Friday, January 16, 2009

Prison riot

It was just a few days ago that the pen erupted.

Millington Max had been under lockdown for months. The warden was clear from the beginning. "We take no crap from these bastards," he said to his correctional officers. "None. If we let them get away with any infraction at all, they'll see it as licence." He went off, muttering something about a broken window.

Some of the prisoners were just about the worst the country had to offer, if anyone were buying. There were serial killers, pedophiles, rapists, gang members. The place simply seethed with violence. It was in the air, in the cells and ranges, in the pathetic little bit of dirt they called a yard, in the way people on both sides of the bars looked at each other.

Contraband kept getting smuggled in, and some guards were assaulted in the gym by a posse of inmates run by some wheel over in seg, so the warden just shut the place down back in the summer. No visitors. No privileges. The hole for the slightest violation of the rules.

The prison shop, or "industries" as it was called, was where the inmates made licence plates--and an endless variety of shivs, which they managed to get to their cells by suitcasing them, somehow avoiding internal injury when they did so. The warden insisted on keeping the place going anyhow. From time to time an inmate would shank a suspected rat; and some, out of sheer lunacy, would have a go at the screws. Those guys would end up in the hole for weeks--or simply disappear.

The riot started when the warden decided to have an outdoor meeting in the yard--unprecedented, but he fancied himself a good speaker, and he had a message to deliver. "OK, listen up," he said. "I can keep this place locked down forever if I feel like it. I can s**t in your food and I can piss in your coffee, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. You want things to get back to normal, whatever the hell that is, you gotta get rid of that prisoners' committee of yours. I won't meet with them, that's that, and if you don't like it, too f**king bad."

There had been some dumb idea from a bunch of liberal pointy-heads that it was a good thing to have such a committee--they said it would diffuse tension, and they talked a lot of rot about safety-valves. Against the warden's better judgement he had the inmates pick their committee, and they promptly went ahead and chose the worst bunch of bastards in the joint. End of experiment, and just to drive his point home, he locked the whole place down for a week and put the inmates on K-rations.

He finished his speech, and there wasn't a whole lot of reaction--for a few seconds. Then there was a peculiar rumble, a growling sound slowly getting louder, like an avalanche bearing down on weekend skiers. The warden wasn't worried--he was surrounded by a small army of guards, who fanned out to herd the inmates back into their cells.

But something went wrong. They wouldn't go quietly. Some of them spat or struck out at the guards and were beaten and dragged off. Others began to throw volley after volley of shivs, at the guards and at the warden as he retreated. Most of them fell on the ground, but a few, whether due to luck or skill, reached their targets. And one guard, his neck gushing blood, died right there on the spot.

The warden wasted no time. "The only thing these bastards understand is force," he said. He ordered a total lockdown, no exercise, no food. "Never mind searching the cells for weapons and giving the prisoners their short-armed salutes," he said. "They still have as many shivs the next day as they did yesterday. These f**kheads need a lesson they'll never forget."

Guards began to throw sticks of dynamite into the crowded cells at random. The media weren't allowed in--"for their own protection," said the warden--but the word was getting out, in distorted fashion. Folks in the town could hear the explosions. Ambulances rushed to the scene, although they were kept from entering the walls for hours.

The paramedics' reports, when they emerged from the prison, were dire. The prison infirmary was packed to overflowing, and didn't even have aspirin at this point. Wounded prisoners were being taken out in the ambulances, but in a trickle--apparently the prison was strewn with corpses and bloodied, screaming survivors.

The local press, and then the national press, flocked around the outside of the pen. The warden came out to give an impromptu press conference. "The situation is well in hand," he said. "We need a little more time, but we're on the point of restoring order." He refused to take questions, and went back inside.

The next morning, editorials praised the warden for his handling of the situation. Wrote one editor:

Some of the dregs of society imagined that they could take over their own prison. At perhaps tragic cost, some have learned, and others are in the process of learning, their lesson.

Our correctional officers have the right to work without being in constant fear for their lives. Our correctional institutions are not democracies: people are not sent there for acts of good citizenship.

The warden acted with the utmost prudence in stopping a riot that could have spread like wildfire. His sheer professionalism in dealing with increasingly dangerous provocations that claimed the life of one correctional officer and injured several others was exemplary.

It is always sad when innocent people die. But we need to remember that in Millington Max there are no innocent people, other than the brave correctional officers who protect us all, the rest of the prison staff, and of course the warden. Thanks to their decisive action, we can expect that our penal institutions will be safer for all concerned from now on--and for the inmate population as well.

Unsurprisingly, the John Howard Society, the Elizabeth Fry Society and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association did not agree. "Always on the side of the inmates," said one supporter of the action. "They're anti-guard, always have been." Another pointed out a small contingent from NAMBLA at a street protest against the killing of what was reported to be more than two hundred inmates, including four child molesters. "Not only anti-guard--pro-pedophile," wrote a blogger. "They don't give a s**t for the prisoners," wrote another. "Their agenda is clear--they support crime, period."

The federal government announced that no inquest would be held. "We are not about to question the actions of those who stopped a dangerous riot in its tracks," said a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections. Meanwhile, many of the families of the dead held a candlelight vigil on Parliament Hill, dismissed by most observers as "a cheap photo-op."

One commentator asked, "Is this a long-term solution for our overcrowded prisons? Will this end the violence? Surely brute force alone will not make our prisons, or indeed our society, a safer place to be." But the author of an op-ed piece summed up the majority feeling when she wrote:

The bottom line is this:

There can be no change in our admittedly antiquated prison system unless the prisoners agree to stop the violence. Obviously changes are needed, and the voices of responsible prisoners must be heard. But given the violence that the inmates just unleashed at Millington Max, calls for prison reform at this point are completely unjustified and indeed irresponsible.

With reform goes responsibility. Perhaps, with this prompt and measured action by the warden involved, we have turned the corner. Perhaps we have not. Either way, the inmates have learned, to their cost, who is boss. And in itself that's hardly a bad thing.

As for the future, only time will tell.

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