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The ABCs of unit two

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Unit two is a maximum security section of Vanier Centre for Women, where everyone starts out but many don't stay for long. It's the only section of which I have any experience. There are six different wings, or ranges, on the unit: 2A, 2B, 2C, 2D, 2E, 2F. A, B, F wings are general population. Inmates can be bounced from one to the other because for all intents and purposes they are interchangeable, aside from the fact that 2B is bigger and has single cells which means that one person has to sleep on a mattress on the floor. Because of the overcrowding 2B tends to be on lockdown more often than A or F wing. I also hear that each gen pop range has a distinct culture -- for example Leah (2A) is generally considered to be rowdier than mine (2F) and 2B is said to be dirtier.

I am slowly learning about the other three wings by piecing together information from inmates who have spent time in them. Unit 2C is segregation -- the hole. 2E is intensive management and treatment (IMAT) and protective custody (PC). I don't know what 2D is called, but it's where inmates are taken for psychiatric analysis and it's much more restrictive than 2E.

Claire McKenzie was a 2F inmate when she was released recently, but during her time here she also experienced life on 2D and 2E. I asked her if she would like to write about it, and the rest of this post is hers. Here and there, with her consent, I have added in some information that I thought might be useful.

[Mandy's comments are italicized in Claire's story]

Thanks very much to Claire for sharing her story.

Claire McKenzie's jail story

It was around 7 a.m. on my third day in jail, when I found out that insulting a regular 'crackhead' inmate was not to be done. She came over to me and decided to head-butt me and then punch me in the face. All because I said to a toothless 'crackhead' that she was too ugly for dentures. Now, my lip was split open to the point I needed medical attention.

I was taken out of the cell and put into one by myself and received no medical care. I went to court as normal but my lip was split into two. While I was at court one nice court officer was kind enough to give me an ice pack. It was around 9 p.m. when I returned to Vanier and a nurse saw me and insisted to a guard that I was in need of a hospital for stitches. I was taken by two guards to the Milton hospital in wrists and ankle shackles. One guard stayed close by while they stitched up my lip, viewing the gruesome sight of blood everywhere. I was taken back to the jail and put into a cell in the general population, back on unit 2 but on a different range this time.

The next morning right after breakfast I was out on the IMAT range. A white shirt told me it was because I'd pissed somebody off. IMAT is for people with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and so on. It is also where people go who are of a quieter nature, who have trouble living on the regular ranges. I immediately became emotional and started to cry. However I felt safer so I decided to clean down my room and get settled in.

IMAT inmates share until 2E with protective custody inmates -- their cells are on the main floor while PC cells are on the upper. Because IMAT and PC cannot be out on the range at the same time, they alternate lock-downs: one day one group is allowed out from 9-11 a.m. and the other from 2-4:30 p.m. and 6-7:30 p.m., and the next day they switch. Everyone eats in their cells and all cells are singles.

A few months after I arrived on IMAT I was using the phone when the guard said it was time for lockdown. I was discussing a situation where I was raped and had reported it to the police, and now they were trying to contact me. I said this to the guard and his response was "who cares about what happened to you." Feeling hurt I threw my pencil crayons at him. He tried to grab me and I turned away and donkey-kicked him. Then he gained control and took me off the unit and out into the hallway rotunda. Suddenly, he yanked my arm and twisted it until the muscle was pulled and I was in extreme pain. They carried me as I blacked out upside down into segregation.

Segregation, a.k.a. "the hole" is unit 2C. It's on the far side of the unit from F wing where I live, directly behind the panopticon bubble that sits in the middle. So I've never seen it. I've heard about it though: lockdown all the time, no paper or pencils, sometimes not even a book or sometimes only the Bible, no mattress to sit on during the day, no phone access, nobody to talk to. I hope I never go there! But I am going to try to collect some information and stories about it for a future post.

The next morning I was back on IMAT with a badly bruised arm, and my possessions had been thrown out into the garbage. A couple of days later feeling very depressed, I tried to stab my chest with a pencil. I called on the emergency button for help. Three guards came and I was taken by force to the psychiatric analysis section of the jail, unit 2D.

I can see into this wing when I get taken to a visit or we go to yard. It looks grim. There is a row of cells on either side of the range, which has no tables because the people are never out on it. I have never seen any inmates, just closed doors. it looks oppressive to me, like a jail on TV or an old-fashioned mental institution -- not like a high school cafeteria which is what the gen pop wing looks like most of the time. There is one benefit: D-wingers have their own yard, which I hear is much nicer than the concrete box the rest of us have to use. They go out to yard one at a time.

On this unit the inmates are on lockdown all day and night. We eat in our cells. I was allowed out of my room for a shower every day and was granted yard time also. Sometimes we could watch TV for 20 minutes alone in the TV room. I stayed on this range for approximately two months. To keep sane, I drew many pictures, using National Geographic magazines for ideas, and I got quite good at it. I slept a lot, and wrote letters to my family. I also wrote sermons and read them aloud to the other inmates who could hear me through the walls. I cleaned, using underwear and the sharp tinfoil edges of jam lids to get between the tiles. I also did yoga while outside at yard and fed a nest of baby birds. I could see out my window where part of the frosting had been scratched off, so I made lists of the trucks I saw going by on the highway. I also made a list of companies who sold stuff to the jail (jam, coffee, condiments, etc.) and their addresses. After cleaning three cells that were in desperate need of it, I received extra food and some kindness from some of the guards. The guards are different on D-wing -- some would hang out and chat for 20 minutes at a time.

I spoke with the jail psychiatrist and asked if I could return to the IMAT range. The nurses took some convincing on my part but in the summer of 2011 I was placed back there. I now had friends and was quite famous with the upstairs PC inmates for my 'donkey-kick' to the guard.

Sharing a range means that you alternate leisure time out of your cell, so there was regular lockdown for us totalling about three days a week. After my total lockdown on D-range being on IMAT was a piece of cake. One perk that the IMAT's exclusively get to enjoy is the Elizabeth Fry Saturday visits once a month. With this visit we got pop, cookies and fresh fruit, as well as the use of markers and stickers to decorate pictures to send to our family and friends. Also once a week we were invited to get out of our cells and meet as a group for approximately an hour and a half to colour pictures, play Pictionary or to discuss problems with addictions.

On the day of 11, 11, 2011 I turned 35 and had now been in jail for 8 months on four counts of assault on a police officer, one count of aggravated assault and one count of assault with a weapon.

Unfortunately on my birthday I was stood up by my mother. A couple of days later I was pulled from the unit and was informed that my mother was sick with pneumonia. The guard asked me whether or not my sister and I were close as she then told me that she had called the jail to tell me of my mother's condition. I was permitted to call the hospital. I got no response, so I held on to my hopes for another day. Two days later the social worker came to see me, and gratefully I spoke to my mom and found out she was very sick and needed more tests. Later that week my sister came to visit me, to see me for my birthday and tell me my mother's situation. My mother was being moved to Mount Sinai for more tests and my sister would be back to visit to keep me posted. On her next visit my sister informed me that my mother was sick with cancer and that chemotherapy was needed to fight off a rare disease called autoimmune disease. I met with a Catholic deacon that same week. I cried out all my fears, worries, and anger during his visit. I was comforted by his kind words and patient listening. The visit was weirdly timed and I wonder about who had arranged the visit because I had not put in a request.

Christmas was on its way and so was my big trial. I tried to stay strong and walked every day to help ease my mind. After a very humiliating and stressful trial I was found guilty of both the aggravated assault and the assault with a weapon. Feeling very disappointed I sought the care and concern of an anxiety struck ex-crackhead to help sort out my troubles. Feeling fearful and anxious over possible pen time I attended my sentencing in January 2012. Lucky for me the judge counted my pre-trial custody of nine months and gave me an addition five months in Vanier. So the total sentence was 14 months but with the two-thirds a jail term of one year and two weeks.

It was still January when I found myself feeling isolated from normal interaction, and stressed from IMAT prisoners with more serious mental health issues. My close friend would soon be released after 10 months for a charge of robbery. I spoke with her and my social worker about my desire to be reconnected with the general population. The next day, a meeting was held with the IMAT nurses, guards and social worker and my case was presented. My request was approved and I was on my way to the general population. I had to say goodbye to having my own room and also to my good friend. I said hello to my new roommate and no more regular lock-downs. I blended in well with the inmates on 2F and even sang a lead part during a competition between 2A, 2B and 2F for a Sunday movie.

I met with the deacon once again to privately discuss my mother's condition and chemotherapy progress. I also asked him questions on subjects such as reincarnation and life after death. I briefly met with my new social worker and was continuing to adapt to the "normal" atmosphere but I started to want more so I applied for a job as a laundry worker. I was not hired until a couple of workers had received a misconduct and been relieved from their job. I felt an increased sense of self-confidence and also more mental stimulation from my actions on the job. I got in contact with Elizabeth Fry's halfway house representative from Brampton and Toronto Unfortunately Brampton's location is too far from my family so I wanted to be put on Toronto's wait list. Sadly, I was spoken to very rudely and treated poorly by the Toronto rep and decided that a shelter would hopefully be less stressful.

This was originally published on Bored but not broken.

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