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in case you or a friend are planning to join me. . .

by Mandy in Vanier

by Mandy Hiscocks

in case you or a friend are planning to join me. . .

Mandy Hiscocks is blogging from prison (Vanier Centre for Women) at where she is spending a 16 month sentence for offences relating to anti-G20 organizing.

in case you or a friend are planning to join me. . . .

kelly was sentenced to 11 months in Vanier July 19 for her participation in the anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist, pro-justice actions that happened during the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto. if you haven't already you can read about it here. she's been put across the hall on 2A so i can see her now and then and sneak in an illegal wave. there are some really nice folks on 2A, and i have no doubt she's doing just fine. since her release on bail almost two years ago she has been under a condition not to communicate with the G20 Main Conspiracy Group, so we haven't spoken. if we could have, i would have shared some of the things i've learned about jail with her before she came in. instead i'll share them with you, in case you (or a friend) ever find yourself looking at a stay in the lovely Milton Hilton. For what it's worth, my top five pieces of unsolicited advice:
1) be okay with it
2) take care of yourself
3) set goals and do stuff
4) don't expect too much of yourself
5) be a bridge

let me explain.

1) be okay with it

 so you broke the law. big deal. In the wise words of Sioux Woman Mary Crow Dog, “The thing to keep in mind is that laws are framed by those who happen to be in power and for the purpose of keeping them in power.”

one reason i haven't experienced long bouts of negativity is that i don't regret what i did to land myself in jail. i'm proud of what we accomplished in the summer of 2010 and the lead-up to it, i think the kind of organizing that landed me on a police surveillance list is important work, and i'm comfortable with the decision my co-accused and i made to negotiate with the Crown. sure, i made mistakes, but when i look back on the past few years i'm thinking about how to do it all better next time – not wishing i'd never gotten involved in the first place. it makes a huge difference. it's rough for the inmates here – and there are many – who are kicking themselves over a stupid decision or lapse of judgement, and who desperately wish they could take it back and undo the damage to themselves, to others, and to their relationships.

as political activists, anarchists, and community organizers, we need to be able to justify our actions to ourselves and the people we're accountable to. it's completely irrelevant what the state, with its unjust laws and arbitrary enforcement of them, thinks about what we do. the fact is, however, that the state has a lot of power to punish those who dare step out of line. so we need to think hard about the shape our work will take, the consequences it could have, and if, we can live with them.

for folks on the outside: if you support a prisoner's politics, their actions, or the stand they took, let them know. words of solidarity have done wonders for my morale in here – hearing that people have been inspired by my words and have my back really can make a difference in how i feel about being in jail. i have been getting tons of support since i got here and i hope other prisoners are as well :)

2) take care of yourself

what is this, you're asking, mandy hiscocks talking about self-care? BUSTED. it's true, i take care of my health and well-being way more in here than i ever did on the outside. maybe it's because getting sick in here is so awful – you want to lie down for a bit? not allowed. you need peace and quiet? not happening. you'd like a painkiller? well, okay, but you'll have to wait for the nurse's rounds and you'll only get one. getting really, seriously ill and having no control over the medical care you receive is a horrible, frightening thought. similarly, spiralling into any kind of depression with no close friends around for support sounds terrible, and if it gets serious you can wind up in medical segregation. so prevention is key! another reason i've been taking better care of myself is, quite simply, that i have the time. how sad is that? go to jail! get well!

here are some things i do:

eat the healthiest food i can

this has been a challenge, because although the meals are healthy enough the proportions are huge and there's too much bread. it's hard to throw food away and it bothers me a lot, but it has to be done. before i was sentenced i got a prescription for a multivitamin, which is probably a good idea because the vegetables are often overcooked. if you decide to go on the vegan diet vitamins should be easy to pull off, since everyone seems to think that vegans are all malnourished. on top of the huge meals, there's the challenge of canteen, through which you can order chips, cookies, chocolate and candy. if you're like me and eat when you're bored, frustrated, unhappy, antsy, stressed, frustrated, pissed off, etc., you don't want that stuff around because chances are you'll be feeling those things on a fairly regular basis. then again, if treats actually make you feel better and not worse, go for it!

some jails have gyms, they do on TV anyway. Vanier has a gymnasium that Unit 2 can't use, and i've heard that outside there's a volleyball net and some sports equipment that we also can't use. instructors come in and run aerobics and yoga classes but alas not for us. on maximum security, if you want to work out, you need to know exercises that don't require mats or equipment of any kind. so be prepared! learn some in advance or ask someone to send you suggestions (with photos or diagrams) through the mail. the classics are push-ups, dips, squats, lunges, crunches, burpees, plans and so on. make sure you know how to do them properly and how to stretch well too, because an injury in here would be a huge pain in the ass. in terms of cardio there aren't too many options – the yard is small and running isn't allowed inside, and anyway the shoes are cheap flats made in China that have no support (the jail pays less than $3 per pair – they're almost certainly made in a sweatshop). i walk fast along the upstairs level and down and up the stairs at either end, over and over again. some people do step routines on the bottoms steps, and i've seen people practicing kickboxing and Tae-Bo. i do yoga in my cell before bed and hand-stands in the yard. i've not followed a solid exercise program for years, but it's easy to stay motivated in here. i'm sure the fact that we're in jogging pants and t-shirts all day every day doesn't hurt!

go outside
i prioritize yard. as soon as it's called i put down the broom/phone/pencil/newspaper and make for the door. i always feel better afterwards. fresh air is hard to come by in this sealed, climate-controlled environment so even 20 minutes not quite every day makes a difference it almost certainly doesn't cut it in terms of vitamin D though. my doctor foresaw that, and prescribed supplements before i came in – smart man! i wasn't convinced they'd give them to me because that would imply everyone should be getting them or the time outside needs to be increased. . .but they do. i imagine vitamin D supplements would be especially important if you suffer from seasonal affective disorders.

there's a lot of time to sleep here, but the conditions are not ideal. the mattresses are thin and not very comfortable – some are better than others, which means that whenever someone with a good one leaves the range there's a scramble to switch – and there aren't enough pillows to go around, so not everyone has one. it's never dark, you can't control the temperature or get an extra blanket or a window, and to top it off there's a stranger sleeping a few feet away. i've discovered that a lot of people snore, some loudly enough to wake me up which is quite impressive. Finally, and perhaps most irritatingly, you can't turn on a light – once the guard decides to dim the overhead that's that. it's too dark to write, and although i can still read it's probably really bad for the eyes so i try not to read for too long. so there's not much to do after lights “out” which is between 8:30 and 9:30pm) except the little yoga that i know and sleep. i highly recommend yoga at night – it helps me to feel relaxed enough to go to bed. still, it can be hard to get tired enough to sleep so early and in such a shitty environment. here are some other things i've found useful:

-get up early;

-lots of exercise;

-fresh air whenever it's offered;

-spending as much time on my feet as i can. i walk back and forth while reading the paper, and talk on the phone standing up;

-avoid napping during the day. we're locked in our cells between noon and 2pm, and 5 and 6pm. the lights are usually dimmed which makes it darker than you'd think - the frosted windows don't let light in. it's tempting to nap after meals, but that makes for a shitty sleep later;

-accomplish something during the day. this helps me to feel satisfied that the day has been somewhat worthwhile and it's okay for it to be ending.

some people are quite lucky when it comes to being able to sleep, but if you're not one of them here are a few other things to consider. if you take over-the-counter sleeping pills, be ready to have no access to them here. in the crusty words of one of the nurses: “we don't provide those. insomnia won't kill you.” if you use prescription sleeping pills they're far more likely to give them to you, although not necessarily the ones you're used to. if you need total darkness, practice sleeping with a towel or t-shirt over your eyes; if you need total silence, with toilet paper stuffed in your ears. finally if you have a bad back or an injury, or if there's any other reason you need a double mattress, make sure it's on your medical file somewhere and that your doctor will vouch for you. the medical staff here are wary of being scammed and they can be overly skeptical.

i started to meditate because i realized that it's one of the few things i'll be able to do if i ever get sent to the hole. but it's probably a good thing to do regardless as a way to stay grounded and maintain some perspective. i wish i'd learned some techniques before coming to jail but i didn't, so i requested and received some exercises through the mail and i practice every few days in my cell. who knows if it's doing me any good? i figure it certainly can't hurt! here are a few things i do outside which may or may not qualify as meditation:

-stand still, eyes closed. relax. feel the sun and the breeze;

-deep breaths: 4 counts in, 4 counts hold it, 4 counts out, 4 counts wait, repeat. this can be done standing still or walking the length of the yard;

-the “quietest sound”: a friend told me about this recently and i love it. you close your eyes and listen for the quietest sound you can hear in front of you, behind you, to your left and your right, above you and below you. it's like digging through the layers of sound – in my case it means tuning out the constant chaos of all the different conversations, then the sound of the highway until i can hear birdsong.

stay connected to life on the outside
jail is really isolating and pointless, and the description of incarceration as “warehousing” is exactly right. but as i hear people telling each other all the time, “this too shall pass.” i had a life before this and i'll have one when i get out, and it’s helpful to me to know that there's continuity between the two. so i write to people and read their stories, and we talk on the phone. and i try to stay in the loop with what's going on in their lives and in the community. i read the newspaper and as much alternative media as people send me. i think about the house and neighbourhood i'm going to be moving into, and make plans for the work i'll be doing in the job that's waiting for me and i think about the organizing i'll be doing when i get out and how and where i'll plug in. and, of course, i imagine seeing all the people i've missed. people have suggested that it would be too hard to have a foot in both worlds but i haven't found that to be the case. for sure it's important not to get impatient or to focus only on the future because then time drags. but i think it's just as important for me to be reminded that there's a place i belong that isn't Vanier Centre for Women.

when it comes down to it you know what you need to feel healthy and okay. my suggestions might not be helpful at all, but i hope they've at least given you something to consider.

3) set goals and do stuff

if you're the kind of person who likes to relax and sleep a lot, who isn't picky about what you read, who enjoys playing cards and chatting and watching TV, jail will be okay for you. i'm not like that. i can't be happy unless i'm busy – i need to feel like i'm accomplishing something and have goals that i'm working towards. i know for a fact that many of you who read this blog can relate, so here are some tips and suggestions for staying productive.

take on some projects
writing this blog and replying to mail are my two big ongoing projects, and they're both very rewarding. the blog is so widely read and the feedback is so positive that it feels like one of the more useful things i've done in quite a while. staying in touch with people is the best way to break the isolation of being locked away – replying to letters is a favourite on prisoners' “recommendations for staying sane” lists. it's also been very satisfying to work on projects that have a distinct beginning and end. so far most of these have involve writing pieces for other people and doing interviews. an amazing one that ended recently was the Peak Magazine's august issue, Dispatches from Ontario Prisons. it involved working with people on the outside as well as other inmates, which was a great experience, and although i haven't seen it yet (the jail won't let it in)i hear it turned out really well. at the moment i'm focusing on putting together a zine about anticipating and navigating the conflicts and tensions that inevitably arise when activists/anarchists/organizers choose to work with lawyers, and on developing a workshop on power dynamics in anarchist and other non-hierarchical groups (based on the Power and Anarchy chapter in Uri Gordon's book Anarchy Alive!). also in the works are some sort of Jailhouse Lawyer's Manual and an Orientation to Vanier Handbook. as well, i'm part of a reading group whose participants meet monthly on the outside. i send my input on the readings through the mail and am sometimes able to call in to the discussions. and speaking of reading... before coming in i set myself up with nine independent reading courses:

Indigenous History in North America
Treaties, Policies and Law
Decolonization and Solidarity
Environmental Issues
Rebellion, Resistance and Revolution
Alternative Economics
Progressive Politics and Social Structures in Science Fiction
Colonialism and Post-colonialism in Science Fiction
Environmental Thought in Science Fiction

i highly recommend doing something like this, and creating your reading lists before you come in if you can. at Vanier, if you're a student, you can get the books you need for schools sent in. because books from the outside are not normally permitted unless they've been donated, screened, and approved for the library, this is a great way to get reading material in that actually interests you. even if you're not an official student, you could still pull together a list that friends could send you one chapter or article at a time. a jail sentence is a really good opportunity to learn about things you've always wanted to know about but haven't had the time to get into on the outside. it could also be a good opportunity to take on one huge project – for example, if i didn't have the blog and my studies, and hadn't taken on all the other small projects, i probably could've written a book by now!

work on a skill
i've been working on my French, which has gotten quite rusty. the Vanier library has some books in languages other than English and you can ask for some to be brought onto the unit. my French-English dictionary (available on canteen) and i just finished Albert Camus' L'√Čtranger. you could get chapter of “teach yourself _________” books sent in if you're really ambitious – maybe you'd even find someone on the range to practice with. i've also been practicing handstands: staying up for longer, dong them one-handed, spinning around, walking, and so on. some guards get nervous and tell me to stop in case i hurt myself (infantilizing? yes) but most don't care. in my cell i juggle with balled socks. juggling is a great way to pass the time when you're tired of sitting. i'd suggest learning to juggle three ball tricks to practice while you're here. i also just received some drawing exercises in the mail from an art teacher, and i'm trying to become an okay chess player. most of these things aren't particularly useful but it just feels good to be getting better at something, and it makes passing the time feel less like wasting time.

set goals
i had set myself up with some goals before i got here. i wanted to feel physically fitter and healthier by december. now i'm aiming t be in good enough shape when i get out that my nagging minor injuries won't bother me so much and i can go rock climbing :) some people have very specific fitness goals, like being able to do 100 pushups or becoming a burpee monster. personally, i want to be able to go down into full splits again. why? i don't know... it's a thing. in terms of learning goals, i wanted to take the time to learn about Indigenous histories and to get a handle on the treaties i should be living by. and to research and think about my role in (de)colonization. obviously i could spend years on that, and intend to, but i do feel like i'm getting somewhere slowly but surely. finally, i had some goals for the inside: make it so that newspaper are allowed on the unit (done!); make the same canteen items available to inmates in male and female jails (that has been done for me – we just got a new provider and a new system); improve the book selection (it's actually much better than it was in 2010. i'd still like to make it so that people could send us books directly though). goals are good, as long as you realize it won't always be possible to achieve them. sometimes just accomplishing a day-to-day goal like “today i'll be sociable” or “today i won't get frustrated with people” or “today i will work on one thing i've been putting off” is enough to make me feel like i've done something worthwhile.

get into a routine
it's been said by many a prisoner that it's crucial to maintain some sort of routine and i couldn't agree more. it's easy for people like me who love having a structured schedule and a mostly predictable life. for the more spontaneous about you, the folks who thrive on change and spontaneity and unexpected challenges, it will be more difficult. that's where coming up with your own tasks and projects will help – routine is going to be imposed on you anyway so you might as well take a bit of control. the days are partly structured by the institution: get up, breakfast, clean cell, range tim, lunch , cell time, range time, dinner, cell time, range time, cell time, lights “out”. repeat. repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. the phones start working at 9am, if yard's going to be called it'll be called in the morning, the visit slots are at specific times every day. but the rest is up to you – how will you fill you time? what will you do when? having the autonomy to choose between different activities, set deadlines ad decide how i'm going to meet them, and occasionally say “fuck the routine, i'm going to read A Game Of Thrones all day” makes me feel more free, not less. one thing i've learned – the hard way – is that it's important to be flexible because while the general structure of the day never changes little things can wreak havoc on a strict routine, and they are rarely things you can control. if you cling to working or lockdown or visit from a shit head intelligence agent at that time is going to really piss you off (yeah okay, that last one's going to piss you off no matter what time it is). if there are things absolutely have to do between 6 and 7am and you get a cellie who keeps you up until 2am, you're going to be really frustrated. my routine is constantly being tweaked to accommodate these kinds of things. also, sometimes you just need to cut yourself some slack! your body doesn't want to do pushups, or your brain doesn't feel like writing or thinking too hard. you're already a prisoner in jail – you don't want to become a prisoner of your routine, too.

i read an article about incarceration early in my sentence (The Caging of America, The New Yorker, 30 january 2012) and one part stuck with me:

It isn't the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates... What prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment... time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.

i see how this could be true, and how it is true for a lot of people here. i don't feel that way at all. back in february i talked about stretching every activity out so it would last longer and doing one thing at a time to fill up the days. now it's no longer a matter of filling the time, it's a matter of finding the time. just like on the outside!

4) don't expect too much of yourself

i came to jail with a long list of goals and projects, and a huge reading list. i really, honestly thought i'd be bored (hence the name of this blog) so i made arrangements to keep myself busy. somewhere along the way i seem to have forgotten the reason i gave myself all this work, which was just to make sure i had something to do, and started stressing out about the fact that there's no way it will all get done. i've even caught myself thinking “argh! There's no time! December is coming too quickly!” (which i suppose is much better than watching the clock and impatiently crossing days off the calendar for the next four months). the fact is that there's far less time than i thought there would be in which to do meaningful work. for one thing i didn't expect to be held on maximum security where we're forced to spend half the day out on the range, where it's loud and distracting. there are also two people per cell. on the other unit you have a cell to yourself and can go in and out of it at will. there second thing is that i'm trying to strike a balance between working and socializing. i came here wanting to learn about the prison system and the people it affects most – it's hard to do that if i'm constantly reading and writing and not hanging out. so anyway, the projects won't all get finished and i'll barely have made a dent in the reading list. . .and i'm trying to remember that that's okay.

i had a vague and in retrospect naive notion back in january that i would “use my privilege to make people's lives a bit better.” to some extent i've been able to do that, but only in very small ways. when i look around the range i see people reading the newspaper i get delivered every day, and doing the puzzle page. there are folks playing the Scrabble and Chess games i bought off canteen. i can always spare a pencil, some paper, some toothpaste. I've helped people with parole application, letters and i once even helped someone with her taxes. i add up people's canteen order costs for them and at times i feel like the official 2F dictionary. i know people on the outside who have cell phones and internet access, and who are more than willing to send a message or look things up. those are all good things. but when it comes to offering any significant help or making any significant changes i've been completely useless. the challenges people face here are huge. very few people are able to take their cases to trial so my knowledge of the criminal “justice” system is not valuable. most people are stuck in the revolving door world of guilty-plea-probation-breach-repeat, or are dealing with Immigration Canada – all unfamiliar territory to me. besides, there is already a body of knowledge in here because some people have been dealing with these systems and this institution for years. finally, while there are some changes i would love to make and some ideas i'd love to see implemented, i've yet to figure out how. information on how to do that is impossible to come by, any staff or volunteers who might be interested are inaccessible to people on maximum security, and there is no organizing culture amongst the inmates on my range. i try not to feel too badly about my lack of success, and chalk it up to unreasonable expectations.

one thing i do feel badly about is the mail. i originally promised that i would answer every letter. . .i have failed spectacularly. i really had no idea that i would get this many, that support would be so widespread and ongoing. a word of advice to future prisoners: don't make foolish promises you may not be able to keep!

in fact, i'd suggest not making any promises at all and keeping your goals vague until you get here and see what it's like and how you react to it. your needs and capacities could be different than what you're used to on the outside. it's true that as a political prisoner i've definitely felt a sense of responsibility to learn, to do good work, to make use of all the attention. but when it comes down to it the only thing anyone – including yourself – can really ask is that you get through it and come out okay. anything on top of that is just gravy.

5) be a bridge

i just finished a novel in which one of the characters described prisoners as “the meat in the ghastly sandwich between an uncaring society and a vengeful state.” what a perfect image. it often seems overwhelming to tackle the vengeful state, but there is something we can do about the uncaring society.

if you ever find yourself in jail, try to bridge the gap between the inside and outside worlds. it's so important! as i've learned from people who read this blog, there's a serious lack of information out there about life in jail. and as i learned when i was working on The Peak's special issue on Ontario prisons, people in here really want to share their stories. the lack of dialogue is a huge barrier to society's understanding the real causes and consequences of incarceration, and it's one people like us can do something about.

Maybe you know a blogger, a volunteer at a newspaper or magazine, or a friend of a friend who hosts a radio show. Or perhaps you know of activist/advocacy groups working on issues of poverty, police brutality, migrant justice or prisoner solidarity. Those kind of connections are few and far between in here, so your presence on the range could make a huge difference, make the most of it!

so there are my top five things to consider for those of you who may wind up in jail some day, and or those of you who are doing (or will be doing) jail support.

 in related news, Alex was sentenced on june 26 to 13 ½ months – you can read about it here and check out his statement to the community. Alex is the last of the G20 Main Conspiracy Group “guilty” to go in. this is a good time for me to point out that while there are a lot of similarities between provincial jails for men and women (the food, the routine, the general feeling of isolation and so on) i'm sure there are also some significant differences. the culture and power dynamics on the range, and the interactions between inmates and guards come to mind. It's something to keep in mind when you read my posts. maybe Alex will write about his experiences in his blog.

between Alex's and Kelly's sentencing hearings, Leah got out. i saw her walk off the unit smiling on the morning of July 10, which pretty much made my day. there's really nothing better than watching people get out of here. i hope you're enjoying your freedom Leah! soon enough i'll be joining you :)


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