Friday, February 22, 2013

The Pecking Order

Life in remand wasn't so bad, once you got the hang of it. The alternating rhythm of one hour on the range/one hour in lockup helped make the time pass. You could pour yourself a coffee or a bottle of "juice" any time you wanted. You could stand by the window opposite the Law Courts Building and imagine the taste of freedom.   And while you were looking out the window, there was always the possibility that a Native girl would pass by on the sidewalk below and flash her breasts to give the guys a thrill.

The juice was a huge factor in terms of quality of life. It wasn't exactly Tropicana, but it was quite drinkable. I'd say it was somewhere in between Koolaid and Sunny D in terms of quality. Definitely good enough to wash down your ham on kaiser.

The food was generally quite OK. I already mentioned my bad experience with porridge the first day, but when they served Cream of Wheat a couple of days later, I made sure I had grabbed a handful of sugars from the coffee stand before heading back to my cell to eat. (You had to eat in your cell.) That made quite a difference. My biggest quibble would be with the egg salad. I guess they must have some dietician on staff who decides when you've had enough cholesterol and transfat in your diet, because whatever they used as an mayonnaise substitute in the egg salad had no taste at all. That kind of "we-know-what's-best-for-you" attitude that really pisses me off.

The other enormous benefit of life in remand was telephone access.  You could call whoever you wanted on the outside, whenever you were out on the range. There were five free phones on the floor, shared among twenty inmates. So in theory you had unlimited access to friends and theory. I will return to this point later.

Recreational activities were rather limited. You didn't have access to things like a guitar or a scrabble board, although there were playing cards available and a computer monitor that would play chess. Of course the internet was out of the question. There was a single TV with limited choice of channels, and since you were only on the range for an hour at a time you could never see a whole movie. I was really looking forward to going to the gym, which was 45 minutes three times a week; but when I got there I was dismayed to find that it was only a workout room geared towards body-building. It seems they used to have ping pong and a basketball hoop but a combination of overcrowding and gang violence led them to cut out those activities.

On the whole I did not feel especially threatened by my fellow inmates, although there were a few hard cases in the group. There was a lot of talk about man-on-man sex but it was mostly harmless banter. One of the very disturbing things about the whole "get-tough-on-crime" attitude, especially in the United States, is the way people smirk at the idea of male rape as an accepted fact of prison life. Late-night comedians treat it as though it's something to joke about, as though it's not enough to deprive you of your freedom without also subjecting you to horrible indignities to drive home the point. Fortunately in Remand there was very little opportunity for real violence because you were almost always within eyesight of the guards in the "pod". Mind you, I was cautioned by a couple of the guys to be careful when I went into the shower area. And I should also note that the fourth floor was probably the most civilized of the cell-blocks. Eighth floor was "suicidals", and a couple of floors were reserved for gang members that had to be isolated from rival gangs...I don't know what all the other floors were for, although I suppose one of them was the female ward.

And yet there seems to be some kind of unavoidable law of social organization which decrees that in any society, there must be a pecking order. Even when you are stripped of all individuality and personal possesions, it turns out that some members of the group must assert their dominance over others. The question is: how? It turns out that this dominance must be asserted by whatever means available, no matter how scanty. Newspaper access was a case in point. Prisoners were given one newspaper to share among twenty inmates. The Winnipeg Sun would start its rounds with the trustees, and then pass from hand to hand according to a strict order. On my second day I commited the faux pas of leaning over a senior inmate's shoulder to glance at the Sunshine Girl. Without looking at me, he wordlessly turned the page to hide the picture until I went away. I got the paper in my turn, but the Sunshine Girl had already been clipped out by then. Other guys took the  Sudoku, the crossword puzzle, the horoscopes...well, at the end of the line you were just satisfied that you still got a paper to read.

It wasn't so much the deprivation as the indignity of it. The guards could easily have put an end to this system by giving out two or three copies of the paper; but the cure might have been worse than the disease. It seems that in a social group, you need to have some means of establishing dominance, and this nonsense with the newspapers probably fulfilled a useful purpose in that regard.

But even that wasn't quite enough. The alpha males had one other way they exercised their dominance: the telephones. With five phones for twenty inmates access should not have been a problem. But as soon as we got out of our cells at the top of the hour, the tough guys would be on the phones. It looked to me like it was more trouble than it was worth on their part; in any case, by the end of the hour you could pretty much count on being able to walk up to a free phone and dial out. But sometimes they would hog the phones to the very end, just to show who was boss.

Four days into this idyllic existence my life was suddenly turned upside down. Without warning, I was taken from my cell and told I was being transferred. The story will continue when we return.


    New Yorkers can be sent to jail for what appear to be minor infractions, if it's the second time and there is a bench warrant out.

  2. Yes, about the phone calls, did you have to pay for some phone time from the bullies, who think nothing about but themselves. May I ask what do you mean by the alpha males? I've never heard of that before. It's interesting to hear that Remand life was not so bad, and you make it sound it was actually o.k. being in jail. NOT GOOD NEWS to be in such a place. And your whole world was turned upside down when you had to leave from there not by self willing, but by chains of command to follow through. Just like dominoes falling into sequence. Your whole world should have been worded from the day you stepped on ground of the Winnipeg Remand Centre, not by leaving there. :)