Friday, February 17, 2012
Abandonment Issues: Project Turnaround
Built in the mid 1980s, the facility in Hillsdale, Ontario operated as an adult offender agricultural work camp known as Camp Hillsdale until 1994, at which time it was shut down. In 1997, the Tory government re-opened the facility under the name Project Turnaround, Ontario's first and only privately operated strict discipline facility for young offenders, based on the out of touch American boot camp model. It housed high risk offenders between the ages of 16 and 17, and was intended to combat recidivism. With a maximum capacity of 36 offenders, Project Turnaround cost the provincial government a whopping $2.5 million annually. Operating on the military model, Project Turnaround put inmates through strenuous 16 hour days that included schooling and behavioral and life skill training. The young offenders tended the fields, growing crops for other local facilities. They marched daily, and graduated levels by achieving certain goals ranging from using proper table manners to keeping a daily journal and running a mile in under 7 minutes.
At one point, 2 inmates escaped from the maximum security facility, only to be caught after a three hour chase through forest and swamps.
In 2003, a mould outbreak forced a temporary closure and inmates were sent to other facilities. With two months left in the private contract, the Liberal government followed through with the Tories plan to not renew the contract, and Project Turnaround was shut down permanently.
As we explored Project Turnaround in early September of 2011, a wave of memories came over me. You see, when I was a teenager, I was a very different person. That kid wouldn't even recognize me today. That kid was full of anger, and in retrospect, he absolutely hated himself, and he hated the world, and it showed in his actions. He spent his teenage years living the street life, homeless and couch surfing, in and out of young offender facilities on short stints. When he was sixteen, his dangerous lifestyle caught up with him, and he was sentenced to 9 months in young offender lockup.
Instead of my usual approach of describing the exploration, I am going to use this post to recap my own experiences as an inmate in the young offender system, in hopes that it may be a cathartic experience to release these feelings and stories that have gone untold, as well as to stand as a cautionary tale to the younger readers that may be heading down a path that leads to such miserable places.
After being convicted on a string of offenses and sentenced to 9 months, I was returned to Brookside Youth Centre in Cobourg, where I had been awaiting sentencing after being denied bail. It was here that I first picked up a pen and began my life long love affair with the writing process. It was also here that guards told me that I would be a lifer, and gave me the nickname Satan. Within a few months, I had been transferred to a handful of different facilities across the province due to another string of infractions on the inside. After acquiring the right to the odd weekend home visit, I met a girl, and decided to go AWOL and not return. After one glorious week of freedom and debauchery, I was captured and sentenced to additional time for the AWOL, as well as more serious offenses committed during this week of freedumb, to be served consecutively after finishing my original sentence.
The most memorable transfer occurred when the court thought it best to send me as far from my friends and escape temptations as possible. Another young man and I were handcuffed and shackled into a paddy wagon and shipped off to the Brockville Jail, which is an old adult jail with a small young offender cell block housing 12 inmates. After the customary strip searches and intake procedures, the doors were unlocked and we walked into the cell block. Immediately, a large boy rushed the kid I had just spent the previous hours shackled to and beat him mercilessly, as I stood in shock. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Guards rushed in SWAT style and carried both of the boys away, and there I was, alone, with ten other inmates eying me up and down. I was all of 5 foot 5, but these colours don't run, and I didn't need a game face or a mask, I didn't fucking care about life, and I wore it on my face. I clicked with a large Native cat that was mid trial on a murder wrap. He'd already served three and a half years pre-trial and ran the range. It was gold. I remember masturbating to Shania Twain videos and walking the dilapidated crumbling halls of the jail three times a day to get our meal trays. I remember laying in bed at night, with a large Native murderer on the bunk above or below me, with the screams and cries of adult inmates in the hole two floors below the Y/O range. They would bang on the metal doors for hours on end, I can still hear the echo. Guards traded us hash and an opportunity to clean the offices, where they'd look the other way while we'd steal packs of cigarettes from the adult canteens. They traded these luxuries to us to maintain peace on the range, which made their jobs a cakewalk. Needless to say, I was devastated when I awoke one morning to the sound of my name being called and the announcement to pack my things, I was being transferred immediately.
In the paddy wagon later that morning, I felt so alone. They don't tell you where you're being transferred to, as it is a security risk. A few hours later, I was back at Brookside, again. Another strip search, another intake process, it was all becoming as routine as brushing my teeth.
At Brookside, I was closer to my family, and enjoyed visits from my mother, who cried during every single visit. My brother would often visit with packages of tobacco and weed tightly wrapped in cellophane and doused in Vaseline, which I would hoop. Thankfully, the spread 'em and cough never resulted in any further charges. But I can tell you that it is not a comfortable feeling to walk around with a package in your anus.
On one of these visits, I met my newborn niece, who is now 17. I soon learned that police in a nearby community requested the transfer, as they had more charges to lay against me. The silver lining was that I would be closer to the girl, with whom I had a plan to run away to Nova Scotia and start fresh. This is when the intense motivation to escape took hold. After pleading guilty to a few more charges, and having even more time added to my sentence, I was once again transferred, this time to a medium security facility near Brantford or Hamilton, or somewhere near there, I thought. I didn't really know where it was.
As soon as I got there, I began planning my escape. I quickly befriended a young black kid and pestered him for all of the information he could share about the routines of the guards and the weak spots in the facility. I traded him my bright coloured Exhaust and Major Damage clothing for an all black outfit. I secured enough information that I was confident I could pull off the escape that very night. I ran through it over and over in my mind. The downside was that once I was off the property, if I could indeed get off the property, I had no idea where I was, or which direction the girl was.
As night fell, I used a button from a shirt to block the lock hatch from sealing my cell door, but allowing it to appear sealed. I waited until exactly 7:50, when just on cue, the guards turned off the alarm and went outside for their smoke break. I packed my bed with clothing to make it look like I was sleeping. I was amped, adrenaline was pumping through me. I could feel my heart rate increasing and did my best to slow my mind down, and breathe slowly, so as to conserve all of my energy for the escape. With my blanket in my hands, I heard the door re-open. I waited, one, two, three seconds and then emerged from my cell, locking it behind me. I scurried down the hall on my tiptoes and caught the door before it closed, as the guards walked down the hall to their control room. I slid outside, and gently closed the door behind me. And then it beeped, the alarm was back on. I made it with less than a fraction of a second to spare. I ran to the fence and threw my blanket up towards the razor wire atop the fence, but it missed, and just fell back into the snow. It was much colder than I had expected. A fierce winter wind was blowing in my face and I instantly regretted not acquiring a coat. I picked up the blanket, draped it over my shoulder, and began to climb the fence. Near the top, i flung the blanket over the razor wire and rolled over top of it, cutting my arms and stomach in the process. The wire tore right through my black hoodie. I tried to tear the blanket out of the razor wire on the other side, to cover my tracks, but I couldn't possibly get it out. I dropped to the ground and ran into the cold pitch blackness of what I thought was freedom.
I ran for miles, but had no idea which direction I was going, or which direction I was supposed to be going. Hours later, I emerged from a forest on the side of a highway, where two young teenagers were hitch-hiking. I was freezing cold by this point. I recounted the nights events with them, to which one of them gave me his coat and a cigarette. The other told me that they were heading to his parents cottage, and that I could go with them to hide out for a few days if I wished. Less than 5 minutes later, with our thumbs out, a car slowed down beside us. Just as I thought my ordeal would be over, I saw the cherries. It was a cop car.
The officer rolled down his window and asked all of the normal questions. Who are you? What are you doing out here? Where are you going? Then he asked us for ID. Then he dropped a bombshell. An inmate had escaped from a jail, he said. As the first kid handed his ID through the window, I booked it. Behind the cruiser. Across the highway. Through the ditch. Over a fence. Through a farmers field and into the forest. Again, I ran for miles. Eventually, I found a barn deep on a farmers property and made my way inside. I was exhausted by this point. I climbed to the loft and buried myself in hay that I clawed out of the hay bails, and I lied down as still as possible. I could hear the animals below me rustling, but hadn't even seen what kind of animals they were. I couldn't sleep a wink. At one point, I heard sirens and dogs barking, getting closer and closer. I figured the jig was up and just waited for the inevitable, but they never came.
Before sunrise, I was back on the move, through snow covered forests and eventually to another highway. Off and on that day, I sporadically stepped to the side of the highway with my thumb out attempting to hitch a ride, to no avail. Eventually, I fell asleep in a snowy ditch beside an overpass, awaking many hours later with severe frostbite on my extremities. Later that night, a trucker picked me up and drove me to Toronto. By the next night, I'd made it to back to my hometown, where I planned to meet up with the girl, steal a car, which I learned how to do while incarcerated, and make our way to Nova Scotia, where we would hide out with her family.
That's when I made a mistake, an error in judgment. I sought solace at my aunt's house. After giving me a warm bed and feeding me, and letting me go on my way, she called my grandmother, who called my mother, who called the police. Within an hour, after a brief foot pursuit, I was back in police custody.
Within a matter of days, I was back in a paddy wagon, this time cuffed and shackled with a chain from my hands to my feet. Defeated and depressed. Somewhere on the side of the 401, the paddy wagon pulled over at a rest stop. One guard went in for coffee while the other two accompanied me to the washroom. They pushed me inside and waited just outside the door, I could hear them talking. I began yelling that I couldn't reach to wipe my ass with the chains on, which was true, but they weren't having any of it. As I left the washroom, handcuffed and shackled, with a guard on each arm, and an unwiped ass, I felt ashamed of myself. Just then, a young boy that couldn't have been any older than seven, was approaching the gas station with his father. The look of fear in that boy's eyes as he ducked behind his father and grasped for his hand, was devastating. The shame I felt in that moment was immeasurable, and I still carry it with me to this day.
Within a matter of hours, I was being admitted to the Hamilton Wentworth Detention Centre, which is another adult jail with Y/O ranges. My cell mate was a large Mexican named Miguel, and within hours, we had bonded over plotting the beating of another new inmate that was rumoured to have raped a girl. After pummeling this shmuck, the guards bashed my face off of the corner of a table, opening a giant gash in my eyebrow that took 15 stitches to seal in the infirmary. The report stated that I suffered the injury during the altercation with the inmates. Of course it did. This was the roughest of all the dozen or so jails I had been in, with violent altercations occurring daily and racial undertones to the cliques.
In the old crumbling cells under the Hamilton courthouse, I looked at my life from a third person perspective, and was disgusted with who I saw. I found a TM cigarette and a book of matches in a hole in the ceiling, and lost myself in that smoke. That was the best cigarette I ever had.
Handcuffed, shackled and chained, I was guided down the long corridor, up the stairs and through the prisoner entrance to the courtroom. I was 5 foot 5 with a shaved head, and while I was sixteen, I looked like I was 13. The courtroom was absolutely packed, and for some reason there were a lot of senior citizens present. As I entered the courtroom, in all my shackles and chains, a massive gasp was let out by the entire courthouse as if Charles Manson himself was embodied in this tiny little monster. The judge banged his gavel and ordered for silence over the murmurs and disbelief being verbalized by the large audience. That feeling of utter shame returned in full force. The Crown Attorney read out the charge against me: escape custody. She then read out the report from my escape. They didn't notice me missing until 4 am, she read aloud. It wasn't even me that they were looking for that fateful night, I realized. Another inmate must have escaped from a different facility that night. I actually laughed out loud when I came to this realization, which prompted another gasp, and likely didn't help my cause. The Crown then read a statement sent from the Crown Attorney in my hometown, urging them to enforce stiff penalties for this escape. The letter stated that I was a habitual high risk offender. The letter also included a request that I be kept in a facility far away from my hometown. Yet another blow.
After several more transfers and a length of time that seemed to stand still, but at the same time felt endless, I eventually saw light at the end of the dark tunnel, behind me. I turned around, and started to walk towards it, instead of away from it. I improved my outlook and attitude and eventually convinced a judge to release me 6 months before my release date.
By the time I was released from custody, I had served 20 months and 4 days.
6 weeks later I met the love of my life, Ninja IX. The fact that someone I regarded so highly saw something good in me, and loved me, changed my self perception. I made the conscious decision to make drastic changes in my life. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this woman, and I wanted to be the sort of man that she would want to spend the rest of her life with. While it has been a long process of ups and downs, I am eternally grateful that she saw something good in me 16 years ago, and with 16 years of growth behind me, I can now see it as well.
click here to check out all of jerm & ninja IX's ABANDONMENT ISSUES