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Line Screw
by Michael Yates

OAKALLA, the Victorian-era provincial maximum-security dungeon just outside Vancouver that was shut down in 1991 was once a tall rust-coloured jewel crowning the steep ridge that oversaw berms of wheat and other crops below. Workshops hummed, and fields were full of gangs doing genuine work. Inmates produced the food they ate and the uniforms they wore; they turned wrenches on the equipment they used, and they built the now decaying structures in which the farm animals were housed.

I'm told by the old-time cons and guards that doing time was easy in those days, which lasted from 1913 until the '70s, because there was so much to do. Sentenced time at Oakalla, a maximum of two years less a day, you could do "standing on your head" although in the old days, before United Nations guidelines for treatment of prisoners were established, they still had corporal and capital punishment. Until the '60s, death row and the gallows were still in active service.

Bit by bit, the vast productive organism that was Oakalla was whittled away by the Socred and NDP governments. By the time I arrived in 1981 the lands between Oakalla's grounds and Deer Lake had been handed over to the municipality of Burnaby, the city in which the prison resided, on the condition that they convert them to a park; but the real point was handing over supply and service of the institution to the Burnaby business community

Burnaby was too poor to create the park.

By and by there was nothing left of the work crews but the landscape gang, the kitchen gang, and hit-and-miss clean-up crews. Then Bill Vander Zalm privatized the kitchen; the cons didn't take real well to small portions and powdered eggs, and so there was a riot over that one. What was once a virtually self-supporting organism was by this time costing the taxpayer $85,000 per year per con.

Incarcerated people are no more nor less lazy than other people. They prefer at least the option to busy themselves at something. But by the time the politicians finished their spoils-of-office number, handing out pieces of corrections that would allow their election backers to get fat, we had little left. Oakalla was just a warehouse. We did nothing by way of keeping the cons busy while in stir. We did nothing by way of programs to assist them in making re-entry.

It all added up to long, empty days in which cons had nothing to do but cook up mischief and go stir crazy, which led to halfbaked escape attempts, riots, and sit-ins. Oakalla became a pressure-cooker that cranked up the collective blood pressure until it blew. Then things would be quiet for a while, and then it would blow again in another wing or unit, precipitated by almost anything.

The number of suicide attempts rose. The number of successful suicides rose. The number of days of absenteeism rose among line staff. More heart attacks, more bypasses. More guards who did a shift at Oakie, a shift drinking at the Legion or police athletic club, a few hours sleeping, then up in time to reel back on shift and pray for tower duty, where they could sleep it off, or a good work gang, where everyone could hide. One con acted as a sixman (look-out) to watch for brass while the cons dicked around and the guard slept off the hang-over.

THE GROUNDS of Oakalla are beautiful. There is lots of parking, and lots of kidding in the parking lot and camaraderie as uniformed people duck in the gate and stroll down the hill to their units. We descend a hill from the gate to get to the main gaol. There are many geese on the well-kept lawns. The hill is fairly steep. Occasionally, one has to be careful; if the geese have strayed off the grassy areas onto the driveway, one could take a goose-poop route to Workers' Compensation, as many a guard has done, in fact and in fraud. No one is allowed to harass the geese. These geese are holy to both inmates and guards.

It is five or six minutes down the hill walking fast, going around the West Wing yard, which is bordered by hurricane wire surrounded by thick tin flashing and topped by concertina wire, sometimes known as razor wire and easily gotten over if one brings a blanket out of the unit and flips it up to hook it and climb.

On your way to work from the parking lot first you slip past Tower Two, a shotgun tower set on the outside of the driveway. And past Tower One, which is the command position for the yard. The guard in Tower One is locked in by the man in Patrol position. Tower One contains the alarm system and telephone as well as radio contact with other positions and Central Control. It is built of concrete and leans out over the yard itself. Any place in the yard can be seen from the Tower One position, except for the area immediately beneath it, which is covered by Tower Two and Count positions.

Directly across from Tower One is the entrance into the West Wing: the Count position. Here the cons are allowed out to yard and back for phone calls. It is not a great idea to respond to a scuffle in the middle of the yard from the Count position. If it turns into a mess, the shooting will begin from towers One and Two and the life of the Count man won't be worth much.

The thing I always loved about coming on morning shift or coming off graveyard was the spectacular view down the ridge

and over what is known as the flats. And Deer Lake, which at this time of the morning always had a mysterious saucer of mist over it, was absolutely spectacular in its colours; the long marsh grass down the hill was either winter brown or spring green. Out over the fields, which were full of peasants, you could see wildlife of all kinds ambling around where once it had been tilled, but now lay fallow.

1 think that from the standpoint of mental health for both staff and inmates in the West Wing, where 1 worked most of the time 1 was there, this spectacular view had a calming effect. You could look out at it on any tier that faced north; you could see all of the Deer Lake area and the entire massif to the north, including Seymour and Grouse mountains, and the Lions.

Inside Oakalla, once you got used to it, the sounds of gates far and near also had a lulling effect. The bars and walls had been painted with a god-awful off-yellow lead-base paint in layers and layers. When 1 was first hired at Oakalla, a fire marshal came in and estimated that should we have a major fire, all life on the top three landings would be lost to smoke inhalation thanks to the paint. It was many years afterwards that fire doors leading each tier outside to the yard were installed.

When you first entered Oakalla it smelled institutional: it smelled of food, of wax, of wax-stripper, of disinfectant, and of human fluids; and then it passed from being an alien smell to being the smell of home, and then the smell was not noticed at all. It became the familiar olfactory landscape, like the smell of one's mother's purse when one was a child.

THE CORRECTIONAL CENTRE Rules and Regulations state that a correctional officer shall obey the direct order of the director or his agent (under military law, anybody of higher rank or who has been in service longer) unless "manifestly unlawful." In the course of a day an officer may receive the better part of 100 orders. In prisons the adjective "direct" possesses awesome magic and terror when it precedes the noun "order." Like many aspects of prison tradition, no one knows why. It is simply so. Yet, by definition all staff-to-staff or staff-to-con orders are direct orders. What, pray tell, is an indirect order?

There is but one place in the language of prison that the word "direct" carries clear meaning, and even then it must carry very formal and objective inflective texture. Scenario: I have a work-gang of perhaps five. We have been given some stupid task such as sweeping the asphalt from the unit to the gatehouse. We put brooms and shovels in the wheelbarrow and amble along telling jokes and talking sports. Eventually we amble up within view of the windows of the women's unit. If the women guards aren't watching, the women squish their breasts up against the windows or give us a few bumps and grinds. Harmless enough.

My deal with them was Don't Draw Heat on the gang. No shouting. just dummy and watch the show. Occasionally there was someone who would shout and gesticulate in a manner that had staff and inmates of both the men's and the women's unit with faces at the windows.

I would say first: "Woodward, cut it out."

Then: "Woodward, I want silence and I want it now."

Them" Woodward, I am giving you an order." When the word "order" exits the mouth of a guard, it is time to take him seriously.

Then the penultimate: "Woodward, I am giving you a direct order to cease your noise and gestures, grab the handles of the wheelbarrow, and get on up the road."

The word "direct" implies the following: if he still refuses to comply with the order, I will explain the section and article under which he is being charged, than call for the prowl truck to take him back to the unit, where he will await internal trial.

There is a supreme vulnerability to all correctional systems and it is this: no matter how high you elevate the standards for line staff and administrative staff and ministry staff, at a whim of the provincial caucus or federal cabinet, the best programs of the best institutions go with the winds. If they target corrections as a place to hit the public sector budgetarily, the best Commissioner of Corrections with the best intentions has no choice but to pass it down to his institutional directors. The politicians dictate that corrections must cut fat or they'll start closing institutions (which they have often done; the Socreds privatized a number of them, virtually all of which went under - good programs like Outward Bound institutions with great rehab rates).

All this is short-term accounting. If you don't rehabilitate the inmate, he is coming back to gaol to cost the taxpayer more money in numerous ways - in violence against persons, in theft and destruction of property, and the cost of feeding and clothing him while he is doing time.

This vulnerability produces in the line staff and inmates serious morale problems, stress problems (with staff cuts, each guard is at greater personal risk) and those between the line screw and the politicians all fear for their jobs and simply carry out orders. There is a deep-running resentment (however irrational) among line staff that the "brass" should figure out a way to stand up to the politicians.

Hence there is ongoing resentment and pay-back in the form of dirty tricks for anyone who enters middle management in public service. It is a practice rife with mixed signals because most of the brass were once line staff and pranking their superiors. This tradition has been going on for more than 150 years. Thus, there is a high wall between line screws and all corrections personnel above them. It becomes a battle of guards and cons against the system. The Inmate Code of Silence and the Guard Culture are carnival mirror images of one another.

Whenever a staff member receives a promotion, it is open season on him. And usually his treatment is a well-deserved antidote to diseases like Principal Officer-it is and S.C.O.-it is - those two in particular. After new senior officers have received their epaulets and their first bar, their behaviour swings cease.

New P.O.s haven't a clue what to do other than hand out keys to the oncoming shifts. So they attempt to invent themselves. They suck in their guts, throw out their chests, and drive everyone nuts for a couple of months telling staff to do jobs that they are already doing at the time they're being told by the greenhorn to do them. The old-line P.O.s sit in their offices, read magazines, monitor calls if they're bored, and keep an eye out for pranks directed at them. As soon as the whole shift is accounted for, they give the desk man that look that says: "The shift is yours," and disappear. But not the new guys. They practically beg for abuse.

I HAVE A SHANK (home-made knife) that has special meaning for me. Like most of them, it is the handle of a soup-spoon with the dipper broken off, egregiously stamped PROVINCE OF B.C. (there has to be something symbolic in that; one is sure of it around contract time) and honed sharp on the cement floor, which makes an excellent whetstone.

Oakie is dark, dark on graveyard, and darker the deeper you venture on a tier.

It was the third or fourth of the hourly rounds. I was at Four Right 12. Without the light, I couldn't have seen my shoes. It was overcast and no moon.

The range one walks down is between three and four feet wide. Enough room that one can jump right or left if a con is crazy enough to make a grab for you from the line of cells.

Or so I thought until this night.

As I was moving the light from the ceiling of 11 to 12, 1 picked up in lower peripheral vision flesh flashing quick as a fish out between the bars. The light was in my left hand. With my right I grabbed the wrist and rolled forward with it. I was so startled, terrified, and enraged, I'm sure I had visions of ripping the arm out of its shoulder socket. The shank clattered on the cement and I hung on and kept turning the arm.

A god-awful cry of pain flew out of the mouth of the owner of the arm and shank - so loud and so piercing that it awakened both sides of the wing.

I pocketed the shank, finished my count of the tier, walked back and called Central Control. They hauled the shanker off to the hospital where I was sure they would find that he had to be sent to a specialized unit for microsurgery to repair the massive damage I had done to the arm.

When they came back with the news (after depositing the would-be Snappo-slayer in the digger) that the arm wasn't even sprained, I listened in disbelief. I had had the arm across the steel cross-strut. Only the very stupid ever dare stick their arms into or out of cells between the bars. My rolling with the arm had the effect of causing him to drop the shank, but it also saved the arm, allowing it to bend in its natural directions. Very much at odds with my intentions.

The count was low so they hot-bedded (kept) his cell until he came out of segregation. I had been on days off and came back on afternoon shift. I went down the tier to talk to him.

"Hey, what the fuck did I do to earn a shank?"

"Nothin', man, you just happened to be the first uniform down the tier."

"Were you at court that day?"


"What did they lay on you?"

"Fifteen and they didn't give me any dead time."

"They usually don't except Murder Ones. Gonna appeal?'

"Yeah. Conviction and sentence. Looks, like I'll be here. for a while. Thanks for not charging me in outside court."

"I never do. Nice job on making the shank. I'll display it proudly at home."

"Right on. Are we cool, boss? I mean between us?"

"I thought I was gonna load my gaunchies and my shoes when your arm shot out. But I didn't. You nicked the shirt, but stores replaced it. We must be cool. As long as you ask whether it's Uncle Mikey before you shank it."

"You're on."

This is an excerpt from Line Screw, a memoir in progress by J. Michael Yates


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