Karla was being “oriented” to the Center by the resident psychologist, a petite, bespeckled creature named Christine
Perreault. Karla needed orientation. Even though she had been a model prisoner throughout the seven years she had been in prison, she had, by this point in early April, 2001, been in four different institutions in less than six months and moved by airplane back and forth across the country.
It did not take long to realize that this time she was in a very peculiar place indeed. It was not quite hell, but it was headed in that direction. The Regional Reception Center was the clearinghouse for all male prisoners in Quebec. Every man convicted of a crime which garnered a prison sentence of more than two years was first sent to Sainte-Anne to be assessed and evaluated for a period of four to six weeks. Each of them, Dr. Perreault explained – over a thousand a year – is watched, interviewed, given a few computerized psychological tests including the ubiquitous Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory(MMPI-2) and assigned a security classification.
MMPI-2 is the nucleus of psychological testing because it is the test against which any other of the myriad tests a
psychologist might chose to administer are measured. The test requires one of three responses to hundreds of statements about behavior, feelings, social attitudes and psychopathological symptoms. The subject answers each question with either a “T” for "true," a “F” for "false," or a “?” for "cannot say." The answers are then scored on scales established by the tests’ authors, a psychiatrist named J.C. McKinley and psychologist named Starke Hathaway.
In prison, one’s security classification is everything. There are only three possibilities – minimum, medium or maximum. From the time Karla arrived in prison on July 6, 1993, she had been classified as a medium security prisoner. The security classification determines in which of a dozen different institutions a con will do his/her time and how hard that time will be.
Karla surmised during her orientation that the Regional Center at Sainte-Anne was going to be where she was kept, at least for the foreseeable future, maybe even until she had served her full sentence, four years hence. This was not good news. Karla had fully expected to be returned to Joliette, Quebec’s only medium security prison for women from whence she had been so unjustly plucked that past Thanksgiving.
There were five other women on Cell Block A. As Karla wrote to a friend “This a very boring place to do time, outside of the regular self-injuries, headbanging, screaming, emergency interventions, etc. there is nothing much going on...The women here are in prison for a variety of things. Some of them are not max material, some are mental health (meaning women with identifiable mental defects or disease,) some are typical max women. They ended up in prison for various reasons, the typical abuse and drugs. Most women in prison have similar stories. They end up in max for various reasons, mostly violence in other prisons.”
But none of them – regardless of whether they were “max material,”“mental health,” or Karla – were welcomed in Sainte-Anne and it did not take Karla very long to discover this fact of life. “This is not a place for women,” she continued. “We are not wanted here by anyone. It is a fight to get anything. We are constantly insulted.... It is not nice to be somewhere you are not wanted.”
It was never intended that anyone, man or woman, be “housed” in the Reception Center for any length of time. Its sole raison d’etre was the evaluation and processing of male prisoners. Women in prison have different needs than men. To be responsible for the long-term incarceration of six women in a facility specifically designed for the short-term evaluation of men made the administrators’ lives hell.
As Camille Trudel, the Reception Center’s Program Manager and a thirty-year veteran of the Correctional Service explained to me when I visited the prison in the summer of 2001, the entire complex was routinely locked down whenever one of the women had to be moved, whether to attend the medical unit or just buy cigarettes at the canteen across the pod. Things were a bit looser now, but not much.
There had been no real effort made to accommodate women either. For instance, there were no hairdressers. Karla’s dark roots were already showing when she was flown back to Quebec in mid-January, after her fourteen-week stay in a psychiatric facility operated by Correctional Services in Saskatoon where she had been isolated and psychiatrically probed against her will.
Well, that was not entirely true. It was true that by law and by virtue of its own regulations, the prison system was supposedly prohibited from conducting psychiatric or psychological examinations without consent. However, Karla had recently come to clearly understand that they broke their own rules and regulations all the time, whenever it suited them.
Once she was ensconced in the Regional Psychiatric Center in Saskatoon and against her better judgement, she had decided to cooperate.
“I was basically threatened. Not outright, the threat was subtle. I was informed that if I did not cooperate then that could be used against me to increase my security level to maximum. And that was the last thing I wanted. Of course, back then, they were also promising me that when they were finished I would go back to Joliette.”
Ever since Karla’s plea bargains with the Ministry of the Attorney General in 1993 delivered her twelve years in exchange for guilty pleas to two counts of manslaughter and her testimony against her ex-husband, she had been led to believe in a fate very different than her recent experience and arrival at Sainte-Anne signaled.
Everybody had said that if she was a good girl, if she minded her P’s & Q’s, did her school work, applied herself to the prison’s programs, bettered herself, did not do any of the bad things that women in prison do, such as fight, drink and take drugs, she would treated fairly. And in fairness, she would be released from jail – on parole – no later than July 6, 2001, after serving two-thirds of her sentence.
By law, all prisoners in the country are automatically released after they have served two-thirds of their sentence. It was very rare that the overcrowded prisons moved to detain a prisoner beyond that individual’s Statutory Release Date, known throughout the system as an SRD.
[Continue reading.... ]