Every time I see a cattle transport truck on the highway I say a little prayer. I was once one of those animals.
Only I was being transported from the local police station in a van with no windows, shackled to strangers. I struggled to look out the small holes in the side of the van, and had no idea where I was or where I was going.
When I got to Vanier Centre for Women, a medium and maximum security facility in Milton, I was put on “suicide watch.” That meant 24 hours a day in a cell roughly five by seven feet.
You don’t get much on suicide watch. No mattress – just a hard metal bed. No sheets, no cooked food, no magazines, no underwear. Showers are rare.
I once went to court dirty, my naked body visible through the large armholes in the prison-issue nightgown I was given. Stains from menstrual blood covered my legs.
Suicide watch is one of the many paradoxes of prison life. You go in wanting to kill yourself and the conditions just make you want to kill yourself more.
People ask me why I was incarcerated. The answer is for nothing.
Like the majority of people behind bars in Canada, I was serving pretrial time. When all was said and done, I served 90 days and was never found guilty of anything.
Jails are places where the innocent mingle with the guilty. And the wrongfully imprisoned with murderers and rapists. Everyone goes to the same nowhere place where lawlessness prevails.
After spending 14 days on suicide watch, I was transferred to solitary confinement, a definite step up.
In solitary I got clothes, a thin, hard mattress, cooked food and an hour outside my cell each day – except when a guard called in sick or if there was a fight in the yard. Then we were locked down in our cell for 24 hours. Few books were available – Twilight and the Bible, both their own versions of cruel and unusual punishment.
People have all kinds of ideas about what goes on in jail.
Many people awaiting trial are incarcerated for long periods of time in jails like Vanier. Also known as remand facilities, they were originally designed to hold people for much shorter periods.
There is no library, gym or internet at Vanier. You cannot take a university-level course.
When I was inside, I saw street-involved people cycle in and out, often committing petty crimes to get back in. For these people, jail meant a roof over your head, three meals a day and a place to detox.
In Canada, we use places like Vanier to detain immigrants as well. In November, a 50-year-old immigrant woman died there.
The food inside is forgettable. I literally can’t remember what I ate there. It’s like everything else, a way to get the prisoners to ingest nothingness.
One inmate collected kernels of corn to construct fragile yellow flowers. They were truly beautiful. She hid them from the guards.
It took me 90 days to get out of Vanier. The difference between me and all the other inmates who remained? The ability to make bail.
Without bail, you’re in until your trial comes up and by the time you get your day in court you’re typically weary and depressed. People take immediate release in exchange for guilty pleas.
The prison system in Canada is really a large scale travesty of justice.
It incarcerates more mentally ill people than all psychiatric hospitals combined. It is a modern-day asylum.
It is a modern residential school, too. The prison system in Canada incarcerates a vastly disproportionate number of Indigenous people.
People often ask me if there truly is a better way. There is and there has been for some time. Indigenous tribal courts have operated on principles of restorative justice – for perpetrators and survivors of crime and their communities – for centuries.
Ultimately, we as a society need to acknowledge the failure of the prison system. It is a place that, at best, does nothing to reduce crime and, at worst, is where innocent people go to die.
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