“They count us like diamonds and treat us like crap,” the leathery con next to me in the holding cell said to no one in particular.
My day had started early, with the telltale clang of an opening cell door. A tinny speaker imbedded the ceiling told me to “est demande au bureau.” When I reported to the guard’s office, I was informed — in a mish-mash of both of Canada’s official languages — that I would be continuing the journey I had begun on the west coast five days prior. Good news feels the same in any language, and as I headed off to pack my cell contents I sensed the smile swallowing my face. It had been an interesting few days, meeting Stretch and seeing Scary Barry again. But when I started planning a transfer to this region more than a year ago, Archambault had not been on my top-five list of destination locales. Not even the top ten. Though designated a medium security pen, Archambault is defacto a max. It has few — if any — of the restorative justice type programs that I came to Quebec looking for. Though my brief stopover at the notorious Quebec landmark had been enlightening, I was glad to be shown the exit door so quickly.
“Hey copper, there’s more than twelve of us in here. You’ll need to take off your shoes if you want to count,” one of the Young Turks on the bench across from me chimed in. We all chuckled in conspiracy.
Some things never change, I thought. I’ve been in prison in three countries, and it’s always the same: everyone — and everything has a job to do. Doors clang, guards count, and cons heckle. While going to prison may be an unnerving experience, once you get here, things that would previously have shocked you become the norm. Like being handcuffed, shackled, and tossed into a 7 x 12 foot steel cage with nine other rowdy cons, before civilized society has even had breakfast. What to outsiders might look like a scene from Papillon is just part of the workaday routine for those of us in the cage — and those doing the counting.
“Next,” said the boyish guard. His stony-faced appearance felt artificial. Maybe it was the single yellow epaulet on the shoulder of his navy-blue uniform — loudly identifying his as a relative newcomer to Corrections. Too new to have such a jaded look. Or maybe it was his eyes. It’s hard to look menacing when your eyes are laughing. This young officer had laughing eyes. I pulled myself to my feet and shuffled towards the cage door. Young happy-eyes signaled me to stop while his partner, mixed-martial-arts eyes, lifted my parka to check that the belly chain attached to may handcuffs was secure. He then checked my shackles. Content that the hardware was at least painful, if not clot-causing, he grabbed by my jacket and pulled me towards an open doorway.
From the outside, the bus looked like an RV from the movie Mad Max. The only window with glass in it was the driver’s. Is that armor plating? I wondered, looking at the slabs of steel covering the rest. I struggled up the stairs and into the vehicle. If the outside looked battle-ready, the interior looked like it had been designed for the Holocaust. Down both sides of a lightless centre aisle were individual cages, sheathed in tight steel grating. Each held two prisoners though it looked like they’d been jammed in by a Japanese subway attendant. No need for seatbelts in there, I thought. If we did have an accident, all they would find is human strips, like cheese through a grater.
“In the back,” the disinterested driver said to me with a nod of his head. I looked into the blackness and, as my eyes acclimated, saw that a cage door at the very back of the bus was open. Of course, I thought. As I hobbled towards it, flashbacks of my first teenage horror movie popped into my brain. I hoped that my seatmate wouldn’t be wearing a blood-spattered hockey-mask and ripped coveralls. Thankfully, that fear never materialized. When I reached the cage it was empty and amazingly spacious. Because of its orientation at the back of the bus, it had been designed for four passengers. It was also the only spot from which a prisoner could see out the driver?s window. Whatever lay ahead this day, I would be traveling a comparative luxury. I looked up and said thanks.
Canada is so big that its correctional service had to be divided into five regions. Each of the regions has a number of prisons ranging from max. to community-based minimums. Of course, it made economic — and political — sense to build them in relative proximity to each other. But in Canada, “relative proximity” can cover as much real estate as the average European country. Usually, the transfer of prisoners from central reception to their mother institution is an all day affair — with many stops along the way. In the pen, this ride-from-hell is universally known as the milk run. But as the bus finally lurched ahead and the highway through he driver’s window opened in front of us, the smell of an overripe bologna sandwich emanating from some dark corner was crowded out by the one thought on my mind: I’m on my way.