(from Alex's prison blog)
As I write this ( September 6), we are on lockdown for the fourth time in less than ten days. It seems that this morning on one of the cell blocks on Unit 1, guys ripped the T.V and phones from the walls, leading to a prison wide lockdown.
Tensions have been high lately at the CNCC. As I wrote an earlier draft of this piece, a fellow prisoner had barricaded himself in one of the cells on the upper tier of our range, cell block 5A. He had occupied a vacant cell after the guards refused to give him permission to switch from the one he was assigned to (and had been living in for months) where the toilet had not been working for weeks. At the time I wrote that “sooner or later a team of guards will likely come to extract him from the cell and force him off the range.” That would have made him the sixth guy from our range to be thrown in the hole in a single 48 hour period. Events this morning seem to attest that this place is ready to go off. The disregard for our sanitary conditions (exemplified in refusing to let our friend switch cells) is but a small piece of what’s been going on here. Less than two weeks ago there were discussions amongst prisoners about taking collective actions to fight back against the steady erosion of our quality of life and cuts to our living conditions.
This piece is about some of the protest tactics that have been employed in this prison in recent years. Over the past several weeks I have had the privilege to conduct a few interviews with people who have lead actions here. Magoo and Two-Gunz led a riot in 2008, and Tigger was a leader in a unit wide hunger strike last year.
Much of the tension has had to do with the prison incrementally revoking the “swinging door” policy that this place used to have on some units. A unit with swinging doors is one where we are allowed in and out of our cells during the day, though still locked in on the range. Increasingly we’ve been “locked out” more and more which means that when we come out of our cells for breakfast in the morning we are not allowed back in, potentially until we are locked back up for the night. These lockouts have a very real and detrimental effect on our living conditions. It makes jail less sanitary, decreases privacy and generally increases tensions amongst prisoners. Locking thirty two “criminals” together in a single cage with no respite is a disaster waiting to happen. Sometimes it takes just a spark to start a fire.
In 2008 an assault by the guards on a prisoner provided that spark and unit 1 erupted in a riot that caused tremendous physical damage to the jail. Recently there has been a lot of talk about what a response should be to the slow attack on our quality of life. There hasn’t been a singular spark to set off something really incendiary and most of the guys are in agreement that non-violent tactics at this moment would be preferable.
“Personally I don’t want to riot while I’m in jail,” says ’RogerTigger Langlois, 25. In the summer of 2011 he was one of the organizers of a two day hunger strike on Unit 6 participated in by as many as 150 prisoners. The strike was in response to the prisons first attempt to “lock out” the prisoners all day. There use to be all day ‘swinging doors’ here but in July of last year people started hearing rumours that the institution was preparing to move towards a prison-wide all-day lockout.
I interviewed Langlois about the strike. “It felt good actually planning it,” he told me. The plan first hatched between him and his cell mate, which was then brought to the guys on their range, and then eventually spread to the rest of the unit.
At the beginning of the strike, right after they’d first refused to allow the meal cart onto the block, Langlois’ cell mate was pulled off the range and he was threatened with charges of “inciting a riot.” He was never charged but was sent to Unit 2, a higher security part of the prison. When Langlois stepped into his cell mate’s role, the same threat was made against him. But when the guards pulled him off the range the rest of the guys responded by saying, “we’re going to start smashing shit if you don’t put him back.” Langlois was indeed returned to the range.
The main reason the hunger strike is effective as a tactic, Langlois believes, is because “the guards see it as just a first step to what’s going to happen. They are doing it peacefully now, but what’s next?”
After two days of refusing to accept meals they made a deal for what felt like a pretty big concession from the prison. The hunger strike ended and cell doors were left ‘swinging’ during meal times and on weekends. Policy was still like that when I arrived here this past July.
Langlois hesitantly calls it a victory, “at least we got something out of it,” he tells me. “If we’d held out longer they probably would have thrown another deal at us,” he thinks. “You don’t take their first offer” he says in reflection. At this stage he continues “you know you have them weak, so keep them talking.”
“It wasn’t my call to stop the hunger strike,” he tells me. “I would have held off,” he laments, “it’s just like any negotiation.”
“But,” he says “We are in jail [and] food is big in jail. You can only hunger strike for so long before shit starts happening. You are stuck in a cage with no food just like animals,” he says, implying that sooner or later the guys will likely turn on each other if the tactic is pushed too far. Solidarity is an unfortunately rare commodity in provincial prison culture and from an organizing perspective it important to not squander it while it is strong.
I asked Langlois if he thinks more aggressive tactics would have got him more. “I think us going a non-violent way was what got us the deal, but if the deal didn’t happen it might have had to come to a riot,” he replied.
“Would that have worked out as well,” I ask. “Yes [a riot] might have been effective but maybe it might not have been. Only if it had to come to that, am I going to do it,” he says. “If it’s the only way they are going to listen and that’s what people are doing, then I’ll do it.”
Langlois calls it a victory and I agree. “In the end we won,” he says, not because they got everything they were asking for, but “because we didn’t do what they wanted us to”
I also agree that it was not necessarily the tactic of self deprivation but rather outrage and solidarity that were the best weapons. “It worked,” he tells me, “because everyone stuck together… everybody hated the idea of them taking away the only privilege that we really have.”
Langlois is rightfully outraged, too, that the prison is now similarly trying to take away something they won through solidarity and protest. I will also agree with Langlois’ assessment that “if they keep taking things away, well, something’s going to happen.”
The night I was writing the first draft of this piece the guards never actually came to force our friend out of cell twelve, instead a captain came an negotiated, she acknowledged that he had for weeks been requesting to have the toilet in his cell fixed and promised not to have him thrown in the hole or even given a misconduct if he removed the obstruction from the door. He agreed.
The next morning we were all locked down for a couple of hours while maintenance fixed the toilet in cell 1 as well as another one on the range which hadn’t been working for nearly a week. Our friend is back in cell one. And several days later he has still not received any punishment.
This incident, as well as Langlois’ recounting of the hunger strike, really reassured me how effective it can be to take action on issues that immediately affect us. We can take power and control over situations in our lives, even in prison.
Next: Resistance at the CNCC Part Two: Anatomy of a prison riot.
September 9th update: Today, when we finally got let off lockdown the cell doors were left swinging for the remainder of the day as they had been one day last weekend as well. The previous few weekends, however that had not been the case; while the guards have suggested that the regularization of these unfortunate changes is imminent, it’s possible that they won’t be. We will see what happen.
Update, September 17: This past Friday we were informed that our unit would be making a permanent move to full-day lockouts and over the weekend we were indeed locked out of our cells all day. I’ve been told that the lockouts are “pre-emptive safety measures” as well as “for our operational” reasons. Nonetheless there was still a series of fights on B block over the weekend. So much for safety.
In my personal assessment, it was probably the most miserable weekend of my incarceration thus far. I and several other guys started making a list of the negative impacts on our quality of life.
Today, however, at lunch time, cells unlocked again, giving us back our meal time “swinging doors.” And right now as I write this, while no collective action has been taken in response to the attack on our living conditions, guys are standing outside my cell, speculating as to why things have returned to the way they were, despite a captain having previously told us that it was to be an indefinite change. Of course, we’ve been given no explanation.
I had been planning to write for this update that, despite no collective action having been taken, tensions were right at the boiling point here. But with the cut to our quality of life having apparently been repealed, things have again been dialed down to a simmer.
September 18: We are now again back to another day of full lockout. We’ll see what happens.