As I think most readers of The Interim are familiar with the events which led up to the six-week incarceration of myself and six other men, I shall skip those details and describe life in prison. I have decided to write two articles, one on the negative side of prison life and the other – for the December issue – on the positive side. Of the two, the latter aspect is far more important.
I had never been in jail before – except for a few hours – so I had no idea what to expect. It is an experience which I will never forget, which I would not like to repeat, but which I believe I shall. We were incarcerated in the Mimico Correctional Center, which has been described as the “Country Club” of Canadian prisons. It is probably the least severe of all Canadian jails and certainly bears no comparison with prisons in other parts of the world. In general we were treated well and – remembering that we were inmates – I have no complaints. But as the saying goes, “Prison is prison is prison.”
A degrading experience
Apart from the particular prison or the treatment meted out, prison is a most degrading, dehumanizing, animalizing experience. That is the aspect on which I wish to concentrate in this article. I shall mention details to which one would not normally allude in a respectable paper. But I think it is necessary to be verbally vivid in order to let people know the price that must be paid as the cost of moral conviction. The first thing that happens to a prisoner on entering jail is a strip search. This means standing completely naked before a prison officer and in a fairly public place – in our case this was in the Don Jail, prior to being taken to Mimico. All your earthly belongings are taken from you – except your spectacles. I asked if I could retain my rosary beads but was told, “No!” You are then given prison clothes which may not fit you. It is a drab outfit of dark blue. When we had gone through this most embarrassing adventure, we were herded into a holding cell and left there for a long period. I don’t know for how long as our watches had been taken from us. I think it was only then that I began to realize what prison life really involves. Up to that point everything had occurred in quick succession and there was little opportunity to dwell on the situation. But while I was sitting or standing in the cell it dawned on me that “depersonalization” is inherent in the prison system. From that point on we were “nobodies” with no rights – apart from the basic right not to be killed.
It is said that we do not appreciate the gifts of sight or hearing until we lose them. Neither do we appreciate the gift of freedom until it is taken from us. I think it is true to say that every war that has ever been fought was engaged in by one side or the other in defense of freedom. I believe that we priests are freer than most human beings. We do not have to take into account family commitments and obligations. For many years I have lived a very free life. With obvious restrictions, I could decide where I would go on any particular day; where I would eat; whom I would visit. Suddenly I found myself like a caged animal, locked behind bars, an undesirable from whom society must be protected. On three occasions we were taken to court in a police van – shackled together, both hands and feet.
Next to the loss of freedom I would rate the total loss of privacy. Perhaps it is an even worse experience. When I say “total” I mean “TOTAL.” From the moment one enters jail one is constantly under observation. From time immemorial it has been the custom – at least in civilized society – for human beings to exercise their less noble bodily functions behind closed doors. Not so in prison. In the holding cells in the Don Jail and the Old City Hall, the toilet bowl is in the open against one of the walls with no door. When we were there the cells were occupied by perhaps fifty to seventy other male inmates. I am not being facetious when I say that you had about as much privacy as a monkey in a zoo. We hoped that there would be some improvement in Mimico, but our hopes were dashed. It was slightly better, as there were low walls surrounding the toilets, but no doors. We had a number of young women guards who might pass along by the window at any time when one was on the toilet or having a shower. I am not saying that they ever did, but the fact that they could and might rendered one’s necessary biological operations less than comfortable.
Having read the above, do you think I am exaggerating when I say that prison is a degrading and de-humanizing experience? This particular aspect of it, in my opinion, reduces man to the level of the beast. “Security” could be given as an explanation. For four years I was on the staff of the Mau Mau Detention Camps in Kenya. With the lack of running water, the best they could do for toilets was the bucket system. But every toilet had a door on it. And the British at the time were super sensitive about security.
Personally I found boredom the third negative aspect of prison life. We rose at 6:30 a.m. and lights went out at 10:30 p.m. So we had sixteen hours of unoccupied time. As we were on “remand,” we were in maximum security and so had no access to the library. Fortunately the Gideons supply the prisoners with bibles, and they were our main reading material. But one can tire even of reading the Bible. We prayed a lot and talked a lot. We got twenty minutes’ exercise in the prison yard. With no arm chairs and only hard stools on which to sit, we spent a lot of time on our beds, and I felt that my IQ was gradually ebbing away from sheer lack of incentive.
The point I am about to make might appear to be insignificant to some people and it is the last on my list of “negatives.” It is the fact that in prison one is always addressed by one’s surname. I believe that we priests are spoiled in many ways. Whatever people may call us behind our backs, we are invariably treated with respect to our faces. Catholics and most other people will give us the title of “Father.” But in prison I was “Colleton.” Through the kindness of my Holy Ghost conferrers, I had a visit from a priest almost every day. Most of the guards were courteous and considerate and they simply called you and said, “You are wanted for a visit.” But a few were lacking in any sense of refinement and seemed to delight in roaring, “Colleton. Visit!” They used exactly the same tone they would use in ordering a dog to lie down. I believe it was another part of the “depersonalization process.” One of the “inmates” was Dr. Ray Holmes, a retired dentist. Ray is a silver-haired seventy, possessed a loveable nature, a most cultured manner and a deep faith. He has nineteen grandchildren. I cringed every time I heard, “Holmes. Visit,” shouted by a guard half Ray’s age, with probably a quarter of his education and none of his culture. But “Prison is prison is prison.”
In this article I have dwelt only one the negative elements of life in prison. But there is far more to it than that. Being in captivity for a cause makes all the difference. That aspect of life in prison I shall stress in my December article.