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THE DOORMy twenty-six years working inside Canada's prisons
By VERN THIBEDEAU
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Vern Thibedeau
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy first day at Collin's Bay Penitentiary.
I first saw the Door on April 10, 1973.
I don't recall the exact time, but I remember the weather: it was damp, with angry black clouds crashing into each other, and I was vehemently hoping this was not a sign of my future. And my emotions—they were a mixture of extreme excitement and a large dose of very real apprehension. You do tend to have mixed emotions when you are embarking on a unique career. You have no way of knowing if you are going into a tailspin or flying to the moon. But because I was stepping into a very weird and unusual environment, you can bet I was the owner of a large dose of fear.
When I first stood in front of the Door, I didn't realize the impact it would have on my family and me. I also did not visualize the drastic changes it would make in my life. If I could have had an insight into those changes, I might very well have turned around and run from the Door.
The Door was immense. Most doors are made to allow one or two people to enter or leave at one time. Doors also usually have an aura around them that says, "Welcome." The Door seemed to scream a warning to leave.
With my heart hammering in my chest, I hesitantly placed my hand around the immense handle and gave it an experimental tug. And nothing, absolutely nothing, happened! By now, every fibre in my being was screaming at me to turn around and leave. The long drive back to my home and normal routine was becoming more appealing to me with each passing moment. I was beginning to believe it had been an enormous error of judgment to even think about embarking on this new life. Suddenly, there was a click. This click, to my ears, sounded like a crack of thunder. My shaking hand was still wrapped around the brass handle, so I gave it another exploratory tug. My tentative tug caused it to swing open. The Door really wasn't all that heavy after all, or I was a hell of a lot stronger than I thought!
With a great deal of trepidation, I stepped through the Door to begin my new life.
As soon as I entered the building, the Door automatically swung shut and closed with a reverberating clang. At the same time, a mechanical-sounding voice asked if it could help me. I couldn't see anyone in my vicinity and realized someone was speaking to me through an intercom. I informed this disembodied voice that I was here to begin employment. It instructed me to go up the stairs on my left to the next level and report to the staff training officer.
I found the office, which was empty, but because the door was open and a sign stated the staff training officer belonged there, I went in and sat down.
So here I was. I had taken the first major step toward beginning my new life. At the time, I thought—hoped—the Door would be the biggest obstacle I would face and that now that I had made it through the Door, I'd be home free. I was now a duly sworn federal peace officer and an official member of what at that time was called the Canadian Penitentiary Service. This name would soon be changed to Correctional Service Canada to better reflect the bilingual nature of Canada. I was also assigned to CBI (Collin's Bay Penitentiary) in Kingston, Ontario. This institution, and for good reason, was better known to some people as "Disney World."
This was certainly a huge step for a person born and raised in a small northern Ontario town who had never set foot inside a prison before; in fact, when I accepted the job, I didn't even know what a correctional officer was. I was soon to find out!
Within a few minutes, a man in uniform entered, introduced himself as Robert, and told me he was the staff training officer. He told me I was one of six new officers and that we would be assigned to him for training purposes for a couple of weeks. This training would include weapons instruction, a tour of the institution, issuance of uniforms, reading standing and post orders, and sundry other items. In addition, when there was an opportunity to send us, there was a twelve-week course at the Correctional Staff College that we would have to pass in order to keep our jobs. And strange as it may seem, we were to have the opportunity to work overtime during our training due to a chronic staff shortage at CBI; apparently, all five major institutions in the area were having the same staffing problem.
Rob took me to a large boardroom where several guys were sitting, introduced me to everyone, and said he would be right back with some reading material for me. I soon discovered that with one or two exceptions, these guys didn't know much more about prison life than I did. I still wonder if all of us would have stayed if we had been more knowledgeable about the future.
Rob soon returned with a stack of binders that he was nice enough (I'm being facetious here) to set down in front of me. He informed us we were to read these whenever we had the opportunity. He also stressed that the binders were confidential reading material and told us to make sure the last person who left the room locked the door. Then he told us he was leaving to set up the revolver range and would be back shortly. Once Rob left, I opened one of the binders. It had "Post Orders for Collin's Bay Penitentiary" printed on the front in large capital letters. The front of the binder also said "confidential material" in large red letters. Unfortunately, most of the words and phrases in the binder were completely foreign to me: range, traveling bars, segregation, disassociation, Folger Adams keys, mace, and on and on and on. I only read a few pages and knew with certainty I wouldn't be spending as much time reading as the administration wanted me to. Little did I know that within a very short time, I was going to regret that decision. I also didn't want to ask the others to explain anything; there was no way I wanted to appear as innocent as I was! Later, I realized everyone was more or less in the same boat and they didn't want to ask any questions either. Later in my career, I would be the one formulating institutional post orders.
Thirty minutes or so later, an older officer entered the room, introduced himself as Archie, and said he would be with us for a few days. He told us he was transferring back into corrections from the garage and would be assisting the staff training officer for a few days.
Archie asked us to follow him to an office to sign some papers and to fill out a next-of-kin form. In less than two years, my wife, Sheila, and I were going to discover these next-of-kin forms were a waste of time, because, at least at CBI, they were ignored. Anyway, we trooped down the hall and signed the forms and then went to the staff lounge to have a coffee break. So far this seemed like a hell of a good job—little did I know!
Within a short time, Rob returned and told us to follow him down to the staff mess for lunch. We all trooped down those same stairs, came to a large barrier, and had to stand there until it slid open. The barrier was controlled from an immense room enclosed in metal walls about four feet high. Thick glass extended up for about another five feet and disappeared into the ceiling. There were slots in the metal just below the glass, and Rob told us these small doors were gun ports. My immediate thought was, Well, ain't that nice.
Rob informed us this sizeable area was called the main control. He also explained that two officers were posted here on all shifts except for the morning shift (eleven to seven). Apparently, only one staff member was required on that particular shift. He also told us the glass was bulletproof and the control centre contained numerous weapons in case of an emergency. He made sure we understood the danger of inmates breaching the centre and seizing the weapons. However, I was to find that—at least back then—it practically took an act of war for weapons to be issued at the Bay. In addition to the weapons in the main control, he told us the main armoury was on the second floor just down from his office. I couldn't help but think, Hell, there are enough firearms right here to start a small war!
We trooped around the main control and went through another opened barrier at the other end. And there it was. The strip! This area had been called the strip for years and was known by that name throughout the region. It was basically a large hallway that must have been twenty feet wide and appeared to continue forever. Rob told us that all movement, staff and inmate, was through the strip. I must admit the strip hit me much like the Door; it made me feel small and inconsequential. It was cavernous.
At this particular time of day, the strip was almost empty. I could see only three or four people, and they were in uniform. Rob explained that all inmates were locked in their cells and being counted. I must admit this certainly made me happy. I really was not in any hurry to see a bunch of inmates. He also told us he had purposely waited until this time to take us down to the mess. I looked at my watch and noted that it was eleven thirty. I still remember thinking it was really nice of him to do this for us; however, it didn't take me very long to learn that there was a method to his madness.
As we continued our walk, he explained that staff counted the inmates several times a day, always at the same times, and this particular count was called the noon count. He informed us that we would become very familiar with counts, and from that I got the impression that counts were extremely important and highly regulated. One thing he didn't bother to inform us was that by the time we finished eating, the count would be called correct and the strip would be full of inmates going for their lunch. I guess it was just as well he didn't—I was able to enjoy my lunch!
Rob started down the strip and we, as usual, followed like obedient little sheep. We were all craning our heads around like chickens trying to see everything at once. But everything was so completely alien, my mind just couldn't accept everything I saw. I can just imagine what we must have looked like to other staff. As we followed along, he explained about the barriers and exits leading off the strip. The first exit was on the left and went to admissions and discharge. I looked into the area as we passed, but there wasn't much to see.
The next exit was also on the left and went into the gym and school area.
And then on the right I was afforded my first view of a cell block. This block, named Three Block, was separated from the strip by a large barrier made of steel bars. The barrier looked like it would hold against anything except an assault by a tank! I tried to look into the cell block, but it was difficult to see anything and I certainly didn't want to be left behind by our little procession.
A little farther down the strip on the left side was another block. This one was named One Block, and once again there was not much to see. However, emanating from this area was noise. The noise assaulted the ears and seemed to be made up of several radio stations turned as loud as they could possibly go and all tuned to different stations. Mingled with this was the sound of people yelling and other voices screaming, "Turn the fucking radios down." These commands were answered with shouts and jeers of profanity and someone screaming, "Stick the goddamn thing up your ass."
I have to mention one thing here. One of the loudest songs being played was "The Night Chicago Died" by Paper Lace. At the time this was a hit tune, and I think one of the favourite lines of the song was "about a hundred cops are dead," because every time that particular line was played, the inmates all cheered. I must admit, though, that no matter how many times I heard the song, it was one of my favourites.
Directly across from One Block was Two Block. There was not much to see in this area either. There was a large empty area leading to stairs that were closed off so you could tell they went up but not where they ended. Toward the left, there was an entrance to a range, but it was closed off by a barrier similar to the cell block barriers but on a much smaller scale. Rob informed us this had once been 2A but had been converted to segregation due to the fire in Three Block. I couldn't hear any screaming or yelling, and it was difficult to imagine there were well over a hundred men locked up in this one area.
Farther down the strip and on the left side was another cell block. This one naturally was called Four Block but was different than the other three and appeared much newer. I later found out that this cellblock had been built just a few years previously. While walking past we could tell it had one range running perpendicular to the strip and another range directly above it; also, the range barriers and cell doors were solid steel instead of bars.
As we neared the end of the strip, we began to wonder just where the hell this staff mess was hiding. At the end of the strip, which was still more than a hundred feet away, we could see still another barrier that exited to the outside. Rob told us this barrier was called the south barrier and was the only exit inmates could use to go to their work area or to the exercise yard. There was a uniformed staff member standing at the barrier, and we were told he was a keeper. I was to learn later that keeper was a fairly high rank in security and one was in charge of the prison at all times other than regular working hours. Naturally, I didn't realize it at the time, but I was to reach this dizzy height eight years later, which, at the time, was quite fast.
A few steps past Four Block and on the other side of the strip was another very solid-looking door. Rob headed for it, and we assumed we had finally reached the mess. We walked through it, with our illustrious leader, where else, but in front leading, and suddenly we were in a large room that looked similar to any restaurant I had ever seen. Rob explained that all staff received a hot lunch when they were working the day shift. Since I was in Kingston by myself and had very little money and no idea where I was going to live, you can imagine how happy I was to find out I was going to have free hot lunches.
Several staff members were sitting at tables eating, some in uniform and some in civilian clothing. Everyone looked at us, and most offered some type of greeting or at least a smile. I noticed the staff in uniform seemed to be rushing their meals. It also appeared that staff were divided by an invisible barrier—uniformed staff in one group and no uniformed staff in another. I later found out that this was a natural occurrence; correctional officers just seem to gravitate to other correctional officers. To some degree, this isolation also extends to their families. It wouldn't take long for my family and me to fit into this pattern.
During our lunch, staff continually entered and left the mess, and we could overhear some of their conversations.
One officer said, "The count's late again because of those goddamn cons in One Block."
"So what? That's nothing new," another replied.
A few minutes later an officer entered the mess and hollered, "Bingo!"
"Well," someone said, "We're one count closer to retirement."
And shockingly, it suddenly hit me; I was included in that particular statement!
Rob explained that all inmates were locked in their cells for the formal counts and not allowed out until every inmate was accounted for. He also told us that sometimes the count took longer than usual because staff counted wrong or the inmates screwed around and hid in their cells. "There are even times," Rob said, "when it's the keeper's screw-up. It's been known for a keeper to add wrong or forget to note that an inmate has left or reentered the institution."
Once the count was in, several uniformed staff jumped up and left the mess, and several more came in. And then Rob told us it was time for us to leave. He said he would take us back to the lounge area, and then we were on our own until 1300 hours, at which time he wanted us back in our meeting room. We headed for the exit, and Rob opened the door. I couldn't see out, but the blast of noise was unbelievable. When we had entered the mess earlier, the strip had been almost empty and actually, in a weird sort of way, peaceful. Now there was a loud rumbling sound intermingled with individual yells, curses, and even some laughter. It sounded as if there were hundreds of men out there and everyone was yelling, hollering, or fighting.
Excerpted from THE DOOR by VERN THIBEDEAU Copyright © 2012 by Vern Thibedeau. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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