“Kale, what the heck happened?” I asked. Kale rolled towards me down the prison’s wheelchair ramp, his right leg elevated.
“I broke my leg playing baseball,” he grumbled. He looked annoyed, like he had answered the same question too many times.
“No way. That was you? I heard about it. Is it true the cops stood around and did nothing?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Can you believe this place?”
This exchange, conducted on the sidewalk last week, arose from an incident on the baseball field the previous night. During rec. time, some of the men had been throwing the ball around. Kale jumped to catch a high throw. He’s a big guy, and when he landed wrong, it cracked his femur – right down the centre. The guy who told me about it said that Kale laid there shrieking for five minutes before his friends were able to drag him to the team benches. But what happened next expanded the damage from Kale’s leg to the rest of the prison.
When it became evident that Kale was not going to ‘walk it off’, one of the men – Penthouse Perry – had the sense to go for help. I’m not sure what he said to them, but it only took moments for a convoy of nine guards to arrive on the baseball diamond. One had an orange medical gurney in tow. As they arrived, their training kicked in. First they surveyed the situation for danger, or evidence of a crime. Has the offender been assaulted? Piped? Shanked? Is he ‘in a condition other than normal?’ Their initial checklist completed, they then proceeded to do nothing. Nine highly-trained, burly men stood in a circle, grinning while refusing to help, or even touch the injured prisoner. They certainly didn’t assist him onto the gurney. A cloud of peer pressure surrounded them, with each refusing to be the first to offer assistance to a “Con“. As Kale’s friends finally helped him onto the stretcher, he screamed from the pain. Penthouse Perry said that Kale’s hands had been shaking visibly, and he was pasty white. One of the guards — grinning – said, “That looks like it hurts.” On cue, three other guards snickered. Their conduct became the talk of the prisoners that week, with comments ranging from resentment to venomous hatred.
On my way to work this morning, two female staff members asked if they could speak with me for a moment. Mrs. Dent is a P.O., and Mrs. Singh is a programs officer. I know them well, and have a good working relationship with both. Mrs. Singh asked, “If you were in the program’s building, and you saw a female staff member fall down, would you help her up?”I smiled. Is this a trick question? Where’s the hidden camera? I thought. She did not return the smile.
“Yeah, of course,” I answered honestly.
“See?” Mrs. Dent interjected. “I told you, Ranjit. Not everyone is that way.” Mrs. Singh then explained to me how three days prior, while exiting her office, she had slipped, landing on her knees with an audible crack. As she lay there mewling in pain, twenty young prisoners had callously stood by. No one asked if she was alright. No one offered a hand. Most stood there staring, and some even chuckled at her mishap. I should mention that Mrs. Singh is an attractive Indo-Canadian who typically dresses in fashionable, well arranged outfits. If her collapse had occurred in any local mall, she would have had to beat back all the male hands offering assistance. Without doubt, some of those hands would have belonged to the men who laughed at her misfortune in here. As she told her story, I looked down at the sidewalk, shaking my head from side to side in a silent message of shame. “I’m sorry that happened to you, Mrs. Singh. I’m embarrassed for us all,” I said. She could not know that “all” included the guards that had conducted themselves so shamefully the night of Kale’s injury. Before continuing my march to work, I posed a rhetorical question: “It makes you wonder what the heck this place is, doesn’t it?”
In Canada, incarcerating a man costs $101,000 per year. In the U.S., the same man in the same prison costs $24,000. The 300-percent mark-up is due to staff wages, and correctional program budgets. In Canada, base salary for a walk-off-the-street COI is $53,000. The year-over-year increase for that figure is steep. $72,000 salaries for a guard are the norm. Taxpayers bear this burden because they trust their correctional system to ensure public safety, humane treatment of prisoners, and that those entering as criminals will exit as pro-social citizens. Considering the $2.3-billion-per-year price tag, it’s a realistic expectation.
Nevertheless, in any community, there is an element that weighs more than gobs of cash. That element is culture. Since Canada’s first prison opened in 1835, both keepers and kept have worked hard to sustain an “us vs. them” culture. Recently, there have been determined attempts to change that culture. But any progress made in one camp is often met by regression in the other. Why? “Because so few people — including those who support it financially — know what prison really is, or is supposed to be.” This vacuum of understanding creates a perfect breeding ground for propaganda. It is the propaganda surrounding prison that most validates the toxic ‘guard vs prisoner’ philosophy. ?The propaganda that prisoners are scum, and guards are pigs. ?The propaganda that prisoners should suffer as much as possible. ?The propaganda that keepers and kept are enemies in a war-zone of crime. ?Until that fog of propaganda is burned off, Canada’s high-priced of healing will only be houses of hurt. ?Maybe I can help.