June 2011

CAGED: The Reality of Life Behind Bars

June 2011
By Ranj Dhaliwal

Jail is not a place for the weak at heart. Youth think they have what it takes to be bad-asses on the streets, but when they step foot in jail they realize they are nothing but chumps, that are likely going to be terrified 24 hours a day.

Not everyone that steps out of jail tells the truth on how it is on the inside. Chances are they were beat down at one point or another, and if they weren’t, they were on the other end of the beating – giving the beating. The ones that have seen the bloody reality or were beat down will rarely speak about their time on the inside because of the brutality they lived through.

Once a person does time, they are no longer the same person. Their eyes harden from the shear viciousness of what they witness, undergo or commit while behind bars. Imagine hearing deathly screams in the middle of the day while watching TV, or seeing someone bludgeoned a few feet from you. How about being forced to partake in beating someone half to death so that there are no witnesses, and everyone in presence of the attack are participants in the criminal act?

There is a very old saying, “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” This is obviously falling on deaf ears when it comes to these so-called gangsters nowadays. It is a common occurrence these days that a would-be gangster becomes an informant because they are afraid of jail. Is there something to be afraid of for these people? Yes.

The rebel, the outlaw, the gangster … yeah, yeah, they all rebel against authority and are the bad-asses. The irony is, when they get busted they can no longer rebel. They have to live in a place where authority controls all. They can have simple things like yard privileges, and even socializing taken away from them if they act out. Imagine a “time-out” like a child, but in a locked room where you are in solitary confinement for weeks at a time while only allowed out of your cell for one hour per day. How about not having a choice in what you eat on a daily basis? Or having a mandatory bed time? Sound like being a five year old again? That’s exactly what happens – the criminal has to follow rules as though they are children again, but in a hostile and very dangerous environment.

Let me set the scene for you in Federal prison. I would set the scene for you for juvey and Pretrial, but you’ve probably already read Daaku and the scenes are detailed for you in my novel. So, Federal it is …

You just got sentenced to two years plus a day and must now serve federal time. You’re shackled and handcuffed and then put on a bus headed for the medium security prison. While en route, the other prisoners talk about the stabbings and beatings at the prison. You don’t know who you can trust because you’ve made enemies on the outside while living your life as a drug dealer or criminal. You don’t know who is waiting for you at the other end with a sharp shank that’s been molded for the sole purpose of entering your body.

You arrive at the prison and the gates open. Your heart sinks because this is your home for the next couple of years. After you’ve finished intake, you are escorted to your cell. It just so happens that the prison is under lockdown at the moment because there was a stabbing earlier. Any doubts you had about federal prison being a safe place are gone now. First thing you do is carve out a shank for yourself in case you are attacked. You have nothing, so you rub your toothbrush against the floor on both sides until you have a sharp point. Lockdown’s over.

You are in general population and nobody speaks to you for hours, but they all watch you. While you’re at dinner, someone is sent over to interrogate you to make sure you’re not a skinner (rapist or pedophile) or a rat. You’re also asked about who you know on the outside, which is a dangerous question and answer period because if someone has a problem with one of your friends then you’re going to be the messenger, and in this place the messenger gets stabbed – that’s the message. Once the interrogation is done you’re left alone until nightfall when you are locked down for the night. While in bed you can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen tomorrow. You remember all the faces that looked at you and try to think back to the outside if you’ve met them before.

You get up in the morning and are in the common area watching TV with 20 other residents when something catches your attention from the corner of your eye – it is three guys entering a cell. Seconds later you hear the death cries of an inmate. You look around and nobody says anything, not even the guards. It’s like it isn’t happening. After the three guys walk out of the cell, the guards enter and the place is locked down again.

You’re in your cell for the second time locked down in two days because someone got stabbed and beaten. You know that the only way you earn respect in this place is to be ruthless, so after lockdown, you find the biggest, meanest, toughest guy and pick a fight. Win or lose you now have to watch your back from him and his friends, but you’re hoping that you’ll make some friends by doing this. After the fight, you’re locked up in segregation for two weeks for instigating a fight.

You’re in a place where beatings, stabbings and even murder is a common occurrence. Each day feels like an eternity if you don’t have what it takes to be more ruthless and cunning than you ever imagined. Prison is a place where any act of kindness is looked at as a weakness, but when you’re released you are hardened and live by the saying, “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness” because in civilized society we have to show kindness to one another.

I had the opportunity to interview someone from my childhood. His name is Rob Osborne and he has admitted to being incarcerated for 12 out of 16 years from the age of 14 to 30. That’s only 4 years on the street in 16 years. Rob made the bait car videos famous where his video “Oncoming” in a stolen truck became a worldwide watch: http://www.baitcar.com/video/oncoming

Ranj: We go way back, eh?
Rob: “Yeah.”

Ranj: Where did you grow up?
Rob: “In Whalley … down the block from you.”

Ranj: When did you start your life of crime?
Rob: “When I was fourteen.”

Ranj: What did it entail?
Rob: “I think it started with shoplifting, and then to break and enters and car theft. Mostly property crime.”

Ranj: When was your first arrest?
Rob: “When I was fourteen.”

Ranj: Did you do any time for that?
Rob: “Um, not at first. I think I had like forty charges or something like that before I actually went to YDC [Youth Detention Centre].”

Ranj: What was YDC “juvey” like?
Rob: “It was, uh, scary first going there, and, uh, um, I saw a lot of kids get victimized, but, uh, like I had my few incidents. Some of my friends were tough guys in there, so I was sort of protected to some point. Like, I wasn’t protected the whole time. Still I was beat up and different things, right? A bunch of different kids trying to prove themselves and how tough they are. They [youth] went in there and even if you tried to keep to yourself a lot of kids got victimized and beat up. Especially if you go in there with attitude, you know, I think things happen to everybody that goes in there.”

Ranj: What is the violence level like in juvey?
Rob: “Every day you hear a code yellow or code blue. Code yellow means fight. Code blue means medical attention. Every day you would hear a code yellow.”

Ranj: Was it pretty brutal in there?
Rob: “Yeah. There were some pretty bad ones. I seen a kid get his arm broken. Sometimes they get beat up real bad.”

Ranj: What was the first time you stepped foot in adult jail like? Like pretrial?
Rob: “When I was 18. It was pretty scary because a lot of people from juvey … by the time they were eighteen would have created a lot of enemies. When you were in juvey you would hear “well, this guy went to adult and got checked-in [put in protective custody] or beat up. The first time you don’t know what to expect, you don’t know who is going to be there. You know the dangers. In Pretrial it’s not like with a knife.”

Ranj: You did Provincial time?
Rob: “I was in and out of Provincial until I was 27. Mostly car theft and some was commercial B’n’E’s.”

Ranj: Provincial is how much time? Two years less a day?
Rob: “Yeah, Provincial is two years less a day.”

Ranj: Federal is two years plus a day?
Rob: “Two years plus a day.”

Ranj: How much time did you spend in jail altogether?
Rob: “I think I spent maybe three and a half, maybe four out on the street. I think in my whole life, my criminal career, from fourteen until thirty. I was, with juvey and, uh, well, I didn’t get out until I was 30.”

Out of sixteen years, Rob spent, at the most, four years out of jail.

Ranj: How did you feel when you stepped foot in Provincial for the first time?
Rob: “I was terrified. I went to Fraser. Fraser is a little different than pretrial. There are bigger guys there.”

Ranj: How would you compare the level of violence between juvey and Provincial?
Rob: “Compared to juvey I think kids are a little bit more ruthless. In juvey they are trying to prove something, so I think they are a little more ruthless.”

Ranj: If I were to say that juvey is would be like Gladiator academy, would that be a fair description?”
Rob: “Yeah, Gladiator academy. That’s what starts you off. You can go into juvey and not be a very violent person, but when you’re eighteen you’ve learned some skills and have learned how to take a beating by then, so, it’s gladiator school.”

Ranj: A non-violent kid goes to juvey they would come out violent?
Rob: “Yeah.”

Ranj: So, tell me what went through your head when you were sentenced to Federal time.
Rob: “I didn’t want get sent to Kent. A lot of people get stabbed. When you stab someone in Matsqui and get caught you get sent to Kent.”

Ranj: What’s the violence level like in Federal?
Rob: “There’s a new danger. I’ve seen pretty big things that I’m like ‘holy fuck, how did they come up with that?’ because it’s a piece of steel carved into a knife. Your worries are gratified. You don’t know who is waiting for you. I was pretty scared. When I got there the whole institution was locked down because someone just got stabbed.”

Ranj: Well, that’s a great thing to walk in on, eh? [We laugh loud.]”
Rob: “Yeah. It was … well, you don’t know what you’re walking into, right? You hear about such a crazy place and when you get there the whole jail is locked down because someone just got stabbed. Not every day someone would get messed up, but they say things happen in threes. Sometimes we’d be locked up for a week and then be out for a couple hours and then there’d be another stabbing. Sometimes it seemed the place couldn’t get off lockdown.”

Ranj: Would you say Federal or just Matsqui is a dangerous place to be in?
Rob: “Well, I guess Federal altogether. One memory that sticks out is … as I was walking out of the unit, I kinda seen some guy get pulled into his cell and then I heard a guy say, “Shut the fuck up!” and then I heard a guy like, “Raaar, raaar!” You know, like getting beat, you know? I kinda put my head down and kept walking. That’s when I realized that people get fucked up here.”

Ranj: Do the guards not hear any of this?
Rob: “You hear someone down the hall and you hear their death screams. When someone is going to get fucked up there, two or three guys will go into a cell with whatever it is and a couple shanks and a pipe. People don’t just get stabbed there – people get piped and stabbed there. Noone hears your screams. When somebody’s going to get fucked up, they don’t just get beat up.”

Ranj: How did you feel in jail?
Rob: “I was paranoid, but I didn’t have much to be paranoid about.”

Ranj: Did you get into any fights?
Rob: “Where?”

Ranj: Let’s start at juvey.
Rob: “Yeah. I remember two off the top of my head where I got beat up. I got into more than that. Like you said, gladiator school, right?”

Ranj: What about Provincial?
Rob: “A lot of guys wait to fight in Sherriff’s custody so they don’t get charged by the institution.”

Ranj: What about Federal?
Rob: “Yeah, I got into one. Like I said, I was scared when I got to Matsqui. When you spend fifteen years in jail, but you don’t know who you’re going to run into. You make enemies. Whoever has a problem with someone is ready. Sometimes it wasn’t a very good welcoming party for some people.”

Ranj: How is jail for wannabe gangsters?
Rob: “From my experience a lot of gangs stuff doesn’t matter. Buddy, this isn’t the street. In there there’s people doing life. They don’t care what happens on the street. This is their world, so they don’t give a shit what happens on the street.”

Ranj: So, if a guy from out here that thinks he’s all big and tough goes in … what is it like for him if he doesn’t have the respect from other inmates already?
Rob: “It’s not the same.”

Ranj: So, a person would have to be humbled to go inside?
Rob: “Yeah.”

Ranj: Do you see anyone ever break while in there?
Rob: “Usually at one point this person’s the tough guy. Everybody respects or fears him. Things change and then all of a sudden you see that guy get checked-in.”

Ranj: Checked-in as in placed in PC [Protective Custody]?
Rob: “Yeah.”

Ranj: What happens to ‘rats’ even if they’re in PC?
Rob: “They’re going to get fucked up.”

Ranj: How’s that possible in Protective Custody?
Rob: “Well …”

[We laugh.]

Ranj: So nobody is untouchable in jail?
Rob: “I think it’s dangerous any way you look at it.”

Ranj: Are there jailhouse gangs?
Rob: “No, not really. It’s not like race wars or anything. It’s Canada … multicultural, right?”

[We laugh out loud.]

Ranj: What does freedom feel like when you’re finished your sentence?
Rob: “It was the best feeling in the world because you count down the days to your release date.”

Ranj: How is the mentality different? Like, what changes?
Rob: “Your whole world changes when you go in. It’s devastating. You lose yourself. Being in a [segregation] cell for twenty three hours a day for fifteen days isn’t fun. You’re in a cell staring at the bricks for twenty three hours a day.”

Ranj: What kept you away from becoming a gangster?
Rob: “Nothing was ever that appealing to me. I think I started out not much of a violent … the most violence in my life happened in jail. I think when you go to jail and spend any amount of time in jail you’re going to encounter violence. Most of the violent tough guys are there.”

Ranj: What was the longest sentence you served?
Rob: “My last one … four years.”

Ranj: When did it end?
Rob: “My sentence ended on June 1, 2007. I was released in September ’06. I did eight months in a halfway house.” [Rob was in a halfway house for eight months on parole after his release date.]

Ranj: Were there any restrictions placed on you?
Rob: “That was the first time I wasn’t on probation after.”

Until next time …