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The Warkworth Penitentiary

The Warkworth penitentiary is facing challenges from young inmate gangs, drug wars, geriatric prisoners and overcrowding.

There is no more closely-guarded or secretive place in this part of Ontario than the Warkworth Penitentiary. It looks for all the world like a bland, grey-walled factory complex rather than a medium security prison brimming with tough guys.

But the prison’s towering twin perimeter fences, 20 feet high and topped with rolls of razor sharp barbed wire, leave no doubt about its true purpose. Break-outs from here are almost as rare as lottery wins.

One farmer living close to the prison told me that for years he left the ignition keys in his unlocked truck at night in case a prisoner broke out. The farmer reasoned that the con would steal his truck without breaking into his house. So far, no inmate has been able to take up his generous offer.

here is no more closely-guarded or secretive place in this part of Ontario than the Warkworth Penitentiary. It looks for all the world like a bland, grey-walled factory complex rather than a medium security prison brimming with tough guys.But the prison’s towering twin perimeter fences, 20 feet high and topped with rolls of razor sharp barbed wire, leave no doubt about its true purpose. Break-outs from here are almost as rare as lottery wins.One farmer living close to the prison told me that for years he left the ignition keys in his unlocked truck at night in case a prisoner broke out. The farmer reasoned that the con would steal his truck without breaking into his house. So far, no inmate has been able to take up his generous offer.

The very few jailbreaks have ranged from the crazy (in 1985 two inmates rammed through the gates with a prison truck then realized they had to dump the marked vehicle and ran away on foot); to the careless (after a clean break out, an escapee stopped in Warkworth to buy cigarettes and bumped into an off-duty guard who called the OPP.)

These days the prison’s perimeter road is patrolled 24 hours a day by guards driving a fleet of blue minivans. At night, banks of spotlights surrounding this walled city cast an eerie yellow glow that can be seen for miles around.

The prison’s grim presence on a quiet back road just south of Campbellford is shielded from view these days by landscaped hills, trees and even neighbouring farms – just as its architects intended a half-century ago.

It may just be a coincidence but the day Lester B. Pearson came to town on March 25, 1965, to inaugurate the site of the new Warkworth prison, it was indeed bleak and dismal. The surrounding countryside was blanketed by a spring snowstorm.

The Prime Minister’s 12-car motorcade filled with local VIPs and dignitaries turned east off Highway 30 and headed towards the 208 acres of farmland purchased for the new federal penitentiary. But the motorcade quickly ground to a halt when confronted by a union picket line of construction workers protesting unfair wages on the proposed prison project. Historically, it was the first time the Warkworth prison had stirred up union unrest, but it wouldn’t be the last.

A brass band from RCAF Trenton huddled together under a colourful marquee and tried its best to brighten the proceedings. Mr. Pearson displaying usual calm demeanor did the rest, using the whole ceremony as a clarion call for enlightened prison reform.

Turning the first sod of frozen earth with a shiny new shovel, Lester B. Pearson told a crowd of 300 that Warkworth was one of four new prisons planned that would emphasize “trade and academic training instead of futile isolation”.

And the Prime Minister promised that if the government implemented its entire penitentiary plan, Canada would have a penitentiary service “second to none in the world”.

Mr. Pearson concluded: “Rehabilitation and social reform is an important part of the correctional services.”

Today the ceremonial shovel sits on display in a glass case just outside the main gates of the prison, a timely reminder of the great man and his message about a rehabilitative correctional system.

A MESSAGE SLOWLY ERODED
But make no mistake, Mr. Pearson’s message and philosophy is under tremendous pressure from a combination of powerful forces – both inside and outside the prison – that are almost impossible to resist.

One problem is the emergence of a new type of inmate drawn from big city street gangs, who has nothing but contempt for the prison system. Another is the rapidly aging inmates who make up half the prison population, most of them needing continued medical care and many actually dying behind bars.

Finally, there is the unfortunately-timed decision by the Harper Government at this precise moment to introduce double-bunking in prisons cells – a makeshift measure to accommodate a big influx of new offenders that will be netted by the federal government’s new crime bill.

The crime bill has been roundly criticized by many experts for unnecessarily swelling the prison population at a time when Canada’s crime rate is currently at its lowest level in nearly 40 years (Statistics Canada).

Local MP Rick Norlock, a member of the federal government’s public safety committee overseeing the prison system, defends the crime bill: “If we’re talking about the legislation, it doesn’t create more criminals. What it does do is ensure those people who commit certain offences, especially violent crimes – selling drugs to our children and committing sexual offences against our children and others – will be spending a longer period of time in our institutions.”

As for Warkworth’s future, Mr. Norlock said there is no plan to officially expand the prison. “There is however I believe some so-called expansion of living area and that is a nice word for double-bunking,” he added.

The practice of double-bunking or installing an extra bunk in the standard 9-by-12-foot cell designed for a single inmate has been declared by Correctional Services Canada (CSC) as an “interim measure” – a quick solution over the next two years until 2700 new cellblocks can be built by 2014 across the Canadian prison system.

But the practice has been condemned by Canada’s official correctional investigator Howard Sapers, who says putting two inmates in one cell risks increasing violence in Canada’s overcrowded prisons. “We’ve already seen the number of violent incidents inside correctional centres begin to escalate,” Mr. Sapers reported.

And the double-bunking at Warkworth and other federal penitentiaries also seems to run afoul of the United Nations’ own Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The UN established those rules in 1955 and 100 countries now abide by them. They require that “cells for individuals shall not be used to accommodate more than one person overnight”.

In fact, the Warkworth prison, a predominantly single-bunk cell facility, has already upped its quota of double-bunk cells from 58 to 90 and may go higher if the incoming tide of new prisoners warrants it.

And that brings its own challenges for the prison’s warden Ann Anderson, who pointed out: “It does affect our routine. If you have a population of 616, you do not want them all congregating in one area at the same time. We stagger the feeding times, we stagger recreation.”

A VOLATILE MIX
Ms. Anderson believes Warkworth’s recently opened Newcomer Unit, fully equipped with double-bunk cells, will prepare new inmates over a two-week initiation for the new reality of life in the main prison population.

But still the question persists that switching to more double-bunked cells in a prison population increasingly dominated by violent younger offenders makes for a volatile mix – and one that will inevitably require even tighter security inside the prison walls.

As Canada’s largest penitentiary, Warkworth’s capacity is rated to hold 537 inmates, yet with double-bunking the prison’s population has already climbed to 616 prisoners. The prison may officially be “full” but it can expect more guests.

Correctional Services Canada (CSC) has confirmed this dramatic increase in tough young offenders with “extensive and violent criminal histories” at Warkworth and other prisons by sending out a memorandum to its staff, called Changing Offender Profile.

The CSC report warns that these offenders are often involved in criminal organizations and pose a number of significant dangers, including “intimidation, extortion, and violence within the prison population; running drug distribution in prisons; recruitment of new members to gangs; and intimidation and corruption of staff.”

Warden Anderson says among younger inmates there is a definite “I don’t care attitude” but she points out that under CSC guidelines, more prisoners means more guards. “Our staff is trained to deal with every type of offender, even if it’s a young offender that’s just come into the system who maybe has gang affiliations.”

Warkworth’s staff (including guards) has already jumped from 340 to 403 in recent years to cope with the influx.

But the equation of gang wars, double bunks and more inmates still has the guards’ union leader Jason Godin worried.

“Is it a train wreck coming? Possibly. I don’t  think we have seen the full impact of the inmate increases yet,” said Mr. Godin, regional president of the 1700 prison guards in Ontario under the banner of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

“As front line correctional officers, we will see it from the floor up. Certainly with double bunking inmates, the tension and the temperature begins to rise and for obvious reasons,” Mr. Godin said.

OLDER PRISONERS ARE FEARFUL
The older long-term prisoners are fearful of what’s happening in Warkworth, according to Reverend Dan Haley, a chaplain with 24 years of experience visiting Warkworth and other area prisons.

“The older prisoners are seniors now and when they go down to the canteen, they have to have someone with them because the young punks are muscling them for the snacks they buy to take back to their cells. The older population is feeling very threatened by the gangs,” he says.

“The general public really doesn’t understand what’s going on inside,” said Reverend Haley. “Warkworth institution doesn’t feel like a minimum security prison anymore when you go in; it feels like a maximum security prison.”

The older cons confirm Haley’s views. Rehabilitated into society this year, Alfred (not his real name), a 59 year-old former inmate of Warkworth, told me: “It’s going to be tougher to do your time. People are going to get killed.”

Another former inmate Billy, 32, (not his real name), who has spent a third of his life behind bars and almost all of it at the Warkworth prison echoed that sentiment: “It’s becoming more violent. There’ll be problems for sure.”

In the last year before his release into a half-way house, Billy saw his first stabbing. “It happened right in front of me but I didn’t say anything,” he told me. “Then after that it seemed to keep happening probably every month or two months. Another guy got stabbed out in front of our cell block with a butter knife. It’s turning kinda tough.”

THE PRISON IS FULL
A predictable outcome of the move towards cell-sharing is that the remaining single bunk cells have become very desirable real estate for older inmates seeking both privacy and safety at night. This has led the prison authorities to create an official waiting list for single cells, much like lining up for a new condo but without the view.

“It’s all done by seniority and how you come through the system. You have to wait your turn, that’s the only fair way to do it,” explained Warden Anderson.

A single bunk cell may sound like an odd sort of prize to pursue but it all makes sense to an older prisoner with seniority like Alfred, who was able to hang onto his single cell status while in the Penitentiary.

He described it to me: “The cell was my private place. It held a bunk, a small desk and a toilet. There was a 2-foot wide walk-through. If you put two people in that cell they would be crammed in like sardines.”

“The difference between being in a cell on your own and sharing with someone is like night and day,” said ex-inmate Alfred, dismissing the double bunking program as being all about money not crime. “They put us away and forget about us,” he said with a shrug.

WALLY WORLD
It’s all a big change from the prison’s first 30 years when it was known to successive prison populations as “Wally World” for its more relaxed and liberal-minded approach. Today the Warkworth Penitentiary is a battleground between rival gangs seeking to control the lucrative, illicit drug and cigarette trade.

The most common drugs smuggled are painkillers like morphine or oxycontin pills, because they are odourless. But a gram of marijuana costing $10 on the street will sell inside for hundreds of dollars; and a 200-gram pouch of hand-rolling tobacco that retails for around $25 at the local store can bring up to $500 in prison – probably because smoking was banned back in 2008.

“If you talked to the average person in our society, they find it almost incomprehensible that in a prison, you can’t keep illegal or illicit substances out of there,” said MP Rick Norlock, himself a retired OPP. “But they use ingenious ways to smuggle the stuff in, from hollowed out tennis balls to condoms packed in orifices of the body, coming through inside a baby’s diapers, or by people coming back in for conjugal visits.”

“How do we get the drugs out of the prison?” Mr. Norlock said. “The public safety committee is studying that right now at the government’s request.”

$34-MILLION A YEAR OPERATION
But even as change continues to buffet the prison, area residents are for the most part blissfully unaware of its sprawling presence, a social phenomena dubbed by one astute lawyer as “the social invisibility of prisons”.

If it’s true local residents don’t care what happens inside the prison walls, they might at least be surprised to know Warkworth is more than just a prison – it’s a small city with its own hospital, library, rec centre, allotment gardens and a full complement of plumbers and carpenters.

The Pen has an annual operating budget of $34- million, much of it going back into the area economy through employees’ wages. But it also pumps some hefty revenues into the coffers of local municipalities – Brighton receives $602,000 in taxes, Northumberland County another $168,000, and Trent Hills collects $15,000 per month in water sales. The prison also pays handsomely for Campbellford Hospital to provide it with acute care for sick prisoners – just as long as the inmate is chained to his bed during treatment.

But two events a year apart, have shredded the Warkworth prison’s “invisibility” and landed it in a place it rarely occupies – on the front page of newspapers. One was a full-blown riot by prisoners and the other reported the possibility the prison might be closed in a merger of six institutions.

First came the riot in 2008, started by 200 inmates staging a sit-down protest in the prison yard and refusing to return to their cells. What should have been a peaceful protest turned ugly when a younger splinter faction set a building on fire, and stormed the prison pharmacy to steal drugs. When the smoke cleared and order had been restored, one prisoner lay dead and 13 more were sent to hospital.

“It did come as a shock. Nothing that serious had ever happened before,” Warden Anderson said. “The disturbance was upsetting for staff who had been here for a long time as well as offenders who had been here for a long time. The riot has changed us, it has changed the staff and it has changed the population.”

Security has been tightened up since the riot. Prisoners are now taken in smaller groups from the five cell blocks to the canteen for meals and to the recreation yard because prison officials will never again risk having “all the prisoners congregating in one area at the same time”.

Warkworth now has a three-man intelligence unit, complete with a phone-in snitch line, to gather information and tips from both staff and inmates about trouble in the prison population before it gets out of hand.

Then in 2009, a report by a review panel of CSC surfaced with a suggestion that five prisons including Warkworth could be closed and replaced by a new super jail, possibly located at Millhaven.

The public response over the potential loss of 350 jobs in an area with high unemployment was loud and angry. Officially the idea has not been killed off but various public safety ministers have promised all levels of local government would be consulted before it was implemented whenever, if ever, that might be.

ENVIABLE TRACK RECORD
Over the years, Warkworth has developed an enviable record of rehabilitation programs that honour its original mandate by Lester Pearson, including: a special rehabilitation area for 97 aboriginal offenders complete with tepee, sweat lodge and two elders on-contract from a local band; and the CORCAN factory which trains 100 inmates to make everything from office furniture to Arctic weather stations. Another 100 inmates are enrolled in extensive rehab programs dealing with their drug, violence and anger issues.

And it is precisely those important programs that the guards’ union leader, Jason Godin fears will be impacted by a surge in the prison population.

“Existing infrastructure that we currently have just doesn’t support a massive increase in population,” Mr. Godin said. “As soon as you start to increase your inmate population numbers, other services suffer as a result.”

Mr. Godin says it’s a constant struggle for the guards to deal with changes in regular routines to accommodate a larger inmate population. Everything from access to healthcare to rehab programs to private family visits to regular maintenance of the facilities is affected because they all need the presence of correctional officers.

“Sometimes we feel that maybe the current government has put the cart before the horse,” he said. “At the end of the day these inmates are going to be back in the community, no matter how you slice it.

“It’s not just about housing an influx from crime bill changes but it’s also about being able to deliver the programs to re-socialize and rehabilitate these guys and get them back into society,” he said.

STRAIGHT TO HELL
Further complicating the prison picture is the question of the prison’s growing geriatric population of inmates. And there is nothing the older prisoner fears more than dying behind bars.

“They think if they die in there, they will go straight into the pit, right to hell,” says Reverend Haley. “They plead with me, ‘You’ve got to get me out of here.”’

Reverend Haley said the red tape and paperwork required to get an inmate out of prison so he can die in the community is daunting. “The problem is that most people don’t think of prisoners dying inside. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

But the Reverend and veteran RN Diane King persevered and with the help of a non-profit housing group in Peterborough opened the first and only Transition House between Toronto and Kingston, which is partly funded by CSC.

It not only helps prisoners get back into society but also doubles as a small hospice for terminally-ill inmates.

Now Reverend Haley and Ms. King want to purchase a 22-bed nursing home and turn it into a long term care facility for elderly, disabled and palliative care prisoners. They make a strong humane case and a pretty good fiscal argument too.

Using CSC figures, they say it costs the taxpayer more than $100,000 a year to keep the dying patient behind bars. They could give the same prisoner excellent health and palliative care for just $50,000. That represents a saving of $1 million a year for every 20 men.

“I’m not pointing the finger at CSC but everybody should have the right to die with dignity so let’s do a pilot project,” Reverend Haley said. “If they would just step up to the plate and admit they do have a problem with the sick.”

Warkworth’s warden Ann Anderson understands his concern: “Yes, there is an aging population but even men at 40 are developing health issues. They age much faster than a man of 40 living outside in society. I have asked that question nationally, what is our plan for the geriatric population?”

Ms. Anderson understands because she has watched many of those men age and deteriorate in health during her unprecedented 33-year stint at Warkworth, rising from term clerk to the top job of warden last year.

Every Sunday morning on her day off, she drops in at the institution just to walk around the grounds and chat with both staff and offenders. The inmates call her “Warden” or by her first name, which she finds surprising but maybe it’s a sign of approval.

Nine months into her new job, Ms. Anderson says: “I have to hit the ground running.”

“You know what, I’m here to do a job and I’m not going to be pushed over,” she says sternly. Then smiling, she adds: “But I am a compassionate person with staff as well as offenders. You still have to have some compassion and understanding.”

Lester B. Pearson would have liked that.