“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?”
“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?