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Sunday, September 5 - The Forces of Matsqui

Pat Henrickson's description of Matsqui as "a powerful and forceful place -- full of different forces," proved an evocative and accurate description of what I saw and experienced in my first month of research there. Operation Big Scoop had been premised upon the fact that the forces of evil, or, as the warden described it, the small but influential group of prisoners "who were criminalizing the culture at Matsqui," had to be restrained by institutional power to enable the positive, rehabilitative forces of institutional programming to be maintained. Contrasted with this negative application of physical force was the powerful influence of Aboriginal spirituality reflected in the powwow and the day spent with the four Brothers gathering lava rock. These activities were charged with spiritual, not physical, power, and were conducted in an atmosphere of elevation rather than one of degradation.

Matsqui was also a forceful place in terms of the individuals who inhabited it. Rick Cregg and Mike Csoka, in describing their views on the true nature of criminals, talked of the "beast" in the hearts of men which revealed itself to them and their colleagues on the afternoon shift as darkness descended on the prison. These images were not far removed from those used by prisoners in relating their opinions of institutional staff, not only in relation to this most recent disregard of fairness but to accumulated experiences of previous disregard in other, even more forceful prisons than Matsqui.

But if the forces at work in Matsqui were at one level expressed in visceral language, at another level they were described in abstract and even metaphorical terms by people further removed from the everyday encounters of the keeper and the kept. Roger Brock, the urbane, sophisticated warden and self-described politician, explained the dynamics of power in terms of social and criminological theory, of operations designed to change the culture of the prison. Here was a warden who firmly believed that by demonstrating a management style of openness and accountability, he could influence the culture not only of his staff but also of the prisoners. Other important forces had over the years caused dramatic changes in the men and women who work in Matsqui. Jesse Sexsmith, a man whose early days as a guard were, in his own words, characterized "by hatred at the gut level", identified, while drinking herbal tea, the forces of change that have made him proud to be a member of the Correctional Service of Canada. For Ken Poirier, once an advocate and participant in "thump therapy," those same forces had enabled him to participate in a group pass with Aboriginal Brothers to gather lava rock for a sweat lodge.

The events of August 1993 showed me that Matsqui was a forceful place in the way people usually associate that term with prisons. Under my eyes, Mike Boileau was the victim of a violent assault that left him, and the walls around him, covered in blood. Barely fifty yards from where I conducted my interviews, a prisoner luckily escaped permanent injury when he was attacked with a weight bar by another prisoner. These are images of a force which the public expects in a prison. The other forces I have described are not so visible, but their impact on the lives of those who live and work inside prisons, whether as prisoners, administrators, case managers, or correctional officers, is essential to understanding the many faces of imprisonment at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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A Guard tower at Matsqui. Generally, these are no longer staffed with the advent of sensors, cameras and other security and surveillance technology protecting the perimeter fences.