Television shows like Prison Break tend to glamorize prison life. Yes, they show the violence, but they tend to make the characters more sympathetic--some of them. And we often forget why they are there.

In real life, this can happen as well. Some prison rules allow for many of the same comforts we have at home. And there is a lot of controversy around this. How much do prisoners deserve these creature comforts? What rights do they have?

Matsqui prison, located in Abbotsford, BC, went into lockdown today. Apparently, a woman with a baby stroller tried to pass through security, but the stroller tested positive for cocaine and guards stopped her. AOL News reports that the woman was allowed to continue with her visit but that she was reported to the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development.

So the inmates retaliated.

170 inmates set fires in the yard and refused to return to their cells. Why? Because they think their privacy is not being respected. They believe they deserve privacy.

Reading this reminds me of a similar situation in which guards set fires at Mastqui. In fact, I used the situation fictitiously in Whale Song. For those of you who've read my novel, you'll recall there is a scene where a fire breaks out at Matsqui and prisoners had to be airlifted off a roof. It happened back in the 80's.

Reading today's Globe and Mail story, made me think of 2 things: Whale Song and the fact that these inmates should count themselves lucky they get to have visitors. Or time out in the yard in the fresh air and sunshine. These people have been convicted of crimes. They are paying for their crimes in a locked facility. That's what they deserve, and they are lucky that they are still alive and being fed, clothed and sheltered.

What I find even more disgusting is that the guards were able to find traces of cocaine on a baby stroller. What the--? Any mother who would use her child as a drug mule needs a good smack in the head...and her kids should be taken away.

Read the Matsqui story on Globe and Mail.

Read the Matsqui post on AOL News.

If you pick up Whale Song, you can read about the earlier fire in Matsqui prison. Some is truth and some is fiction. :)

And please feel free to leave a comment about this story. Do prison inmates deserve to have privacy? Was this a fair call by the guards?

~Cheryl Kaye Tardif, bestselling author of Whale Song, The River and Divine Intervention

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I have to agree with you, Aaron.

Today's Toronto Star has a cover story on prisoner torture here.

We've never really determined what prison is for - punishment or rehabilitation or simply to protect the rest of us. Recidivism rates seem to have alot more to do with the type of crimes committed than with imprisonment. And of course, we keep changing what's illegal, so some people were inmates for years for doing things that are now perfectly legal. It's difficult to talk about "prisoners" without talking about what crimes were committed. Certainly they aren't all the same - which is why we have minimum, medium and maximum security prisons (I don't know which type Matsqui is) and house arrest and all kinds of things.

And, we have certainly endorsed the idea of torture - we just get the prisoners to do it themselves, look the other way when child molesters are beaten in jail. We're even happy about it, easily overlooking that most molestors started out as victims.

This is a good topic for crime fiction, I think. Do you know of any books that deal with it in any detail?
Hi John:

Matsqui is a medium-security prison.

As for books that deal with this topic, I know that there are some novels out there that deal with prison regulations, riots and reform. There is probably some non-fiction out there too. Can't think of any titles offhand. Regardless, if you get a good plot idea, run with it! :)

One author I met years ago when researching for Whale Song actually teaches a creative writing course to inmates at Matsqui. Ed Griffin is 71 years old and he's very committed to teaching these men. I'm on the fence on this (pun intended). I believe some inmates could be rehabilitated...but certainly not all.

I have personally taught creative writing to men with addictions in a rehab facility. I can say that the men who attended had many other choices in how they spent their time. There were some really talented men with some awesome ideas for short stories and novels. I found it very rewarding. It's so different when teaching people who really want to change their ways. I am sure that even in Matsqui there are men that feel the same. But how do you know which ones are genuine?

There's a great article in Vancouver Magazine on Ed Griffin. I have to admire him. Not many writers I know would do that.

How many writers here could teach men in a prison? How many would teach adddicts? Or teenaged prostitutes? I know a woman who does that in Edmonton.

I wrote extensively about U.S. prisons and jails in my book (non-fiction) on police procedure and investigation. Those particular chapters deal with an inmate's journey through the system - county, state, and federal - ending with executions. If you'd like, I'd be happy to answer any of your questions.
If you treat them like animals in prison, don't be surprised if they act like animals when they get out.
Excellent point, Eric. The baisic problem, though, isn't that inmates are treated like animals; many ARE animals and allowed to pick their prey at will. As a result, many non-violent offenders develop animalistic qualities to protect themselves and don't shed the habit when they're released. That's tragic. Unfortunately, any legislator who tries to budget enough money to protect inmates' welfare will be laughed out of committee, if not tarred and feathered and kicked from the statehouse or Capitol. I've watched politicians try to make improvements; it just ain't gonna happen. Private organizations try, too. In Illinois, the John Howard Association is doing the best it can to provide oversight to the state's jails (Cook County jail, the largest single-facility jail in the nation, has some divisions that the terms "disgusting" or "third-world" don't adequately describe. Been there, seen them, don't want to visit again.), prisons and juvenile facilities but there are never enough resources, even with three major federal lawsuits pending.
As simplistic as Wambaugh's suggestion is (putting the worst offenders on an island and using them for parts), it appeals to me. In the real word, super-max prisons I think, are part of the answer. There aren't enough of them. The cost is significant and there are other problems. When you fill an institution with only stone killers, finding the right kinds of correctional officers can be difficult. Is privatizing prisons a better option? I'd rather see the surgically precise usage of Capital Punishment in very specific cases. But that's a discussion for another day.
I believe our prison system should be greatly simplified. All drugs should be legal for adults, and no one should go to jail on drug charges except for giving or selling drugs to a minor. That would reduce our prison population by at least half. Next, we should separate violent offenders from nonviolent offenders. The money saved in housing fewer people could be spent on drug rehab, social skills, mental health services, avocation classes, etc. Everyone should come out of prison a better person or not all.
I correspond with an inmate in a Texas prison. That state has the highest incarcarceration rate in the US (the world?). I have no idea what he did that put him there (suspect drugs) but he expects to die there and is is not yet 40. My own problem is chosing books to send him. Art books can contain no nude pictures and it is hard to find anything on art history without some nudes. Novels can contain no pornographic passages -- and since we have different reading tastes I send what he asks for or what I think is similar but have no intention of reading -- so I am constantly guessing.

He is in a building designed for about half the population it now houses and his description of the tunnel to the giant shower room is a nightmare in itself and a violation of every safety code known, but it is an old building. One of the things that bothers him the most is the constant noise. That many people generate a lot of noise just being so close together and the prison uses a speaker system for announcements. The men who risk discipline to mute the speakers are called "saints."

I don't think privacy is an issue there -- survival is. The restriction on "pornography" is only a couple of years old and I do hope it goes away at some time in the future. Prisons vary greatly and, from the little I have seen on the subject, I think that Canadian prisons are considerably more humane than those in the US. Privacy is not an issue he has ever mentioned and I do not think he has any at all. One story he sent me described a guard ordering a prisoner to strip in a shared area and I took it to be an incident of personal experience.
I believe they have libraries in prisons. They also have T.V. Privacy may not be feasible where there is violence and/or suicidal prisoners. There is also a considerable traffic in contraband. Not sure why pornography should be a good thing in a place where inmates gang up to rape each other.
No, prison is not a nice place. Not meant to be. And the prisons are overcrowded. That has more to do with the number of crimes committed per capita than with the cruelty of guards or the inhumanity of society.

That is not to say that our laws are always fair.
The prison library that I know about is a random collection of books and very few to serve the number of people who use it. Apparently there are no professional services and the books are mostly cast-offs. Getting to it is a major expedition and rarely possible, even if any of the books are desired, which decreases with each year spent there. Book lovers beg books from family and friends and then trade.

The TVs are always on but without sound. I don't know if that is all of the time or only some of the time.

The definition of pornography is the broadest possible, including the works of Michaelangelo, etc.

I believe that prisons are necessary for a society to function, but they can be better managed. I also realize that prison services vary greatly from one state to another and within the various institutions of a given state.
During the course of my other job - representing kids going through the care system I have been to jail more times than I care to remember. They are absolutely the most brutal, soul less places on God's earth.
And please spare a thought that many in mates are mentally ill not evil.
Also what we in the UK call YOI - I think you call it Juvenile prison in the States - is just a prison for children. In this country 60% of Yound Offenders have been through the care system which means they had no decent family to start with, no love, no support and now are receiving even less in jail...can we really expect them to come out of that and be useful members of society?
I don't have any answers but am pretty sure the solution is not to make jail time harder.
HB xxx
Was it Joseph Wambaugh's Bumper Morgan who believed the most serious offenders should be housed on a remote island somewhere and used for parts?
Prisoners no more deserve privacy than gangbangers deserve free firearms training.
Yes, prisons could be better managed, but the public will never support the kind of financing and legislative oversight that requires.
Oh and not only are live babies being used to transport dope, dead ones are, too.


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