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No training and minimum medical, but they do have tear gas

Jailbirds' pent up anger exploded into revolt:
One former prisoner's view on life in Penetanguishene's Super Jail.

By Colin McKim
The Orillia Packet & Times

The provincial super jail in Penetanguishene is no place to celebrate a birthday, says ex-convict Bill Peters.

"I didn't get a cake. I got tear-gassed."

Peters turned 54 on Sept. 19, 2002, while serving a six-month sentence for driving with a suspended licence and failing to appear in court. There were no paper hats and noise-makers on his big day. No birthday cake or presents either.

But there was an after-dinner riot to mark the occasion. Upset about minuscule portions of food, cramped exercise space, a smoking prohibition, lack of prompt medical and dental care and the suffocating atmosphere of the institution, prisoners predictably revolted, said Peters. "Everything builds up, then blows."

Instead of blowing out birthday candles, inmates shattered the overhead lights by whipping food trays at the ceiling.

By the time the riot squad appeared in their Darth Vader costumes to hog-tie the rioters and drag them into another section of the prison, three cell blocks holding about 100 inmates were in shambles, said Peters. "Everything was smashed all over the floor. The place was just destroyed."

During the mayhem, inmates broke blocks of concrete off shower walls, wrapped the blocks in bed sheets to make wrecking balls and smashed through steel doors separating cell blocks, said Peters. "They didn't think prisoners were so resourceful."

During the demolition derby, the vastly out-numbered guards, protected by bullet-proof glass in a central pod, could do nothing but videotape the riot until police backup arrived, said Peters.

Before the riot squad marched into the chaos in their body armour, they fired tear gas canisters into the cell blocks, said Peters. "They opened the vents and started shooting tear gas. That's when I got my birthday present."

Having had a whiff of tear gas during two years in the Canadian Army in the 1960s, Peters was not keen for another.

"Your eyes are like Niagara Falls. It burns like hell."

Peters closed his cell door and caulked the cracks with toothpaste. He grabbed two pieces of loose leaf paper and using toothpaste as an adhesive stuck them over the slot in the door.

When the riot squad in their helmets and breathing apparatus barged into his cell, Peters was on his bunk reading a book. But he got the same treatment as everyone else, spending the balance of his sentence in a 24-hour lock-down with no clothes, soap or towel for the first week and no mattress on the steel bed.

It was three days before he got any pain medication, said Peters. "With my back I was in agony. But all the screaming and yelling isn't going to do any good. Nobody listens."

A wiry ex-Scott with faded red hair, Peters is no stranger to the big house, having served time in correctional facilities in Guelph and Mimico.

"I have a criminal record for fraud and B & Es (break-and-enters). I'm not exactly a white-collar guy."

But the moment he entered the Spartan confines of Central North Correctional Centre, one of two new provincial super jails, Peters knew he was in tough.

"It's brutal," says Peters. a resident of Orillia since 1989. "You'll never get me back in there. I'll go to the penitentiary first."

Peters said a friend of his, recently sentenced to 18 months, asked for two years so he could go to a federal penitentiary rather than the super jail.

At other prisons he's patronized, the inmates have gymnasiums and outdoor recreational facilities where the whole prison population can mix, said Peters.

In the super jail, you do your whole stint in the company of 31 other inmates in your section, showering, eating and passing the long fluorescent hours together, said Peters.

"There's 16 cells to a range - 32 guys, no windows. These 32 guys are all you see and communicate with for six months."

The close quarters and stale faces create tension, said Peters. "You aggravate each other, get on each others nerves. I've saw more fights in there in four months than 18 months in Guelph."

The exercise yard is a small concrete and cinder block courtyard with no athletic equipment or fixtures of any description. Inmates get 20 minutes a day in the yard.

"There's nothing to do, just walk around in a circle," said Peters.

"It's like Medieval times. The system's going backwards."

The super jail is designed to hold about 1,200 inmates in six circular pods, joined by enclosed walkways. The hexagonal structure looks like a space station in dry dock. "It's like Star Trek," said Peters.

Each pod, with a capacity of 192 prisoners, is made up of six pie-shaped cell blocks and a small exercise yard.

At the centre of the pod is a control room, or "bubble." With the glass walls around the units and a network of video cameras, the officers can theoretically see any space occupied by an inmate, day or night.

The buildings are as high-concept as correctional facilities get, using technology and layout to allow the minimum number of guards to watch over the maximum number of inmates. On the curved outer wall, are 16, two-bunk cells, opening into a common area with eight fast food-style tables, a concrete bench, and a three-channel television.

"It's usually on one of those rap music stations. That stuff drives guys like me nuts."

When Peters was incarcerated June he was recovering from a back operation to repair five shattered vertebrae. Peters, who learned some trade skills in the army, was working on a new house in Innisfil when he was hurt.

"I fell through a floor and landed on my tail bone. It hurt like hell."

With four-inch two copper rods and half a dozen two and three inch titanium screws in his back, Peters was in a lot of pain.

"I never had a good night's sleep. The beds are steel with half-inch mattresses. I was in constant pain."

On the outside he had been prescribed Percodan for the pain and Valium to relax his muscles.

"Try getting those in a super jail," he said. "I was screaming at the nurse every day. All they gave me was Extra-Strength Tylenol."

When Peters finally got to see a doctor, he was prescribed sleeping pills.

"They helped at first, but after a few days they had no affect."

He did managed to get Percodan, but only three tablets a day.

The super jail, modeled after American-style prisons, is one more example of Canada licking the boots of its heavily-armed neighbour to the south, said Peters.

Canadians are too quick to follow the American way, he complains. "I'm from Scotland. We'd never put up with that bullshit from England."

But Canada, with its fly-weight military, would be squashed if we picked a real fight with the Americans, Peters admits.

"Are we going to fight them with - the Maid of the Mist?"

In the American-style super jail, the inmates are like cattle, said Peters. At other prisons the inmates have grievance committees so they can sit down with the authorities and hash things out complaints. Not in the super jail.

"Try to get something like that going, they treat it like organized crime."

At the Guelph correctional facility native inmates built a sweat lodge to pray to the creator in their traditional way, said Peters.

"A guy came from Guelph to talk about doing something like that in the super jail, they wouldn't let him in."

The prohibition on smoking has created a lucrative black market in the super jail with cigarettes costing $10 apiece, twice the price of a marijuana joint. Inmates dealing tobacco sell it loose, using a finger cut off a latex glove as a measure, said Peters.

"One finger costs $50. You might get five cigarettes out of that." The wrapping on rolls of toilet paper make passable cigarette papers. Even better for rolling dope are the thin pages of a Bible, said Peters.

"Even in solitary, they have to give you a Bible."

The explosion of anger in the September riot was inevitable, said Peters, who says the super jail is the most inhumane institution he's ever been locked inside. Peters played bridge and read books to pass the time. But the younger inmates, many in their late teens and early 20s were bored silly.

"Half these guys are illiterate. They don't play cards. What the hell are they going to do?"

Peters thinks the penal system was better when inmates got some education or job training.

"In Guelph they had small engine and body shops. They taught you everything. The super jail you come out more bitter than when you went in."

Inmates at the super jail have to buy many basic necessities, such as toothpaste, shampoo, coffee, tea and soup.

"You get three drinks a day. Anything beyond that you've got to buy. If you don't have money, you're out of luck."

After being released Oct. 10, Peters kept phoning the jail, trying to find out what happened to family photos, documents and other personal effects, including his reading glasses, that were left behind in his cell the night of the riot.

Finally in November was told to come to the jail and pick up his stuff. He drove from Orillia to Penetang only to be told that all his property, including photos of his late mother, had been destroyed because it was all contaminated by tear gas.

"Everything I had is gone."

Story provided courtesy of The Orillia Packet & Times.

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