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Bored but not broken: The many faces of Vanier

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the overly scheduled and tedious days here. For the most part every day is the same, but every so often little things happen. This post is a look at the more random events of the past few days -- the good, the weird, the completely fucked up. Behold the many faces of Vanier!
 
February 23
 
As I write this we are locked down because a new 32 inch flat screen TV is being installed on the range. It seems like a strange thing to spend money on for various reasons, among them:
- The old TV was missing a button but it worked fine; we seem to have a shortage of socks, sheets and size small clothing on a fairly regular basis; and inmate workers are "paid" in chocolate bars and little perks like a later night-time lockup (read: not money)

Some people arrive here with no way to call anyone because nobody they know with a land-line can or will accept their collect call. There's a phone in the arrivals cell block - I wonder how many one-time non-collect calls the jail could have paid for the cost of the TV? But Now we have cable. I guess it's good to have priorities.
 
Now, despite the fact that we have this fancy new TV, it's definitely not all comfy and luxurious here. I know there are some people who believe that the government has a "hug-a-thug" approach to jails (I know this because prior to coming in here I often read the comments on mainstream news websites, which is quite a scary thing to do). Anyway, this is really not the case. It's cold - almost all the time - and we barely get fresh air. It can be hard for some people to get the medication or medical attention they need, or access to a lawyer they can afford. The legal process and our rights while we're here aren't properly explained. Neither are the rules, although we're quickly yelled at or punished for breaking them. So yes, we have a new TV, but maybe they could work on the basics too.
 
This seems like a good time to dispel a myth that I fear I've encouraged by asking someone to start a facebook jail profile mandy invanier  and writing this blog. There is no internet or computer access here. At least not in any wing I've ever been on. I have no idea what's going up on facebook (argh). As for the blog posts, they are handwritten on lined paper bought off canteen, with tiny little pencils. Then I mail them to the amazing Ali who types them in and post them to the website created by the also amazing Justin. So many, many thanks to Ali and Justin! And please, if you ever hear anyone marvelling at how great it is that there's internet access for Vanier inmates, please set them straight.

February 24

Today I was sitting at a table writing a letter when I heard a loud crash. An inmate, incredulous, was marching back to her seat - "Did you fucking see that!?" - after the guard slammed the hatch in her face when she asked for the mail - "Don't tell me how to do my job!" (Now, to be fair to the guard, she was quite busy. She'd been reading a magazine at her desk all morning and probably really wanted to finish it.) So now the inmate is getting louder, reaming off insults and asking whoever was paying attention if we saw what just happened - "Did you see how she treated me!?" Some of us are looking at the guard with our what-exactly-is-your-problem faces or shaking our heads at this most recent display of bullshit. She comes onto the range and yells at the inmate to go to her cell.

"What for?"
"Go to your cell or you'll go to seg!" ("seg" is isolation, aka "the hole")
 
She goes to her cell. More what-exactly-is-your-problem faces, some head-shaking, mutterings about what an asshole this guard is being. The guard is following her to her cell and they're having an argument. I hear the guard say "Because you're inciting a riot." (Oh, please. Not one of us, to our shame, has said a word. The inmate wants to see a white shirt - a superior - "ASAP". The guard doesn't like that and calls for backup on the radio.

"What the fuck for?"
"Because of your bad fucking attitude."
(Nice. Very professional.)

She goes into her cell and the guard, red-faced, gets on the radio to the guy in the control bubble. "Put a deadbolt on her door." This is so that when the doors buzz open, hers won't. The guard leaves the range with a huge grin on her face like she's been wanting to power-trip on someone all day and that was awesome. She's laughing with another guard - I'm expecting them to high-five each other any second.
 
Later, the white shirt arrives to hear the inmate's complaint. She and the guard go to the cell, and after a brief conversation they lock the inmate back in and leave. Shamefully, again, nobody stands up for her. Later I go past her cell on the way to the bathroom, and she's standing at the window. "Do you want a witness?" I ask. "I'll do it." (Too little too late, mandy, you coward). And now the guard is pointing at me. <sigh>. I go over.

"When someone is on lockdown, you don't talk to them, or you go on lockdown yourself. Do you understand?"
(gritting teeth) "Is that all?"
"Yes."
(right, piss off then.) I go to the bathroom.
 
The fact is, she could've locked me down - or worse - for anything or nothing. Clearly there's no recourse to reason, even when a superior is called in. We're completely at their mercy. And then had anyone stood up for me, they would have been locked down too - or worse. A woman at my table said it best: "I don't get involved. We'll always lose." Still, the lack of solidarity was unsettling. We all knew full well who was in the wrong. In my world, people are willing to confront heavily armed riot cops in order to de-arrest someone - often someone they don't even know. Surely we can do a little better in here?
 
[Note: I don't want to give the impression that most or even many guards are like this. This one's a gem, that's all.]
 
February 25

Back in the summer of 2010 one of my male co-accused who was next door at Maplehurst called jail "The world's most boring summer camp." Read the next snippet from my life with that in mind. . .

During breakfast a guard came in to tell us that "Today is a special day at Vanier. We're going to have Vanier idol." Wings A, B and F (the regular maximum security wings - not psych, seg, protective custody or medical) would be competing in a singing competition. The prize: a movie screening later in the day. We were to be ready by 10:45 when impartial judges (guards from other units) would be coming in to choose the winning range.

There is now absolute pandemonium. I'm feeling conflicted (not to mention slightly nauseous).

It's nice that the guards thought of something fun for us to do and took the time to make arrangements. But I'm always wary of the blurring of lines - after all, we are their prisoners. They didn't put us here but they work for the system that did, and every day they stand between us and our freedom and communities. Still, most inmates were grateful for the opportunity to do something fun for once, and the organizing and practising started right away.

The process was interesting, on the outside, forced with decisions such as 1) who will sing? And 2) what will they sing? The first step would be to gather all the people interested in participating, make a circle, and have a meeting. That's not how things work here. While there aren't really gangs or exploitation of newer inmates, and nobody officially "runs the range", there are some times when the hierarchy becomes apparent. This was one of those times. Immediately a couple of people took charge.

"Who can sing? (Some hands go up, some are acknowledged and some are ignored).
"Okay, you, sing. Everyone be quiet! Okay, go. Louder. Shut the fuck up people!!! Okay, good, stop. Now you."

And so on, until a group of people have been selected by the self-appointed leaders, the potential songs have been picked and the group goes to the back of the range to rehearse. As always with decisions not made by consensus. Not everyone is invested in the project and about half of us drift back into the normal morning things: phone calls, chores, exercise, shower, cards. Personally I'm pretty glad I don't have to participate, this kind of public performance thing being my own private hell.

There are a lot of people here with really great voices, who sing beautiful songs beautifully. Alas, amazing grace and lean on me were considered but not chosen, beaten out by a pop song I'd never heard. Half the range participated in the contest either by singing solo, singing backup or dancing and snapping fingers.

In the end, in true Vanier we-are-dealing-with-children style, they declared us all winners. All three wings would get to see the movie at some point over the weekend.

Cheers, high-fives, general ruckus.
And then normal jail life resumes.

 

This blog post was first published on bored but not broken

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