dying of AIDS. Aside from some low end bars, the beer parlors I used to frequent, I have noticed very little fraternizing between whites and Indians. By the way I do not think that Indian is a pejorative word. Here things are different, I am becoming jail friends with a few. One is the guy in charge of the tool room who knows a lot about fixing things and woodwork, I seek his advice and hes fun to be around. He fixed my glasses for a small bale: I didnt know better at the time. The Brotherhood which is not exclusively Native, is an important inmate organization. They hold sweats on Saturday mornings. I was invited but never took part. I have not noticed any friction between natives and others and Ford Mountain at least would seem to foster fraternization.
I read a lot of books in jail, far more than I usually read outside, and I read books that I usually wouldnt bother with due to the limited selection in the Library.
I read vampire and western novels, biographies of people Id barely heard of. I also discover some beautiful literature such as Thomas Tryons Night of the Moonbow. The library operates on a simple honour system. You just take out the books you want and bring them back when you feel like it. The material keeps changing. The books are donations although few are allowed to donate. Christian groups supply many. There seems to a whole genre of books about criminals, mostly hard core, who find Christ in jail and turn their lives around and subsequently help others. Quite a few books came from a prison in Walla Walla Washington including a twelve hundred page historical novel about the American Civil War that I wished were longer.
I found out early on that you couldnt have books sent to you, apparently over concern of smuggling contraband. I was told that in the past it was possible to have books sent directly from the publisher but as most no longer sell books directly this is impractical. I wanted to read Michel Foucaults Discipline and Punish. I knew about it vaguely having come across an interesting review many years ago. I was impressed by his History of Sexuality, which I read many years ago. I tried to have a friend donate Discipline and Punish to the jail library couldnt be done. I talked to Director MacIntyre about it twice. At first he thought it might be porn but finally he arranged for guard to buy it at a Chilliwack bookstore and deduct the cost from my canteen account.
The book is difficult going but rewarding. I was surprised to learn about the sudden appearance and acceptance of the prison system, complete with issues, criticisms and proposed reforms, all within a short period about two centuries ago. There has been surprisingly little change since. Prisons in France were not part of the revolutionary debate, were not proposed as a reform, and can barely be said to have evolved. Once states abandoned torture, maiming and death as common penalties there was no alternative. From the beginning prisons had problems which drew attention and funding and thereby ensured their success.
Foucault spends some time on theories of punishment, and chronicles ideological and utopian concepts of public executions, offences against the prince and how things changed. While long sections of his book are skippable others are heavy and rich. The last chain gang from Paris to the coastal prison ships in 1836 he describes as a festival and theatre performed by convicts.
It is depressing to read accounts of familiar contemporary debate with the same points and attitudes as those that took place in the distant past as if nothing has changed or can change. At the end of progress there are only competing values. Foucaults accounts of the reforms of the 17 and 1800s suggest that judicial thinking was more sophisticated then than now. Of course there is what we now take for granted but in doing so may cease to appreciate it. The rants of the Randy Whites and the Reform minded that all parties often seem to endorse and call for a return of past abuses suggesting a lack of understanding..
Reading Solzhenitsyns descriptions of prison camps in Cancer Ward, I can understand some of his points acutely: The lack of darkness; Ford Mountain was brightly lit at night and you could never get a good look at the brilliant winter stars. I followed the Moon and Venus and got to know where to look for them. He mentioned that. His harshest criticism was for the common criminals, those we could call skinhead punks in the derogatory sense of the term. He had a conservatives disdain for riff raff. He seemed to hate them more than the administration. A camp is a camp, although mine was much nicer. The administration, if not all their fears and rules, was reasonable at Ford Mountain. Staff may encounter ex-inmates on the street which a reason to be reasonable.
When I finished Discipline and Punish, I had a better idea of the penitentiary (I had too simplistically connected it to penitence), and how the system of discipline it entails has spread well beyond prisons, and rather than punishing offences it seeks to redefine a wide range of behaviour as delinquent, in effect creating it, and treating it. This happens through the continuous extension of criminal law to more and more actions. I couldnt agree with him more.
In Cancer Ward Solzhenitsyn describes his stay in hospital after being released from a prison camp. I can relate to some of his descriptions of prison camps. The lack of darkness; the camp was brightly lit at night and you cant ever get a good look at the brilliant winter stars. I followed the Moon and Venus and got to know where to look for them. His harshest criticism was for the common criminals, those we could call punks in the derogatory sense of the term. He had a conservatives disdain for riff raff. He seemed to hate them more than the administration. A camp is a camp, although his was hell compared to mine. The administration, if not all their fears and rules, was reasonable at Ford Mountain.
Perhaps for the violently righteous and morally outraged the incarceration of offenders may provide a substitute for the bloody spectacles of executions in times past. Some become vigilantes and become famous and hated. The Righteous must believe that inmates suffer, that they are paying some price for their crimes. Its all about jollies.
I also read Justice Denied about the Donald Marshall case. He had been sentenced to life for murder and had spent eleven years in jail before his appeal went forward. He was on parole at the time and would have been released years earlier if he had pleaded guilty or subsequently admitted his guilt. I was told by more than one inmate that I would have been out in eight to nine months if I had been in the federal system. Marshall was given compensation, and the guy who actually killed the victim eventually got one year for manslaughter, which wasnt as out of line as it might seem. The real culprits, the detectives who pressured the young witnesses to perjure themselves, got off scot free as usual. Our media, courts and politicians provide the police with near immunity for crimes they commit in pursuit of convictions.Jail Journal menu
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