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
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
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