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bored but not broken

Mandy Hiscocks's picture
My name is Mandy Hiscocks, and I expect to spend most of 2012 in jail for my participation in organizing the protests against the G20 leaders summit in Toronto in the summer of 2010.

Along with 20 others, I was accused of being part of a criminal conspiracy. By the fall of 2011, the 17 of us that were left made a difficult decision to resolve our charges through a plea deal with the crown. Please read our statement about why we chose to do that, and how you can support us.

This blog is for me to communicate with you while I'm locked up. Ideally, this will take some of the pressure off of my friends and family. I'll also share useful information about jail and the criminal "justice" system, as well as stories from the inside.

Bored but not broken: random musings - October

| November 16, 2012

october 2, 2012

today i started training as a laundry worker.  how did this happen?  and am i going to regret it?

about a week ago one of the two laundry workers, who is being sentenced to pen time soon, told me that she'd overheard guards saying i might be a good person to take her place.  strange that for seven and a half months i was considered too much of a security risk to even let off of maximum, and suddenly i'm considered a good candidate for a jail job.  but there it is: Vanier logic.

so. . .would i be interested?

i told her i'd think about it.  i weighed the pros and cons.

cons

                -i'm pretty busy already;

                -i'm politically opposed to doing free labour for an institution i think should be abolished (this is a BIG con).

pro

                -i've been wanting to write about prison labour since before my sentencing, and the best way to learn about it is to do it;

                -"payment" is junk food (chocolate bar, chips and pop) and extra meal trays - which means more fruit and vegetables and the occasional cookie or muffin - which i would certainly enjoy;

                -in about two months i'll be back at a full-time job.  although it's a great job that i love, it's bound to entail me having to do some things i don't want to do and working on someone else's schedule.  it's been awhile since i've had to deal with all that, so a jail job will help me get back into the swing of things.

i deliberated, and decided in the end that if nobody else wanted to job i'd take it.  my understanding of the process was that the position would be announced, interested people would fill out an application form, and the guards would choose.  that was the way it worked back on Unit 2.

apparently  that's not the way it works here.  as soon as the guard found out that i'd be willing to do it -- it wasn't even offered to anyone else. i hope nobody wanted it because just like that, within minutes, the job was mine.  and within a few more minutes  i was feeling distinctly uncomfortable about having agreed to it.  i think i must have weighed my pros and cons on a faulty scale this time :(

people often try to justify the existence of jail jobs by saying that they give inmates something to do, that they teach a skill or offer experience that will make us more employable upon release, or that they help with life skills like punctuality, teamwork, etc. etc.  maybe that's true in some cases, but it seems disingenuous to suggest that that's why prisoners are asked/forced to work.  the real goal is quite simply to get work done without having to pay for it (yet another thing for the "Where Else But Jail Could You Get Away With This?" file).  in this particular case the goal was obviously to find a good worker who wouldn't fuck around - not to give a deserving inmate an opportunity she could benefit from.  for instance, i was told they look for a certain type of person for the laundry job:  one who will do a good job, doesn't fight, and won't allow herself to be bullied.  questions like "are you bored?, "would you benefit from some time away from other inmates?", "do you lack work experience?", "are you seeking parole?" don't even come into it.

anyway, for better or worse, i have a job now and today was my first training day.  this is what i thought the job involved:

                -go downstairs every 45 minutes or so to monitor laundry switchovers;

                -wash house laundry (mop heads, blankets, clothes and bedding of people who've been released);

                -fold, sort and put away clean laundry;

                -exchange clothes and shoes upon request.

this is what the job really is:

                -all of the above;

                -sweep and mop entire basement (common areas plus hallways);

                -all downstairs garbage;

                -clean downstairs staff and inmate washrooms;

                -sweep and mop stairs;

                -wipe tables;

                -set up chairs for weekend movie screenings.

oh.  i see.  so by "laundry worker" you meant "laundry worker, janitor, doer of random tasks."  it seems i can expect to work every weekday morning for about an hour and a half, plus laundry switchovers every 45 minutes for most of the afternoon and on weekends. that seems like an awful lot of work but at least i'll get chocolate bars. . .

or will i?

as we were folding laundry one of my co-workers said "so i talked to the white shirt because Unit 4 laundry workers are the only ones who don't get paid and that's not fair."  wow.  this job's just looking better and better!  but i plan to stick with it, to see what life as a worker is like.  i'll stick with it despite the fact that it's much more work than i thought for even less "pay" than i thought.  and despite the fact that i dread telling people what i've done, how i feel dirty, that the knot in my gut is screaming SELLOUT.

october 3, 2013

the rec staff run a weight program here.  every few weeks we're called to the basement one wing at a time to step on a scale that measures weight, % body fat and % hydration.  if we want we can have the numbers recorded and kept on file so we can keep track of changes.  it's optional, and the staff are non-judgemental, but i still feel somewhat conflicted about the whole thing.

i've never been around people who talk so much about their bodies.  a lot of discussion is about getting fat, about what people are going to cut out of their diets, about how much exercise they do or should do.  there's a lot of talk about how many pounds people put on in how many days when they first got to jail, or the last time they were here.  trying to stay fit in the face of Vanier's Big Carb diet is a widely acknowledged challenge so on the one hand i guess it's good to keep an eye on things.  but it starts to sound like something other than a healthy interest when people say things like "as soon as i know my release date i'll start starving myself."  i think a lot of good could come from some changes to the menu and a portion size appropriate for women instead of men.  it would reduce stress levels in here somewhat and maybe we could talk about other things once in a while.

but since i'm on the topic of food, let me tell you about the new extravagant dessert i made for a friend's last day in jail yesterday: All Bran bars (which are like big square cookies) covered with peanut butter or jam, or both, with melted Aero bar drizzled on top and sprinkled with Rice Krispies.  yum.

october 4, 2012

today as i was putting my hair in a ponytail i got called to the basement.  as i walked past the guards i realized i still had an elastic band dangling from my mouth and i tensed up and wondered if i'd get in shit.

please take a moment to fully appreciate how absolutely ridiculous my life is.

freedom's going to be so weird.

october 6, 2012

Thanksgiving weekend.

a poster in the rotunda invites us to a celebration to be held today or tomorrow.  there will be BINGO! but remember, in order to play you must first stand up in front of everyone and give thanks. it can be a statement, a poem or a song and it must be at least 15 words.

i've been thinking about my statement ever since the poster went up about a week ago. what i know is that i have a lot to be thankful for.  i'm grateful for the reminder.

october 7, 2012

it's so cold in here that one of the guards is wearing a jacket.  and that's in the rotunda, which is centrally located and has no windows and hence no drafts.  in our rooms, which are on either side of a long hallway that juts straight out from the building into the big, empty, windy grounds of the jail, it's freezing.  sadly, we can't even get warmed up in the shower - the water's not hot.  everyone is getting sick.

the constant cold, especially before bed and in the morning, provides me with more things to add to the "how Vanier is like camping" list:

                1) really weird food combinations make sense;

                2)i have one plastic mug.  it gets used for coffee and tea, water, saved food for snacking (veggies, canned fruit, salads of all kinds), and things that need to be taken to the garbage like peanut butter containers and banana peels;

                3) i use one piece of cutlery: a spoon.  once my spoon got "lost" so i used my fingers and a toothpaste tube;

                4) there's no dish soap, so i wash my cup and spoon with shampoo or hand soap;            

                5) reading before bed involves much shifting around to get the book in the path of the light;

                6) i dress in layers, tucking shirt into pants and pyjama pants (long johns!) into socks;

                7) i wear socks and sweaters to bed.

complaining to the guards about the cold is useless because they have no say in when the heat gets turned on (surely that's a workplace health and safety issue! come on OPSEU, take care of your members. . .) which apparently is on the same day every year regardless of the weather.  one inmate suggested we all call the Ombuds, which made me laugh out loud.  in fact i think i might have snorted, because let me tell you about the Ombuds.

there's a sign posted beside every single phone that says, in English and French:

                                Ombudsman Ontario

                                Ontario's Watchdog

                                The Ombudsman can help

If you have a problem with a correctional facility, the Ministry or the Ontario government AND you have been unable to resolve your problem through any other complaint avenue OR your problem is urgent and seriously affecting your health or well-being.

                Contact us: call 0-800-263-1830

                Monday - Friday, 9:00am to 4:30pm

                Fill out an Ombudsman Inmate Complaint Form (blue letter)

                visit www.ombudsman.on.ca or email info@ombudsman.on.ca

the complaint process at Vanier is basically: fill out a request form addressed to the superintendent.  if you don't like the answer you get, send a letter to the Regional Director.  request forms take a while to come back if they come back at all, and i wrote to the Regional Director once and got no reply.  the "process" is a farce.

maybe that's why guards often suggest to us that we complain directly to the Ombuds about some of the bullshit that goes on here.  i've heard them say things like the admin "needs to hear from the Ombuds or nothing with ever get done", "these are your rights, you have a right to this, you should demand it" and so on.

i've heard this kind of talk mostly in the context of yard, back on Unit 2.  once on day four of not being let outside i  ranted at a guard who told me "we have to let you out every day" and urged me to fill out a blue letter, i  decided to call instead, assuming that that's what the toll-free number on the poster was for and that whoever picked up would give a shit.

not so.

she took down my name and institution and asked me what my complaint was.  i explained the situation.  she sounded annoyed.

                -have you made a complaint?

                -the guards told me to talk to you.

                -well they should know better.  that's not how it works.

                -okay. . .so what are you here for?

                -we only deal with problems that are an immediate threat to your health and safety.

in other words, fuck you.

needless to say, i don't have much faith in Ontario's Watchsloth.  as far as i'm concerned it's one more person in a position of power who couldn't care less.  the less time spent dealing with any of them the better.

october 8, 2012

jackets were available for the first time this fall on the way out to yard today.  it made me wonder about footwear.  unlike on Unit 2, our yard is grass and there's no overhang to keep  rain or snow off any part of it.  i asked another inmate if they ever provide boots and was told that they only do that on Unit 3 (the medium security sentenced range).

                -so our feet get soaked and we wear wet shoes all day?

(we have to wear shoes at all time when not in our rooms.  no flip flops, except at night or in the shower, and no bare feet or socks.)

                -yep.  or you just don't go outside.

i'm glad i won't be here over the winter.

@            @            @

i just saw my first squirrel in almost nine months!

@            @            @

they gave us a special Thanksgiving dinner.  the meat-eaters got turkey ("real meat!") i got veggie patties, and we all got potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce.  it was a huge meal, and delicious.  we even got a pear!  it made a nice change from apples, oranges and friday bananas.  i got an extra cold tray (even though i don't officially start as a laundry worker until october 11) so i got an extra cranberry sauce that, in a stroke of genius, i added to my applesauce.  i've never seen so many people enjoy a meal here.  we got a hot breakfast instead of cereal this morning, too - they really went all out.  i wonder what they do for Christmas?

i should tell you about meal times because it's different here.  the biggest change is that we eat in our rooms instead of around tables in the common space like on Unit 2. it works like this: some time around 11:15 and 4:15 we're sent to our rooms for the count.  this is when guards go around and count the inmates on all units then report the numbers to central command.  this is to make sure nobody has escaped or is lying unconscious somewhere, or whatever.  once that's done we're called out of our rooms, diets first then one wing at a time.  we grab our cups, head to the food trolley which is just inside the main door, take our tray from the servers (worker inmates), fill our cups with hot water from the jugs set up in the rotunda, go back to our rooms and start trading.  after we've eaten we scrape out the leftovers into the garbage, place the trays outside the doors of our rooms, and wait for the loudspeaker to inform us it's pickup time.  at which point we all go to our doors, pick up our trays and wait for the guard to count us and let us return them to our rooms, and wait for the loudspeaker to inform us it's pickup time.  at which point we all go to our doors, pick up our trays and wait for the guard to count us and let us return them to the trolley.  it's the most robotic, orchestrated thing we do here.  i look down the hallway and watch everyone in identical green sweats holding identical trays fall into line on command and leave the wing in single file - i feel like i'm in an uptight boarding school or an orphanage in the 1800s or something.  it's hard to explain. . .think of some of the ridiculous ways your movement was controlled in grade school.  it's like that.

@            @            @

it's 7:45 pm now and C-wing is grounded.

one of the first things a guard said during our orientation to Unit 4 was "the main thing that people have trouble with up here and the number one reason people get bounced back to Unit 2 is not being able to stay in their rooms during quiet time."  in fact I've never seen anyone get bounced for that, but it does seem to be a problem.  the doors do lock but guards aren't allowed to lock us in because there are no toilets in the rooms.  so people often leave their doors open (the doors closed rule is only enforced by certain guards) and then can't resist hanging out in the doorways and chatting. . .and then they get in shit.  sometimes, like tonight, we all get in shit.  you thought collective punishment was a no-no these days? Vanier didn't get the memo.

the whole quiet-time-stay-in-your-room thing is a huge source of stress for some guards.  it's so silly, really. . .who cares if someone pokes their head out the door to chat?  i mean really.  at the same time, why's it so hard for people to go to their room and close the door?  it's kind of an unspoken, perhaps not even fully conscious power struggle that often ends in the guard completely losing their composure and screaming and yelling down the hallway and imposing some overblown punishment. everyone involved ends up looking completely immature and the whole thing is far more of a disruption to the quiet than the original transgression.

still, immature or not, the guards have all the power.  so i'm banished to my cell along with the rest of my wing.  i'm taking the opportunity to read over my Thanksgiving statement.  i didn't get a chance to share it with the folks here because i got an awesome surprise visit yesterday and missed BINGO.  so i thought i'd share it with you all instead.

@            @            @

i have a lot to be thankful for.

i thank the Earth, who continues to feed, clothe and shelter us - even though we treat her terribly and don't deserve it.

i thank all those with the courage and compassion to defend the land against those who would cut it down, dig it up, poison it and pave it over.

i thank the Indigenous People of Turtle Island, whose land has been and continues to be taken by force, coercion and deceit; but who are still willing to discuss how we can share and live well together.  i thank them for believing, against all evidence, that the rest of us are capable of it.

i thank the rebels, the radicals and the revolutionaries past, present and future for fighting for justice and freedom and for giving me hope and inspiration.

i thank those who have struggled and continue to struggle against prisons and for the rights of prisoners, from inside and outside the walls.  without them our daily lives in here would be much, much worse.

and i thank my family and my community, my friends and my allies, for teaching me about love and courage and solidarity, and for all of their support.

 

 

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