Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Face of a Stranger

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Today’s Blog Post

The Face of a Stranger

The Friday afternoon we met was cool. But we were inside with the cool wind and the snow falling outside not affecting what we both felt. Even though the meeting was very short neither of us will forget the look on the each other’s face. At least I will not.

A very few seconds but yet a lifetime. A small moment but yet it was life changing for me – forever.

I will call him “Jim” – yet I do not know his real name. The only identifying thing I know about him was the sign that was stuck to the outside of the door, “handcuff behind the back”.

Where did I meet Jim? It was inside Millhaven Penitentiary near Bath Ontario. And at the moment that Jim and I met we were both in the segregation unit of this prison. I was standing outside his small cell. The large steel door was closed but the small window at my eye level was open. The window was about 4 inches wide and 10 inches high and Jim’s face appeared framed in that window as he watched us stand outside his cell.

Our small group was likely the only human contact he had since the last meal time when the food was delivered to his cell.

I stopped outside his cell and looked into his gaze. Our eyes locked on each other. I smiled at him and nodded. He did the same. A big grin came over his face and his eyes acknowledged that I was there.

Jim is in a segregation unit of Millhaven prison. His mental state and his physical reactions/distractions are such that he has been placed in this small white cell to help control him and for his own safety. For some personal reason he cannot cooperate with the system of behavior that Millhaven has and he remains in this cell. His daily time in the cell may be 23 and ½ hours a day but could be longer if he fails to cooperate or acts out in an aggressive way.

It is not only Jim’s personal safety that is a problem here but also the Prison Guard’s that have to deal with Jim.

Visiting Jim’s unit was impacting for me. I have seen some extreme things in different correctional facilities in my lifetime. This particular ward is right up there at the top of impacting me.

It is amazing to see the professional care and control that the Correctional Officers have for these very high risk individuals in this prison.

It is the care and the control mix that comes from another human being for the at risk person that stirs me.

After walking through the unit on Friday afternoon we spent a good portion of time speaking with the correction officer that was in charge of this area at that time.

This corrections officer shared with us how long he is inside each day. The hours can be an 8 hour shift or 12. He is “on” some days and “off” some days. The schedule is not like an ordinary job that I have ever had.

Yet with all of the sounds coming from one of the cells with one man crying out over and over again, the sight of this well-used prison area, the correctional officer smiled and thanked us for coming. He was a strong man with grace.

In the four hours we spent inside Millhaven as part of our training, there were perhaps a hundred different and highly impacting things that I witnessed.

Since Friday afternoon I have been seeing the sights over and over again. The faces of the guards as they looked at our small group parading through their place of work will not be forgotten. The faces of the guys that looked intently at me as we walked by will never be erased from my mind – they are etched deeply forever. And the two that smiled at me and nodded back will not go away – EVER!

Now people from the street or community will not be able to just walk into a Canadian Prison and announce that they wish to see what is going on inside. People from the outside will not enter this prison without direct orders from a Judge and Jury in one of our courts in Canada. And if they enter that way they will be staying for over two years and maybe even a lifetime.

My reason for being there is that I am a CAC Member. I have taken on the role of serving on a Citizen Advisory Committee. In this role I “Observe, Liaise and Advise”. I watch what Correctional Service Canada is doing in its many very different roles that they perform through its Prisons, Prison Guards, Prison Management, Parole Offices and Parole Officers. I watch what the prisoners are doing as well.

When and if there is something that just doesn’t make sense I may ask more questions as to why that something has taken place. If I don’t understand I ask. I am a volunteer with CAC and offer my eyes, ears and mind as well as my body to take me to meetings and places that the outside public does not see.

And as a volunteer there is absolutely no pay for what I do. Through the controls and hoops that I jump through to maintain my separation from the system, together with my willingness to be close to the system, I and many other folk on our CAC work offer “objective witnessing”. Then when called upon we will testify to what we saw happen.

With this posting and reporting of my visit to the Millhaven Institution I am doing just that… testifying/reporting.

Earlier on Friday afternoon before we began our walk through Millhaven a Parole Office Manager shared with us the reason for the program and Millhaven. It is way more than a prison to control bad guys, it is a finely tuned system that handles all Federal Prisoners from day one and on.

It is at Millhaven that assessments are done on every man coming into one of the Ontario Prisons. It is after that assessment is complete that the guys will be transported to their “Mother Place” – which could be a Maximum, Medium or Minimum Prison somewhere in our province.

During this assessment it is determined what educational level each man has achieved in his lifetime. Completing his personal schooling will possibly be one of his opportunities while he is Prison. Also during this initial time in Millhaven his physical and psychological state is assessed as well. The needs for his health care and medication care is prescribed and then treatment is started.

The various levels of Triage that takes place when a man comes into Prison is nothing short of amazing. The care offered to these fellows is very good.

Oh there are complaints about food at times, about the way that they feel they have been treated or mistreated, there are games that some play also to try to break the system. But with all of that there is a very professional and highly trained team of Correctional Officers and Staff that maintain the safety for each and every man that comes into the Prison system of Canada – as well as themselves.

And with all of that there is a local CAC group or individual that is close by to be a link between what is real and what is unreal. They are there helping to make our society a better place to live in.

Am I bragging about what I do as a CAC member? Nope, not at all! It is an honor to serve in this way and no pat on the back will make much difference at all.

I have quit a hundred times in 13 years of doing this… because sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense at all. And yet I have re-enlisted and come back for more a hundred and one times – to help one more time… just because what I have done in a quiet way makes a difference in some very small way.

On Friday I watched and listened to what was presented to me. I was very impressed with the work that the folk do inside of Millhaven.

And for one very short time I looked into the eyes of Jim and we connected. Our smiles were exchanged and I hope that made a difference.

Jim will never read this I am sure of that.

But Jim if you could, I do this stuff for you and your family back home that misses you.

I do it for the victims of your crime that need reassurance that they will be safe and you will never hurt them again.

I do it for the tremendous professional Prison staff at all levels that do so
much and cannot tell anyone what they actually go through each day.

I am the face of a stranger.

~ Murray Lincoln ~

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