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Bored but not broken: A series of unfortunate events

Saturday, March 17

The past few days have been the worst yet. Since I got here, I've been putting a lot of effort into a few specific things: my health, a daily routine, responding to mail, working on the blog and other projects. Those things have been keeping me pretty grounded and okay. And now, one by one, they have all been dealt some pretty serious blows.

First, I got sick. I probably brought this upon myself by writing in a couple of letters how crappy it would be to get sick in here. "Knock on cardboard," I joked, "Knock on paper bag, that hasn't happened yet." Hah hah. A few days later I come down with the unit 2F cold, waking up in the middle of the night with a headache I could feel behind my eyes, in my ears and into my teeth.

Sigh, should have knocked on pencil I guess. Anyway, as predicted, being sick in here is really not fun. There is no getting away from the noise of 30 people plus one blaring television, for one thing. And you can't just ask for painkillers when you need them. The nurse won't even give out over-the-counter cough syrup. Someone requested something for a cold once.

"What did she say?" I asked.

"She said 'stay sick, bitch.'"

Heh. I am sure that's not what she really said, but it does seem to be the attitude around here at times. I hope I don't ever come down with anything serious. Knock on pencil.

At the same time I got sick, I got a new cellie. She is great, really nice, but she goes to bed very late and doesn't sleep well. The beds are a couple of feet apart and we're locked in a small space with a light on all night. That means I also go to bed very late and don't sleep well, which means I don't get up early, which means I don't do the stretch, and workout routine before breakfast.  

On March 15, while I was 1) sick and 2) dealing with this new not really sleeping thing, there was a search. The general consensus on the range (which does not make it true) was that it was because a couple of inmates had been caught smoking or about to smoke something in their cell the night before. So, despite the fact that we had all been hauled off the range a week ago for a strip search while guards searched our cells, we had to do it all over again.

"Ladies! Up against the wall, you're going out."

There is much grumbling, but it turns to happy chatter once we realize it's nice outside and remember that the yard hadn't been called that morning. Most of us make a beeline for the corner of the yard furthest from the door, hoping to go in last. Due to the splitting headache, I pass on the customary hand-stand-against-the-wall contest (get a bunch of girls together and eventually there will be gymnastics) and close my eyes and soak up the sun instead. Searches are a pain but at least we get yard today!

Eventually it's my turn and I have to go in. The guard who strip searches me looks like it's the last thing in the world she wants to be doing and, frankly, I can relate. After the search I join the rest of 2F in a program room that looks suspiciously like a grade school classroom, and we wait, and wait . . . and wait. It's getting hot and people are getting cranky -- it's taking forever. What are they doing to our stuff in there? It's been so long that the guard at the door takes pity on us and asks if we want to go back outside. Yes indeed, we certainly do.

So we go outside to wait for more, people's hopes of squeezing in that last phone call before dinner fading along with the sunshine. And then:

"Hiscocks!" (Oh, shit).

Two white shirts are waiting for me inside. The male speaks:

"Remember that conversation we had last week?"

"Yep, you told me to keep no more than a week's worth of letters, 50-60. I did that, and I sent a bunch of stuff to my property."

He denies that this is what he said. It is, in fact, what he said.

"You're going to go up there and get rid of most of your stuff. Here are the guidelines for what you can keep."

He hands me a piece of paper.  This is what's on it:

Approved cell contents:

-Health and beauty aids as posted in each wing.
-Books/magazines and photographs (up to a maximum of six, none of which may be of that or any other inmate in the facility) as posted in each wing
-Games as posted in each wing.
-Stationary as posted in each wing.
-It should be noted that due to ongoing security concerns these items and allowable amounts may be amended.
-All excess items will be considered to be contraband and will be removed. Also, containers (eg. shampoo bottles, etc.) that have been used to hold something other than the printed contents will be considered to be contraband.
-Any contraband items that have been removed from a cell will be noted on a search report and/or occurrence report.  
-Clothing as designated by the unit rules for each area.

None of this is very useful since I am being escorted straight to my cell by a guard, and -- obviously -- that is not where the "unit rules as posted in each wing" are posted. But the paper does have one interesting piece of information, right at the top:

Policy

"In an effort to minimize the amount of personal property or items that sometimes accumulate in inmates' cells and to make searching of inmates' cells more expedient, the following is a list of approved cell contents."

(As in, the highly suspect "fire hazard" story I've previously been given is quite possibly bullshit. In any case, it's not mentioned here. They just want easier searches.)

The white shirt made sure to let me know that "The reason we're singling you out is that on this entire unit you have the most stuff." Those of you who know me and have seen the state of my home and/or storage locker know, and I don't deny that this could be true. In this case, however, it's not.

A lot of people here have a lot of stuff -- I shared a cell briefly with a woman who had at least 20 books. But they were religious, and the articles in my room and the pages of notes and drafts I'm working on are political. The jail might want me to sit around playing cards and watching mindless television all day but I prefer to be more productive with my time. Is this a problem? Apparently so.

We get to my cell. It's a mess, it looks like there's been a break and enter which I guess there sort of has. Letters have been ripped from envelopes and are all over the bed. Papers that were neatly organized into folders are strewn about randomly, notes and drafts for different projects are all mixed up (they all look the same: pencil on lined paper). Articles sent in by friends, legal documents, blank paper -- everything is everywhere.

Now let's be clear: everything I own in here (including clothes, books, toiletries, Scrabble) can fit on a small shelf and in a Tupperware container about the size of a banker's box, with room to spare. We're not talking about a lot of stuff here. But it's everything I have and everything I have to do. Needless to say I'm slightly devastated; the guard is unmoved.

"Keep only what you really need, put the rest in these property envelopes. (Yes, well, that would have been a lot easier if you hadn't mixed everything all up, now wouldn't it?)

I'm overwhelmed by the chaos, and very cognisant of all the people waiting to be let back inside -- waiting only for me to be done. It's my fault they're still out there. It's faulty logic: I know we don't blame the black bloc for police violence; I can't blame the inmates who were caught last night for what is happening to me because of this search; I shouldn't blame myself for what the guards did to my cell. 

But still, I can't help feeling that the amount of time it's taking is all my fault so I rush. It doesn't help that the guard is standing in the doorway watching -- she's being very nice about the whole situation but she's stressing me out. So I throw stuff into envelopes kind of randomly -- it's hard to pay attention because I am shaking with helpless rage and frustration at the stupidity of all of this -- and I realize later that some really important things are missing.

Did the guards take them without telling me (that's not allowed) or did I mistakenly put them into the property envelopes? Only one way to find out: I ask if I can take a quick look through the envelopes before they're taken to property.

The first answer is "I don't see why not, they're still sitting on the desk." Then, five minutes later: "You're going to have to fill out a request form with exactly what's missing."

Sigh, how very efficient. and how very unlikely to actually work.

I fill out the form anyway.

"This is what I am missing from the search: at least 20 paid for stamped envelopes (Canadian, international and U.S.) and a green folder from the social worker containing work in progress and paperwork from my lawyer. I know exactly what these things look like so it would be easiest if you gave me 15 minutes with the property envelopes I hastily assembled on March 15. Thanks :)"

Later on, the male white shirt from before comes in with the request form, to tell me that the guy who can deal with me is away until tomorrow, and this might all take some time. It's amazing how simple things can be made complicated here.

It's hard to explain why this has all been so difficult. I'm not a particularly emotional person, but that night, I found myself struggling not to cry at the table and eventually I just had to find a corner away from the masses. It's embarrassing because what do I really have to cry about?

Compared to the stories I hear every day on the range, my life is wonderful -- even in here. I guess clinging to a predictable routine gave me some sense of control, making sure I answered all my mail made me feel like I am still part of a community, and having projects to work on made me feel less useless in here. It makes sense that in control, connected and valuable is not how our jailers want us to feel.

I have to admit that I feel targeted. I try to keep the-world-is-against-me feelings in check in this place because that could really get out of hand. I try to give the people who work here the benefit of the doubt, so I tell myself that maybe it wasn't political, maybe I need to calm down with conspiracy theories. Sure, there are other people with a lot of stuff in their cells that didn't get treated like this; sure, I'm still on maximum security for no good reason, but . . .

But in fact it is political. this morning the female white shirt involved in the search went into my cell. I assume she's checking that I got rid of enough stuff, which I definitely did. She calls me in. Oh for fucks sakes, what now? She's got a problem with the political prisoner calender page up on my wall.   

"This has to go into your property."

"Why?"

"Because of the message. it's the anarchy symbol."

"There's no circle a on here." (The picture is a pile of shoes with a pair of boots standing out conspicuously). 

"It's the message it sends. Send it to your property."

This is the text: "With undercover agents, infiltrators and informants/ the state tries to undermine our movements/ because we resist, because we are strong." Shockingly subversive, isn't it? This is how threatening our movements are to power.

Tuesday, March 20

Well, it's been a few days now and I'm over it. I'm not sick anymore, my sleepless nights have ended because my cellie moved to minimum security, and I had two really nice visits. I put up a beautiful poem (thanks Adam!) that I'd managed to salvage from the wreckage, called Imagine the angels of bread by Martin Espada. Here's my favourite part:

This is the year that those
who swim the border's undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side.

Isn't that an amazing image? I read the poem every morning to give myself hope for what the world could be. And I've learned my lesson from this latest bout of bullshit:

1) Don't expect that behaving reasonably in here means I will be treated reasonably in return;
2) Be flexible! Don't rely on one routine that I'll never be able to completely control;
3) Don't be so attached to things -- they can and probably will be taken away.

Sunday, March 25

On March 21, I get called out of afternoon lockup.

"What have I done now?" I ask the guard, and he replies:

"It's hard to know around here sometimes."

Waiting for me in a little room just outside the range is the white shirt who didn't like the message of the political prisoner calender, and the deputy superintendent, who is caught a bit off-guard when she introduces herself and I stick out my hand. (Why did I shake a jailer's hand? No idea. Force of habit, I guess. And I haven't lost the expectation of being someone's equal, even in here).

She tells me that tomorrow she'll arrange for me to look through the things I lost to the search. This is very exciting, and also completely unexpected -- I really didn't think they'd bother dealing with my request.

The next day she's stuck in meetings so it doesn't happen. I know how that feels, too many meetings, poor woman. But what I wouldn't give for a meeting to go to right now!

On March 23, it actually happens. I'm brought to a small room and all of the property envelopes are brought in with me, along with a pile of mail I was never given with the "received on" stamps dating back to February 28. A couple of the letter are addressed to Leah -- apparently our mail is read by the same security people. I'm told I can look at them but not keep the three magazines that were sent to me: The Peak's criminalization of dissent issue (vol. 51, issue 4), the March/April 2012 issues of The Dominion (#81) and the January/February 2012 issue of Briarpatch (vol. 41 #1).

"Why can't I have them?"

"Because we don't want them being passed on to other inmates. You can't perpetuate an opinion. (It's okay to share the Globe and Mail, but apparently progressive ideas are to be kept in check).

I flip through the Briarpatch.

"What's wrong with this one?"

She looks through it, seems unsure.

"It's the discretion of the superintendent. She's not willing at this point to allow it in your cell."

"I'd like a reason, preferably in writing, why I can't have this."

She leaves and comes back.

"She doesn't want to give you a reason at this time." (Indeed. She hasn't thought of one that sounds remotely reasonable yet, no doubt).

I look at the pile of stuff from the search, and notice that the green folder I had asked about is not in a property envelope. I'd been starting to suspect it wasn't actually in my cell when I was brought in to clean up, because despite my angry, slightly shell-shocked state, I'm pretty sure I would have noticed putting something that green, that big and that important into property.

"Why is this not in the property envelope?"

"Some things were placed in there for security to review."

And there we have it. The truth comes out. Security went through things that I was told to send to my property "Because there was too much stuff in my cell." Some questions remain, among them:

1) Did security take the folder before or after I cleaned up the room?
2) What else did they look through?
3) Was everything returned?
4) Was the entire search a cover for security to go through my stuff . . . ? (See, there go the conspiracy theories, getting out of hand again).

So, now that it's all over, I have the stuff back that I needed and my reactions to the entire fiasco seem, in hindsight, overly dramatic. But it wouldn't be fair to share my experiences with you through the lenses of rationality and perspective, would it? It would make me look better but it wouldn't be real.

One last thing: I was forced to store a lot of letters that I hadn't had a chance to respond to yet. If you've been expecting a letter from me and haven't received one, that's why. To check to see if I've mailed you something, or if I received anything from you you can email mandyjailmail@gmail.com

I'm really sorry about this -- basically, you're all so amazing and write me so much that I can't keep up!  I'm going to try harder to stay on top of it.

Love (and quite a lot of rage this time),
mandy :)

 

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