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The Keepers

Case Management Officer Dave Sinclair began working in the federal penitentiary system in 1969. He worked in the B.C. Penitentiary for four years and then moved to Australia, where he worked in probation and parole. Upon returning to Canada in 1980, he resumed his career with the Correctional Service of Canada, first as line staff and then as a case management officer. In a 1993 interview, he described his experiences in the B.C. Penitentiary as "an absolute nightmare, although I didn't realize that at the time." In those days, the battle lines were clearly drawn not just between guards and prisoners but between guards and the administration:

The communication lines between management and the operational staff were not good because the senior officers had a vested interest to keep the rest of us angry at the administration and they did that very effectively. So far as the rest of us were concerned, the senior officers were the real bosses. The management, the warden, the assistant warden and all of those people were just interlopers that didn't know what the hell they were doing. That was the prevailing attitude. It was a terribly unhealthy attitude. (Interview with Dave Sinclair, Matsqui Institution, August 16, 1993)

Mr. Sinclair also remembered his induction into life as a guard at the B.C. Penitentiary:

I walked into the institution and I had civilian clothes on, a sports jacket and a tie, and I was put on the ranges. My training was that for three days while I was in civilian clothes, I observed and assisted another correctional officer do the job. That was awful. You were a target, not only for the staff, you were a target for the inmates. But it sure desensitized you in the long run. The down side was that desensitization really gave you a need to give it back and when the opportunity presented to give it back, you did. Because of this attitude it was very easy to shift into a man-handling kind of attitude. Somebody gives you a hard time, wham, boot, slam the cell door and go on to the next one. In those days, violence was part of the job. Cons were beat up. There were no checks, no balances. If somebody pissed you off, you grabbed them and marched them up to the hole. At the end of the shift, you gave the list to your supervisor, and he took it over to the keeper and those guys might stay up in the hole for five or six months. There's no way that you could do time in the B.C. Pen in that era and get released from there without being really, really angry. I often think back to the horrible, horrible things that we did and how much we contributed to the violence in the community.

Dave Sinclair told me a story I had heard from several other officers who worked in the B.C. Penitentiary at a time when Clifford Olson was in segregation, prior to going on to become Canada's most infamous serial killer.

Olson was in the rat hole at B.C. Pen, which was a hell hole underneath the East Wing. The cells down there were these old English cells with the latch that goes around the corner and then the padlock, the old padlock. I can still see those cells and that bar going around that corner just like it was yesterday. Olson used to shoot his mouth off. He got beat quite badly. I know of an incident (thank God I wasn't involved) where two garbage cans were set up in the hallway and a game of football ensued and Clifford Olson was the football.

According to Mr. Sinclair, the dynamic at the B.C. Penitentiary was such that even if correctional staff felt what they were doing was wrong, a momentum carried them along with the flow. He recalled that some staff would actually try to provoke prisoners in segregation to hang themselves by kicking on their doors over a prolonged period of time and then one day throwing a towel torn up into strips into the cell. He knew of one occasion where this strategy was successful, although he was not on shift when it happened.

Recoiling from these accounts of the B.C. Penitentiary, Mr. Sinclair described the energy and enthusiasm he brought to his work at Matsqui as a case management officer twenty years later.

God help me, I love dealing with these guys. I think it's one hell of a challenge. Give me a guy that says he won't do something and I'll be happier than hell to spend the next two or three months trying to convince him that that's what he should do. I really love it, but I love it in the sense that if that guy does make it, he can look back and say hey, I'm glad Dave Sinclair was there because he got me to do this.

Although Dave Sinclair appreciated the changes that had come about in the life of a correctional officer, he was concerned about other developments that had taken place in the bureaucratization of prison work. When he first became a case management officer, there was more scope for individual initiative within the system. When I interviewed him in 1993, there was a much greater emphasis on correctional staff conforming to a systems approach, in which detailed documentation and review by endless boards were the order of the day. Mr. Sinclair's sense was that much of the work he did was designed to meet the needs of the system rather than those of prisoners.

Like Dave Sinclair, Jesse Sexsmith began his correctional career as a guard in the 1960s. When I interviewed him, Jesse Sexsmith was assistant deputy warden of Matsqui, and he later became the deputy warden at Kent prior to his retirement in 1995. He told me that in the early days, "The guards brought with them what the prisoners brought: hatred. It wasn't a surface thing. It came from the gut. When I went into the service I was twenty-five years old and I went in thinking that I was being a correctional officer, but I got caught up in the hatred like everybody else" (Interview with Jesse Sexsmith, Matsqui Institution, August 17, 1993). He remembered the old keepers at the B.C. Pen, who stood in the dome and all day hurled abuse at prisoners. Guards would take government supplies for personal use, and violence against prisoners was routine. For Jesse Sexsmith, as for Dave Sinclair, remembering those days was like recalling a nightmare. Some of the guards were extremely disturbed and dangerous men. He referred in particular to one officer about whom I had heard many chilling stories. One of these even found its way into the 1977 Report to Parliament by the House of Commons Sub-Committee on the Penitentiary System in Canada. Months after the 1976 riot in the B.C. Penitentiary, when only a few prisoners remained, this officer went down the ranges on Christmas Eve handing out razor blades and wishing prisoners a Merry Christmas and "a slashing New Year."

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Main Entrance, BC Penitentiary