August 1993: Brew Parties - Different Strokes for Different Folks
On August 18 I attended my third session of the disciplinary court. The six cases on the docket involved charges of possession of contraband in the form of home brew. Three of the prisoners had been charged following a "brew party" on August 11 and the other three following another party on August 12.
At the disciplinary hearing on August 18, the three prisoners charged on August 12 appeared first. Mr. Hanson, Mr. Loucks, and Mr. Jones had been kept in segregation since August 12 and appeared in the courtroom in handcuffs. Each pleaded guilty to the charge. None of the prisoners had previous convictions for possession of brew, and all received what Mr. Routley described as his normal sentence for a first contraband conviction: 30 days' segregation suspended for 90 days. The institutional advisor expressed no disagreement with this standard sentence. However, after the third prisoner was dismissed from the room, the advisor informed Mr. Routley that the three had caused problems for the institution over the weekend while in segregation by threatening to kill staff members and throwing food out of their cells onto the range. Mr. Routley asked rhetorically, why, if this was so, they had not been charged with these incidents.
The next three cases involved the prisoners charged following the brew party on August 11. These prisoners had also been taken to segregation, but, unlike the first three, they had been released the next day; at the Segregation Review Board held that morning, the decision had been made that the prisoners be released from segregation since they had sobered up, the segregation unit was overcrowded, and cells were needed for other prisoners. After the August 12 meeting, which I had attended, I asked the Chairperson of the Segregation Review Board whether, if segregation cell space had not been at a premium, the three prisoners would have been kept in segregation. He said the normal practice was to release prisoners sent to segregation on brew charges the next day, provided they had sobered up. This second group of prisoners had therefore spent the last week in the general population and appeared in court without handcuffs. Like the previous three prisoners, they pleaded guilty and received the standard 30 days' segregation, suspended for 90 days.
That all six prisoners received the standard sentence for a first conviction for possession of contraband was entirely appropriate, given that their offences were virtually identical. However, from the prisoners' point of view, viewing the disciplinary process as one which began with their being charged for the offence and ended with their guilty pleas and the imposition of punishment, there was unequal treatment. The prisoners charged on August 11 spent only one day in segregation prior to their court hearing, but those charged on August 12 spent six days in segregation after being charged with exactly the same offence. The reason for the difference lay in a decision made by the warden on Friday, August 13. Responding to the fact that there had been brew parties in the institution on two consecutive nights, he informed his staff that it was important to demonstrate the zero tolerance policy of Matsqui towards brew. To crack down, prisoners charged with brew offences would be detained in administrative segregation until their court appearances. The prisoners charged on August 12 had been the first to feel the brunt of this crackdown. Mr. Routley, in his response to Mr. Wagner the previous week, had correctly stated that under the Corrections and Conditional Release Act there was no authority to keep a prisoner in segregation based solely on the ground that he was facing a disciplinary charge. A week later, the warden at Matsqui concluded that, to indicate zero tolerance of brew offences, such detention was justified.
The three prisoners charged on August 12 were thus the subject of unfair treatment, and I wondered if their disruptive behaviour in segregation had been related to their sense of that unfairness. To answer this question, I decided to interview the three. Before doing that, I spoke to one of the staff involved in the cases. His response, like the responses of the prisoners, revealed not only the relationship between disciplinary and administrative decision-making but also the critical importance of perception. In the prison, as outside, justice and fairness oftentimes lie in the eyes of the beholder.
The first person I spoke to after the disciplinary hearings was Rick Cregg, who had been in charge of the Segregation Unit over the weekend in question. He said Mr. Hanson, Mr. Loucks, and Mr. Jones had caused problems for the staff there. When I asked why he had not laid charges against them, he responded that it was futile to do this in light of the way the charges would be dealt with by the Independent Chairperson. In support of this position, he cited the fact that the men had received suspended sentences for the brew charges. I explained that Mr. Routley had not been aware of any aggravating circumstances in the cases of these three men, and therefore he had followed his previous precedent, to which no objection had been raised by the staff advisor.
I then interviewed Greg Hanson, Randy Loucks, and Ron Jones. Mr. Hanson told me that he and Mr. Loucks had obtained some brew in order to have a little celebration for Mr. Jones, who had just arrived in Matsqui. They had known each other in Drumheller Institution and, as Mr. Jones put it, it was a "coming to Matsqui party." They were sitting in the recreation yard reminiscing about old times when some guards came up to them. Even though they had emptied their cups, the guards smelled the liquor, and the men were charged with possession of contraband and taken to the hole. Mr. Hanson said that this was the first brew he had ever taken in jail and "it was definitely not Glenfiddich"; he was quite drunk, and when he got to the hole he could barely stand up. When he awoke the next day he was extremely embarrassed, both for being caught and because he had thrown up all over his cell. He hit the buzzer in his cell and asked when he was going to get out, assuming he was in segregation only until he sobered up. Instead, he was told by the keeper that "the warden was pissed off" with him and that he and the other two were going to be made an example of because of the increasing use of brew in the institution. They would be kept in segregation for the weekend and let out Monday. On Monday, they were told they would be kept in segregation until the court dealt with their cases. Mr. Hanson was told this was because he and the other two prisoners had been heard talking to each other about taking staff hostages and "kicking pig ass."
The prisoners were informed that incident reports had been filed by Officer Cregg, the keeper on duty over the weekend. When Mr. Cregg returned on shift on Tuesday, the prisoners asked him what he had written. He said he had reported an exchange among four prisoners, including the three of them, that involved talk about taking hostages. The prisoners were told that although they would not be charged with any offence, these incident reports would be on their records. The men expressed concern that they were not shown copies of incident reports and therefore had no way to challenge the truth of what was written in them.
Mr. Hanson, in describing what had happened over the weekend, told me the comments about "kicking butt" were made more in the nature of bravado. If the men had been serious about taking hostages, he said, they would hardly have proclaimed their intentions in the segregation range for all to hear. Their talk was also prompted by being singled out by the warden for especially harsh treatment; instead of being released the next day, like the three prisoners charged with the same offence the night before, they had to spend the weekend in segregation. Yet their drinking had been no more serious than anyone else's; they had not created an incident when arrested nor challenged staff when they were taken to segregation. Mr. Jones and Mr. Loucks told me this kind of unfair treatment would not help them change what the administration viewed as their "bad attitude" towards authority. Mr. Hanson was rather more stoic. He said that ten years earlier he would have been really angry about this kind of treatment, but now he had come to accept it as part of doing time. As he put it, "I've come to accept that in prison anyone with a red pen can fuck up your day."
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