A transfer

July 18, 2011
Adam Klassen |

I am fairly certain we were not supposed to see it, and I am even less sure I'm supposed to talk about it. But I feel it is a story that needs to be shared, so share it I will. In the interest of confidentiality I will be changing the names of the people involved and a few of the details, but the essence is the same.

Like so many days before, my boss and I drove up to the minimum security prison compound. Minimum security does not fit most people’s idea of prison. The main building would not look out of place in downtown Winnipeg, and the yard is dotted with cottage style houses, where the prisoners live. There are no walls, no bars and fewer guards that one might expect. There is nothing keeping a prisoner there except the threat of going to someplace worse. Though there are cameras all around and all movements are closely monitored. This is not a place built on trust after all.

To get to the minimum security prison one must first drive past the medium security facility, a place that does fit peoples idea of prison. The facade is a large stone building built well before the turn of the century. It stands on a hill, imposing itself on the landscape, drawing all attention. Twenty foot fences give way to blank spaces which give way to more fences, all crowned with razor wire. Stone and glass towers house armed guards whose sole purpose it is to watch those un-scalable twisting metal structures.

My work at the time was to arrange for people from the community to visit people in prison. This brought me to this place twice a week.

As The Shawshank Redemption aptly put it, prison is a place of routine, then more routine. It is an attempt to impose structure and calm on a place where the most volatile of emotions exist in excess amounts. It is easy to get lulled by this calm, and one can often rest on the anticipation of the expected.

But this day was different.

Out front of the main doors of the minimum security facility two official vans were parked with doors opened, but no one around. As we approached the doors of the building opened and a circular group of guards came out, carrying a person in the middle. As they came down the front steps we could see that in the middle was Bill, a client of ours. His eyes rolled around, sometimes to the back of his head, sometimes looking in wide terror at the guards. His body vibrated, involuntarily twisting and pulling. His legs would not support his weight, but occasionally thrashed around and five guards struggled with his slight frame. From his mouth came almost inaudible mumbling. More moans than anything. They made their way awkwardly towards the vans.

Above the group hovered a video camera, operated by a sixth guard, pulling in what it could see and storing it. In case anything went wrong, in case an accident occurred, there would be evidence of the proper treatment of this prisoner. The camera guard tried to stay out of the way and to get the most objective view possible, that from above.

I wonder if we appear on that tape, which is now, I am sure, locked away never to be seen. Are there brief glimpses of the two of us, standing off to the side, witnessing? Is there record of us, in turn, pulling in what we could see?

I found out later that Bill was being transferred, from minimum to medium security.

I have been told by other prisoners how a transfer works. There is a main guard desk called the duty desk near the entrance. Prisoners get called up there for any number of reasons: to pick up mail, because they have a phone call, to talk to their parole officer. For a transfer they are called up like any other time, except instead of a package from home they are greeted by a mostly empty room, a group of guards, and a pair of shackles. There is no warning and no discussion.

Prisoners will have a sense that this might happen, because there is usually a reason. They might have been caught selling drugs, gotten into a fight, or talked back to a guard one too many times. It isn’t always a total surprise. Though it did not look like Bill knew this was coming.

Why was Bill transferred? I do not know for sure, but I have a suspicion. I think it had something to do with his letters.

The last time he had come out of the medium security facility he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. He had witnessed other prisoners capturing and torturing small animals. This had a profound effect on Bill and one way he tried to deal with this was to write letters about this to prison officials. Not just one letter, mind you, but dozens.

He did not stop there. He wrote letters complaining of prison guards smoking when prisoners were forbidden to. He wrote letters when his toothache had not been dealt with after three months of pain. He wrote letters about the state of the instruments in the chapel. He wrote a lot of letters, maybe too many.

Bill was passionate about all these things, but perhaps there was something else at work. I wonder if complaining was one way that Bill found to fill his time. An attempt to break the routine. Probably not the best choice.

As he was put in the van he looked at us, I am sure of it, but there was no recognition in those eyes. He was somewhere else, his mind already retreating from the reality of going to that place he feared.

Once he was safely locked in the van they closed the door and drove him the hundred feet from one prison to the other.

We did not see him for a few months, as he was put in solitary confinement. Standard practice when someone is transferred back to a higher security level facility because of an incident. When we did, he was almost back to his old self, though a bit jumpier. He took this all in stride, almost talking of it as a normal occurrence. This was his normality.

And he went right back to writing those letters.

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