You’re a Halifax Magazine reader: you’re probably into regional craft brews, local history, farmers’ markets, and the like. You probably don’t commit many felonies, and you certainly don’t expect to be imprisoned.
But then, most people don’t.
“No, I had no idea,” says Jefferey Brooks, who first went to jail at age of 19 on charges of robbery and assault. The 33-year-old has been in and out of correctional facilities on different charges, and completed his most recent stint in Burnside in October.
Brooks grew up in a tough environment: he began drinking early in life, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a man he “truly idolized,” and wrestled with anger and resentment.
He has spent about 13 years in different cells from Yarmouth to Cape Breton and just about every hoosegow in between.
But even he was surprised to go to prison for the first time, at age 19.
“I had definitely seen too many movies,” chuckles Brooks. “I was afraid because I didn’t know what was going to happen, but at the same time, it was like, ‘if someone tries something with me, Imma fuck ’em up.’”
What would you do if you found yourself in those shoes? If you knew that you were going to jail tomorrow, would you know what was coming next? What the next few years of your life will look like? What to do to prepare?
First off, a misconception. You’re not going to find yourself in a “prison” (a federal institution for people convicted of indictable offences) right away. You would serve at least some time in a provincial correctional facility on a remand first, such as the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Burnside, while you await your day in court.
The distinction is probably of little comfort. A cell is a cell, and you’re going to get accustomed to the inside of one either way.
“I would suspect that the first day, for everyone, would be the hardest, because there’s the unknown,” says Stephen Pothier, an assistant deputy superintendent of operations at CNSCF. “But we try to do a good job of communicating when people come in the back door, to inform them that, really, your life is going to go on. This is just a setback.”
The admission process is what you might expect: they’ll drive you up to the back of the correctional facility in Burnside through the gated rear entrance, you’ll be asked questions, get to make a phone call, and yep, be strip searched.
But you’ll also meet with health-care staff to go over any health concerns you may have, such as making sure you have access to any medications you need. You’ll get a few pairs of rather comfy-looking orange sweats, an amenities pack containing toiletries, cups and cutlery (a spork), and a bite to eat. Staff say that the strip search is carried out with the maximum amount of privacy they can manage, so only one officer really needs to see your nethers. They try to make the transition as unobtrusive as possible.
However, whether you spend a day or a decade behind bars, the corrections staff need to psychologically prepare you for the way life works on the inside. That means you’re going to spend at least 24 hours in a locked cell.
“It’s not locked because it’s discipline,” says CNSCF’s deputy superintendent of operations, Tracy Dominix. “It’s locked so that you can get to understand what’s going to happen.”
That’s day one. You might be vindicated in court and get to go home shortly, but that’s the bare minimum you’ll experience.
But your stay at a facility like CNSCF could last a maximum of two years less a day, and even longer if you’re moved to the federal level. In that case, there’s some long-term life planning that you need to take care of on the outside.
“There’s a new field of endeavour that’s arisen, mostly in Ontario right now, where there are specialists who have done a fair amount of prison time,” says John Howard, executive director of the Nova Scotia chapter of the John Howard society, a prisoner advocacy organization. “People that know they’re going to jail will engage their services, to prepare them for that shock. Rather than going cold, they work with people who are ex-cons who do this for a living now. They get you psychologically prepared.”
Part of that prep involves setting your various affairs in order. Own a home? Might have to sell it or find someone to maintain it for you. Got a job? You’re going to need to let your employers know that you’re going away for a while. How about kids? Someone will have to take care of them while you’re on the inside.
Not all the minutiae you’ll sort out will be as banal. Sometimes, it’ll be saying goodbye.
“One episode that I watched involved a woman who had…I think it was a $6-million fraud,” says John Peach, the executive director of John Howard Society of Nova Scotia. “She hadn’t gone through her trial yet, but she knew what the outcome was going to be. One of the hardest things for her to prepare for was giving up her dog. That was her only friend…she was going to be gone long enough that [expecting her dog to live to see her release was] not going to be practical.”
Life inside is going to be different but often not quite as bad as you might expect. Minus one fight with someone he describes as “an enormous Newfie,” Brooks found life on the cell block to be a lot less combative than anticipated.
“Actually, they put me in on a range [a section of cells] where I was related to everybody. All my cousins and uncles,” says Brooks. “I was definitely fed good.”
At CNSCF, there are common areas you’re free to come and go through most hours of the day, with a few lock-up periods for sleep or staff rotation. There’s TV and PlayStation 3 consoles, but no Internet. Games, books, etc. The usual time killers. “Your freedom of movement is limited, but it’s not limited to your cell,” says Pothier.
But the best use of your time inside is taking advantage of the programs.
You can take university courses while behind bars through correspondence, or get a GED with the help of an on-site teacher. There’s also support programs like anger-management classes, addiction counselling, or post-incarceration employment strategies.
“I used to take the programs to get a certificate to show the judge, ‘hey, I did this, can I get out now,’” says Brooks, who credits finally taking the courses seriously for turning his life around. “Whatever programs you need, take them, and do them to your full potential. They will help you in the long run, if you’re ready and you’re willing to do it.”
Hopefully you’ll never need this information beyond sating your curiosity. But life is messy sometimes, and even upstanding citizens like you end up on unexpected paths.
“My first day on the job, I witnessed a gentleman who was visiting with his parents, and his wife, and his newborn,” says Pothier. “He had just been sentenced to two years plus a day for vehicular homicide. He was driving drunk, and his brother ended up dying in a car crash.”
“Nobody thinks it could happen to them, but it’s as simple as making one poor decision and there you are,” Pothier continues. “To this day, I’m still wondering, did everything work out? I hope everything worked out for him.”