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Donnie Oag -- Twenty Years after McCann

One of the prisoners whose case was reviewed at the thirty-day review on June 3 was Donald Oag. According to the review sheet, he had been in segregation for 638 days, although this belied the fact that, save for a four-month break when he was transferred to Mountain Institution, he had been in segregation at Kent for the last four years. I had first met Mr. Oag in 1973 when he was in solitary confinement in the B.C. Penitentiary, and he became one of the plaintiffs in the McCann case. Prior to his experience in the Penthouse, Mr. Oag had lived through other dark moments in Canadian penitentiary history. He was a prisoner in Kingston Penitentiary during its worst riot in 1970. From there, he was transferred to the newly opened Millhaven Institution, where he underwent a "reception and orientation" session which consisted of walking a gauntlet, handcuffed and shackled, while guards beat on him with riot sticks -- an event documented in the Royal Commission Report on the Kingston riot (Swackhamer Commission at 34).

In Prisoners of Isolation, I described my first interview with Mr. Oag.

When I interviewed Donnie Oag, I found a man who, after some nine months of continuous solitary confinement, appeared almost as a disembodied spirit. His face was ashen, his voice not much above a whisper. I saw on him the marks of his isolation; terrible scars across his neck and on his wrists and arms -- the frightful evidence of his suicide attempts. (at 45)

Following the completion of the McCann trial, I did not see Mr. Oag again until February 22, 1994. Our interview at Kent Institution that day was memorable not only for what Mr. Oag told me about his experiences in the twenty-one years since we met but also because it took place late on the afternoon Gary Allen was fatally stabbed. When I first asked to see Mr. Oag, a staff member said she doubted he would see me, because he never came out of his cell and talked only to a woman visitor. I suggested she let me ask him myself. Mr. Oagís cell was at the end of the range, and as I knelt to talk to him through the food slot, I realized that nine years before I had knelt in this same place, pleading with a man not to blind himself with a razor blade as a protest against being sent to the Special Handling Unit. Thankfully, in this instance, I was only asking Mr. Oag if he wanted to talk. After getting over his surprise at seeing eyes from the past looking through the small opening in his door, Mr. Oag agreed to meet, and we spent the next two hours together.

Donnie Oag had been locked in segregation for the last ten months and, apart from a weekly visit with a longtime woman friend, he came out of his cell only to shower. His only interaction with other prisoners was as the recipient of verbal abuse.

He still bore the marks I had observed many years earlier: scar tissue around his neck and on his arms from the multiple slashings and mutilations he had imposed upon himself. Since then, he had endured beatings, gassings, and stabbings that had left more scars on his body. He showed me the blotches under his right eye from repeated tear-gassings in Millhaven Institution and a scar over his eye dating from a beating in which several clubs were broken over his head as he was dragged to the hole. That beating and several others had combined to leave him totally deaf in his left ear, and one side of his face was paralyzed. The scars on his left jaw and chest were the grim reminder of nineteen stab wounds he had received at the hands of two other prisoners in the Special Handling Unit. When I met Mr. Oag in 1973 he had already suffered a broken back, and his experiences over the past two decades had aggravated that injury.

Since the age of nine, when he was locked up in a juvenile detention facility, Donnie Oag had spent less than five of the intervening thirty-five years on the street. He calculated that he had served eleven years in solitary. He was only forty-four at the time of our 1994 interview, but what I saw was a man whose body had literally been broken on the anvil of imprisonment. When I had seen him in 1973, it seemed that his spirit had already suffered the same fate. Remarkably, though, Donnie Oag was more alive in 1994 than I had ever seen him. Our interview left me in little doubt that the principal reason for this was the relationship he had developed with his woman visitor; it had given him the will to survive his sentence of imprisonment and begin life anew.

I asked Mr. Oag to describe the changes he had seen in prison conditions since 1973. He prefaced his response by saying that he was "not an expert on prison generally but only on the prison within a prison," because he had spent so much of his sentence in segregation, and the little time he had spent in open population had always been in maximum security.

Segregation is a physical and a mental thing; back then it was more physical, now it is more mental. At one time when I was in the "Chinese cell" back east in Millhaven after the riot, I was chained up for long periods of time with no clothes on. They would come in and dump buckets of cold water on me during the night just to wake me up. They would say, "We arenít afraid of you, you f-ing son of a bitch, because you arenít ever getting out of here." You donít see that stuff going on any more. One time they had me in the Chinese cell for about eight months and then they moved me to another cell. They brought a guy into the hole and put him in the Chinese cell for slashing up. He was in there five minutes and he was screaming. He couldnít handle it. He was burned. They took him out and he looked like a lobster. Thatís how much gassings they gave me. By then I was immune to the gas. Since Iíve been in segregation at Kent theyíve gassed a few guys, but as far as I know they give them a shower after. When they use gas they bring a medical nurse or somebody from the hospital to check it out. Back years ago they didnít do that. (Interview with Donald Oag, Kent Institution, February 22, 1994)

I asked Mr. Oag why he was not coming out of his cell to take his daily hour of exercise.

If you know you are going to spend a long time in the hole and you keep on hoping that you will get out and keep thinking about what you are missing, it slowly drives you mad. Alternatively, it makes you so angry and desperate that you either run into problems with the guards or you take it out on yourself, which is what I used to do by slashing up. Now what I do is to withdraw from the world as you know it, so that the world is like wrapped in a fog, you canít see it and so you forget about it. Then it becomes possible to do the time because the world really stops.

"Every time you do this you always lose something," Mr. Oag said, "and when you do come back into the world [the general population in a maximum-security prison], you never quite recover what you had before."

Every time youíre locked up you have to withdraw again. If I was to sit in my cell and contemplate everything what Iím missing and even the yard, I would be going crazy and Iíd slash. A guy just hung himself here two cells from me a little while ago. Killed himself. So you have to let those things go. Just to keep your sanity when you are locked up. Itís hard to explain. But the more you are locked up, especially coming back and being locked up again, when youíre released itís harder to come back because itís harder to adjust. You canít talk to people like you could years ago. You canít carry on a conversation about everything because youíve let those things go just to survive in here. I guess itís like being in a coma and you are aware of things going on but youíre not there. You know what Iím saying? Itís like being put into an empty room and someone closing the door, then opening the door a week later and saying, "Come on out." Well, you donít know the weekís gone by, itís blank. Imagine if you are in that empty room for years on end, how would you be? Now you come out and everybody you know is older. If youíve got brothers or sisters theyíve grown up and got families of their own. A person never fully does come back. I could never do it.

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Segregation Cell, Kent Institution