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Solitary confinement, part two | David Dorson

Monday, July 04, 2022 @ 11:39 AM | By David Dorson


When I was first put in my cell I asked the guard for paper and pencil and something to read. He brought me a small pencil (as is used for miniature golf), a few sheets of paper, and two small paperbacks about criminals who had found Jesus. Then I was left alone. No radio, no TV, no watch, no people. 

Yet when I went to bed that first night I was not disheartened but determined to persevere. The things that kept me positive were communication with my family and friends and finding things to do to pass the endless hours.

Visits, phone

Visits were very unsatisfactory. They were through a glass divider using a phone, often with poor sound. They were limited to 30 minutes and were often cancelled outright at the last minute, or you were taken late and missed your time. After two experiences I decided that it was unfair for people to make that difficult trip for such unsatisfactory contact. 

In solitary, you only have access to a portable phone. A guard wheels it up to your cell when they are in the mood to do so. You have to kneel or crouch to talk; you dial by reaching through the meal slot in the door and pull the handset through to talk. You can only call “collect” and calls were absurdly expensive — typically a dollar a minute.   

Most days I was able to try to make calls at least twice. I would sometimes postpone asking for the phone until later in the day just to keep that lovely anticipation. I had memorized the phone numbers of key people as part of my preparation for imprisonment, so if I could not reach one person would try others. 

Talking to people who knew me, who cared about me was hugely important to my mental health. The conversation could be about anything, just as it would be if you met for coffee; I did not really want to talk much about the jail though I know it was sometimes awkward for others. The main thing was to have contact with the “normal” world, to be able to leave, even for a short time, the bizarre place in which I now was. On the occasional day when I could not reach anyone I felt the lack very deeply.

Letters

Prisoners are allowed two letters a week for which the jail pays postage; for any others you must buy paper and stamps through the canteen, which can take a couple of weeks to set up. However, the letters I sent with “free” postage were never delivered, and many prisoners believed that guards interfered with mail. One friend told me that a guard tore up his letters home right in front of him. 

Within a few days I was receiving letters from family. One of the most amazing moments of my entire journey through the system was when I was told in a phone call that members of my family had organized a letter writing rota so that I would get frequent letters. I can distinctly remember feeling a protective veil of love and care that I knew would allow me to survive. While I was fortunate in having many people who wrote to me; many prisoners do not have that.

Like phone calls, letters did not have to be full of significance. It was the communication itself that matters — knowing that someone out there was thinking about you, caring about you enough to write. That is implicit in every letter to a prisoner. 

Passing the time

I knew a big challenge for me would be how to occupy my time, especially in the first few days before I could get any mail. I had very little to work with. I asked for a Bible because I knew that was a request that would always be granted; religion has a special place in prisons. I read the whole thing through, both testaments, while I was there.

I also made some games. In the blank back page of one of the “Jesus books” I drew a small chess/checker board. I tore up pieces of a paper I found in the cell to make tiny paper chess pieces so I could play solitaire chess and checkers. From other bits of paper I made a baseball board game I had played decades ago. It was far from perfect, but I could play this game for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. On the third or fourth day I was given some heavier grade blank white paper and used two pieces of it (even though paper was valuable for letters) to make a set of miniature playing cards, which I used to play solitaire of various kinds, including playing out hands of bridge. (Photo attached)

After a few days, I noticed that books would occasionally appear in the open area and one of the guards would bring me one, so I had something to read even if it was often not something very interesting. I rationed my reading time carefully so as not to run out, as I could only have one book at a time.

Then, after a few days, when I had enough paper, I started to write a family history — something I had long wanted to do. Writing by hand with a small pencil was frustratingly slow for me, yet time was what I had; I wrote pages each day.

Another activity was counting the cars on the many freight trains that I could see going by from my small window. I found that the average train had about 100 to 120 cars; there were many of them each day in both directions. (This is where being a nerd who likes numbers was quite helpful — there are always things to count!) 

Physical activity

My cell was big enough to pace back and forth, and I decided to pace 100 to 150 steps at each of three or four points of the day. In preparation for being jailed I had taught myself some yoga as an activity that would be possible in a small space like a cell and would help me physically and psychologically. This I did a few times a day. 

I was told at the start that I would be transferred to federal prison in a few days. When that didn’t happen I asked repeatedly when it would and was told “soon.” Then, 19 days later, I was suddenly told I was leaving in an hour. My time in the bizarre world of segregation was over. But what lay ahead? 

This is the second half of a two-part series. Part one: Solitary confinement, part one.

Editor’s note: David Dorson is the pen name of someone who went through arrest, case disposition, imprisonment and parole in Ontario a few years ago. The Lawyer’s Daily has granted anonymity because he offers a unique perspective on a subject that matters deeply to many readers, and revealing the author’s identity would make re-establishment in the community after serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.

Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to The Lawyer’s Daily, contact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at peter.carter@lexisnexis.ca or call 647-776-6740.