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The Spaces of Punishment and Healing

Continuity, change, and the competing visions of the proper balance between punishment and rehabilitation were reflected not just in the language of my interviews; they also had their mirror image in the physical architecture and interior spaces of the contemporary prison.

The most punishing space at Matsqui is the segregation unit -- officially identified as the "Special Correctional Unit (SCU)" and unofficially known as "the hole." Although the cells are no smaller than those in the main living unit, the austerity of the cell fittings -- a steel sink and toilet, a metal double bunk, shelf, desk, and stool bolted to the wall and floor -- contrive to squeeze out any semblance of "house," as prisoners call their cells in the living units. On the inside of the cell, in front of a sliding glass window, is a grid of iron bars. A foot beyond the window are the horizontal concrete slabs which form the exterior framework of all the cells in Matsqui; however, in the segregation unit a densely woven steel grill is bolted to the outside of the slabs to prevent prisoners in segregation from throwing contraband items through the window or passing items from one cell to the next. From inside the segregation cell, the view outside is therefore both fragmented and distorted.

Two cells in the segregation unit are specifically designated, one as a dry cell and the other an observation cell. The dry cell is devoid of any furnishings except a portable toilet. The observation cell has a combined stainless steel sink/toilet and, above the door, a video camera covered with a heavy plexiglas screen to prevent it from being broken. Neither cell has a bed or bunk, only a slightly raised pallet on which a mattress is placed. Attached to the pallet are metal restraint bracelets. Both cells have an additional finely meshed steel grill on the inside of the window, limiting even further the amount of light coming in, and increasing the distortion of the view out.

The exercise yard for segregated prisoners is as bleak as a yard can possibly be; it is enclosed by concrete walls with a wire mesh over top and offers a view of nothing but a sky broken into a thousand pieces. The yard is devoid of any amenities except a chin bar. The already small space is made smaller by a chain link fence that separates protective-custody from general-population prisoners.

If the segregation unit represents the continuity of repressive elements in the carceral landscape, other spaces within Matsqui represent positive change. One of the most significant developments in Canada's federal prison system over the past twenty years has been the emergence, or rather the renaissance, of Aboriginal spirituality as a source of strength and healing for Aboriginal prisoners. The journey towards healing is referred to both inside and outside the prison as the "Red Road." In the middle of Matsqui, surrounded by and in contrast to the architecture of what Aboriginal people call "the Iron Houses" of the colonizers, are a tepee and a sweat lodge. Although the most visible landmarks on the Red Road, these are not the only spaces within the prison that Aboriginal people have made their own. The same day in August 1993 that I toured the segregation unit, I was invited to a meeting of the Native Brotherhood. The meeting, like most Brotherhood meetings, was arranged in the form of a "talking circle." The circle was convened in an area of the prison where most of the industrial workshops are located. The Brotherhood had been given one of these large warehouse-like spaces so that its members could carry on Aboriginal arts and crafts such as wood carving, drum-making, and painting. What distinguished the space in which the Brotherhood met were the large murals painted on the walls. Their distinction lies not only in their artistry but in their symbolic content. Joe Manitopes, the prisoner who painted most of them, helped me understand the imagery. It was a guided tour unlike any other I have taken inside prison.

On the right wall is a painting of a women's sweat lodge with a group of women about to enter. This represents those who carry within them the beginning of new life and the nurturing of the Great Mother. The painting next to it represents a medicine wheel with the colours of the Four Directions. The medicine wheel is an ancient and powerful symbol of the universe; it shows the ways in which all things are interconnected. When the medicine wheel is used as a mirror, it shows human beings that within them are hidden many gifts that have not yet been developed. These must be discovered and nurtured and held in balance. Each of the four directions also holds gifts that point the way along this journey of discovery. The East is the direction from which the new day comes into the world. It is the place of all beginnings. It is also the direction of illumination, the place from which light comes into the world. Hence it is the direction of guidance and leadership. The South is the direction of the sun at its highest point. It is the place of summer, of fullness, of youth, of physical strength and vigour. It is also the place of the heart, of generosity, of sensitivity to the feelings of others, of loyalty, of noble passions, and of love. The West is the direction from which darkness comes and where people go when they die. This is the direction of the unknown, of dreams, prayer, and meditation. It is also the place of testing, where the will is stretched to its outer limits so that the gift of perseverance may be won. The North is the place of winter, of white snows that recall the white hair of the elders. It is the dawning place of true wisdom. Here dwell the bestowers of intellectual gifts. The North can also be seen as a direction of completion and fulfilment.

One of the great lessons of the medicine wheel is that all human beings can acquire gifts in all of the symbolic directions. At the top of the painting, framing part of the circle, are a number of buffalo, representing the source of sustenance for the prairie people when their communities and spirits were strong. The message here is the need for the Brothers to recreate their own source of sustenance and strength through their spiritual practices.

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Exercise Yard, Matsqui Segregation Unit