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"My Home Is Hell"

In Prisoners of Isolation, I described how the solitary confinement unit at the British Columbia Penitentiary was a world unto itself, a place where the unimaginable became a reality, a place where the worst nightmares penetrated the light of day. In September 1983 (literally on the eve of the book’s publication), prisoners and staff in H unit, the segregation unit at Kent Institution, lived through just such a nightmare.

I had been alerted to trouble in H unit during one of my visits to the institution. A number of prisoners had flooded their cells and were being extremely disruptive. I requested interviews with some of these prisoners to find out what lay behind the disturbances, but I was told this was impossible until after the disturbance was settled. Almost ten days passed before I was allowed into H unit. During that time, rumours flew that prisoners were being fire-hosed and denied exercise or contact with lawyers and that they were reciprocating by throwing excrement and urine at the guards.

One of the prisoners I interviewed was Bill "Shotgun" Frederick. Mr. Frederick had been placed in segregation in May on suspicion of being involved in an escape plot. Kent’s recommendation that he be transferred to a Special Handling Unit was rejected in late August by the SHU National Review Committee. Nevertheless, on September 8, the Segregation Review Board had determined that he should remain in segregation pending his transfer to the general population of another maximum-security institution.

I spent the better part of September 23 interviewing Mr. Frederick. He told me that problems in that unit had developed early in September because of inconsistency in the way segregation unit staff were applying the rules. At the time, one of the prisoners was employed as the unit cleaner, and that prisoner, in addition to leaving his cell to fulfil cleaning responsibilities during the day, was allowed out during the evening for minor cleaning jobs; it was also customary to allow the cleaner to serve coffee to other prisoners through the food slots. Early in September, on some shifts, staff had cut short this activity and ordered the cleaner back to his cell. There had been no official change in the rules; some officers simply were not prepared to allow the cleaner to fulfil his customary duties. This inconsistency led three prisoners to resign as unit cleaner in quick succession, leaving the unit without a cleaner. As Mr. Frederick explained, the response of Mr. Jones, the correctional supervisor in charge of H unit, set off a rapidly escalating chain of events:

What happened then was that Jones threatened us. He said, "There will be a cleaner, and if there isn’t a cleaner, you guys are getting stripped cells." Now, there was no justification for this, because when I was the unit representative, I had had a meeting with the warden, the deputy warden, and Jones, and the warden had made it very clear that the cleaner in the segregation unit was on a volunteer basis and no one could be forced to be the cleaner. On Monday Ron McKay resigned as the cleaner and on Tuesday morning Jones came down and asked certain people if they were willing to be cleaners. They told him to jam it. At that point he proceeded to take us all into the yard three at a time and the guards went into our cells and boxed up everything. Now that got us hot, because he took away our legal papers which is something he shouldn’t be doing, specially when there were people in the hole who were going to trial on outside beefs and other guys, including myself, who had our complaints and grievance forms. They also took away our envelopes and stamps, and for some guys they took away all their pens and their address books. The idea was to hold us more or less without access to the outside. We were told we could not make phone calls even to lawyers. When we came back in our cells we find them empty. We got a mattress, blankets and the clothes on our backs. We were locked in our cells all day Tuesday with no exercise, no showers. We discussed amongst ourselves what we were going to do and we decided to kick back, waiting to see what the warden would do to resolve the problem.

We never heard anything from the warden on Tuesday, and everything was cool Tuesday night. All day Wednesday, we’re kicking back waiting to see if anything is going to happen. Nothing happens on Wednesday, and so on Wednesday night some of us proceeded to flood our cells. It was strictly a protest about the way they were jerking us around over the cleaners and then retaliating against us by taking away our rights and privileges. When the guards came on shift in the morning, they were pretty upset because they had to clean the ranges up. At that time, there was only water on the range, because it was intended to be a peaceful demonstration. On Thursday, Jones decided to crack down and started taking away the rest of our rights and privileges. We were told there would be no more showers, no more yard, no more medical staff. Lawyers would not be allowed to interview us. We would not be able to send any mail out because all our writing materials and address books were taken away. At this point things are getting uncomfortable, but it was not the discomfort that was the problem. What Jones was doing was in direct contravention of the Penitentiary Service Regulations, and that is what was getting guys choked up. The Regulations say that we are supposed to get showers on a periodic basis, the Regulations say that we are supposed to get yard at least one hour per day. The only way they can be suspended is if there is an emergency situation. But there was no emergency situation. All the cons are locked in cages and it was just a demonstration.

> It was at this point that things started to go sideways. The first thing that happened was that the guards decided to clean up the ranges using the firehoses. So they came down the range with the firehose and there’s cracks at the side of the cell doors. They put the firehose in there and it’s got enough pressure that it ricochets of the wall -- it just covers your whole house. So now we’re getting extremely upset because we are sitting in our cells soaking wet and the thermostats aren’t working and because it was raining that week it was pretty cold. In the case of some of the guys who they singled out as troublemakers, the guards opened up their food slots and fired the hose into the cell. They did this with one of the guys near to me. They fired that hose for a good sixty seconds, putting it on his face, and when he covered his face they aimed for his testicles and they literally drove him into the corner. They did that to a couple of guys, and at that point it became a straight hate score. They had stripped our cells and so the only weapons that we had was excrement and urine, I mean our toilets were plugged up anyway and we did not want to keep our body wastes in our cell, and so we are firing it out the door onto the range. That takes some difficulty, given that the doors are solid and the food slots are closed. That only leaves the gap between the door and the floor. Because our toilets are blocked up and they have turned the water off, you can’t wash your hands afterwards, so this whole thing is a very heavy trip. To think that you are reduced to that as the only way to get back at the guards for what you believe to be their illegal behaviour keeps you totally choked.

Over the weekend things quieted down a bit because the keeper who was on duty was pretty reasonable, and while they used the firehoses to clean the ranges, he made sure that nobody put the hose in the cracks of the door or hosed us down. So because we weren’t being attacked, things were pretty cool over that weekend. When Monday comes around and Jones comes down and starts in again with his ultimatums about us having to clean our cells or we’re not going to get anything, the whole thing starts up again. On Tuesday, there is another incident with the guards firing the hose through the cracks and getting everybody going. That was when one of the guys spat on an officer. The guard opened up the food slot and tried to fire the hose into the cell, but the prisoner took his mattress and held it up against the slot to prevent this from happening. So the guard cracks open the cell and then the fight is on. Four guards came down the range and there is a big struggle and we could see through the crack in the door that they have got this prisoner on the ground, he’s covered in excrement and they’re standing over him with their shields and black sticks and this is really getting us choked to see one of us in that degraded state. So we started shouting and screaming and threatening the guards. They charged a number of us for threatening to assault, but the way we see it, it’s the guards who are the ones who should be charged, not with threatening but with actually assaulting the prisoners. (Interview with Bill Frederick, Kent Institution, September 23, 1983)

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Bill Frederick