Leah Henderson wrote these words and requested that they be posted here on Mandy's blog:
March 29, 2012
So, this can't normally be said in jail: everything has changed.
For those of you who don't know me, I am Mandy's co-accused and I've been on a maximum security range at Vanier for the last 100 days. I've been approximately 50 feet from Mandy (though not allowed to nor able to communicate with her) and the day-to-day that you've read about on this blog is very similar to what my experience has been.
Today, I was going about my regular routine when, after lunch, during quite time, I was brought out of my cell (which is not normally done during lockup) to see a social worker. She informed me that I would be moving to Unit 3, a medium security work-range for sentenced people. Now I am sure many of you were wondering what I was: Why now, half-way through my sentence? I will get to that part of the story in a minute. However, the question I hope we can all ask, often and loudly, is: Why me?
Why me? When women here on immigration matters are kept on maximum security?
Why me? When women here, for protecting themselves against domestic abuse are criminalized and kept on maximum security?
Why me? When Mandy is here for 6 months longer than I am?
Back to the story of how this all happened.
All of this started to move and shift last week when my mother phoned the jail. That's right, this started with my mom. I think it is important to note here that our social justice movement histories are often started and impacted by mother's actions. So, my mom called the jail and inquired as to why Mandy and I were still being held on maximum security. The same day, an advocate with Elizabeth Fry started asking the same questions. On the way to a doctor's appointment a classification staff stops me.
CS: I understand you are confused about why you are on maximum.
Me: Not really.
CS: Well, I've told you, it is the nature of your charges.
Me: What does that mean?
CS: You came as part of an organization.
Me: What organization?
CS: The G20
(to which I laughed to myself, because I would not be here if I was a G20 Nation State)
Me: What? (confused look)
CS: You were part of a group.
Me: What group, and how do you know this information? My statement of facts, read in at my sentencing hearing, didn't identify me as part of any organization.
CS: Well, it must have been in your pre-sentencing report. I read it somewhere.
Me: I didn't have a pre-sentencing report.
Me: I think Mandy and I are being discriminated against because of our political beliefs, that is a human rights violation.
(Ding, ding, ding. Oh, magic legal words)
That was pretty much the end of the conversation.
Back to today.
After the social worker informed me that I would be going up to 3, she told me that the administration knows I won't work, this is true. I am a prison abolitionist and I will not help run this place with my labour. The legislation states that sentenced inmates have to work, here women work for 2 days in "cook chill," the kitchen, and are "payed" a bag of chips and a chocolate bar, this is unacceptable.
Many women here would like to work, it passes the time, and if it was done better, we could even learn some transferable skills, but they deserve to have a choice beyond maximum security or working and they deserve proper pay for their labour. If the state is going to continue to criminalize poor people of colour, indigenous people, queer people and people with disabilities, they need to pay for it -- literally. Maybe then, they will reconsider the cost analysis of their next super-jail.
So, here I am on medium security, the lights go out out night, your window opens, you have your own cell, and the door doesn't lock. I am here because I have the power of a movement, that can get the media's attention, I am here because of my mothers' persistence, I am here because of the colour of my skin and where I was born -- my privilege. And I am here, and Mandy is not, because she has this blog -- and everyone that runs this jail is terrified of what she will expose.
I won't stay if they make me work, I will be placed on a misconduct and brought back to max security, I don't know if I will have that battle, or if they will leave me in limbo, or if they will leave me alone. I will keep you updated and now that my daily life is different than Mandy's I will tell you more about what medium security looks like if I get the chance to see it for at least a few days.
Maximum to Medium (to Maximum)
**this entry was originally sent as a letter, however, the prison administration refused to mail it and returned the letter to Leah**
I've been asked a lot recently about the differences between medium and maximum security at Vanier. In visits, letters, even a whisper in the hallway from Mandy... "What's it like?" After 10 days, here are some of my observations...
Let's start with the physical. Gone are the tall ceilings and one loud echoing room where, apart from your cell, you do all of your living in maximum security. In medium security you get your own cell (no cellies) in a hallway. Your 'wing' attaches to another wing which share one small communal room, which is about the same size of a large living room in a house. Your cell door never locks. Instead of having a toilet in your cell you can walk to a communal washroom. The walls are painted a sunshine yellow and instead of cinder block walls, smooth fairly normal-looking walls exist in most places here. The TV isn't so high up that you can't touch it, and in your cell, while you can't really see out your window, it does open -- fresh air!
The theatre of jail is an important part of the incarceration process. How the stage is set matters, and psychologically can have big implications. I was shocked that I even noticed the lack of cinder block walls in my cell. I didn't know or realize I was aware of them when I was on maximum security.
Apart from the setting another difference between medium and maximum security are the 'comforts' they try to give you. This falls into the classic 'reward and punish' system. On medium security you have access to a fridge -- but 'misuse' the fridge (I'm still trying to figure out how someone 'misuses' the fridge) and it will be taken away. We just got our fridge back after it was gone for 2 weeks because someone put a muffin in the freezer.
There is an element to medium security that reminds me of house arrest. You can feel amongst the inmates the threat of 'being bounced' - moved back to maximum security. With that threat comes an element of self-policing. Are we too loud? Can your door be open right now? Is it worth the risk?
Other comforts include being able to go to the gym; you have a larger yard that isn't a concrete box that has grass, trees, and soon-to-be baby geese. More stage-setting psychological punishment for those on maximum than anything that has to do with 'security'. There is a library the size of a large closet, though it really just resembles the book carts we get on maximum, and every Saturday night, in an effort to teach 'healthy leisure', we have a movie night and there's yoga class on Wednesdays. There is also a beauty parlour where you can get your hair and make-up done -- I've yet to go, I doubt I will. The food is the same, visits are the same (I still can't have touch visits), but in medium you can keep as many pieces of mail in your cell as you want (not so in maximum) and your magazines can have staples in them.
So apart from the physical surroundings and the 'comforts', another way to have more power over inmates is through fear. The more fear, the less likely for rebellion. If you have to ask 'pretty, pretty, please' for a clean set of clothing you will remain dependent, thus, more fearful. In maximum security you get two sets of clothing and you hope they have enough on clean laundry day (there are often shortages, deprivation is a powerful tool). On medium security, when you get here you are given a week's worth of clothing and access to do your own laundry several times a week. You can also get a toothbrush, toothpaste, and other supplies when you need them without asking.
But none of this is as noticeable to me as the identity of inmates on maximum versus medium. From what I can tell, based on conversations and observations, the make up of inmates who come to and stay on medium security, is whiter, less visibly queer, and less noticeably (physically or behaviourally) disabled.
In jail, if many women of colour hang out together they risk being labelled a gang, and therefore a security threat and so they stay on maximum. On top of this, a majority of guards are white and while the racism can sometimes be more subtle, the results are the same -- a disproportionate racial identity make up, with white inmates benefiting from white guards continuing the systemic racism of the prison-industrial-complex.
If you're visibly queer and find someone while you're here, chances are you'll get busted or be assumed to be breaking the 'no fooling around' rule (which I haven't actually seen written down anywhere). If you have a close friend, regardless of whether they are your lover or not, the assumption is that you're breaking rules, and, you guessed it, you are bounced back to maximum security.
Medium security is not wheelchair accessible. If you have a mental health disability that has you processed differently, need to ask a lot of questions, have highs or lows, or just generally do not fit in to the 'good prisoner' model, well, you're shit out of luck too. Stay on maximum. You're 'hard to manage'.
My time in medium security was short-lived. Ten days after being brought there I was bounced back to maximum security and placed on a misconduct for disobeying a direct order. I was ordered to go and work in the kitchen, and I refused.
I'm back on maximum with the queers, (self-identified) freaks, and the migrants. It's louder, we are locked up more often, and we can't be trusted with a fridge, but every day I witness moments where we reach out to each other in support which is in itself an act of resistance.