the justice system is only too happy to help you believe you are a piece of shit

this week i'm handing my blog over to another inmate who recently went home after spending almost two and a half months here.  this post started off as a written interview, but the questions ended up just being guidelines so we removed them from the text.  i think it took a great deal of courage, and i'm grateful and very happy to be able to bring her story to you all.

 thank you to the author.  wherever you are i hope you're doing well and enjoying your freedom!

 The justice system is only too happy to help you believe that you are a piece of shit

 My charges were theft under $5000 and breach of probation.  Although I was arrested December 24th, the next time i went to court (besides the bail hearings) was January 11th.  Disclosure was partially done and at that point they offered me 71 days on a guilty plea.  When I went for sentencing on January 31st the Crown read out a 90 day sentence (31 days was not mentioned), but my release date is March 4th which is in fact 71 days served out of 90 – that's more than the 2/3 required.  I'm not sure why that is, I was not given the opportunity to inquire in court that day.

 On my third attempt at a bail hearing I consented to my detention.  I knew jail was going to be asked, so I just wanted to get started.

 I have a criminal record of only thefts and breaches of probation – no outstanding charges or charges of any other kind. At my sentencing, the judge called me a “menace to shopkeepers.”  This time, I was arrested by a security guard at a mall after being seen by a sales woman allegedly taking an item.  I was long out of the store and knew she had suspected foul play due to the fact that she ran yelling to the back of the shop for another employee.

 Why did i do this?  Well, interesting question.  This act of stealing started at age 8.  Home life was very cold, lonely and abusive.  Stealing is a self-punishing act – I do it mostly to get caught, to punish myself for drilled in beliefs that I'm a bad person, not good for anyone or anything. It on the one hand gave me a sense of power but much more than that it solidified all the negative messages I was fed from very little until well into my early 30s: I'm no good, I'm stupid, ugly, nobody will ever want or truly love me and I certainly won't amount to anything.  These messages became very real when anyone around me was faltering in any way, in my mind it was due to my own shortcomings.  And the justice system is only too happy to help you believe that you are in fact a piece of shit.  The police are all about shame, the crowns make it out to be a personal act done against them, and judges sit and scowl at you.  The whole process is demeaning and makes you full of shame which is the result I was aiming for.

Some people turn to drugs and alcohol to numb themselves or give themselves false control but you can't hide those.  Stealing I could keep to myself – sure, it involved keeping secrets from family but I could keep it private, a personal punishment.  Becoming a drug addict or alcoholic would have put my children at risk, which would've made me a bad mom, and I was determined NOT TO BE anything at all resembling my mother.

 Not that she drank or did drugs.  She was cold, distant, mean, unloving and abusive.  I was a burden, not the joy a child should be.

At this point in my life I understand myself a little more than when I started the act of stealing.  I've always been looking for “help” of some kind, for some understanding from someone, anyone.  However the legal system only deals with the act itself and not the underlying issues.

 It's only been the last year, and I'm now 47, that the courts have begun to see that in fact there are underlying issues here.  Once jail became the solution to my offence I forced myself to delve into my past and explore it in trauma counselling.  It's amazing what you an bury deep inside.  My biggest challenges have been to face my past – my mother and my first intimate partners who were made from the same cloth as her in many ways.  You tend to stick with what you know even if it's not the best for you. . .it somehow seems comfortable or familiar, or deserved.  Lump in no self-worth or self-respect and you settle pretty easily.

 I've done this act of stealing when the shit is hitting the fan, so to speak, with a family member and I can't fix it or meet their needs.  I also sabotage myself when things are too good.  You see I'm not allowed to be happy or content either (I don't deserve it) so I sabotage under those circumstance as well.

 Now I've been happily married for 17 years to a man who has no criminal record who is kind, gentle, loving, smart as a whip and treats me great.  I adore him.  So why do I still do this act of sabotage, you ask?  Because it's a habit, a reflex. At the first sign of trouble or complete bliss I act out.  17 years hasn't erased 30 years of trauma, but I'm working on it with much more understanding and strength than ever before thanks to a Canadian Mental Health Worker (CMHW) and a trauma centre called SAVIS.  Psychiatrists and medications have only helped me stuff my problems, you need to bring them to the surface and deal with them.  Forgive people (not forget) so you can move forward and not hit a plateau or slide backwards as I have for years and years.  The people who hurt me have been long gone for over a decade but I've kept them present in my mind and allowed their words and actions towards me to shape my thinking to this very day. I'm a work in progress.

 Being arrested three times in less than two years, going to jail all three times, has been extremely hard on my husband.  In the last three years our family has suffered a financial loss: my husband's job that he worked at for approximately 15 years basically deteriorated due to bad management.  He was locked out and lost his job, and it left him devastated.  He has since suffered such overwhelming anxiety that he simply can't cope.  Day to day is a struggle and at times can I slip back into thoughts such as “Oh his life would have turned out different if he wasn't with me” or “This is my fault and why can't I make him better?” So what do I do?  Complicate our lives and go to jail trying to escape.  ESCAPE WHAT?

 This place is no escape or holiday, it can suck you even lower if you let it.  However reality doesn't set in until that hand is placed on your shoulder and you hear the words “Come with me.”  Even then, if I'm really distraught it takes until the actual police come and take me away for reality to hit and hit hard.  It's been a terrible roller-coaster of regrets but as some of you know, even if it's a bad choice it's a familiar one.  Change can be very scary, depression can keep you stagnant.

My coming to jail has impacted my husband the most.  He really needs me and feels I leave him with little regard.  This may be true in some small way but I'm really running from myself – which is really impossible to do.  My youngest son, who is 25 and still at home, gets exposed for all his shortcomings when I came here.  He's been coddled and spoiled by me because he has special needs.  Also because I was all he had – no extended family for the two of us.  He suffers from depression which leads to being unmotivated an lazy if you don't keep after him.  Like myself he has low self-esteem and ADHD which over time has made him angry with frustration.  He's a handsome young man and is very kind, loving and a loyal friend.  He's also very creative, but he's very hard on himself.  He struggled with learning all through school and would act out (be a behavioural problem) rather than be exposed to his peers for not learning at their pace. It was very hard for me to watch and the schools weren't interested in my two cents.  I was told “He's a boy, they learn slower, he'll catch up.”  Well that never happened and my son has paid for it.  Consequently I have done and still do a lot for my son.  He's been through more jobs than I can count but is slowly finding his way.  When I come to jail he comes to a standstill which frustrates my husband.  Even though he can empathize, he only wants better for him – not to settle but to strive and work harder.  Depression can really hamper that if you allow it to.

As for me, until last time coming to jail wasn't helpful at all because I was too busy feeling sorry for myself, and mad at the legal system that couldn't or refused to accept that my stealing was the result of underlying issues.  I myself didn't understand enough to articulate this either – I went along with “I'm just bad and dumb, and deserve on some level to be punished.”

 The crown and judge said I'd become a menace and they need to protect businesses.  Since I wasn't learning my lesson from their many other punishments (fines, community service, conditional sentences) jail was their only recourse.  Well, did I learn things here?  Not anything that would help me be a better upstanding citizen.

 The first long stay here (almost six months) was all spent in minimum security.  It was basically motel living – I had my own room with a double mattress, a window that opened, a heater in my room, a door that didn't get locked and a light that got turned off at night.  A library I could visit twice weekly, puzzles and board games (Yahtzee, Bingo, Battleship, Scrabble, Monopoly), Scrabble tournaments with prizes (chocolate, conditioner, ice cream etc.), new release movies shown in the basement each weekend, yoga classes, exercise classes, crafts, a bath tub.  Then there are all kinds of groups and classes three times a week, 45 minutes each, in which you can learn new coping techniques and strategies for various areas such as job, relationships, anger, self-esteem and so on.  That's if you go to these to learn and not to socialize like most.  However most of the time you’re stuck listening to inmates' loud foul bullshit talk.  I now have knowledge of crack, never even heard the word before I came here – as naive as that may sound it's true.  Then there's heroin: how to smoke it, shoot it. . .ad so much more that I didn't need or want knowledge of.  And there's the people who would love to teach me how to be a much better thief – problem is I do it mostly to get caught, I don’t want to be good at it.

When I was sentenced that first time I moved from Unit 4 (described above) to Unit 3, the minimum security “work range.”  This was like a higher class motel where you get all the amenities of Unit 4 but now there's a real gym to go play in and do aerobics two or three times a day, a nail salon free of charge where you can also get your hair cut and coloured for $10.00.  And you can work for extra food: slave labour.  In fact you must work unless you have real good health reasons not to.  There's grounds (cut grass, pull weeds, plant flowers or shovel snow and spread slat at different jails in the area, Monday-Friday 7am-4pm), Cookchill (preparing food trays, Friday-Sunday 7am-4pm), or Maintenance (general cleanup off the range, Monday-Friday 10-11am, 2-3pm, 5-6pm).  All of this is paid with food – extra meals, chips, chocolate bars, pop, sticky buns and coffee.  It's slave labour indeed – why pay people when you can force inmates to do it for food?  They just pay guards to supervise.  Thanks but no thanks, I personally would avoid being sentenced early in my stay here in order to avoid Unit 3.

 My stay was four months long – somebody's starting to get the hint that I must have some mental issues because sentences are going down.  That time I spent it all on minimum security on Unit 4 until I could get a sentence of time served.  I was given a Canadian Mental Health Worker to work with while here and was introduced to SAVIS trauma counselling – I had never heard of or been offered these services before.  I saw them both once every three weeks and continue to work with them, everything takes time but they are helping.  So I decided to take as much positive as I could from here and to try to try to make all the drug talk and inmate talk just white noise.  I took every 45 minute day course.  They're very general but even if I got a little something from each it's better time spent than sitting around listening to the insanity of others.  I also spent lots of time in my room reading and writing, and sitting at my desk staring out my window.  The view was an open field and the men's jail (Maplehurst). I could see the delivery trucks come and go and the Cookchill Unit 3 workers come and go in their little white trucks, and watch the Grounds workers cut the grass on their Ridem lawn mowers.  I also had a groundhog visit under my window daily and a family of skunks (mama and three babies) and lots of Canada Geese.  All of these little guys can squeeze between the fences or fly over them, lucky little bums.  I eventually left here but like those furry little friends I too came back. . .a glutton for punishment I suppose.

 Yes you lose your freedom but the people we leave on the outside, that's who really gets punished.  So what can I do differently this time?  Because my husband of 17 years is at his wits' end, he can't handle the disappearing acts any more and if he didn't love me so much he'd leave.

This time my sentence dropped only because I was working my butt off with my CMHW, attending SAVIS trauma counselling, and was on a waiting list for a psychiatrist (not that I think that will be much help, a psychologist would be more beneficial to me but it's all done in channels).  I had just started new anxiety meds, and was on a waiting list at Probation to see a worker for anti-theft counselling.  So the courts felt I was being very pro-active in my recovery but just not enough time had passed – four months actually, I was released in late August and back here on the 25th of December, yup, MERRY CHRISTMAS.  This is my second X-mas here, I have great anxiety and stress like a lot of people over the holidays for many reasons.  Our house was ready, presents bought, turkey on the thaw.  Everything on the outside looked perfect but inside my head I was freaking out – too happy, not allowed, must sabotage myself, create chaos.  My poor family, man did I ever throw them a curve ball arrested on the 24th.  I had called home when I arrived.  My husband was cold.  I can’t blame him – how much is one person supposed to take?  They had X-mas without me, they cooked the turkey but it was a sad and lonely day for them all.

As I lay in bed I'm thinking this has got to be the last time I come here.  I've got to make this a different experience.  The next couple of days are holidays with fewer staff so I'm kept on Unit 2.  Double cells, two people, toilet in your cell at the foot of one of the beds.  No window, NO HEAT, it's freezing here.  This might actually be jail, it's maximum security.  As days pass into a regular work week again I see the classification lady who sends you to Unit 3 or 4.  I tell her I want to stay on Unit 2 and she says “WHY?  You have no reason to stay here.  It's so much better on Unit 4.”  I say “That's the problem I need to learn a lesson to make this stick.”  So here I've stayed, in the dirty freezer zone, damn it's cold here.  Cold air blowing on us all day every day with always a shortage of clothes.  No windows, no grass yard, no gym, no games, no extra nothing.  Just a lot of suck it up buttercup.  We're locked out of our cells half the day and locked in the other half.  It's so loud all the time out on the range and we're full most of the time, people coming and going.  Thank the lord I've managed to have a great celly.  We get along great, we talk a little but read and write more.  She's clean, I'm clean.  Thank god for quiet times: 12-2pm, 5-6pm and bed at 7:30 – love it.

 I truly hate this place.  Nothing is bad enough to bring me back.  This time here I've just lived in my head, in my mind, more than anywhere else.  If your head's in a good place then it doesn't really matter where the rest of you is at least for the interim.  Time doesn't have to feel like a stone I've got to drag from one end of the day to the other. The days pass fairly quickly on Unit 2 on the average but it still really sucks. I'm determined not to allow myself to get to the point that I shut down at home and don't communicate with my husband.  We're a team and I shouldn't be leaving him out in left field.  My thoughts, feelings and emotions are not burdens to him, however leaving him in order to escape myself and ending up here is most definitely a burden and hurts him terribly.

 I'd like to touch on my experience with the legal system.  In the past of course I've dealt with some harsh judges and crowns but that's exactly what I expected.  I was looking to be punished and demeaned so what can I say?  However at some point I did expect them to be smarter or more intuitive than myself, and be able to read between the lines and see something more than just the shoplifting.  Life has been a struggle but i've maintained a fairly good paying job and I don't drink or do drugs.  Not having a substance abuse issue actually made it worse for me in court – I had “no excuses”.  I know I'd have been dealt with more sympathetically if I had a drug or alcohol problem, at least that's been my experience watching others come and go for the same charges.  There's also the fact that I live in Halton Region – cities with money.  I've been made an example of because the upper classes don't tolerate crime.

Courts in different cities treat people differently.  Someone living in Toronto, Hamilton or Brampton could potentially receive 7-30 days in jail for a theft and breach of probation even if it's their 20th or 30th conviction.  This occurs especially if they have a substance abuse problem or are working girls with an addiction to feed.  These situations can and do get them less sentencing time – they can come and go from here four, five, six or more times a year.  Milton court, where I was sentenced, seems to be one of the harsher courts due to it serving cities with lots of money and low crime rates.  Mental health problems and substance abuse are perhaps acknowledged but not really taken into consideration when it comes to sentencing – they're just frowned upon.

 I've been able to receive Legal Aid – very helpful – and I've had fine lawyers for the most part.  The wonderful woman who has been with me for three years now is a fine human being, an above average hard worker who goes the extra mile.  She believed in me and saw who I really am.  She also managed to make the courts see that there's so much more than the stealing.

 The police I've had dealings with for the most part have been fairly decent, just the actual arresting officers have not been so nice, you know, take a hard stand making me feel very shameful.  Court officers are always polite and friendly but then I'm polite and respectful as well.  Court is a very anxiety-ridden time for me and at times I think it would be easier if they didn't treat me so kindly because I'm so busy beating myself up, telling myself I don't deserve niceness.

 I've spent most of my life feeling bad about myself, allowing that negative tape from the past to lead me through life.  It's loudest when I'm in turmoil.  Life sure does throw us pretty hard fast curve balls.  What I do know about myself is that I am kind and loving, hard working and a great care-giver (although I don't take good care of myself).  I have a special place in my heart for animals and elderly people.  However I can slip pretty quickly into the bad messages I was fed for three quarters of my life.  I'm just learning now how to let other people's garbage go, to give back what does not and has not ever belonged to me.  It takes very little to make me feel inferior and unsure, to doubt myself, or to blame myself for others' shortcomings and life circumstances (family and loved ones most of all).  No one can control or fix everything.  However I'm hoping, and will constantly be working on that stuff being the old me.  I have people who love me to lean on, I'm not alone.  I don't have to struggle alone thinking I don't want to burden them any more than they already are.  I thank my husband for standing by me in sickness and health, the good times and the very bad times.  I also thank my lawyer – she is a wonderful, hard-working, dedicated lawyer and friend.  Thank you to the Canadian Mental Health Workers and SAVIS who will continue to help me succeed in the future and leave the past where it belongs – IN THE PAST.

 Finally my last piece for this blog: I was asked if I think most of the people here belong in jail.  That's a question full of grey areas.  It seems to me that this is where everyone comes before their real issues get dealt with.  There is little if any deterrent or rehabilitation here.  It's a place for girls to rest up, fatten up, learn how to do their crime even better and then hit the streets to re-offend again.  Now in saying that, there are wonderful volunteers that come here to educate us about drugs, sexually transmitted diseases and so on.  To help show you how to bone up on some life skills.  But most people here need a larger intervention, they are going back out to wherever they come from.  This place is not going to fix them or take away their demons.

 If this place only held serious perpetrators such as murderers, rapists, child molesters, kidnappers and other serious criminals lots of people in this institution would be jobless.  Our government needs to take a hard look at our criminal code and put our tax dollars into more rehabs, supervised facilities for substance users, and mental health workers.  More probation officers with a greater access to public facilities to shape new paths for low level crime offenders.  How about stop allowing the rich to get richer and use the money to help the less fortunate change their lives?  This building is only the answer for a very few.  For most it's either a delay in the inevitable or a big step backwards for them and their families.  With all the resources and money and highly intelligent people I have to believe that there's a much better solution for so many that continue to come and go from here.

 I don't pretend to have all the answers but I have been here long enough to see that with all the volunteers that struggle to come here to help, there is only so much they can do.  I applaud them and their efforts but they need far more power and resources.  The court systems need to change, laws need to be altered.  And many more programs, with educated people with resources in every city, need to be developed.  Building more jails is a quick fix but certainly not the answer.