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.