Prisons are ugly environments for all the senses. Sounds, sights, smells and taste are all impoverished and that makes everything else harder. In no prison will you find the things that we use in our homes to make them more liveable — splashes of colour, art, the use of wood or cloth to provide visual relief, comfort and to soften sound.
And though as a prisoner you cannot experience much that you would want to, over time you will see and hear much that you wish you had not. People in huge distress. People who are clearly incapable of managing yet are receiving no help. Acts of anger and violence by prisoners and by guards — physical and psychological. Threats, also by both prisoners and guards. On one of my first days I got to see a prisoner dragged off to segregation for making a polite objection to being called a “boy.” Another day a prisoner was pepper sprayed — the smell lasted for days. I saw searches by guards in which everything in the cells was thrown around and many things belonging to prisoners were confiscated. There are constant reminders that you are in the dregs of society and extremely vulnerable.
Let’s start with sight — the most important human sense. Prisons are overwhelmingly ugly places. Many of the federal prisons, and quite a few provincial jails, are very old buildings, often in dilapidated conditions. I spent time in one prison where the paint, though a variety of colours from different time periods, was peeling, the floors were mismatched tiles, and the ceilings were full of painted pipes. Everything looked worn, used, battered. Older prison buildings have the advantage of more and larger windows, but mostly what you see from those windows is more prison — high fences, barbed wire, blank walls, empty fields.
New jails around the country are hugely ugly buildings, all concrete and cinderblock. I was in one of those as well. Everything was sterile and cold. The furniture is designed to be damage proof; metal and bolted to the floor and walls. The windows are tiny, and the doors are solid metal with only a small slot to look out of — and through which the phone is passed to you if you are, as I was, in segregation. There is not a single touch of anything comforting. From my small window, that did not open, I could see a large field and high fence around the jail — I used to look out and count the cars on trains passing by. One day I saw a rainbow, and another day a muskrat in the ditch. Those were high points.
Though you cannot see out, others can see in. Guards make rounds regularly to peer into your cell. You have no privacy and the lights never go fully out. On one occasion, when I was on the floor doing yoga, I had a guard call in to ask if I was all right; I guess he thought I might have passed out. That was about as much social interaction as I got.
The sounds that most of us enjoy in life — people chatting, children laughing, music that we enjoy, even the wind in the leaves — are entirely missing in prison. Most of what you hear, like most of what you see is dispiriting if not ugly. There can be lots of shouting and yelling, not surprising in places where so many have diagnosed mental illnesses for which the only treatment is drugs that make you passive. You do hear prisoners talking to each other from cell to cell.
The concrete and metallic environment means that many other sounds are harsh — the banging of a cell door instead of the gentle closing of a wooden one in a house. There was no music played in these settings, though you could sometimes hear the sounds of TV from the common room or from the cells of those prisoners who had one.
At the same time, because there is almost no privacy in a prison you are exposed to a lot of sound with no ability to separate yourself from what you would rather not hear — your cellie or the others on your range. Guards tramping through, not always interested in being quiet, all night as well as all day.
Prisons tend to have institutional smells — for example of disinfectant. What you do not have is, again, the smells we might associate with home, and in particular with good food.
There is almost nothing in these environments that invites or rewards touch. In most jails you are allowed few or no personal possessions. Until I got to minimum security, which most prisoners never do, I could not, for example, wear my wedding ring. Things that provide pleasure to see or touch — photos, books, beloved objects — are limited or prohibited. Running your hands over concrete, metal or cinderblock is not exactly satisfying. You can’t even wear clothing that you like and feels good to you. Again, the things we take for granted in life “outside” are prohibited.
And of course touching other people is entirely verboten, both officially and by the informal rules of prisoners. Of course, touching strangers is generally not done in any setting. The difference in prison is that you are separated from the people you do want and can touch, and from the comfort that kind of touch provides. Even visits with loved ones are often behind glass barriers or supervised by guards with no touch allowed.
Many people undoubtedly think all this deprivation is exactly what prison should be about, what prisoners deserve. Indeed, the very essence of prison is deprivation of liberty, which includes being cut off from many things that matter most to us. But given that virtually all prisoners will be released at some point, surely it is in our own interests that their experience helps them live a better life after release, and this we are far from doing.
David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. Law360 Canada has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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