Christmas, a day like any other for people in prison

Photo: Jacques Nadeau Le Devoir
Sylvain Therrien has celebrated several Christmases behind bars, to the establishment Archambault in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, in the 1990s.

Light decorations in the streets, smell of pine in the home, the latest gift purchase : like every year at the approach of December 25th, Quebecers are impatiently waiting to celebrate Christmas. But the atmosphere is less at the feast in the prison, where the inmates are preparing to spend a day like the others.


“Christmas is a day like any other, summarizes Chantal*, recalling his visit to the prison for women Maison Tanguay 2014 — now closed. The meals are the same, except the 25th of December where we serve chicken. “


It is still necessary to open the eye and elbow to not make it fly by the other inmates, she continued to the other end of the wire. “Me, I am corpulent, it has helped me. “


She keeps traumatic memories of that first Christmas behind bars, while she had to sleep on a mattress of soil, the prison has exceeded its capacity. “That first Christmas was awful, I am isolated in a cell, I cried all night. Worse than the prison, it is Christmas. “


Accused of fraud, when she led a double life to fund her pathological gambling, the 50 year-old woman was almost happy to leave the House Tanguay so the living conditions were ” ridiculous “. She was transferred to the penitentiary in Joliette to serve his sentence, where his second Christmas there has been more ” festive “.


But this is not ” the thickness of a mattress or a fruit cake who will do something to change things. You are in prison, the door will lock at 11 pm when even and you’re gonna make it count as a leek in thy cell, ” says Daniel Benson, met by The Duty in a small office of the Old Brewery mission in Montreal. One that occurs today with the homeless has spent the last 17 Christmases behind bars for the murder of his father-in-law in 1982.


Strict rules


They are in an establishment by provincial or federal jurisdiction, the detainees struggle to live the Holidays as a special time. No derogation in time for Christmas — with a few exceptions —, “the rules […] are the same throughout the year,” said Olivier Cantin, a spokesperson for the department of public Safety.


Impossible for the prisoners to spend the day with their loved ones, no visitor is allowed by lack of numbers. But in the previous days, meetings are sometimes added or extended in certain institutions. Other by organizing themselves into a common room that is being monitored by the agents rather than in the visiting room separated by a glass prisoners of their parent.


Sylvain Therrien is an exception to the rule : it has celebrated several Christmases with his uncles. That is, they were, like him, imprisoned in the facility Archambault, Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines in the 1990s. And this is where his “only good memories” of time spent behind bars.


In the absence of being surrounded by their family on the 24th and 25th of December, the inmates are falling back on the phone ; an exercise in painful, evidenced by Daniel Benson. “If I call [my family], I might disrupt the celebration that they have, and if I do not call, they will ask why. Regardless of the decision you’ll take, you’ll break the party. “

Photo: Pedro Ruiz The Duty
Daniel Benson has spent the last 17 Christmases behind bars for the murder of his father-in-law.

The activities are organised as entertainment : movies, bingo games, sports competitions, tournament cards, Christmas mass. They, however, vary from one place to another, being primarily funded by the inmate population. And this is especially the prisons, which fall under federal jurisdiction, that will benefit, judge Chantal.


“A few days before, there was a party and a meal with the families. There is also a feast from mother to child, ” she says. There is a true spirit of Christmas. Each unit was decorated with a christmas tree and the possibility of visiting between units. “


She also remembers a mass at the Maison Tanguay in 2014, not without a hint of irritation in his voice. “There is no respect for the spirituality. I couldn’t wait for it to end, I was outraged. These outdoor activities allow some exchange of drugs, magouiller. You could see the women caressing before the chaplains and volunteers. “


And the gifts ? They are less common or even non-existent, considering the rules that frame them. “If a visitor arrives with a gift, we need to investigate it, and then, it’s not going to pack it in then “, remarked the president of the Syndicat des agents de la paix en services correctionnels du Québec), Mathieu Lavoie.


It is advisable for families to deposit money in the savings account, prison inmate, so that he could offer the property to the canteen — the general store of the prison, whose inventory is raised during this period. There is shampoo, chocolate, crisps, perfume, or even toilet paper, Cottonelle, remembers Daniel Benson. “It sounds crazy said the same, but the toilet paper in prison is not sweet. “


Period of risk


According to Line Dumais, a spokesperson for the correctional Service of Canada, people in prison are “more fragile” at this time of the year. The guardians of the federal institutions, have for word order to be more vigilant with prisoners likely to have suicidal thoughts.


“We ask staff to pay particular attention to the warning signs of depression, self-harm and suicide, as well as to cases with specific needs for mental health “, she says. The setpoint is the same at the provincial level, confirms his side, Mathieu Lavoie.


Ideas black, Sylvain Therrien has already had when he was serving a sentence at the penitentiary, Archambault. The mood in the flat, the man, now 49 years old remembers to have slipped a word to a guard, a few days before Christmas. The reaction was almost immediate : he was placed in isolation to prevent any passage to the act.


“They put me naked in a padded cell “, recalls he with difficulty, wringing her fingers under the blow of emotion. Three days passed before he met a doctor and returned to his cell.


In this atmosphere gloomy, the prisoners seek to celebrate as they can. At the prison Tanguay, the rate of crime is on the rise, evidenced by Chantal. “The women will roll their cigarettes with the peel of banana and take of alcohol [mad]. “


Alcohol is a recurrent problem in prisons in quebec, reveals Mr. Lavoie. “With thirty people, under the effect of alcohol adulterated, we may see things quite special. It leads to aggressiveness, their side is depressed, it is an explosive cocktail of emotions. “


And it is even easier to get drugs during group activities, according to Sylvain Therrien. “Families come with the kids in the gym. There are so many distractions, and the guards can’t see everything. “


“It is a reduced workforce during the Holiday season, the guards are also taking leave. This is the problem, ” says Mr. Lavoie. A situation that is echoed by his colleagues in penitentiaries of the province.


* Fictitious name

To see more clearly

When a person receives a sentence of two years less a day or less, it takes the direction of a provincial prison. These centres fall under the jurisdiction of the quebec ministry of public Security. It is also in prisons that have been incarcerated persons during their trial, awaiting sentence.

When the sentence is over two years old, it is in a penitentiary that the inmate will have to serve his sentence. The penitentiaries are under federal jurisdiction, and bring together detainees classified according to the level of risk they represent (maximum, average, minimum, and multiple).

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