Searches — and the reasons for them | David Dorson

By David Dorson ·

Law360 Canada (June 11, 2024, 9:12 AM EDT) -- Being searched is a common occurrence in prison. I had only been on my range in the assessment unit for a day or two when the first search of our range took place. Without notice, we were all told to go into the common room while a group of guards went through all the cells, searching for anything that might not be allowed. This took 30 or 40 minutes; cells are small and sparsely furnished, so searching is not very complicated. 

It seems that nothing was found that was very problematic because nobody was taken off the range, as they would have been for a serious violation such as having a weapon, drugs or a cellphone. 

Yet some things were taken from prisoners’ cells. Any extra blankets, sheets, pillows, towels or mattresses that prisoners had accumulated were removed. It was common for prisoners to try to gather extras, usually from other prisoners who were leaving the range either to move to their permanent prison placement or being sent to segregation for various offences. The mattresses and pillows we were given were old, worn, thin and uncomfortable to sleep on; a second one made a big difference. An extra sheet allowed some privacy when using the toilet (which was right by the cell door, so visible to anyone walking by). But officially, none of these were allowed, so all were removed after any search.

Another item removed was the makeshift weights prisoners had fashioned out of plastic bags filled with water and wrapped in extra sheets. ‘Working out is a major pastime for many prisoners. Every range will have at least a few who have experience in this area. Most federal prisons have some kind of weight room or workout facility, but the assessment unit did not, so everything had to be improvised. Prisoners used the handles of the mops we had for cleaning and attached the water weights as the equivalent of barbells. Prisoners also did pull-ups in the hallway using the various pipes on the ceiling. After the search, these all had to be recreated over time as the materials became available.

After a search, most cells were left in a mess, with mattresses, clothes and other things strewn over the floor. Pictures might be removed from walls. Even food that prisoners stored in their cells, such as bags of cereal, could be dumped on the floor. 

Searches are a feature of life in any prison. Even in minimum security, I saw many searches of the houses in which prisoners lived. Prisoners were never told why these searches happened or what, if anything, they turned up, though sometimes a prisoner would suddenly disappear, presumably having been moved to a higher-security facility. 

Of course, individual prisoners were often searched. For example, you were strip searched any time you left the main prison — say for a medical appointment or after a conjugal visit, even in minimum security. However, it was not like higher-security or provincial jails where strip searches are a very frequent occurrence — part of the humiliation that tells you that in those places you are not really a person. 

Why the search happened — Ricky’s story

What was especially interesting in that first search was why it took place. 

When I arrived, there was a young man on our range who I’ll call Ricky. Somali by background, he had been convicted of a serious crime years earlier — and then had seven years on bail as his case was argued at various levels of appeal, including the Supreme Court. During that time, he went from being a teenager to in his mid-20s and changed a lot. He had gone to school and done very well, but now, here he was, beginning his sentence from those disputed events of years before. (His was a fascinating case, but in the interests of his privacy, I am not saying more about it.)

Ricky and I spent quite a bit of time talking during those few days we were on the range together. He wasn’t, naturally, meeting a lot of people in prison who could talk with him about academic life, which was something he was hoping to achieve. He struck me as a smart, thoughtful and polite young man. 

He told me that one of the guards, while locking prisoners back in the cells, had referred to him as “boy.” Not surprisingly, he found this demeaning and, politely, asked for an apology — which, also to nobody’s surprise, was not forthcoming. A defining feature of all prisons is that prisoners are regularly reminded that we have no worth, almost no recourse and can be treated in any way that the institution chooses. Calling a Black man a “boy” is a classic example of that dynamic, which happens in many other ways as well.

Ricky couldn’t let it go. When guards were on the range, he would continue to ask, always politely, for recognition that he should not be referred to that way. He and I talked about it a couple of times, and I urged him to let it go, pointing out he could not possibly win that battle but could suffer considerably. 

When he wouldn’t stop, guards told some of the more senior prisoners on the range to make him stop, or we would all suffer. When that did not work, we had the search; collective punishment is also a standard feature of prisons. And then, just after the search, when the guards were presumably already worked up, and Ricky again asked for an apology, three guards handcuffed him, marched him off the range to segregation and that was the last I saw of him. 

I have often wondered whether that bright young man was allowed to rebuild his life and make use of his obvious talents or whether prison crushed his hopes, as it has for so many. Or perhaps it was only after release that he realized that he would never be allowed to get past these events of his teens. I know his name but have been unable to find any trace of him on the Internet, so it’s impossible to know. Despite my hopes, my experience makes me pessimistic about a happy ending. 
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 him 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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