(Alex is a political prisoner, serving a 13.5 months for G20 organizing. He is blogging via phone and mail from jail)
On August 15th, the Toronto Star reported that the president of the public sector union that represents Ontario prison guards (OPSEU: Ontario Public Service Employees Union) is concerned that “A near riot at the Elgin Middlesex detention centre last month could occur again.” Long-simmering tensions at the facility in London boiled over starting July 27th as inmates flooded toilets, lit fires, and bent iron doors before tactical squads quelled the unrest and a five day lockdown was put in place. At the time of this writing this, September 9th, we are on our fifth day of lockdown this week. Here at the Central North Correctional Centre (CNCC) they have been non-consecutive lockdowns, and what the story in the Star didn’t report is that the catalyst for the riot at the overcrowded London facility was excessive lockdowns in the first place.
Tension also simmers here at the CNCC, though the underlying issue is less about overcrowding and more about a gradual erosion of our quality of life. Regardless of the root causes, simmering tensions left long enough, inevitably boil over. There have been riots here at the CNCC in the past- in 2003 and another in 2008. I have spoken with people involved in each of these riots and the structure and tactics of both were remarkably similar. I was lucky enough to sit down with two individuals who were charged for being ringleaders of the 2008 riot here. This piece is based on those interviews.
Two Guns, who prefers not to use his “government name,” was 20 years old at the time of the Unit 1 riot. Labeled as a ringleader, he was charged with mischief over $5000, unlawful assembly, failure to disperse during a riot, and disguise with intent. The Crown originally sought 38 months on top of the sentence he was already serving. After 8 months, Two Guns pled guilty to participating in a riot and received 6 more months on top of the 8. He had already spent 5 months in the hole.
Magoo also prefers not to use his “government name” for this interview. Originally charged with the same set of charges as Two Guns, he eventually pled guilty to unlawful assembly and was given a five month sentence. He had spent more than six years of his life behind bars and is a veteran of numerous prison riots: one 11 years ago in Hamilton when he was a young offender, one at CNCC in December of 2008, and several on J-Unit at Milhaven. “I can’t even tell you how many I have been in there– at least five,” he says. “We would riot like once a month there.” I can only assume that is a bit of an exaggeration.
Both Magoo and Two Guns tell the story of the riots remarkably similarly, given that they were on different ranges of Unit 1, with Magoo on A-block and Two Guns on D-block. Both of their stories start with a period of heightened or simmering tension followed by an incident that caused frustrations to boil over.
One evening after lock up, the prisoners on D-block watched a fellow prisoner, D.B., get dragged out of his cell after an altercation earlier in the day with the guards. He had refused to follow a direct order. Already handcuffed, he was pulled into a corner of the range known to be off-camera, but within view from all the cells. Two guards held him while a captain beat him with his fists and knees. D.B. was dragged unconscious to the hole.
The next morning, Two Guns and his cell mate B.H. told their range that the plan was to refuse to return the meal trays after lunch. “Let’s riot. This is bullshit,” they said to each other. “Nobody locks up,” Two Guns told the range (unit 1 is the remand unit and has always had a lockup period in the afternoon). They withheld the trays until a captain showed up, and after a short argument, Two Guns yelled at him to “get the fuck off the range, we’re not locking up.” The captain’s reply as he left was simply, “Have it your way.”
“When I saw them throwing meal trays at the glass,” Magoo says, “I turned around and told everybody: we’re involved.”
On both ranges as well as on C and E blocks, things played out similarly, with Two Guns and Magoo taking the lead on D and A. The cameras were covered up, then the windows, as everybody masked up with t-shirts and obscured their arms with socks. On A-block, the phones were smashed off the wall and on D-block, Two Guns kicked the sinks off. “Now we have riot-proof sinks,” he remembers with a smile.
On both A and D they flooded the ranges by breaking off the overhead sprinklers. On D, Two Guns used the sinks to knock out the stools (which were bolted to the floor) then used the stools to knock down the brick shower walls in order to use the bricks as projectiles. On A, Magoo used the phones as D-block had the sinks, and then he started “multi-tasking,” coordinating an assault on the range that included nearly ripping several cell door frames from the walls (“the hinges were too strong to break”) and even using the stools to break right through the wall to the next range. On D, Two Guns smashed the TVs and guys made shanks with the broken glass. The guards never even attempted to come on the ranges. After six or seven hours, negotiators knocked on the windows, one range at a time. When they got to D-block Two Guns told them, “We want D.B. back on the range.” When the negotiators told them that wasn’t going to happen, the rioters told them to “Come back when you’re ready to do what we want.”
After seven or eight more hours, guys were wet, cold, and hungry. Two Guns says that people had “rioted themselves out” and told themselves “we have proven our point.” Only once people had gone back into their cells did the riot team arrive in full gear with their shields and rubber bullets.
In the end, Magoo says, “Most of the team players in the riot were tied up and shipped out.” At-least 22 guys were facing charges and transferred to other prisons. Some of them, according to Two Guns, were badly beaten by the guards.
I asked Magoo what he thinks the riot accomplished. “Nothing,” he says. “Truthfully, it helped [the guards] more than anything and gave them a bargaining chip for their contracts.”
Ironically, as tensions simmer once again at the CNCC, the provincial contracts are now to about to come up for renegotiation. Some of the guys here claim that is not a coincidence; I have heard speculation that the guards are trying to provoke a riot because it would put them in a stronger bargaining position. While this is an interesting thought, I personally cannot believe that.
“They don’t care,” Magoo continues. “It’s such a big institution that [a riot on a single unit] doesn’t do anything…the whole institution would have to be united.” He believes there is not enough unity here amongst prisoners, and as a result “the smash-up doesn’t do anything.” He compares it to federal penitentiaries where there is much more organizational capacity in the prison population. “There, [the institution] knows what is going to happen. No matter what, when the guard hits one of us, it’s mandatory that it’s a smash up. Everybody knows it’s on, everybody is united, everybody will back each other up.” A big part of the reason that both Magoo and Two Guns took plea deals is because there were more than a half dozen guys on each range who ratted them out as ringleaders.
“In the pen,” Magoo says, “it’s not a couple of hours; it’s days.” So when a riot starts it’s an opportunity to address all the issues that people care about, not just the incident that brought things to a boil. He also points out that in the Pen, prisoners don’t go to work during riots. He tells me that if we had the same unity here, strikes and riots would be more effective. “If all the guys in the kitchen and the warehouse refused to go to work,” he says, “it’d fuck the jail right up.”
Two Guns draws some of the same conclusions. “There wasn’t any lesson,” he tells me. However, he also says, “I’d do it over and over again if I had to for that cause…I think we were in the right. Guards were abusing their authority and we’d just had enough of being treated like that.” He is less convinced that the riot didn’t accomplish anything. “Now if you go to Unit 1,” he says, “the guards are nice as pie.”
I ask Magoo about solidarity. “It’s when everyone is united and will stick together,” he tells me. When I ask Two Guns, he says “we’ve got to stick together… we have to put our foot down somewhere. If we don’t fight back they just keep taking from us, cause no one stands up against them.”