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Privilege and conflict at the CNCC

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The Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC) is a prison where it is practically impossible to discern who is in charge. The CNCC is also a prison characterized by the arbitrary abuse of authority by various levels of staff throughout the institution. And though the abuses may often be subtle, they do seem to be pervasive.

The struggle I’ve engaged in to try and get access to quality reading material is a perfect example of this dynamic. But that drama is still playing out and therefore is a story best left for another day. Today, while my memory is still fresh, I am writing about my brief stint on the “education range” before I was sent back to unit five. I was kicked off of unit six for making a formal complaint about the behaviour of the guards. It seems we are not supposed to do that.

On August 1 along with eight others I was transferred from unit five to unit six, the education and work ranges. When we arrived we were sat down by a pair of guards and delivered an infantilizing lecture about how unit six is the “lowest security” unit in this maximum security prison. We were told to consider ourselves “privileged” just to be there.

After being told how lucky we should feel, and that the guards on this unit are supposedly “more mature” than on others, we were led to our respective ranges to get settled in our new cells.

On August 5, I was kicked off of unit six for allegedly having a “conflict of interest” with the guards. That conflict was constituted by merely making a formal complaint about “dishonesty, rudeness and the arbitrary abuse of authority” that I witnessed and experienced from the guards on unit six. Filing a complaint through the proper channels  in the institution was essentially deemed as deviant enough behaviour on my part to cost me my status as a “privileged prisoner.”

I am, however, quite fine with the end result of this interaction. That is because I did not like the idea of having “privilege” dangled in front of me in a concerted effort to elicit some kind of conditioned behaviour; using it as a proverbial carrot, hung in front of me as an attempt of “correction.”

It is important to recognize that this is not a strategy unique to the so-called corrections system. And it is not just the “carrot or the stick approach” to “corrective” behaviour modification that is typical of systems of authority, but the specific practice of dangling privilege in front of people with the intent of making them fall in line.

On a broader level, the very same system that employs prisons, courts, and cops as the hardened sticks of capitalism and white supremacy has always dangled privilege in front of people to get them to fall in line. Privilege is used as a bribe to keep those with access to it from complaining about exploitation, from questioning authority, from organizing for solidarity, and from challenging oppression and oppressive societal structures.

I had wanted to include a transcript of the “inmate statements form” -- constituting my formal complaint that I submitted on August 4 -- however, I still have not received a copy of the paperwork, and so below is the rundown of the incidents.

On August 2, the newspaper subscription that I carry while imprisoned -- something inmates are entitled to do at every provincial prison -- did not arrive on my range, on unit six, like it had almost every single day I’d been on unit five. I mentioned it to a guard who said he’d try to have it brought over from unit five where it had likely been delivered. This seemed reasonable; it seemed obvious that it might take a day or two for the mail system to catch up with me -- not necessary, but obvious.

The next day again the paper didn’t come and again I mentioned it to a guard. This guard assured me that he’s checking with the mail clerk and will get the paper delivered.

August 3 was Friday, which is also the day that our “canteen” order arrived at CNCC. A brief word about canteen: every week, inmates who have people on the outside who can put money into their account -- having access to people with money being real privilege -- are entitled to spend up to $60 a week on things like stationery, chips, or candy bars, hygiene items, magazines etc. These are ordered through a form-based system and fulfilled by a third-party contractor. Until recently,  Aramark -- a nasty union-busting company -- held the provincial contract now held by Compass Group (I don’t know anything about that company). On the Friday in question, those of us who had been moved from unit five did not receive our canteen orders like everyone else who had placed one. We were assured, however, that they would be delivered to us before the end of the day. No need to worry, we were told.

Unfortunately, by the end of the day we’d been fed several different stories about when they would arrive and why they hadn’t already. By evening lockup the order still had not been delivered and we were worried. Because my newspaper also still had not arrived I was frustrated and decided to press the matter.  In doing so, I caught the guards backtracking over one of the day’s previous stories, and called them out for lying to us. Instead of getting an apology, or at least some honesty, I was yelled at, insulted, and ordered to my cell in a way that carried an implicit threat of being thrown in the hole if I did not comply, perhaps accompanied by physical violence. Rather than see this situation escalate further I marched back to my cell as I’d been ordered. That night I wrote a request to the unit manager (also known as a captain, white shirt, or officer in charge) to “discuss [the day's] interactions with the guards.”

The next morning I eventually got to speak to a unit manager (UM) who, I have to admit, was courteous and professional. When I explained to her that my concern was not with the fact that the paper and canteen still had not been delivered but rather with the conduct of the guards on the unit, she gave me yet another explanation as to why the canteen still hadn’t shown up. This explanation seemed reasonable but had no correlation with what we’d been told the previous day and confirmed that much of what the guards had said had been outright lies. I told her that I had serious concerns with the way the guards apparently think that because it has been deemed a “privilege” to be incarcerated on unit six, inmates therefore have neither a right to expect access to things which we are entitled according to institutional and provincial policy, nor should we expect to have a right to complain when our rights are disregarded by prison staff. Apparently they don’t think we even have the basic right to be told the truth. I told her that while the initial problems in all this might have been relatively trivial, the attitude and behaviour exhibited by the guards on unit six was nonetheless unacceptable and I couldn’t in good conscience let it simply pass. I asked to file a complaint that I could sign my name to.

Within 30 minutes of asking the UM to bring me an inmate statement form, the previous day’s newspaper showed up. When it did, it arrived to a round of applause from the range. I gather from conversations that people rarely bother to stand up for their rights here. It seems like that is because people don’t want to risk losing “privilege.”

Less than half an hour after I submitted the inmate statement form, our canteen ordered showed up too, along with that day’s paper.

The next morning the UM came back and called me off the range. Once on the other side of the glass that separates the ranges from the central area of the unit -- all units and so-called super-jails are panopticons -- I was surrounded by guards. I was informed by the UM that because I had filed a complaint against the guards on that unit it was now a “conflict of interest” for me to stay on the range. I was told that I was lucky to be going back to unit five instead of to administrative segregation, more commonly known as the hole. I was also told that it was not a “punitive” measure. I was even told that they didn’t want to let me back onto the range to pack up my own stuff and that I had to leave immediately. Obviously they didn’t want me to tell other inmates about the consequences that were to be faced for trying to hold the guards accountable. However, I guess the UM knew she was pushing her luck because it took little protest to convince her to let me back to my cell to pack my own belongings. I was given two minutes and accompanied by three guards who prevented anyone else from joining me in my cell while I packed. I was strip searched before being returned to my old range on unit five.

In all fairness two things need to be said. First is to note a distinct difference between the attitude and behaviours of the guards on unit six from the ones on unit five. On unit six, the guards carry themselves as if they have a sense of entitlement to impunity, an attitude that I think is not only abusive but dangerous. On unit five, on the other hand, I have not witnessed this kind of behaviour from the guards. Most of the time they are fairly professional and several of them have even been nice to me.

Second I also have to admit that the UM who oversaw all this may actually have thought she was doing me a favour. One of the things I said to her (on the Saturday) was that if being on an allegedly “lower security” unit was going to be constantly held over my head as a privilege that could be taken away as a form of punishment, I’d rather volunteer to go back to unit five on my own terms.

In retrospect, while the phrase “arbitrary abuse of authority” may seem like somewhat overstating the severity of the initial conduct, in the end that conduct foreshadowed the eventual outcome. The guards only lied because they have decided that we are not entitled to honesty from them or that policy should not guide their behaviour. I’m not willing to let them get away with that. I will be contacting the provincial ombudsman about this incident because at the end of the day, while the institution may have chosen to call it a “conflict of interest,” I got kicked off the education range for filing a complaint about rude, dishonest and abusive guards.

Conclusion/update (Aug 18):

Today I had a long chat with one of the CNCC unit managers. The conversation was a  follow-up to the filing of the inmate statement form, but we also spoke about the looming OPSEU contract negotiations and the impact the talks will have on guards and inmates as well as “management.” We also spoke about the library program here and policy regarding receiving books from the outside. All in all it was quite civil.

I signed off on a brief summary of the inmate statement form to be delivered to the Deputy Superintendent. When asked what I hoped the outcome to be I replied that I had not been looking for anything other than to raise awareness about the conduct, my perception of it as being a problematic ongoing dynamic. I said that I would be happy simply knowing that someone in the Superintendent’s office would actually read the statement I submitted. She said that she’d see to it and made a note of it on the summary to which was stapled the original of the form.

Tomorrow I should be getting the photocopy of the statement. Sooner or later I will post it, as an addendum to this piece. The captain also mentioned that she’d read a copy of the Prisoner's Justice Statement we put out. She said that she was impressed with the writing and hoped that I considered tutoring while I am here, which was something I had been trying to arrange for (with the education coordinator). We will see what happens.

*Also published on Alex's blog

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