I went to jail recently (finally got it off the bucket list)! It was only for six days but because it was over the holidays, it was a little more challenging than it would otherwise be. Even in that brief time, I was able to get an impression of how our prison system works and how we treat people our legal system has deemed unfit to be out in the world. I feel like I owe it to the prisoners I met to at least try to tell people what it’s like.
It’s hard getting sympathy for prisoners, but I met a lot of people there and many of them were there for inconsequential reasons. I was there for harassment (annoying someone) and honestly, I think my crime was worse than many of theirs; at least in my case the person I annoyed was victimized on some level! Most of the prisoners were there on drug charges. They either did drugs when they weren’t supposed to, or sold them to someone who wanted to buy them. How dare they!? I mean these are OUR drug dealers, the ones that made high school a lot more interesting and make house parties tolerable. When I was kid I used to hang out at a cafe where they sold weed and blow (I was there 4 years and they never got the espresso machine to work; a cafe without coffee and nobody noticed); that was the first time I met a judge because he was buying coke! So fuck off with these drug charges already!
Even if you don’t have sympathy for prisoners, you should remember that they are going to be released someday. When discussing tuition fees and economic dignity, I often ask people if they want the person they come across in the middle of the night to be educated and well paid, or a high school dropout who doesn’t know if he can pay the rent this month. These are the people we live with whether we like it or not, I think it’s to our benefit to make sure people are taken care of and not stressed out over the bare essentials. Similarly, do you want the person coming out of jail to have had his medication and have been able to contact his family? Or would you prefer he be further alienated and off his meds? Your choice!
The worst thing I experienced and I saw in jail was the access to medication. From what I’ve now learned the detention center has forty-eight hours before having to give you your medication, couple that with the twenty-four hours that you might spend in a police detention center, and you might go up to three days without getting your medication. I think that’s far too long and there is really no reason for it. In my case, and in the case of many others, they didn’t even meet their own guidelines. The worst part of this was witnessing someone who was prescribed methadone going through withdraws for five days. He couldn’t eat or drink and he shook the entire time. I don’t know how anyone could look at him and not think he was being tortured. With all the technology we have today, how could we allow this to continue to happen?
When you get arrested and put in jail, they don’t ask you to bring your medication, or a change of clothing; you go in with what you got. There are canteens where you can purchase stuff you need (toiletries, detergent, soap, clothing) but you have to pay for these. How do you pay for them? By putting money into your account in CASH. That’s right, jails don’t accept credit or debit! It sounds like a little thing but its not. If you didn’t happen to have cash on you, than you better hope someone in your family can put money in your account (also in cash) or you won’t be able to get many of the things you need. The entire time I was there, I had nothing; no change of clothes, no soap, no toothbrush, nothing. In my case, it was partially due to the holiday because the jail was “closed” so no one in my family could come to add money, but even during regular periods, what if I didn’t have a family who could do that? My corner store depanneur, owned by an absolutely awesome Cambodian couple, who don’t have a firm grasp of English or French, are able to accept debit payments, why can’t the ministry of public security? I mean who carries around cash anymore anyway? Drug dealers, maybe that’s not as good of a point.
Finally, I could not comprehend the phone system. First of all, it’s not free, and is there really a reason it shouldn’t be? In order to use the phone you either have to get these calling cards (again through the canteen) or you can call someone collect. What I didn’t realize at first is that you can only call landlines. I have trouble remembering phone numbers enough as it is, now I have to remember a landline number I never call and most people don’t bother to have anymore. Access to a phone is paramount. You need it to contact your lawyer and, again, do you want these people to be completely isolated from their loved ones? These seem to be unnecessary and punitive aspects of prisons that only work to further isolate prisoners from the world. It’s not necessary, it’s detrimental to the well being of prisoners and the health of our society.