my new unit is usually for people who haven't been convicted and/or sentenced yet, so every weekday morning a few people are woken up early for court. a few weeks ago i was one of them! i had been asked to testify at a G20-related preliminary inquiry, the subpoena and the judge's order had been delivered to the jail, and i was prepared for a long, cold day in the court cells of toronto's Old City Hall. going to court is a big part of life at Vanier for many inmates so i thought you might be interested in what it's like.
a guard comes by to wake us up at 5am. not all guards, or inmates, make an effort to be quiet so often other people end up getting woken up too which makes for some sleepy-grumpy bathroom encounters. we have about half an hour to get ready; showers are not permitted. having gone to court a few times back in 2010 when i was detained pending bail i knew we'd be eating breakfast down in the cells in Admissions and Discharge ( A + D ) and that our regular trays (even our special diet trays) wouldn't be available. people hate going to court on tuesdays and thursdays because we miss out on pancakes and porridge and just get bread and cereal. knowing there wouldn't be any soy milk for mine and that i would be hungry all day, i scarfed down a couple of rice cakes with peanut butter, jam and banana. it's all about being prepared! I'D EVEN PRE-TRADED for dinner vegetables and organized for someone to collect them for me - we wouldn't be getting special diet trays at dinner either. too bad for people with serious medical food needs, i guess.
one (more) thing about being on Unit 4 is that when you go to court you can leave everything in your room, a guard locks your door to prevent theft and when you get back it's just as you left it. back on maximum security i would have had to pack everything - including sheets, blankets and clothes - into a property bag because upon return there'd be no guarantees i'd go back to the same range let alone the same cell. people who go to court a lot on Unit 2 end up moving around a lot, which i imagine must be pretty stressful. it takes awhile to get used to new people and different range cultures and dynamics.
we're down at A + D by 6 am. it's always been a mystery to me why they need us there so early - the wagons won't arrive until at least 7:30. we chat a bit (i catch up with some folks from 2F, which is nice), breakfast comes (i munch on dry cereal), some people go back to sleep on the cold concrete benches, others read their little prison issue bibles. the only reading material we can bring to court is religious stuff - i'm kicking myself for not thinking ahead and getting my hands on a copy of the koran, which i've never read. even the bible would have been better than nothing. [sigh, preparedness fail]. while we wait a couple of people change into their street clothes - that's allowed as long as you let the A+D guards know in advance so they can have your stuff ready. it's a well known fact that people already in custody are more likely to be convicted so the hope is that you can fare a little better if at least you're not in institutional clothes. the long wait gives people the opportunity to hide stuff on and in their person: coffee, peanut butter, sugar, pencils, anything to make them a bit less hungry or bored all day. it's tricky and takes some creativity because some of the guards are very enthusiastic about the pre-boarding pat-down search. it's also somewhat entertaining to watch, but mostly we sit in a cold, tired, lightly stunned silence. no doubt we're all wondering why we were rushed out of bed and off the unit only to sit around for an hour and a half. . . as always, jail is a lot of hurry up and wait.
finally the vehicles start to arrive, the two pregnant women in the cell are taken in a van with real seats because the wagon isn't considered safe for them. personally, i think it's very unsafe for anyone - we're travelling along the 401 in a metal box with no seat belts and our hands cuffed together. sometimes in the big compartments that fit groups of people we're even cuffed to each other. each compartment is locked and unlocked from the outside with a key - maybe there's an emergency "unlock all doors" button in the cab but somehow i doubt it. we're completely trapped without the use of our hands (and people being transported to courthouses out of toronto by the OPP have their feet shackled too). to top it all off, you can't see out of the toronto wagon windows which only increases the feeling of helplessness. every time i'm in one i breathe deeply and try not to think about drowning, suffocating, bleeding to death or being burned alive in some horrible highway accident all because society's safety from me is considered more important than my own.
at some point this mild feeling of panic and claustrophobia gets pushed aside by the familiar need to piss and stress about being prevented from doing so. i try to lay down and sleep so i don't have to think about it, but it's impossible. every stop makes me lurch forward and almost fall off the slippery metal bench; every turn makes me slide to one end or the other of the compartment. turns are good though because they mean we're off the highway and in the city, finally. this trip was long, about two hours, due to the ridiculous commuter traffic (honestly, people, take a bus! or AT LEAST CARPOOL. . .) so by the time we got to toronto i was seriously considering the pros and cons of pissing on the floor and wondering if that could actually be done in handcuffs. people have really had to do that before - just one more degrading and humiliating moment in custody i guess.
after our drop-off at superior court we arrive at old city hall at 10 am. the wagon continues on to college park and the three of us are put in a freezing cold cell with an even more freezing cold metal toilet and given a Styrofoam cup. and then we wait.
and we wait. and wait. and then, for variety, we wait some more.
luckily the walls are covered in graffiti which provides some distraction. i read about who just got bail, who was sentenced to what. who loves who, who loves who FOREVER, "FUCK THE POLICE" is popular, obviously, as is "FREEDOM IS A MUST". i learn who is a rat, a goof, a snitch. who can go and fuck what. there are messages from one prisoner to another, and pictures of animals. there is anger, frustration, desperation: "LET ME OUT!"; "i'm sick of this shit i retire." and there are conversations, my favourite is this one:
- ____ ______ is a cock sucking fag.
- yeah well he saved my ass so who cares? if he's a fag? like, really, is that important to you?
a small voice of reason, a glimmer of solidarity.
other than reading the walls our options are pacing, chatting, working out, and the classic cop-shop/courthouse dilemma: try to sleep and get even colder or stay awake for warmth but be horribly bored. i'm kicking myself again for not stuffing an envelope full of reading material, blank paper and puzzles and hoping the guards would assume it was legit documentation from my lawyer. preparedness fail, part two.
eventually lunch time roles around. we ate breakfast at 6am instead of the usual 7:30, and now it's 1pm - an hour and a half past our usual lunch time. i've been on Vanier schedule since january and am at this point fully institutionalized. so i'm hungry. my veganism goes out the window and i gladly take a cheese sandwich (the other option is tuna). i try to make it last but i fail, i wash it down with some watered down grape drink, and that's lunch. i wish i'd risked it and packed some peanut butter but my inner cop can be quiet persuasive in here. anyway a bit later a guard comes around with extra sandwiches so we all get another.
the afternoon drags on. i'm so tired and cold. i've slept off and on and my brain is fuzzy. this is not a very good state to be in on the witness stand! i'm starting to wonder if i'll ever be called and then, at last, i am.
at old city hall there are not back entrances to the courtroom for people in custody so i'm led, handcuffed, through the building. it's like stepping into another universe and things feel strange and disjointed for a moment. all around me people are doing normal things: talking on cellphones, buying and selling coffee, wearing things other than green tracksuits and corrections uniforms. you can't tell at first glance who's in charge of who, and most people can leave the building whenever they feel like it. well hello there real world! how i've missed you. . .
as i'm escorted into the courtroom i see people i know. this is weird because for the past eight months i've never seen more than two friends at a time and, except for the few times they've been lawyers, we've always been separated by glass and talking over a phone. i can't talk to the folks in the courtroom but we smile at each other, which is enough.
as it turns out it's not my turn after all. they've put another witness on the stand instead: john vandenheuvel, OPP, head of the investigation into me and my friends. i hope he's being made to squirm but sadly i don't get to watch because i'm to be taken back to the cell. the disorganization and inefficiency is, as always, staggering. how often i've said it: if hospitals were run like courthouses everyone would be dead. i don't mind the time though because outside of the cellblock the building is warm so as far as i'm concerned the more time spent there the better.
later on i do take the stand for real. it's short, which is good because i find testifying stressful. but it's a long day of bored cold hunger for something that takes five minutes. not that that's at all unusual - a lot of people get dragged in to court for no reason every day, knowing full well their case will be remanded to another day or that they don't have a surety and won't be granted bail and so will be returning to jail at the end of it. everyone involved knows that nothing will happen, but everyone has to show up. why can't a quick call be made to the jail? "don't bother bringing inmate x, we're not ready"? why can't they appear by video court instead? people do that every day, the system is already in place. it's no wonder the courts are so backlogged that it can takes years just to get a trial - years that are increasingly spent in custody. the whole thing would be laughable if it didn't have such a terrible effect on the lives of a few people and their loved ones. not to mention people on the outside who could put the money the state wastes on the "justice” system to better use (food, shelter, healthcare and education come to mind).
the day ends and now we’re waiting for the wagons. as it gets later and later we start to hope they won't come before 6pm (dinner time) so we can have a sandwich. they come at 5:50. figures. the ride home is shorter, and uneventful although for some reason i feel slightly car sick this time. back at the jail we're put in an A+D cell and given dinner. it's sausages, so i eat bread and margarine, carrots and pineapple. it's delicious. the processing takes forever. everyone has to be strip-searched; the new arrivals need to do an intake, get a TB shot and their prison clothes, and get checked out by the nurse. no attempt is made to search the regulars first and get us back to our units. more importantly, no attempt is made to prioritize those who have to return to court in the morning, so that they can get to their unit in time to use the phone. that phone call could mean the difference between having a surety in court the next day or not; it could be someone's only opportunity to get a lawyer, or talk to their kids, or make sure someone is going to feed and walk their dog. the guards don't care about things like that - things are done on their schedule, at their convenience. so we don't get to our units until 9pm, just in time to get sent to our rooms on Unit 4 and well past the 7:30 lock-up on Unit 2.
there are people who go to court day after day. if they need a special diet they don't eat properly. if they're on Unit 2 they don't have any access to phone or shower; if they're on Unit 4 there is some access due to the later bedtime but it's still severely limited. everyday these people will be tired and hungry; everyday they've spend hours freezing in a court cell and bouncing around in a wagon. some trials take days, some take months - can you imagine keeping a schedule like that for months on end? regardless of your perspective on crime and punishment i'm sure you agree that people deserve to be treated decently while their case is being dealt with.
Thank you for reading this story…
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