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Prison, a view from inside | David Dorson

Monday, January 17, 2022 @ 11:21 AM | By Daniel Dorson

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 completely serving his sentence much more difficult than it already is.

After the judge finished the hour-long reading of her judgment at my sentencing, I was immediately handcuffed by the court police and led down to a holding cell in the basement of the court building where I was placed in a cell by myself. This was around noon. I was wearing clothes for court — a sport jacket but no tie, since I knew the tie would be taken away from me anyway and would not be of any use to me in prison. I also knew enough to have left at home my wallet and anything else of value other than my wedding ring, which I try never to take off. 

Holding cells in most courthouses (I say this not just from my own limited experience but from conversations with others) are entirely bare cinder block constructions, with a low partition in one corner for a toilet, such that the toilet itself is not visible from outside the cell, but anyone using it is. And as one of your first ceremonies of humiliation as a prisoner — with many more to come — there is no toilet paper; you have to ask a guard for that. There’s no clock, either, so no way to keep track of time. 

Since I had been in a holding cell before — two years earlier, when I was arrested and held for two days until my bail was arranged (bail being a subject for a later column), I was somewhat prepared. I knew that I would be in that cell until late afternoon, when I would be transported to a provincial jail for some time, pending eventual transfer to a federal prison. In Canada, sentences of more than two years are served in a federal prison, but there is always an initial period in a provincial jail — for reasons not known to me. 

I was in that cell, alone, for four or five hours. A lot of that time I spent thinking about what was ahead of me — provincial jail, then the unknown of federal prison. I thought about my family, who had been present in court, and how much I had hurt them. But I also thought about this pending experience as something from which I might learn. Since I had a background in research, I thought I would try to approach it as a kind of research project, like travelling into the territory of a civilization about which I knew nothing. That proved to be quite a useful frame to adopt.

During my two years on bail I had had moments of enormous fear about what being imprisoned would be like. I knew as little about jails and prisons as do most other Canadians — which is to say virtually nothing — but I did know that most of the TV and movie portrayals would be far from accurate. My lawyers also seemed to know very little about what jail was like. However, while on bail I had been in a few support groups that included men who had experienced imprisonment, and I took seriously what they told me. 

(One goal of these articles is to help lawyers help clients who are facing jail time. There are specific things criminal lawyers can and should do to help prepare clients new to it for incarceration.)

One of the first things you realize as a prisoner is that you have no control over anything. You have to learn to sit (or stand) and wait as calmly as you can until whatever happens, happens. And nobody is going to tell you anything, such as when or where you might be going, or even what time it is. You are a prisoner, not a person, whatever the Supreme Court may have said. Those are tough realizations, but the sooner you accommodate to them, the better for your mental health. You can keep your personhood, but only in your head.

Another thing I had done in preparation for being jailed was to learn some yoga. It struck me that yoga was something I could do in the very confined space of a jail cell that would be good for me both physically and psychologically, as well as a way of passing time. So even sitting in that bare holding cell I could do some stretches and breathing, as well as some pacing around the room just to keep my body moving. Being imprisoned is often an intensely emotional experience, so anything that helps manage emotions, such as mindfulness or meditation or yoga, is valuable. 

At some point later in the afternoon I was taken out of the cell, handcuffed again, and taken to the loading area where court and prison vans deliver and receive prisoners. These vans are, for almost every prisoner I have ever talked to, a special nightmare — something that still gives me bad flashbacks when I see one. I had, of course, often seen them before but, like most people, never considered their human cargo. 

In these vans prisoners are handcuffed. Sometimes your legs are shackled. The “passenger” compartments are smooth metal, so you slide around as the vehicle moves — and since you cannot see out, you have no sense of where you are or when such a movement may occur. If you are, as often happens, in a compartment with others, you are handcuffed together so that the movement of one person becomes movement of all. When four or five people are handcuffed together and stuffed into one of these small spaces, all of them already stressed by their situation, tempers can flare quickly if one prisoner is seen to be behaving badly, such as talking too much or making annoying movements. In this case I was alone in a small compartment at the back of the vehicle.

The trip from the courthouse to the jail took about an hour. Suddenly the van stopped, and after some time my door was opened, and I was ushered into my new world — not a nice one by any measure.

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