The Criminalization of LGBTQ People in the Grand Valley Institution for Women, Part 2: The Bigger Picture

 

“Systemic discrimination is the creation, perpetuation or reinforcement of persistent patterns of inequality among among disadvantaged groups. It is usually the result of seemingly neutral legislation, policies, procedures, practices, or organizational structures. Systemic discrimination has been more difficult to detect than direct discrimination.” –Human Rights In Action: Handbook for Women Serving Federal Sentences

    A week ago, I was reading a letter from my partner from segregation. She commented on how, in the past thirty days alone, four people who identify as transgender and lesbian have spent significant

time periods in segregation. In a letter back, I reflected how, country-wide, the women’s federal prisoner population is under one thousand. About one thousand women at any given time in Canada experience a federal prison. My high school had a similar population. How, then, I wondered, can there be so much harm produced within an organization that has such a small population to manage?

About a week before they took my partner, we were having our morning coffees together in the hallway of the main building of this prison. It is one of the only spaces we were allowed to interact. It is a busy and public space: a space monitored by camera, a space filled with passing guards and women. I was hugging my partner as a guard passed.

“Please separate from one another,” she said to us. We complied and as the guard continued to walk, turning the hallway’s corner, I gave my partner a disgruntled look. She asked if we should ask the guard about her order. We thought that we should.

“Excuse me, miss?” I called.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Can we ask you a question?”

“Yes.”

“Is there a rule that says that we cannot touch each other?” I asked.

“It’s my orders,” she told us. “You were inappropriate. The rule is that I gave you a direct order.”

“Okay, thank you,” my partner voiced. “But we are wondering if there is a policy against hugging, or if you ordered us to stop because you feel uncomfortable.”

“I gave you a direct order. That is all you need to know,” she finished.

“We don’t mean to offend you,” my partner shared. “We are just experience a lot of these kinds of orders from guards, and we want to know why. That’s all.”

“And,” I added, “I think it’s fair to ask where an order comes from. Otherwise, you could essentially make us do anything.”

“Oh, grow up,” she responded. “It is how I feel. That’s all you need to listen to.”

This is the mentality of many employees here, especially the staff who are newer, staff who began careers here during Canada’s “tough-on-crime” penal shift. We are led to believe we must blindly comply. We are discouraged from understanding the rules and policies which govern this institution. So why, then, do rules exist? Why, when rules serve the pursuits of employees, are policies quoted and emphasized, but when rules benefit our interests, they don’t matter? I suppose the fundamental conflict that I encounter with this system, is that I believe that the integrity of rules always needs to be considered, and this system will use the following of rules as salient.

Amidst this tension, can a space be created to discuss what to do when a rule or set of rules is responsible for creating harm and violence, instead of relieving it? The scrutiny and targeting that people who are publicly known to identify as LGBTQ presently experience is blatant. Although it may not be blatant for unaffected people within this system, and although systemic discrimination may may be a phenomenon that is difficult to predict or pinpoint as it develops, for us who are affected by it, the pattern is not hard to detect but impossible to avoid.

There are enough problems within a prison population without the manufacturing of more. There are so many issues perpetuated by a total institution always holding two hundred upset, imprisoned, disenfranchised people. To criminalize relationships, and emotion inherent to human existence, is needless and counterproductive to creating safety in women’s prisons. And while GVI would never agree that they criminalize LGBTQ people, everything about this community is undeniably illegal in this prison. “Sexual inappropriateness” is even a box to be checked in screening surveys for double-bunking. There is not one transgender or male-identifying person here, for example, who has not been classified as maximum security at at least one point in their sentence. Every transgender and male-identifying person here has also experienced segregation.

One friend of mine was institutionally charged recently, and ordered to move from minimum security to medium. She went from having stability, going out on escorted absences to nearby communities, and having a single room to being double-bunked in a medium compound, being institutionally charged and having her escorted absences suspended. This all occurred because a guard caught a person who she was suspected of being in a relationship with in her living unit, even though the woman was nowhere near where the other woman was when she was found, and even though there was no evidence suggesting that the woman who did not live in the unit was there visiting my friend and not any of the other nine women who live there.

Another friend of mine, who publicly identifies as lesbian, was yelled at by a guard who accused her of being in a relationship and then threatened to have her moved from her unit for sitting on the bed of a friend in her unit. There is no rule against being in other people’s rooms when two people live within the same unit, and my friend and the other woman were fully dressed and are not in any kind of intimate relationship.

There have been other, more disturbing events recently, events which I originally described in this post. However, within the last few days the people involved have asked me, at this point, not to include their stories. No one wants to be in the situation that my partner and I are in. Everyone feels they will be safer and better off if they do not become publicly involved. They are likely correct. However, the amount of systemic barriers that LGBTQ people face, the extent to which people are being punished for being in relationships or for being suspected of being in relationships, and the parameters that people in public relationships must exist within are exactly why I feel I need to be involved.

 

The Radar System at the Grand Valley Institution for Women

Perhaps the most troubling unofficial policy at the Grand Valley Institution for Women is known as the “radar system.” This system disproportionately affects LGBTQ and two-spirited people and contributes significantly to the over-security-classification of everyone who does not fit a heteronormative model.

For example, I was placed in segregation in May as a direct result of my relationship. When released, I was placed “on the radar” because of my relationship. Not because of anything that occurred within my relationship, but because I was in a relationship. The radar system, much like carding in communities, is an unofficial practice which lets employees monitor and harass certain individuals for arbitrary and, most often, discriminatory reasons. Any couple who are discovered to be in a relationship are subsequently separated and placed “on the radar.”

My partner and I did not know much about this system before we experienced it. Even as guards tried to explain it to us, we felt that being placed “on the radar” felt very wrong. Simply put, “the radar” means that the guards are watching you. They are holding you to a different standard than others. Essentially, once placed “on the radar”, maintaining a relationship within the prison necessitates people remaining “on the radar.” This occurs because couples may only interact in public spaces where every guard and prisoner can observe and interact with you, because all healthy activities such as eating, sharing, and discussion are all illegal. They are activities you can receive institutional charges for participating in.

Once you are being watched, staff will find infractions to charge you with. They will have negative things to say to you. They will tell you just to stop getting charged- but how does one stop doing things necessary to human functioning? When we are moved from units where we have support, we experience units where we do not have support. No one remains inside a unit where they do not feel safe, where there are likely interpersonal issues. No, the moment that people are able to go outside of their unit, they move towards the people that they feel safe with, towards the people with whom it is illegal to interact in meaningful ways with. Then, in those public spaces, people being to receive sanctions. Negative interactions between individuals and staff begin. The more encounters like this occur, he more negatively perceived a person becomes, increasingly the likelihood for negative interactions of a more serious nature to occur, which is exactly what happened in our story. The only escape is to go inside your unit where you are safe from exposure to this cyclical downward spiral, but are very likely not to be safe in a physical or emotional capacity. Or, you visit the units of your supports, where you feel safe but risk being institutionally charged.

This system inherently criminalizes being with others, but only certain others. Not many in this prison are affected by this “radar system.” As most people can simply request to live in the same unit as their positive supports, most people end up living with those they feel close to where they can heal and navigate their prison sentences in privacy. When a person spends most of their time in units, they can no longer be “on the radar” as they are no longer in public, monitor-able spaces. Indeed, it is disproportionately, if not entirely, the LGBTQ and two-spirited population who remain “on the radar” for any significant time frame. It is only people who are, or who are speculated to identify as LGBTQ who are removed from their supports, routinely shuffled from unit to unit, put into units where they don’t have anyone who they are close to.

I would love to see the statistical difference between how often people who identify as heterosexual and those who do not are moved between the general population’s seventeen units. I have myself been moved six times, for example, in the past two years. I know many people who have never been moved, however, people who have built stability by residing in the same place for a long period of time. In May, for example, i was moved into a unit next door to my partner. Then, in June, I was moved to a unit across the compound. This second move was ordered because I “too close to [my] little girlfriend”.

Relieving the Cycle of Harm

We have been trying to start an institutional support group for seven months in order to begin dialogue about how to resolve these issues. I have repeatedly asked for any legal, franchised, avenue to resolution. Until very recently within this prison system, there were very concrete options for people to pursue. It was only during the Conservative government’s penal policy overhaul that areal criminalization of being LGBTQ or two-spirited developed in this prison.

I live with a woman who has been in prison for thirty-four years. She was legally married in prison and used to have private family visits with her wife. Now, there is a commissionaire’s directive that states, “Two inmates will not have PSVs together.” There was also a time when couples were able to live within the same units as one another within this prison. In fact the “couple’s house” was Unit 5, the unit next door to my present unit. In this environment, couples were allowed to lay in the same bed until 5 am except during formal counts. Relationships were understood as private, human functions, much like bathing, or cooking together. As long as they did not interfere with the institution and so long as there was not interpersonal violence, they were not interfered with by prison employees.

In the former penitentiary, Kingston’s Prison for Women, people lived on ranges where they felt comfortable, and within these ranges, engaged in relationships without the relationships being subject to being policed and made illegal. The current culture thus forms the first in Canadian’s women’s penal history. It is a relatively new phenomenon for same-sex relationships to be policed and criminalized as they are here. So it becomes our job, as the affected population, to begin to strive for resolution. I cannot express the level of damage that can occur when an individual collides, for any reason, with the system that is imprisoning them. The effects are significant and permanent.

GVI is presently so focused on curtailing relationships, an impossible task as relationships will always develop, that they seem to have lost sight of bigger issues. They are viewing the ability to control relationships in the women’s sector as a factor in reducing risk to re-offend. However, their system is inherently broken and results in far more harm than it could ever reduce. Removing people from one another and isolating us, but only when we are not heterosexual, creates a lot of harm for those of us who are negatively affected. But it is occurring, and with such a focus by staff that serious problems in this prison are occurring simultaneously undetected. We sadly joke that anyone in this prison could get away with anything so long as they do it while my partner or I walk by, as staff on attention would most surely be on us.

Breaking it down, the issue is actually two-fold. There is an over-policing of all relationships in the women’s sector of CSC, combined with the systemic discrimination against people who fall outside of the heteronormative model within GVIW. It is a unique combination. Maybe the uniqueness of the climate is why senior management here have not believed or responded to it. After all, when I tell people about what is happening in this prison, one of the first responses is shock, followed by, “But aren’t a lot of the staff lesbians? Aren’t multiple guards homosexual?”

“Yes,” I respond, “but they are supporting, or at least complacent, within the system that has developed.”

Indeed, my partner and I have approached a few of the guards who know to identify as lesbian and asked them if they would support us to live together again. Two said that they would. Unfortunately, they have absolutely no say in the matter. When I pleaded to the acting warden to address the unprofessional guards harming people within the medium security compound, she asked me what, essentially, I wanted. I told her I wanted three things: I wanted her to know, first and foremost that whatever she did with the information i had shared was up to her, but I needed to know that she was aware. Then I asked once more for a legal path to being included in the same practices of this prison that heterosexual are. I wanted to be able to benefit from the protection of living with my positive supports.I did not want permission to turn the units into honeymoon suites; conversely, I was willing to sign a contract abstaining from sexual intimacy and only wanted my living arrangements to be assessed, like everyone else’s, on a case-by-case basis. Finally, I asked why the efforts of LGBTQ to begin a support group had not been responded to despite our having tried for several months. I mentioned how I had witnessed the formation of a Euro-Canadian group occur here within weeks and with little resistance the previous year. I was told that our group can certainly open but that they are only ensuring that we will follow all the rules. I have been told, in a less official way, that they group has yet to open because I, and because the group, have been perceived as being political. Yet I do not remember being raised in a country where “political” equals “negative” or “oppositional.” Quite the opposite. Isn’t politics about utilizing dialogue to make our world better?

The Criminalization of LGBTQ People in the Grand Valley Institution for Women Part I – Our Story

 

 

How did I get here? How have I come to experience the worst of a prison? It was April 15, 2011. My first day in prison, I looked out of the window in max that faces the medium security compound, looking at the rows of pod style units where medium security women lived. I commented, oh that must be nice for the women who have partners here. I was laughed at. No Nyki, I was informed, relationships are illegal in the unit. They split up couples if they catch them. How horrible I concluded, I could not imagine on that day, that three and a half years later, in the autumn of 2014, that one rule would affect my life so significantly. But it has. So, before I post anymore about the harms occurring here or why I believe that they are occurring, I think it’s important for also the history of my situation to provide context. I was initially hesitant to do this as my story is extremely personal, however I believe now that it is very important to.

It really began fourteen months ago, in September 2014. I had been used to doing my time alone and feeling lost. My appeal was denied, the conservative government was promising a bleak future for us in prison and I did not get involved with most women socially. Then, I met someone and with them I found happiness. I was in fact more than happy, I was excited to be alive again. What happened? I feel in love. Not just any love either. But the big, great kind of love, the kind of love we all wish for and realize when we find it that we are holding on to a small piece of miracle that we do not want to let go of. It stopped hurting to be alive. Days went from feeling like hell to feeling like life again, but better. I was happier with my partner, even though I was in a prison, than I had been with any other human being in my life. It was the most healthy, happy relationship I have ever heard of. Our relationship continued this way for the next 8 months.

The relationship actually began over a bet between us where I committed to listening to her read the bible and she committed to listening to my reading of one of my favourite books, Alice in quantum land. We wanted to show each other our passions, our belief systems. We ultimately became theoretical physics appreciating spiritualists together, believing that just as it is possible to find love within a prison, so are science and spirituality not mutually exclusive. We came to rely and depend on one another. We cooked all our meals together, completed CSC programs together. Every day we prayed together, read together, we got through our prison time together. We avoided all the trouble that surrounded us through our commitment to one another; we avoided conflict with guards and prisoners alike. We began to plan to be released to each other. In our hearts we saved each other from the harms we experienced in our pasts, and from the turmoils of prison. We developed a new found belief in life and love and hope for our future together.

We also lived in constant fear that someone would tell on us and that management would separate us.

Because relationships are illegal within the living unit, we carried out our relationship in secrecy in order to stay together. All of the women in the jail knew we were together however. After all, we live in a semi-circle of cottage style units where we can never leave. Everyone tends to know everything about what happens in the units at this prison. Still no one in our unit ever saw more affection than the occasional hug or handholding and despite the fact that we had to hide our relationship, for the 8 months that we lived together we were incredibly happy. Though it was under horrible living conditions. There were regular assaults, there were poisonings, there was a constant and generally toxic atmosphere. We had each other. so we kept to ourselves and got through our time.

We always wondered how same sex partnerships could be so criminalized. We spoke often about standing up and attempting to change the rule here that makes relationships illegal. We always felt terribly for the couples who do not live together, who had been split apart. But we never wanted to risk losing each other, so we never contested the “no couples” rule.

People come to federal penitentiaries for periods of years and years and often decades and sometimes lifetimes. It is not generally insignificant relationships which are dismantled by this “no-couples” rule but stable long-term bonds. There are no legal avenues for people to engage in supportive relationships within this prison. We are forced to lie or to be criminalized. We either live in secrecy in the same unit or we live openly from different units, where all the rules about how and when two people can enact change.

If you do not live in a unit with someone sharing of any nature is illegal, making birthdays tricky. It is also a chargeable offence to cook or share a meal with anyone outside your unit. If we show any affection and the guard is watching we will most likely be ordered to stop. There is further absolutely no private time to be had. Visiting other units is not just illegal; it is considered one of the most serious institutional charges. This rule makes heart to hearts next to impossible. So while it is not technically a crime to be in a relationship in this prison, all of the components required in a relationship are criminalized. These rules support a systemic discrimination of people who identify as LGBTQ or two-spirited, which I explore in the second part of this post.

CSC’s official response to the rule against relationships is that, “relationships in prison tend to break down badly and create problems within the unit and within the institution”. They also say that, “we have yet to see a relationship that has not broken down”. Yet there have been several relationships within this compound that were not just stable and positive but were years in the making. The people in those relationships were only terrified to come forward. I have witnessed a relationship that began in this penitentiary, turn into a marriage after the women were released.

My official response to this, any relationship can break down, in fact, friendships routinely do break down here. Still friendships are not outlawed. In fact people are routinely moved in this prison to be with supportive friends. So to place a blanket rule criminalizing relationships, especially when the people in the relationships are positive and not bothering anyone, is harmful and discriminatory. And what about the harms that occur when an institution forces a relationship to break down.

It was May of 2015 when my relationship was publicized. We were moved into separate units and things have only worsened since. By the enforcement of one rule, everything that had been private and positive for me became public and criminalized. This event began my formal introduction into experiencing the worst of a prison. We submitted requests to every department that we could, explaining the nature and routine of our relationship, offering to meet any institutional boundary or requirement to live together again. Asking management to acknowledge that women are routinely moved into units to accommodate healthy friendships. We said that it was not fair, if we were complying with all the rules, that we were excluded from this practice and treated differently than other women. But all our requests were denied.

We tried, initially, to make the best of being separated. But we had no idea what being forced to interact in only the public spaces within this prison, within the limited time frame of work breaks and movement hours, would entail. We had no idea that being in a public relationship in this prison would open the door for us to experience so much harm. We became subject to harsh comments and bizarre treatment from guards. Outside of the security and quiet of our cells, where we used to spend all our time, there was a corrupt and aggressive climate within this prison. It is a climate that we dove deep within to continue seeing one another.

At first, they were small events. One day a guard yelled at us for passing apples, another day they charged my partner for carrying water for me.

Over the next 6 months, things progressively got worse; exposing us to the side of this prison that we did not know existed. Until today, where my partner was re-classified as a maximum security prisoner after having spent twenty days in segregation, while the acting warden decided whether or not to approve the re-classification. Once negative encounters began, we called out for help, calls which repeatedly fell on deaf ears. We tried and tried to express to senior management the issues that exist in the medium compound. Yet as events got worse and worse in nature, the responses to our requests became shorter and shorter. No one wanted to listen to us. Our complaints involved CSC employees and policies. In the last few weeks before they segregated my partner, the climate at the Grand Valley Institution for Women had gotten so bad, not just with us but in the general way, that I decided I needed to blog again.

It was only hours after I sent my first blog out that several guards stood throughout the compound and in front of my unit. They went into my partners unit, handcuffed her and took her to segregation. They took her three days after they had threatened to take her. Threatened to change her security classification to maximum for “being arrogant and wanting to make a difference”. She had argued with them, telling them she had not done anything to warrant being moved to maximum security. They responded, “we will lie we will make you max”.

Twenty days in segregation later, they did just that. She is now the first person here to be reclassified from medium to maximum, without having been released in over a year, aside from a woman who attempted to jump over at the fence, who had been previously pleading to be taken out from the general population.

To contextualize, I can share that it is common for women to be involved in multiple violent incidents, incidents that are often serious in nature, incidents that sometimes involve the use of weapons, without the involved women being subject to reclassification. Conversely, when segregated, she had been following all of the stipulations imposed on her by CSC through her correctional plan. A correctional plan is a document created by CSC employees, which determines how a person must spend their time in prison in order to cascade down the security levels and to be successfully reintegrated into their communities. There was no violence, no specific incidence used to justify her reclassification. There was instead a series of small rule infractions on our part, infractions which are broken by almost every woman here who associates with someone whom she does not live with. Sharing a meal, attempting to have thanksgiving dinner at my unit, hugging me, carrying water for me. These are the incidents used to increase the security rating. These are the incidents that have labeled her a maximum-security prisoner. Really, we believe that they did this because she has been vocalizing that the “no couples” rule is discriminatory. Management is very aware of our attempts to contest the legal legitimacy of this rule. Still, GVIW has legal processes to follow.

How can these incidents warrant her being classified as maximum security? What happens to her future because of this? Should we have given up on our relationship to comply? Could we have? Think about the best relationship you have ever been in. Would you give it up because of one harmful rule that criminalizes everything you understand as positive, because of a rule that only a few years back did not exist? Indeed, just a couple years ago, within a different Canadian penile climate, same sex relationships were not criminalized. Not at all. The issues that the women’s sector of CSC has recently focused on feel vastly different from what issues should actually be salient. Instead of focusing on the violence that occurs here, instead of focusing on creating an environment that could meaningfully empower this population, the over policing of relationships has become the dominant issue in custody used to scrutinize women, especially women who identify as LGBTQ or two-spirited. It is also rapidly becoming the dominant reason why women on parole are revoked and returned.

There is still much I have not mentioned and still much to explore, both within our stories and in a wider context. Ours is only one story within a larger issue. We are two people within one bigger problem. And this post forms a brief summary of our story. We mutually decided to make our story public in light of its seriousness, in the hopes that it will offer insight into the reality of this federal prison, and in the hopes that things will not happen again as it did for us, to anyone else.

WHAT IS HAPPENING AT GRAND VALLEY INSTITUTION FOR WOMEN?

WHAT IS HAPPENING AT GRAND VALLEY INSTITUTION FOR WOMEN?

I believe that the most dangerous aspect of this prison is the implicit violence that exists here. It exists in the way that this penitentiary appears kind, but enforces cruelty; how it can succeed one and fail another. It exists is how we have been placed within domestic environments and roles, and then criminalized when healthy routines and relationships develop.
It exists in the way that there are 200 women sentenced to spending significant portions of their lives here, yet a ‘tough on crime’ culture has allowed CSC to eradicate most meaningful opportunities here and create an environment where all is done to attempt to stop life from continuing for us in prison.
It exists in the way that our voices are not included in GVI’s management and control of our lives. This problem is a huge contradiction between policy and practice while we are supposed to be included in decision making about sentences, we are not. Our presents are excluded; our past and the convictions that we are sentenced to become the definitions of us…and as ‘offenders’ our voices become systemically non-valuable and consequentially curtailed. When we then come forward to say that there is a problem, that something is terribly wrong, we are disbelieved if not ignored.
But moments do not define people though some do change our lives forever. It is an inherent flaw of punitive prison policy to label a human being an ‘offender’ and then devalue and harm us because of this label. It is a failed penal model but it has become the norm in this prison.
THE EVENT
For clarity’s sake I am going to begin with and focus this post on the most recent event though in the next post I will explain more fully how I personally became involved.
I had a meeting last Friday with the Acting Warden to plead with her to listen to not just my voice, but the voices of several of us who have experienced really horrible treatment by guards recently. I brought to the meeting an ever growing stack of documents which I call my ‘file’. I have taken to never leaving my unit without it. I have brought it with me to every meeting I have scheduled with every level of employee…though most glance at it as if it were some sort of living, breathing monster and then dismiss it, folding their arms as they tell me nothing is happening.
In my file are
• Institutional requests documenting our continual reaching out about events in the prison
• Complaints and grievances we have filed
• Institutional charge sheets, documenting instances when GVI’s disciplinary system was used in malicious and unlawful ways against us
• Witness statements detailing guards behaving aggressively, threatening us, following us, putting us down
• An apology letter from CSC for an employee who made negative comments about me online breeching an oath they swore

I find the Acting Warden to be a reasonable, kind woman. She has, every time I interacted with her, appeared to want the things that this place is supposed to stand for. However, she does not interact with us much and it became clear during our meeting that there is much she is unaware of in this prison. I was very nervous, I knew this was my only chance of reaching someone inside this prison who might care, and I did not want her to discredit my file and my story as all the other employees had.
I begin with the worst of it.
“There are a number of us being harmed in this prison. There are a number of guards who are breaking the policy if not the law. What is happening to us is really different then what policy states should happen and I don’t know what to do.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“You have a handful of guards who are cruel; one is comfortable with setting women up. Last month, he, along with a prisoner manufactured an assault that never occurred. A woman was segged and moved into a new unit as result. She has never come forward as felt like no one would believe her. The same guard publically threatened another woman with manufacturing a report against her. The next day he did and there were several, serious repercussions.”
I handed her a stack of papers and told her they were witness statements.
“One of these”’ I told her, “is a statement from another individual about the same guard. In this instance this guard lied about evidence that did not exist in an attempt to convict her and others with an institutional charge he filed.”
She asked me if the people affected by this guard had filed grievances against him. I didn’t want to mention my thoughts on our grievance system so I replied, “yes”, leaving out how useless doing so actually is.
I continued to tell her about a handful of guards who had been treating me very badly with one of particular concern. I told her how he had been involved in a number of situations where I was charged for activities that are authorized, such as being at a meeting with the Elizabeth Fry Society and picking up food for my house. I shared how, while I am quite allowed to do these things I was being harassed by this guard. No one at this prison (to my knowledge) has ever been charged like this, and there are serious repercussions to receiving charges within the prison. I shared how this guard forced himself into my room and how he followed me around the compound. Then I shared how the last time I saw my partner, she had woken up with two guards in her room. One was yelling at her, the other threatening her, saying how, “Somebody needs to teach you a lesson.” She ran to the units’ emergency phone. She was told to ask for a manager in the morning. In the morning, I went with. She was told a manager did not want to talk with her and was ordered to leave and charged for being there during ‘work and program’ time.
I told the Acting Warden that many of the witness statements I provided documented this event. I shared that while there are many professional people working here there is also a problem with several employees. Then I told her how I became one of the people who are harmed at this prison.
I ought to interject from my narrative here, because it is important to document who suffers here and why.
WHO EXPERIENCES THE WORST OF A PRISON
The question is important, as people’s experiences is this prison are quite subjective, differing drastically as a result of factors such as time, social location, sentence length and which employees an individual interacts with.
The answer is very similar of that of broader society; the most marginalized people experience the worst of this prison. The implicit violence that occurs here ties into this point. The prison can, and often does succeed more socially privileged women, and fail women with more marginal social factors. There is a well-documented history in CSC, including right within this prison, of this systemic discrimination of aboriginal people and people with mental illness.
Imagine the intake process at this prison. It is a series of boxes which an employee must check or uncheck that determine security classification. The more boxes that are checked, the higher one’s security classification will be. But what checks each box? Marginal factors do. Having a mental illness, having little or no family or community, trauma and abuse, experiencing addiction, not having formal education… This are the factors that raise one’s security rating and exposes them to the issues associated with high security areas. One quick example – maximum security women receive all of the old and expired food. Minimum security receives the freshest bread and produce and the medium receive everything in between. Now imagine that every aspect of this prison falls within the same scale. Max gets the worst treatment, minimum the best.
There is a lot of research into this issue and to CSCs credit there are recent – however small – shifts in the treatment of Aboriginal people and people with mental illness here. But – and this is a strong but – there is another social factor which creates a lot of turmoil for people here. Yet there is not just systemic discrimination currently occurring but an all-out criminalization at GVI, and it is against people who identify as LBGQT or two spirited.
I concluded my meeting by pleading for the Acting Warden here to read all the documents I provided and to take action.
I hope, so very much, that she has, as the wellbeing and future of one woman depends on it. This woman is my partner and has been for over a year and she has been sitting in seg as she has been for two weeks pending an involuntary transfer from medium to maximum. What has she done? She fell in love in a prison where it is illegal to be gay.

Prison in Canada: The Law, The Policy, The Reality

The first thing most people do not know about prison in Canada is that a prison is not about punishment. The only legal punishment that people experience when imprisoned in Canada is being taken from one’s family, one’s freedom and one’s community: the loss of liberty. The loss of liberty is such tremendous harm that it is to be the only harm a person incurs. There is no amount of comfort within a prison environment that can soften the trauma which results from being taken away from your whole world and placed in confinement.

You can expect fully to never read a Canadian legal document which endorses the punishment of people in prison. Quite the opposite, the law clearly repeatedly safeguards the human rights of people in prison, ensuring, for good tried and tested reason, that this country will not suffer its prisoners.

In Canada, prisons are about reform. The pain of missing opportunity and of missing your life and family is pain enough. The world you are to experience for your time away is — on paper – a supportive rehabilitative space so that when your time is done, you have the best odds of positive reintegration.

This is the model, stamped and enacted by Canada. It rests, upon a very important legal clause in the CCRA that even the Conservatives didn’t challenge, overtly. CCRA 4 (D) states that prisoners ‘retain the rights of all members of society except those that are, as a consequence of the sentence, lawfully and necessarily restricted.’ Canadian prisons are governed by this clause and, more wholly by CCRS, the CCRR, CCRA, the Federal Courts Act and Commissioner’s Directives (CDs). Constantly reiterated through these documents is the codification of imprisoned people being treated humanely, not having our dignity undermined, not being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and still having the ability to — in fact being encouraged and supported to create meaningful, positive lives.

Every operational detail of the Federal Prison system is accounted for in detail within the Commissioner’s Directives (CDs). Each CD, and there are CDs about all from CSC security measures to searches, from our communications to nutrition, from managing gender dysphoria to hunger strikes, from parole to education in prison – are catalogued from 0 to 800, though there are not quite so many.  And every single CD is laden with policy to create an environment that does not harm us.

It is a lot of effort and expense to blatantly ignore.

So, what’s happening at Grand Valley?

Beginning for myself in May this year and continuously escalating till now, not only have my experiences in this prison become increasingly tumultuous – to a point where today, I am afraid of several staff—but things have deteriorated here all around. In June our Warden left and some the staff who have since controlled decision making here have made several incredibly poor decisions, especially concerning managing and responding to incidents between prisoners and staff.

When there used to be inappropriate incidents with guards here, situations may not always have been responded to well, but to some extent, they were responded to. Today these incidents go unchecked. But, to my knowledge, serious situations used to occur far less frequently and were of a less malicious nature. What’s happening recently is outright illegal.

The climate to accommodate such events has been developing for a long period of time. And there are a number of identifying contributing factors. One factor is that a lot of the kinder guards left to work at the newly opened minimum security unit, leaving several young, aggressive staff dominating the medium compound. Also the climate created by our last government endorsed the message that people in prison should suffer. These, alongside the breakdown of our grievance system and lack of a Warden have created a perfect storm of abuse at Grand Valley Institution.

One of the unpublished pieces I have previously written entitled, GVI- The Wild West of Imprisonment- addresses the more frustratingly systemic issues here. When I wrote that piece I thought those would be the worst type of issues that I would be writing of.  They pale in comparison however to guards threatening, framing, degrading and manipulating the system against us.

Not only have I seen several women be demeaned and threatened and seriously mistreated by guards recently, I have witnessed upper management not just disregard our attempts to speak up for ourselves, I have witnessed then silence us as they look into our eyes and insist that “nothing is happing, we only perceive something wrong is happening.’ We call advocates such as the Correctional Investigator and the Elizabeth Fry Society and we are told to grieve the issues but our grievance system is broken, an issue I will address fully in a future blog.

So, feeling as though I have no avenue to remedy what is occurring, I begin every day anxious and afraid, wondering ‘what will happen today?’ I started speaking out about my own circumstances mildly this May and increasingly around July. As events worsen I began speaking more. Now, daily, guards make rude comments as they pass, about what is happening.

Several of us have contacted the Canadian Human Rights Commission as well as lawyers – though the process of actually speaking to a lawyer is incredibly discouraged systemically. Not to mention the fact Legal Aid has informed us that they are not to issue certificates for anything that occurs within an institution anymore, we are to call the Correctional Investigator. They take down our message and we never heard from them again.

So, how as a prisoner can we assure we are not mistreated? If Canada will not publicly endorse harming imprisoned people, how do we uphold all the legislation that is supposed to protect us?

What kind of modeling is Grand Valley Institution doing by demonstrating the do not have to abide by any laws they do not want to? How do we as a marginalized identity confront systemic corruption?

Another woman who is experiencing a lot of turmoil in here phrased her thoughts on this so aptly tonight that I nearly changed this blog’s name. She was venting to her partner about how to cope in here. She is afraid and feels at this point that the guards would be able to cause her less harm is she placed herself in segregation. She then said to me. “Nyki, I don’t know what to do about these guards.”  She shook her head and added, “They are more fucked up then we are.”

In its simplicity it says a lot. What does one do, as a prisoner when referring to guards, they are more fucked up than we are?

We speak!

This blog is dedicated to Romeo Phillion whose strength and perseverance will not be forgotten. Much love Romeo, over and out.

Nyki’s new blog. The voice is hers, the errors mine.

In 2012 I began a blog about Canadian women’s imprisonment from a woman’s prison in in Ontario. In 2013 I stopped. I was afraid. Today I am more afraid of staying silent. I am not afraid for myself anymore — I have learned that selfish fear is a bondage all of its own. Today I am more afraid of staying silent. Today I am afraid of knowing what the right thing to do is — and not do it.
Today there is a lot of corruption in and silence about the Correction Service of Canada’s multi security level women’s federal penitentiary, ‘the Grand Valley Institution for Women’. There is no Club Fed here. There is a broken system, a lot of indifference and policy after policy being broken in practice.
Yet, beyond these walls, there is a new Canadian hope; a new political climate. I feel hope from beyond these walls; hope that the post Harper prison system won’t remain as the Conservatives intended.
So, I hope that by adding a narrative about prison from prison, things can change.
See, the historic problem with institutions like prison, asylums residential schools etc… The reason these institutions produce so much harm is that, fundamentally they are all socially franchised areas where devalued populations are controlled, almost always out of the public eye. And historically, when the happenings of such institutions are eventually publicized the harm is lessened. Laws change. ‘The people are fundamentally good’ notion returns to our imagination and reforms are put in place to ensure the abuses end. Then years pass and the public eye wanders. Corruption creeps slowly back. A new type of institution erupts and new harms happen. The cycle repeats.
There is an important genealogy of social change about the imprisonment of women in Canada. Change has been fought for already. The doors of Kingston’s Prison for Women were shut. Passionately and with much effort, ‘a women-centred approach to rehabilitation’ took centre stage. We read the Louise Arbour Report and collectively said as a nation, “we won’t hurt women anymore”. Instead we promised to support women in prison; give them opportunity and choice. I recommend the Creating Choices Task Force Report to anyone who is not familiar — it is the document that changed everything and it is the document responsible for the construction of the prison where I am imprisoned now. Where women are being harmed.
When I stopped blogging I thought maybe the suffering is just in the Maximum Security. I gave Medium a try. For two years I really tried. I silenced my politics, my morals, my values; I tried to fit in and ‘do it the CSC’s way’. I tried to be the ‘offender’ they tell me I am and to get out of this prison by following their path. I didn’t get anywhere but trapped in a negative prison culture and climate of isolation which I believe is inherently intertwined with institutionalism. Institutionalism: when the prison system forces you community and family further away from you and you come to depend on the prison for social support, which it does not provide, so you start to sit alone, a lot, and wonder why.
I came into this system very naïve, believing most people were essentially good, but that some were bad, but they could be exposed. Now I believe, ya, in the right environment people are essentially good. But I also believe that indifference is the toxin that can poison any heart, community and social structure. And indifference grows were communication is not. And good people may be indifferent and bad things. So 2 years later, I commit to communicating again, from a worse version of this system I came into; a system eroded by budget cuts and flawed Conservative crime policies and rhetoric.
I commit to contributing to a public narrative about a public institution, to communicate in the hope of fostering care. Crime and prisons can be such polarizing topics and years in prison have indeed made me question everything I once believed about humanity. Still, something in me says, speak. Communicate and people will care. Without a relationship between imprisoned and free people, without dialogue, all that can exist is stigma and harm.
So, here it will be. Over the next few weeks I will also release a lot of material, I have done all the writing, I have never stopped. I was just too scared and broken to do anything with it. Some events I am sharing will include:
*Employees putting us down, demeaning and threatening us
*Guards collaborating with imprisoned women to set up other women
*The criminalization of LGBTQ/Two Spirited people in this prison
*Women waking up with guards in their cells
* The breakdown of the grievance system
*Employees using the institutional disciplinary system, absent policy, and as a tool to harm us all
*Management turning a blind eye to it all
This blog is dedicated to Shay for giving me my voice back and so much more.
Nyki Kish